Myth of Forcible Conversions: A Fact Finding Report – 3

Date:

This is the third and concluding part of a special report compiled after a fact-finding team’s visit to the Congress-ruled state in central India  

IRFAN ENGINEER 

ON 2nd January 2023, nearly half a dozen policemen, including the District Superintendent of Police were injured and a church vandalised after a meeting in which about 2,000 people participated led by the BJP district president Rupsay Salam. Armed mob vandalised the church built on the premises of Vishwa Deepti High School ignoring the counsel of the SP Sadanand Kumar not to indulge in violence (Sikdar, 2023). The attacks on Christian vishwasus escalated since 9th December 2022.

More than a thousand Christian vishwasus were forcibly evicted from their village as they refused to convert and give up their faith in Christianity. Some of the attacks were documented by a fact-finding team of which this author was a member. The accounts of attacks were detailed in the previous articles of the author. The Town Inspector and the district administration refused to take any action against those who were resorting to violence in order to force the Christians out of their villages. They visited the villages, talked to the sarpanch and village elders and merely persuaded them to allow the Christian vishwasus to return. They did not register any FIRs nor initiated any legal proceedings, and advised the Christian vishwasus to give up their faith in order to restore peace. 

Why was the state machinery required, if the vishwasus wanted to give up their faith, they would be welcome to the villages without the administration doing anything. We saw videos of the attack on the church and the police. The police, led by the SP were mute spectators, even though the police were being attacked, and one police personnel was lifted and wrestled down onto the ground. The mob is using lathis whereas the police are just holding their counsel. After the attack, the SP holds a press conference and only says that he was trying to persuade the mob not to be violent.

In order not to act against anyone, the SP told the press that he was hit from behind on his head and the mob was leaderless. Can a violent mob be unprovoked and leaderless, and that too, consisting of normally docile and submissive Adivasis? This defies common sense. The administration appears to be leaderless and lacking commitment to the rule of law and their duty! The inaction of the administration is emboldening the perpetrators and encouraging them to escalate violence.

When we met the Collector and Addl. SP of Narayanpur district on 21st December, (SP was out of the town), they had a similar response. According to them, both parties were wrong! Both could not point out any wrong doing on the part of the Christian Vishwasus. They had not indulged in any violence, retaliation, or coercion of any sort. There was no hint of any resistance to coercion from the non-Christian Adivasis. No FIR or even a complaint has been filed by the non-Christian Adivasis. When we met the sarpanch and other villagers of Chimdi, none of them accused any wrong doing on the part of the Christian vishwasus. They said that the Vishwasus just left the village on their own, although we saw the broken prayer hall built out of mud, bamboo and reeds. It was obvious from this that the Christian vishwasus had not left on their own.

Although the District Collector and the Addl. SP did not spell out the wrong doing on the part of the Christian Adivasis, their silence spoke louder than their vocal cords – their praying in the Church was the wrong that they committed – they had stopped believing in the traditional deities of the Adivasis. This, according to them (impliedly) was the beginning of the entire problem. The Town Inspector had already asked the Adivasis of Chalka village to convert to Hinduism. The approach that both sides were wrong allowed the district administration not to do anything even when one side was violating law, breaching peace and using violence and coercion to convert Christian Adivasis. The result of inaction encouraged the perpetrators of violence to scale up violence and coercion, and attack even the police personnel, including the SP of Narayanpur. There is not going to be any peace in the troubled region unless appropriate legal action is taken against the perpetrators. It is beyond our comprehension as to why this inaction! Is it because of the colour of the Central Government? Or is it that even the Congress led state government desires no action?

Conversion to Hinduism

In Madamnar village, on 21st December 2022, Bible copies were taken away from the homes of 16 Christians vishwasus families, they were forcibly taken to the village tihad (sacred place), water was sprinkled on them, some rituals were performed, vermillion smeared on their forehead and they were declared to be Hindus. Manglu Koram (40) was one of them. We met him in the indoor stadium refugee camp where he had come to meet other Christian vishwasus and assure them that his faith in Christ was intact, notwithstanding the conversion ritual. In Udidgaon and Putanchandagaon within Benur Police Station, 3 Christian families in each village were converted likewise. However, by and large the Christian vishwasus have held on to their faith even in the face of hardships and attacks.

Peace in Chiprel village

It was heartening to know that in spite of escalating violence against the Christian vishwasus in many villages, in Chiprel village. Pastor Phunu Dugga of India Church Growth Mission, having about 500 to 600 members in Narayanpur explained to us as to why there was peace in the village. There are about 95 homes in the village and about 50% are Christians. The sarpanch of the village is a non-Christian. Initially the non-Christians would oppose the conversions. Conversions in the village started in 2003-4. Pastor’s wife was beaten up in the year 2008 for her faith. There was a police complaint of the violence. The effective intervention of the then Town Inspector ensured that there was no violence. Since then there has been no opposition – partly due to fear of the police and partly because their numbers have increased and they are half the village population.

Every year, according to Pastor Dugga, 5 to 6 families convert to Christianity because of their illness or because they want to give up their drinking habits. There is an even more important factor that has ensured that the social fabric of the village does not rupture. The Christian vishwasus and non-Christians participate in each other’s life cycle events like birth, marriage and death in the village. Both the communities however do not insist on participation of members of the other community in their religious events/activities. The Christians do not participate in worship of village deities and no one holds any grievance about the fact as even they do not insist that non-Christians participate in their religious activities and occasions. Both the communities in the village hold  a regular dialogue with each other, and particularly, when issues that have a potential of a conflict arise. Members from both the communities sit together and thrash out the issue. They have also decided not to listen to the outsiders. With this understanding between the communities, they have, so to say, insulated their village from violent conflicts and remained peaceful. The Christians extend solidarity to other Christian vishwasus outside their village by contributing towards their relief. However, they cannot go to other villages in solidarity to resist violence in those villages for the fear of reprisals.

Pathways to peace

All of us should reflect on the state of public health in the region when the Adivasis have to turn to God and faith for healing of their diseases. Turning to God for spiritual healing and well-being is of course every individual’s right and never an issue. Bastar region, in fact, all Adivasi inhabited regions need a robust public health system. The perpetrators of violence in Narayanpur and Kondagaon are barking up the wrong tree and using coercive force may not arrest the growing number of conversions to Christianity if the Adivasis feel helpless in the face of diseases. Poor and inaccessible public health system leaves no other option before them. Their faith helps them tide over the hardships and crisis that diseases bring upon them. All Adivasis – Christians and non-Christians need to be mobilized in the common struggle to strengthen the public health system.

With the violence inflicted upon them, the Christian vishwasus have undergone the trial of their faith by fire. They have become even more firm believers. They find their Adivasi community turning away from them in their moment of crisis, and other Christians extending a helping hand – with relief, legal aid etc. The whole crisis has strengthened the community feeling and fellow feeling with other vishwasus. It is intriguing why other Adivasi organizations that fight for their traditional rights, material well-being and human rights have not intervened in the conflict.

We need laws that make the public servants accountable and duty bound to uphold the rule of law, and not act according to their whims and fancies. State can restore peace by firmly handling the law and order situation according to the standard operating procedures. Building peace and healing the broken relations can then be undertaken after law and order is restored.

The large church establishments have not effectively spoken up for the Christian vishwasus. The Christian vishwasus are hopelessly fragmented into small independent churches – some having membership of as little as 400 and that too from marginalised and resourceless community. The established churches need to empower them through education and enable them to speak for themselves, as well as amplify their voices. The Christian vishwasus need to speak for themselves as well as for common issues with other Adivasis against the marginalization of the entire Adivasi community.

We repeatedly tried to speak to the Congress leaders but there was no response. The Congress party traditionally has had its social base in the Bastar region. Mohan Markam, the MLA from the Congress party is also the PCC Chief. With our best efforts we failed to elicit any response from him. We couldn’t notice their presence during the crisis. The entire conflict is undercutting the Congress party’s base and the Party has no solution to offer. That may be because the Party can neither afford to oppose, what they perceive as majoritarian anti-Christian sentiment for the fear of conceding its base to the BJP, nor can they openly side with the anti-Christian for fear of being branded as a communal party and looking like the BJP. But the inaction and non-intervention also may not help, and concede their base to the BJP. The Congress should work proactively and determine the issues of the region rather than be reactive and let the BJP decide political issues. For example, take up the issues of development of the region, implementation of the welfare schemes, education, employment, etc. The Congress leaders could have pro-actively held meetings in the villages to neutralize the communal ideology. They may pay a heavy price for their absence.

We talked to the leaders of the organisations working on the Bahujan ideology – who believe in mobilizing the Adivasis, Dalits, OBCs, and minorities for their fair share in the political power as against the Upper-caste, who have a disproportionate hold – Dhantraj Tandon, President of Sarva Anusuchit Jati, Bangaruam Suri of Sarva Adivasi Samaj and Palanram Sahu of Sarva OBC Samaj. The former two blamed the RSS and the Hindu nationalist ideology for the violence. Sahu said the conversions were because of caste system – a known ideological position, which was not true for conversions in the region. All three however looked helpless to intervene and felt that rule of law is the duty of the state.

___________

Irfan Engineer is Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism; he is also co-editor of a recent book, Babri Masjid, 25 Years On… Views expressed here are author’s personal.

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