By 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 & 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, uncivilized, 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?

2nd part !!

In the previous article, we saw that forcible conversions were taking place in the Narayanpur and Kondagaon districts of Chhattisgarh, but that of Christian vishwasus to Hinduism, and the state has done next to nothing besides pleading those who were threatening and indulging in violence against the vishwasus, turning them out of their villages, to let the displaced persons return to their villages. Adivasis became vishwasus, turning to Lord Jesus and their numbers were growing since 2015. Small independent one Adivasi pastor led churches, having following of less than 100 vishwasus, and sometimes more, organised prayer meetings wherein those with chronic sickness felt they were cured, and would give up their drinking habits. Giving up drinking habit led to some improvement in their lives and they focussed on education of their children. The strong fellowship that developed during the prayer meetings and love of Lord Jesus is sine qua non for prevention of relapse into drinking habits. The short visit did not enable us to examine the internal social dynamics within the village community, which pushed a section of the Adivasis towards prayer meetings and developing fellowship with other vishwasus within the Church. However, this did not necessarily mean that the vishwasus gave up all Adivasi traditions, customs, culture and way of life. Most of them told us that they contributed to the village festivals and participated in the cultural events, however, they did not partake the offerings to traditional Gods nor participated in the idol worship. The Chimdi village sarpanch however said that the vishwasus would not contribute financially in the village festivals or religious rituals. Jaising Potai (45), a displaced vishwasu, told us that he gave his contribution to the village festival, however, Kamu Patel and Kachra Gaita refused to accept it because they were no vishwasus. Patel and Gaita are traditional designations of the village head of the Gond community.

In the village Pawada, Manku Koram, belonging to the Gond community forced out one family with 5 members and 3 sisters after holding a meeting. The foodgrain stock of the vishwasus was looted on 18th December, according to Jaldev Koram (M, 30 years). They were paraded on a tractor and threatened to kill them if either they did not convert to Hinduism or else left the village. Jaldev had turned vishwasu in the year 2016. After his becoming a vishwasu in 2016, the village would not accept his contribution to the village festivals. Jaldev was member of the BJP and always voted for the Party even after 2016. A social and economic boycott was declared against Jaldev’s family. This meant nobody would offer their tractor to plough his land and people from outside the village were fined Rs. 10,000/- if they came with their tractors to plough his land. These were early warnings of the impending storm of violence or threat of life that turned out one thousand adivasis in the two districts out of their villages. There were early warning and such episodes since the month of October as well. The vishwasus complained to the police but their complaints were ignored. Seeing the tolerant attitude of the state, the non-Christian Adivasis were emboldened to scale up their pressures and coercion.

We talked to three victims from Temrugaon – Ramesh Koram (27), Nevru Koram (24) and Shambhulal Koram (27), all from Gond Muria community, belonging to Maranatha Full Gospel Church, under the leadership of Pastor Mayaram Nag. Temrugaon vishwasu community have a prayer hall of New India Church, wherein the vishwasus from Chalka village also would come to pray. The prayer halls we saw are in fact, small mud, bamboo and reed structures. The prayer hall was constructed three years ago, but it was functional only since last year. The vishwasus in the village converted in the year 2007 and 2008. 27 out of 110 families have converted.

After their Sunday prayer meeting on 18th December, a mob from the village led by the sarpanch Rajman Koram, caught them, sprinkled alcohol on them (to break their vow and spirit), beat them up and chased them out of the village. The vishwasus named 8 other accused in their complaint to the police for assault on them – 1) Jhelu Karanga, 2) Dhannu Koram, 3) Laxman Koram, 4) Jairam Koram, 5) Bajman Koram, 6) Jagnu Koram, 7) Shriman Koram, and 8) Ramsingh Potayi. The sarpanch was instigated by Ramdhar Suri from the village Chalka, a Gondwana Samaj and BJP leader. They were beaten with lathis and rods. Besides the abovenamed Ramesh, Nevru and Shambhulal, the others injured in the attack were Kulram Sodi, Ramadhi Koram (35), Shalu Koram (F, 30), Shankar Koram (23), and Jugai Koram (30). Jugai was hit on head. Six injured were hospitalized in district hospital, Narayanpur. Some vishwasus rushed to the police station to report the violence. About 10-15 policemen were deputed in the village. Ramesh, Tularam, Fagu and Sukhlal were beaten in presence of the police and their uniform was torn

There were attacks on the vishwasus in 2009 as well and were driven out of the village. They were staying in Narayanpur till 2014 on government land. However, there was a settlement and they were allowed to reside in the village once again. The sarpanch changed and the new woman sarpanch – Ratni went back on the settlement. On 4th December this year, Ramadhi Koram was beaten with a burning stick on his back, hands and legs. He was immobilized due to the attack. Complaint was filed, but the police scolded the complainants and turned them away.

From the above, it was obvious to us that when there were early warnings as late as in the first week of December 2022, with low intensity violence targeting vishwasu individuals, the police in particular and the district administration in general turned a blind eye by turning away complainants or ignoring the complaints of violence, breach of peace, social boycott etc. There was another serious early warning of the emerging conflict. The vishwasus were refused permission to bury their dead since about 6 months ago in the village on their own land on the pretext of maintaining Adivasi traditions and customs. Burial of dead vishwasus was in violation of Adivasi traditions and customs, according to the non-Christian Adivasis. They wrongly invoked the Panchayats (Extension to Schedules Areas) Act, 1996. Even after this the police and the administration did not act. The vishwasus would have to carry the body of their dead for burial all the way to Kondagaon, sometimes more than 50 kms away in dedicated cemetery for Christians in hearse. Those buried in the village were dug out. The non-Christian Adivasis kept escalating their violent actions to the next level until on 18th December, about a thousand displaced vishwasus camped in the compound of the Narayanpur District Collector. It is only then that the administration partially woke up arranged relief centres for the displaced – in the indoor stadium in Naryanpur and Panchayat Bhavan in Kondagaon.

… To be continued … 1) Administrations inaction on the ground that both sides are wrong, 2) Instances of forced conversions, 3) how peace was maintained in Chiprel village and the way ahead, 4) what should the established Church, civil society, human rights organizations and political parties to establish peace.

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