Narayanpur (Chhattisgarh): On November 2, 13-year-old Sunita from the Brehebeda village of Chhattisgarh died of typhoid at the district hospital in Narayanpur.
When her body was brought home, a large number of villagers arrived and stopped the family from burying the teenager’s body on the village land using Christian rituals. Instead, they insisted that the family bury the body using traditional Adivasi customs and traditions.
“We are Adivasis just like them, but they (villagers) don’t want us to go to church or follow the church’s ways. They want us to abide by the traditional [Adivasi] rules and customs. They said that if we leave Christianity, they will allow us to bury her. This problem is rampant in every village here now,” Manupotai, 18, Sunita’s elder brother told The Wire.
Sunita was finally buried late on Thursday evening (November 2), far away from her village at a burial ground near the Narayanpur district centre. The Brehebeda village is located about 10 kilometres away from the district centre, which is deep inside a forest.
Just like Manupotai and Sunita, many people in the Adivasi-dominated Bastar region have converted to Christianity. However, these people have been facing increasing attacks from other villagers, some of whom are backed by Hindutva groups. They equate Adivasi customs and traditions with the Hindu religion, and therefore, prohibit non-Hindu practices.
“If the government changes (after these elections), it will be good if they listen to everyone. All we want from this election is the manner in which the government supports everyone else, they should support us as well and listen to our problems. We have rights but we are not getting them in our villages. They should ensure our rights,” Manupotai said.
Santuram, a member of the Dev Samiti that looks after the village’s religious affairs, said the Christians must come back to the “mool dharma“.
“If you don’t stay in Sanatan Dharma, then you are violating dharam reeti [religious customs]. We want our village to follow proper customs and traditions. Dev reeti needs to be followed in the village. I am not opposing anyone. They are our brothers and sisters. We want them to come back to the mool dharma and come back to our dev reeti. This is what PESA also allows.”
The first phase of elections is scheduled to be held in Chhattisgarh on November 7. Twelve of the 20 constituencies going to the polls fall in the tribal belt of the Bastar division. Narayanpur, which will vote on November 7, has emerged as the epicentre of the BJP’s claims of “forced conversions” by Christian missionaries in the tribal regions of the state.
In September, Union home minister Amit Shah alleged that “a wave of religious conversions has been unleashed” in the state under the Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government.
The Congress, on the other hand, has called these allegations baseless and said that the BJP has no issues to highlight and was hence polarising the people.
Aftermath of the Narayanpur church attack
Over 20 instances of anti-Christian violence were reported from the Narayanpur district in December last year alone, The Wire reported.
Things came to a boil at the turn of the new year when the Sacred Heart church inside the Viswadeepti High School in Narayanpur was vandalised on January 2, 2023. The attack took place shortly after the police held a meeting with the tribal community over religious conversions in the area.
The attack took place while the school was in session, with children inside the premises. The incident resulted in a police officer being injured. Following the attack, five individuals, including BJP district president Rupsai Salam, were arrested.
Father Jomon Devasia, the pastor of the church and the principal of the school, told The Wire that in his four years of working in Narayanpur, he had never anticipated such violence.
The church is now being rebuilt. However, scars of the attack remain, with several glass windows still damaged and yet to be fixed. It used to be a place visited by hundreds of people.
Describing the day of the attack, Devasia said, “The police told me that there was a meeting, so don’t come out of the premises. They came near the church and started pelting stones. They were chanting in Gondi maaro [hit] and barged into the church. About 200-300 people entered the church, but at least a thousand were standing outside the gate. All the teachers and I gathered the children with the help of the police and let them out to their parents from the field behind the church. The children did not have to see any of the violence.”
He said that his church, which falls under the Jagdalpur Diocese, has been providing services to hospitals and schools for over five decades in seven districts. However, during this period, he has never seen any violence.
“We have nothing to do with politics. We are here only to spread education through our schools and help people through our hospitals. It doesn’t matter to us which party is in power, whether it is the BJP or the Congress,” he said.
However, away from the district centre and inside Narayanpur’s villages in the dense forest areas, villagers are paying the price for their faith.
On March 6, the elder brother of Santernag, aged 36, died of a heart attack in Sulenga village. Like Monupatai, Santernag (32) brought his sibling’s body back home from the hospital and wanted to bury him. However, about five to six people prevented the family from accessing the burial ground, saying that they would only allow it if the family followed traditional Adivasi customs.
“Earlier, there was a ground inside the village where we Vishwasis [as Christians are commonly referred] could bury our dead. But now they don’t allow us to do so. We even asked the police to intervene. I have filed a case against these villagers, which is still underway. Finally, my brother was buried in the Christian burial ground near the city,” he said.
Sarita, 24, who lives in Kokodi village, has been boycotted by her family for adopting Christianity in 2012. Her parents died when she was young. She lives in her family home, while her brother and his family moved out. Standing outside her house, Sarita told The Wire that she goes to work in different villages, doing odd jobs for other Vishwasis in their fields.
“My brother is not a Vishwasi and doesn’t talk to me and doesn’t want anything to do with me. He doesn’t want me to work on the family land. The villagers have put pressure on him to not have any ties with me. They have asked him to convince me to leave Christianity, but I refused. They struck my name off the MGNREGA rolls, so I have been forced to go outside the village and work,” she said.
Sarita said that her parents had taken her to church after a long bout of illness when she was young. After meeting several doctors and going to hospitals, she said, it was when she went to the church that she started getting better.
“They say that we have started following the church because we got money or someone forced us. But it is nothing like that. I have become a Vishwasi because it helped me during my illness.”
Junai, who also lives in the same village as Sarita, said that she too adopted the church’s ways after a lump on her foot became infected. She said she tried all kinds of treatments. She was advised by some Vishwasis to visit the church and after she went there and started praying, her leg became better.
“Within a week of praying and applying coconut oil, my leg became better so I started praying regularly.”
“Give us our rights and a separate burial ground”
“There is no force here. We have adopted the Christian faith because of our own free will and our beliefs,” said Santernag.
“All we want is that land should be allotted for Vishwasis from 4-5 nearby villages to bury our dead with dignity. The Congress has assured us that if they come to power, they will give us a ground. But if the BJP comes we don’t have much hope.”
For these villagers who are struggling to give a dignified burial to their loved ones, all they want from this election is an assurance of their rights being enforced.
“Either they should let us bury on our own land or they should give us land in every village for Vishwasis to bury our dead. Congress is saying that they made a mistake [by not enforcing their rights] but we will help you this time. But the BJP has not said any such thing. We don’t want another government like the Congress which will make empty promises. There is also a fear that there will be violence if the BJP comes to power here,” said Manupotai.
“All I want is that we should not be boycotted like this or stopped from working. We should be able to live in our villages peacefully and not be stopped from working in MGNREGA and other government work,” said Sarita.
Conversion a “social issue”, says BJP
While the villagers are paying the price for the bogey of “conversions”, the Congress and the BJP leadership in the district have pointed fingers at each other.
Chandan Kashyap, the Congress candidate from Narayanpur, who is also the sitting MLA, said that the BJP is only talking about “forced conversions” as it has no other issues to highlight.
“Please ask the BJP where all churches have been made and how many conversions took place during its 15-year rule in the state. Ever since the Baghel government came to power in 2018, there have been no conversions; instead, vikas [development] has happened. They have no issues to show. They did not do anything for Adivasis and now they are talking about conversions. But we have written off loans for farmers, we are buying paddy at over Rs 2,600 per quintal. This is why this conversion issue that they are claiming will not affect these elections. We have built roads, schools, hospitals,” he said
“Yes, an incident took place in Narayanpur in January but we also took action immediately. That whole incident was pre-planned by the BJP. If the government had not acted then, the children’s lives wouldn’t be saved, police officers wouldn’t be beaten up. They have no issue to fight elections on and that is why in the Adivasi belt, those who converted earlier are being targeted. Let them show what work they have done in the 15 years they were in power.”
Rupsai Salam, who was arrested in connection with the vandalism of the church in Narayanpur in January, however, said that conversion is not a “social issue.”
“Conversion is not just an issue for BJP but a social issue. Adivasi conversion is a big social issue. Congress is saying that the BJP is doing this, but this is a social issue.”
The Wire also reached out to Kedar Kashyap, the BJP candidate from Narayanpur, but did not get a response.