Myth of Forcible Conversions: A Fact Finding Report

Date:

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

IRFAN ENGINEER 

THE Hindu nationalists have quite successfully propagated that Christians are converting Hindus with either inducements, fraud or through coercion on such a large scale that there would be a demographic imbalance sooner rather than later. My visit to villages in Narayanpur and Kondagaon in the state of Chhattisgarh as a member of fact-finding team constituted by CSSS, UCF, AIPF and AILAJ showed once again that the shoe fits on the other foot.

It is the Christians who are being subjected to violence, threats and forced displacements if they do not convert to Hindu religion. Some Christians have been converted forcibly, while others who resisted were forced to leave their villages and seek refuge from violence elsewhere.

According to Adv. Sonisingh Jhali, All India People’s Forum, based in Jadalpur and who has been helping the displaced Christian Adivasis, more than one thousand of them have been displaced from their villages. According to the District Collector and Magistrate of Narayanpur, 250 have been displaced from the villages in his district and have sought shelter in indoor stadium of the district. However, another about 150 displaced are in the Kondagaon Panchayat Bhavan, while many have sought refuge in various churches.

We met Ram Poyam (35 years) and 16 others, including 6 children, 8 women and three men, on 22nd December in the Nayapada Church in Pharasgaon. Two children were studying in 7th Standard. According to Poyam, a Halba Adivasi, there was a death in their  village – Chalka – on 9th December, for which all the villagers had assembled. The assembled villagers, about one hundred in number, marched towards the homes of Christian Adivasis after the funeral and asked them to convert to Hindu religion.

The Adivasis call themselves “vishwasu” (those who have faith in Jesus Christ) and not Christian as, according to them, they have not yet converted to Christianity, in as much as they have not declared themselves to be Christians through an affidavit for the purposes of government records. Those who have filed affidavits are called as paper Christians as against vishwasu.  When the vishwasus refused to give up their faith in Jesus Christ, led by the sarpanch of the village, Sevakram Netam, the villagers heaped abuses and threat on the vishwasus and given two alternatives – either face death or leave the village. Besides the sarpanch, they were abused by Chandulal Netam, Samluram Netam, and the traditional leader Jigru.

All of them belonged to the Gondwana Samaj, an organisation of Gond Adivasis. The hundred villagers stood there surrounding the homes of the 17 vishwasus until they decided to leave. As they left on foot and some on motorbike, they were not allowed to lock their homes. However, according to the information that the vishwasus have, their homes have not been damaged. They filed a complaint with the police, but no FIR was registered. The Town Inspector (TI) took them to their village to plead with the villagers to allow them to stay in the village. The villagers refused and the TI did tamely returned as if he was not an official of the state charged with the duty to maintain law and order and protect rights of the vulnerable citizens.

The Vishwasus would contribute their share for the traditional village festivals but would not partake in the prasad offered to the traditional gods. They otherwise lived their lives as other Adivasis – they lived by collecting tendu leaves, Mahua flowers, fishing, farming their small land holdings. These 17 persons had become vishwasus at different times after the year 2015, mostly because they suffered from some “incurable” illness. They believed that they were cured by praying to Lord Jesus. Sugri Nag (F-27 years) and her mother Shanwari Nag (60) had come to the Church. Both of them converted, even as their other relatives strongly opposed them, as Sugri’s father suffered a paralytic stroke on 15th February 2021. Father converted too, but Sugri’s brother did not convert. The three of them live in peace.

If in Chalka the vishwasus left the village without being physically assaulted, all vishwasus were not as lucky. In Chimdi village, 12 houses of vishwasus were demolished along with their prayer centre. With inaction of the state, the attacks became more and more violent by the day till one thousand were displaced from nearly 40 villages.

There was one thing common among all the vishwasus we met during our 3-day visit to Narayanpur and Kondagaon, though they belonged to different churches – they would not touch alcohol with a barged pole. Giving up their drinking habits, they could spend the money saved (on an average, Rs. 3,000/- per month) on education of their children and wearing better clothes. 

The 17 vishwasus of Chalka belong to “New India Church”. Different villages had different and independent Churches. Independent Church means one pastor centric Church. The pastor of the Church too was from among the Adivasi community not trained in any well-established seminary. The pastor would attend prayer meetings in other towns and would pick up doctrines of faith in those meetings. A confident vishwasu who was fast learner in the prayer meetings and could gather his own following and had the ability to stand up to the opposition from other villagers would become a pastor.

The vishwasus themselves faced various challenges in retaining their faith. Becoming a vishwasu not only helped healing of a disease and improvement of one’s life by giving up drinking, it also meant developing leadership qualities, having followers and becoming more confident. Normally, Adivasis are forced to live a subdued life in presence of non-Adivasis as they are treated as backward, uncivilised, and what not, even by the administrative machinery of the state.

The displaced 17 vishwasus from Chalka village whom we met in Nayapada Church told us that the TI as well as Kondagaon district collector told them that they (the vishwasus) were also at fault as they had abandoned their age-old traditions, and that they would not partake ‘prasad’. The TI and the Kondagaon district collector both told them to convert to Hinduism to be able to return to their villages.

The vishwasus, however, were firm in their faith and refuse to embrace Hinduism now. They confronted these mighty powerful officials of the state and told them to take legal action on those who had turned them out of their villages and they would be able to return to their villages. It is their faith that gives them this confidence to stand up to the mighty state officials, sort of remind them of their duties and assert their faith in the face of opposition from the huge majority within their village. It is because of this that number of Christian vishwasus are growing in these districts and not because some established Church are propagating Christianity and seeking conversions – material improvement in their lives by giving up drinking, fellowship with other vishwasus, leadership opportunities as pastors and development of confidence as Lord Jesus is with them.

In fact, established churches have completely ignore them. We didn’t find them coming to their help as they faced eviction from their homes, or speaking up for them. Aren’t the Adivasi vishwasus Christian enough or important enough for the established Church to speak up for them?  (To be continued)

_____________

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.

Cover photo: Adivasi Christians protesting against forceful eviction in front of Narayanpur district Collectorate. — Outlook photo 

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