Fact-finding team says tribal Christians in Chhattisgarh were beaten, forced to convert in campaign by right-wing Hindus
Villagers protest against administration’s apathy at the Gumla Deputy Commissioner’s office in June 2019. (Photo: Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha / csss-isla.com)
Christmas began on a sad note and New Year heralded uncertain days ahead for hundreds of thousands of Christians in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh following a series of coordinated attacks, displacing more than 1,000 and injuring many.
A fact-finding team comprising human rights activists, lawyers and journalists visited two affected districts, Narayanpur and Kondagaon, from Dec 22 for three days.
Social boycotts and violence forced hundreds of indigenous tribal Christians to flee their homes, which started in the second week of December.
Nearly 18 villages in Narayanpur and 15 in Kondagaon were attacked by suspected right-wing Hindus. Many people were injured during public beatings when they refused to give up their Christian faith.
Urgent steps should be taken to facilitate the return of victims to their villages, the fact-finding later told a press briefing in the national capital New Delhi.
"People with disabilities, pregnant women and children were also targeted"
People were attacked and displaced for their Christian faith, the fact-finding team, led by Irfan Engineer, director of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, which works for social harmony, said in New Delhi.
According to the team, people with disabilities, pregnant women and children were also targeted.
The team whose members were drawn from the All-India Peoples’ Forum, All-India Lawyers’ Association for Justice and the United Christian Forum visited relief camps where the uprooted Christians were housed.
It asked the authorities to improve basic facilities in the camps till the victims are in a position to return to their respective villages.
“There were reports of a series of attacks on tribal Christens from Dec. 9 to 18,” Father Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) Commission for Tribal Affairs, told UCA News on Dec. 29.
Barla, a member of the fact-finding team, said, “Those displaced were told to denounce their Christian faith and convert to the Hindu religion, failing which they would have to leave their village or face dire consequences, even death.”
"At least two dozen people had to be hospitalized"
Nearly 1,000 aggrieved Christians assembled outside the district collector’s office in Narayanpur on Dec. 18, seeking action against the perpetrators believed to be influenced by the ultranationalist Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organization, which also mentors the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Many were badly assaulted and beaten with bamboo canes, tyres, and rods. At least two dozen people had to be hospitalized for injuries like fracture of a collar bone,” Barla said.
The fact-finding team confirmed there were incidents of forced conversion of tribal Christians to Hinduism.
The RSS has initiated a nationwide campaign called Ghar Vapsi (returning home) to reconvert people who embraced other religions after giving up their Hindu faith.
“Strict action must be taken against the forcible conversion of tribal Christians,” Irfan Engineer said.
Quoting a resident, Manglu Koram, from Madamnar village in Narayanpur district, the fact-finding team said he and members of 21 Christian families were taken to a temple where the priest conducted rituals to forcibly declare them Hindus.
Likewise, 18 families from Udidgaon village and three each from Fulhadgaon and Putanchandagaon villages were forcibly converted, the team said.
In a raid on their homes, copies of the Bible were confiscated, the team added.
According to a 2011 census, Christians comprise less than 2 percent of Chhattisgarh's 30 million population. But right-wing Hindu groups claim the actual number is much higher.
Tribal-dominated Chhattisgarh is one of the many Indian states that has implemented anti-conversion law. The state also saw the second-highest number of documented attacks on Christians in 2021.
The plan to forcibly convert Christians started in Oct. 2022. However, district administrations ignored the early warnings, Engineer noted.
"There were even instances of police excesses against victims"
District administrations did little even after an escalated violent campaign started on Dec. 9. Police in Narayanpur district failed to act despite complaints by the victims, Engineer said.
In Temrugaon in Mahasamund district, three Christians were beaten up while more than 15 policemen stood by.
With perpetrators enjoying impunity, violence against tribal Christians will continue to escalate, Engineer warned.
In its report, the team said there were even instances of police excesses against victims.
Michael Williams, president of the United Christian Forum, which documents attacks on Christians in India, said at the press conference that it was a sustained and organized campaign to forcibly convert tribal Christians with the tacit support of higher authorities.
This must stop immediately. The right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution of India, Williams said.
We met with state chief minister Bhupesh Baghel on Dec. 23, but so far nothing has been done, Williams said.
A special investigation team should be set up to probe offences against tribal Christians, Williams said, demanding compensation for damaged properties, including houses and prayer halls.
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