“Are you doing that protest today?” the voice at the other end of the phone asked me.
“No, we had to cancel that,” I responded.
“Oh! So, you are not doing it?” he said, almost as if he was disappointed.
I asked who he was. He was calling from the special cell of the Delhi police and had come to know about the protest.
“Why are you not doing it?” the man asked. I told him that the police told us that areas across Delhi are under Section 144 and gatherings are not allowed. He sounded slightly surprised. “So, you were doing it for Christians, right?”
It was a simple query. The tone was not antagonistic but even the question made me think about how to respond to it.
“Yes, they are being attacked in Chhattisgarh. Their houses have been damaged. We want the government to ensure security. It was to raise this demand this that we wanted to gather in front of Chhattisgarh Bhawan peacefully,” I said.
The man understood. He asked me to save his number and inform him if we planned to protest the issue in future.
While talking to him, I tried to converse with him as a citizen who should know what is the life of his co-citizens in another part of the country, and why we need to speak for them. I tried to include him in this protest that could not happen. It was like a cry smothered in the heart.
We wanted to register our protest against the violence that the Christians are being subjected to in different parts of Chhattisgarh. For the last ten days or even more we have been getting news from the Bastar region about theses attacks. It is not surprising that the big media has largely ignored it.
As Christmas approaches, news of violence against Christians also increases. It has now become a pattern and we read about it just as we read about the fall in temperature in December. Nothing unusual. In a large country of subcontinental measure, such incidents are minor. We are told that as bad as they are are, they don’t change the nature of this country fundamentally. That despite such attack, India remains secular – how can it not be as this is a country where Hindus form a majority? It is natural that they define our national character. Since they are by nature tolerant and secular, there is no question of India not being secular, irrespective of the number and frequency of this violence against Christians.
But the insistence of India being secular does not change the reality for the violated Christians. Their houses have been broken if not demolished, their belongings looted or destroyed and they have been driven out of their habitats. They have been turned into internally displaced people pleading for relief. They want to return to what was and continues to be their homes.
Authorities ask for time. They say that they have to talk the villagers who are tribals and persuade them to let these Christian tribals live in their villages. The fact of tribals being the attackers and tribals being the victims is used to portray this violence as less serious or different than that in which Hindus attack Muslims or Christians.
We are told that tribals feel enraged that their fellow villagers who have become Christians have given up the age old community practices. It disturbs the cultural harmony of the village. Simple folks that they are, they get upset by this division and change in the common life of the village. It is this primal instinct which drives them when they beat up the converted tribals and break their houses.
They use Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (or PESA), 1996, to justify it. The law gives the villagers the right to decide how life within the village functions. A law with a noble intent of devolution of power to the people themselves. This law is being used to disallow the converts to use the burial ground, to drive them away from the village with the claim that they are guilty of violating the traditional norms. Dr B.R. Ambedkar had rightly warned against having too much trust in traditional rural institutions. They are essentially against the concept of human rights, he meant. The original tribals have earlier issued diktat to those non-tribals who are Christians not to enter the villages or not establish any church etc. As we know church in such areas are not what we imagine them to be. They can be simple huts. But the original, pristine tribal sensibility gets violated by it.
Then there is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, and their relentless campaign to vilify Christian tribals, portray them as betrayers and convince the non-Christian tribals that they are the original and real owners and that the converts are polluting them.
Where does the government stand? As we can observe, its sympathies lie with the originals. They also see conversion as unnecessary disruption. A nuisance. So, they never try to preempt violence. They firstly don’t use their authority to implement the constitutional order. Tell tribals that they don’t have the right to dictate how some people choose to live.
Chhattisgarh is a Congress-ruled state. But the reluctance of the government in performing its role of ensuring security to the Christian tribals shows how difficult it is even for secular parties to rule in a secular fashion. They allow violence, they allow displacement and they resist any attempt to provide support to Christians.
This is what we wanted to say through our protest. We wanted to tell the chief minister of Chhattisgarh that he has to walk the talk and prove that the walk to unite India means what it says. Uniting India takes a lot of unpopular courage. It requires you to speak a constitutional language. If you don’t do that, if you don’t practice what you have been preaching for 2,000 kilometres, the path of unity then remained uncharted.
As the day of a protest that could not be registered ebbs, I sit to write what we wanted to say. I return, seeing markets decorated for Christmas. As I write, I read that a man dressed as Santa was beaten in Baroda in Gujarat, and that a Sunday prayer was disrupted somewhere in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
How many protests we should plan and how many would be abandoned?
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.