Narayanpur, Chhattisgarh: On 2 January, when 34-year-old Nareshbati Netam fled her home for the second time in a span of 15 days, she had only to grab the navy blue suitcase she had already packed days earlier. In it were some clothes, and all the rice they had at home, about 10 kg. She and her husband Danuram Netam, a farmer, hoisted their three children on the back of a neighbour’s tractor before climbing in themselves.
"We left at 2 am, in complete darkness, hiding under a jute mat on the tractor,” said Netam, a tall woman with a tired, scared face. “If we hadn’t left, we would have been beaten to death in the morning. We were told to leave Christianity or leave the village.”
Netam, of Bhatpal village in Narayanpur block of south Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district, was first forced out of her home on 18 December 2022. She was among more than 400 Christians from 19 villages of the adjoining districts of Kanker, Kondagaon and Narayanpur who fled their homes after mobs of local tribals backed by Hindu right-wing vigilantes threatened to kill tribals who had converted to Christianity.
For two days, Netam and other families who fled protested in front of the district collector’s office in Narayanpur, before the authorities set up a makeshift shelter. Several of those who fled lived in churches in the region, fellow Christians’ homes, relatives’ homes in nearby villages or hid in the dense forest around their villages. District authorities sent many in the shelters back home later, promising to ensure law and order in their village.
When Christians returned to their villages around the third week of December, they lived in fear of fresh attacks, attending weekly mass in pillaged churches. Netam returned to find her paddy crop, painstakingly transplanted and tended to over months, harvested without her knowledge by other villagers. Her one-acre farmland was empty. "What will I feed my children?” she said.
Netam, and several others, were threatened once again as 2022 wound down, and on 2 January, she fled her home for the second time. Police and district officials sent her back home on 15 January from a makeshift shelter in Narayanpur town, a 4 metre X 4 metre single room that she shared with another family.
Back in Bhatpal village, 280 km south of Chhattisgarh's state capital Raipur, where the family of five lives in a brick house with a tin-roof, surrounded by forest and farm lands, Netam said her children are scared to step out of the tiny home. “My oldest is 11 years old. He understands (what is happening) though the younger ones don’t,” she told Article 14. “Every night we were at the shelter, he urged me to never go back.” Eleven-year-old Anukalp’s friends no longer visit, and the boy has stopped venturing out to play. Anukalp, a student at the village primary school, hasn’t gone to school since December as his parents fear another attack.
During the latter half of 2022, members of the Janjaati Suraksha Manch, a tribal group working against religious conversions to Christianity, launched violent attacks against Christians (here, here, here) in at least four districts of south Chhattisgarh. The group claims to be seeking to save Hinduism.
At least three churches were vandalised and nearly a hundred homes attacked, according to Christian groups. After policemen were assaulted at two locations during scuffles, five first information reports (FIRs) were registered, invoking sections of law pertaining to punishment for rioting, obscenity in public places, assault, obstruction and use of criminal force against a public servant.
In several villages, Christians were excommunicated and expelled. According to members of Christian Forum, a local church organisation, the attacks gathered pace from October 2022 onwards, with villagers holding public meetings before unanimously deciding to attack the minority Christian households or to force them out.
At least 20 villages passed gram sabha (village general body meeting) resolutions to expel Christians.
Members of the Janjaati Suraksha Manch do not deny that Christians were violently forced out of villages. “There have been instances of mass conversions by missionaries, hoodwinking the poor tribals,” said Rajaram Todem, a member of the Janjaati Suraksha Manch. “Those who don’t believe in tribal traditions are not tribals.”
Since the summer of 2022, Todem and others have led protests demanding the delisting of converted Christians from Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities.
Todem and the Manch enjoy the support of the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), though police have dissuaded party men in Raipur from visiting the violence-affected villages. “We have been saying that the Congress government is facilitating conversions,” said BJP legislator Brijmohan Agarwal. “Even now, the police are arresting tribal leaders, but no action has been taken against the Christians.”
At the start of an election year, the violence has made Chhattisgarh a seat of religious conflict, even though fewer than 10% of the state’s population identifies as belonging to various minority religions.
How The Attacks Unfolded
Article 14 met Christian families who took shelter in churches in and around Narayanpur. They said in most villages that witnessed attacks, a meeting of villagers was first called by the traditional cultural and religious chiefs, such as the gaayta and perma (religious heads) or the patel (titular chief) and the pargana (village cluster) chief. Only the Christian families were not invited to the meeting.
“The villagers gathered for a meeting and the vishwasi (a local term to refer to Christians) were called,” said Mungai Netam, 18, a resident of Devgaon in Narayanpur block, the only one from his family who converted to Christianity.
“The village elders scolded me for leaving our Gods,” he continued. “I was beaten with sticks and was forced to apologise at the feet of the elders.” Then, all the ‘vishwasis’ were told to leave the village or to leave Christianity. As some of the gathered Christians began to protest, he said, a mob of villagers chased them out of the village.
Most affected villages fell in the jurisdiction of the Benur and Edna police stations of Narayanpur. Benur police station, established in the early 2000s, is responsible for 30 villages falling under Kondagaon and Narayanpur district limits.
In January, policemen from Benur responded to altercations between Christian and non-Christian tribals in Gorra village in Narayanpur. Some policemen suffered injuries in the scuffle, prompting the police to file an FIR booking 26 people from both sides.
Having fled home to escape threats, ultimatums and violence by a frenzied mob, for two days, 19 and 20 December, about 250 families sat in an impromptu dharna outside the Narayanpur district collector's office even as national and international Christian organisations called for an end to the violence. They slept in the open, on items of clothing they had escaped with.
Finally, on 21 December, officials provided them shelter in an indoor stadium in Mahaka, a village 3 km from the city. Families, some with nothing but the clothes on their bodies, shared space under the metal dome of the indoor stadium.
By mid-January, nearly a third of them continued to live in Narayanpur. As the shelter was now closed, they lived in the homes of relatives or fellow Christians.
Month Later, Hundreds Of Christians Still In Hiding
Hundreds of others continued to live in churches and homes of other Christians in and around Kondagaon, a district located 49 from Narayanpur. Christian organisations said more were living in the forests, some in areas as far as the border with Maharashtra (in Gadchiroli district) and Odisha (in Bhawanipatna district). These families were carrying whatever food grains they had at home, and some utensils.
"I think we were all frozen in shock until local Christian youth and women's associations started appearing with food and some donated clothes,” Netam said. She and her family stayed in the stadium for five days in December and around a fortnight in January.
As Christmas came and went, as more Christian families fleeing attacks arrived in Narayanpur town, a security camp barrack in Kondagaon and a government school in Narayanpur were converted into additional shelters. In Kondagaon, a church operated by a Christian association took in 300 displaced people.
By mid-January, only one government shelter, the stadium in Mahaka, was functional, and it no longer had electricity. Only 130 of the original 450 people who had gathered in Narayanpur town remained at the shelter. According to those still in the shelter, at least half of those who left had not returned to their home or village.
"Some fled to relatives’ houses where Christian numbers are more, some have fled into the jungles, managing to live off forest produce," said Arun Pannalal, the head of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, a two-decade old Christian organisation.
At the indoor stadium, a communal kitchen continued to operate in the yard behind the structure. Cooking, serving, cleaning and restocking duties were clearly assigned and shared by members of different villages living together.
Munit Salam from Borawand village in Narayanpur block, who has been at the makeshift shelter since 18 December, said men who knew each other through different prayer circles or had lived together in government hostels during their schooling years had decided to coordinate daily activities.
"Some of us had lived together in ashram schools (state tribal department-run residential schools for ST communities) though we belong to distant villages,” Salam, 25, said. “There we had a set routine, so we followed that system here.”
Salam had fled with his 20-month-old daughter. The baby and her mother were in a relative's house in Kondagaon.
Orphaned at a young age, Salam grew up in various relatives’ homes, until he found the church through friends. Around 2010, he converted to Christianity while still in school. “I was beaten up by village elders for leaving our traditional deities,” he said. After that, however, there was no further violence until now, though he had been called to village meetings on several occasions and urged to return to tribal traditions.
Stop, Protest, Attack: A Slogan Against Fellow Tribals
In a report titled Roko, Toko, Thoko (Stop, Protest, Attack), a six-member fact-finding team of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA), an alliance of people’s movements and activists, recounted the events leading up to the expulsion of hundreds of Christian villagers. The report traced the violence back to April 2022, when the Janjaati Suraksha Manch was formed and began to call for action against Christians, using the slogan ‘Roko, Toko, Thoko’.
The team visited the Mahaka stadium on 23 December.
Majoritarian violence in Narayanpur and around could be traced back to a 26 April 2022 ‘maha‐rally’ (grand rally) in Narayanpur of the Janjaati Suraksha Manch, which is backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP, the report said. The Manch’s demand to withdraw benefits of reservation for STs who convert was aimed at stopping the conversion of Adivasis to Islam or Christianity, the report stated.
The team visited 18 villages, and found similar stories of threats of violence. The report said fresh violence was reported from at least six villages in three police stations’ jurisdiction even as district officials were forcing people to return home.
“On 26.12.2022, the Narayanpur authorities evicted those churchgoers who were taking shelter in the indoor stadium, and on 29th December, the model school in Farasgaon was emptied out, and refuge seekers transported back to their villages, accompanied by officials, in the midst of the ongoing instances of anti‐Christian violence from these areas,” the report said.
Sent Back Home, To Face Threats, Harassment
Nareshbati Netam and her family were taken in a police vehicle back to Bhatpal on 26 December. Policemen visited subsequently, and spoke to the village chiefs. "The policemen told villagers that it is illegal to use violence,” she told Article 14. “But a week later, we were summoned to another village meeting.”
Around noon on 2 January, Netam and a handful of other Christian households in Bhatpal were issued fresh ultimatums to leave the village or to give up the Christian faith. Netam tried to explain that they couldn’t leave their lands, for which they hold property documents.
“By dusk, however, we began to hear of villagers gathering with sickles, axes and other homemade weapons,” Netam recounted. Around 7.30 pm on 2 January, a mob barged into a Christian home belonging to Sushmita Salam and her husband Dev.
Sushmita’s parents-in-law are not converts, and tried to reason with the mob, shielding Sushmita, 19, and her 18-month-old child. Their home is located near a paramilitary force camp. “Men from the camp intervened upon hearing the noise,” Sushmita said.
Personnel at the Bhatpal camp refused to speak on the record but confirmed that they had to intervene on 2 January amid sloganeering and shouting. Some of the villagers play football with the men at the camp, a constable said, and the camp personnel were aware of rising tensions over the past six months.
Sushmita's father-in-law Kamlu Salam stayed back in the village though most of their relatives moved out, including the non-Christians. She said her husband's aunt died in October 2022, of cancer. “He begged the village gaayta for permission to use his uncle’s land for burial,” Sushmita told Article 14. The aunt and uncle were Christians.
“For three nights, he and his six-year-old son kept the body at home, waiting for the gaayta to respond.” According to Sushmita, families of Christians were stopped from burying their dead because some tribal rituals view burials as poisoning of the soil. Eventually, village elders, the sarpanch and a posse of policemen took the body to the Christian cemetery in Narayanpur.
In a letter submitted on 20 December to the district administration, the Narayanpur Christian Samaaj, a body representing nearly 1,000 Christians, mostly converted tribals, said there were at least seven instances of forceful exhumation or refusal of permission to bury Christians, all between October and December 2022. The letter named 15 men, including a BJP leader, a former legislator, and panchayat and pargana leaders, as well as a college lecturer, as instigators of violence targeting Christians.
“Slogans like ‘Na Lok Sabha, Na Vidhan Sabha, sabse badi gram sabha" are being used to expel the minority from the village," the letter read. The slogan translates as “Neither Parliament, nor state assembly, it is the gram sabha that rules.”
Violence On Both Sides: Church Attacked, Policemen Injured
Residents of Gorra village under Edaka police station said a group of Christian youth attacked members of the Janjaati Suraksha Manch on 31 December in their village.
The police refused to register an FIR, residents of Gorra said.
On 2 January, even as Nareshbati Netam and her family were readying to flee a second time, anticipating an attack, violence erupted in the district headquarters. Superintendent of police Sadanand Kumar and the Kotwali thana officers suffered injuries after a mob attacked a church inside a school, located less than a kilometre from the collector’s office.
Reports of violence emerged from other parts of the district too, as well as from Kondagaon's Palna. In Edaka, 8 km from the district headquarters, a group of Christian youth attacked tribal representatives who had gathered to protest against religious conversions.
Finally, after months of both sides seeking police intervention, five FIRs were registered against eight Christians in Edaka and against 11 tribals in Narayanpur. Fifteen people including 11 in Narayanpur were arrested between 3 January and 8 January. Among those arrested was Roopsai Salam, the BJP’s district chief, also a pargana level leader of the Sarva Adiwaasi Samaaj, an umbrella body of tribal organisations.
The state home department authorised district collectors to book people spreading communal tension under the National Security Act, 1980 between January and March 2023.
The Gondwana Samaaj and Sarva Adiwaasi Samaaj (groups representing tribals) released statements distancing themselves from the violence.
Representatives of the two community bodies addressed a press conference and said they had neither called for nor condoned violence against a community. "For the past few months, believers of the Christian faith are being beaten up and harassed by people from their own community,” one of the statements said. “The Gondwana Samaaj is not responsible for any violence.”
It Was Villagers Who Attacked Fellow VIllagers
Anita Yadav, 19, a resident of Khadkagaon in Narayanpur block, said it was the betrayal of her friends that hurt the most. Set to take her Class XII board exams in March-April, Anita’s school-mates have refused to speak to her since she left her village. Anita and her mother Jhanak, 45, are currently sharing a room with three other families from Khadkagaon, at a Christian shelter in Kondagaon.
Having survived abuse in her marriage, Jhanak converted to Christianity a decade ago, with her two youngest children, Anita and Ved. The latter was barely a couple of years old then, and now lives at an ashram school in the district where he is studying for his Class X boards.
Khadkagaon doesn’t have a school, and Anita attended classes in Remavand, 3 km away. "I couldn't bring my books,” she said, breaking down. “I don't know if I will be able to go back to appear for my papers.”
The CBA fact-finding report confirmed that the coordinated violence over the past few months had been led by local tribals.
“In spite of the overwhelming understanding that this violence was instigated at the behest of the BJP/ RSS, almost everyone we spoke with affirmed that the village meetings where decisions were taken to oust the churchgoers were only attended by villagers from the village itself,” the report said, “and it was these villagers who were carrying out the beatings and breaking of homes and churches.”
Protecting Tribal Customs, Not Protesting Hinduisation
Following the arrest of Roopsai Salam on 3 January by the Narayanpur police station, chief minister Bhupesh Baghel’s government quickly blamed the BJP.
In fact, the problem is rooted in deeper socio-economic realities. Chrisitians make up 2% of the state’s population, a ratio that has remained almost constant since 2001, when the state of Chhattisgarh was carved out. In 2006, during the BJP government’s 2005-2018 rule of the state, the state assembly passed the Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, to curb conversions.
Meanwhile, for about a decade, the state BJP has run a ‘Ghar Wapasi’ (homecoming) campaign to convert Christian tribals to Hinduism, mainly in the Jashpur and Sarguja districts of north Chhattisgarh.
In Bastar in south Chhattisgarh, however, the situation is more complex.
"Here, for years, the Adivasis have held a grudge against those who convert; they are either excommunicated from the community or the converted tribals themselves stop attending tribal religious and communal rituals,” said Shalini Gera, a human rights lawyer and one of the members of the CBA fact-finding team.
Tribal communities have long demanded that those who don't follow tribal rituals be made to forego reservations or other benefits and schemes for ST communities. Gera, based in Kanker, said the Adivasis are critical of all religious conversions, but only a small percentage of them raise their voice “against the saffron-washing of their rituals”.
Gera said while Adivasi groups have protested religious conversions to Islam and Christianity, the protestors were silent about those who had converted to Hinduism through various rituals that are not originally customary to tribals.
Interpreting A Self-Government Law To Oust Christians
A startling discovery of the fact-finding team was that in several cases, gram sabha resolutions were passed recommending the excommunication of churchgoers. In many cases, rules under Panchayat (Extension To Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996, were cited as legal backing.
It was a “disturbing” trend, the report said.
The PESA law was enacted to promote a degree of autonomy and self-governance in scheduled areas (listed in the fifth schedule of the Constitution), to counter the erosion of forest-dwellers’ traditional rights over land and forest resources.
“The majoritarian calls for violence by the Janjaati Suraksha Manch seem to have integrated seamlessly with Adivasi assertions for autonomous governance," the report said.
Only in August 2022, the state government formulated rules under the PESA Act, an exercise that saw extensive debate, but one that led to wide communication of the spirit or promise of autonomy in the law.
"At a time when the state has no legislation for reservation (additional state-level reservations for tribals) and tribals are facing an even greater threat of persecution and police action, various groups are interpreting PESA against its true values,” said one Sarva Adivasi Samaj member, requesting anonymity.
‘Converts To Christianity Mock Tribal Customs’
The Sarva Adivasi Samaj, the biggest umbrella body of Adivasi organisations in the state including the pargana heads, the gaayta and perma of every village, oversees traditional spiritual customs and dispute-resolution, also mobilising Adivasis on issues of concern.
Two separate factions exist within the body, one under Bharat Singh, a retired government officer, and the other led by Sohan Potai, a veteran politician.
According to Rajaram Todem, vice-president of the registered Chhattisgarh Sarva Adivasi Samaj and also belonging to the Janjaati Manch, the violence was initiated by Christians. "After they attacked tribal youth in Edaka, the protest reached the district headquarters where it turned violent. How long are we expected to suffer?" he said.
Todem claimed that gullible and impoverished tribals were being hoodwinked into leaving their traditions and accepting Christianity. "The entire tribal culture is based on collective rituals. Those who convert to Christianity stop participating and mock our traditions,” he said. “If we let this pass, they will do away with the entire tribal culture.”
He said tribals who convert are hogging limited resources meant to be used by “real forest-dwellers”.
Todem, convenor of the Janjaati Suraksha Manch until March 2022, said it was one of several organisations working at the grassroots to weed out Christianity from among tribals. He claimed there were cases of pastors converting people, especially women, by force.
The Manch is currently headed by Bhojram Nag, whose name was listed in the CBA's fact-finding report as one of those who led the violence.
The other faction of the Sarva Adivasi Samaj, which earlier mobilised people for demonstrations against the government on various issues, has maintained a distance from recent events except for a statement released by Prakash Thakur, the Bastar division head of the Samaj, censuring the violence.
Vinod Nagwanshi, vice-president of the non-registered faction of the Sarva Adivasi Samaaj, claimed that the registered faction was “purely a political puppet”, strung up by the government. Nagwanshi claimed the opposite faction lacked social backing.
For Congress, The Priority Appears To Be Tribal Voters
Responding to the BJP's allegations that the Congress encouraged conversions to Christianity, the government responded in the state legislative assembly with data on church construction—more had been built during the previous government’s regime.
With its ‘Ram Van Gaman Path’, a tourist circuit developed around the deity Ram’s mythological forest stay, and its Godhan Nyaya Yojana (Cow Products Justice scheme), the Congress government’s soft Hindutva approach in Chhattisgarh has not won over the state’s Adivasi population.
Political observers told Article 14 the state government may not want to act decisively in the Adivasi-Christians issue in order to avoid rocking its unsteady boat with the tribals, especially with state assembly elections scheduled for later in 2023.
Tribal leaders Mohan Markam (Congress) and Narayanpur MLA Chandan Kashyap (Congress) released statements supporting the Christians.
While Markam alleged that the BJP was trying to foment religious tension, Kashyap refused to comment when contacted.
Kawasi Lakhma, cabinet minister in the Congress government and a tribal leader, claimed that no tribal has converted to Christianity in the past four years. “All the conversions happened under the BJP’s rule,” Lakhma told Article 14. “They are creating tensions between the communities for the upcoming election.”
After a 15-year BJP reign, the Congress won Chhattisgarh in 2018 on the back of widespread support from tribal voters. The party won all 12 seats in Bastar, with a clear majority. Since 2020, however, the Sarva Adivasi Samaj has protested against various state government policies nearly 20 times, and in at least two instances, tribal MLAs were reprimanded by community leaders at meetings organised by the Sarva Adivasi Samaj.
According to veteran Congress leader Arvind Netam, the Congress government has not been able to retain the trust of tribals who backed the party in 2018. “The government is not very different from the erstwhile BJP government; promises to the tribals have not been fulfilled,” he said. “Tribals had voted for the Congress with a lot of hope, which has not come to fruition.”
Article 14 tried to reach Markam and Kashyap for a comment, but calls and text messages went unanswered.
Congress spokesperson Sushil Anand Shukla said the state government was working for tribals “since the day it came to power”. He said, “In Narayanpur, more than 40 people have been arrested and strict action taken against the hatemongers and those indulging in violence.”
According to Arun Pannalal, the Christian Forum’s state president, the government’s handling of the violence had led to the displacement of over 1,000 people. "It goes against the moral code of any government,” he said. “The victims in Narayanpur need to be rehabilitated and compensated for their mental and physical loss.” Christian organisations have approached the Chhattisgarh high court for directions to this effect. Eight petitions have been filed, Pannalal said.
Across Narayanpur and Kondagaon district, Article 14 visited villages including Borawand, Devgaon and Remawand in Narayanpur block, and found locked homes and unattended fields with harvest-ready paddy bearing witness to the violence and disruption of normal life.
The tribal villagers of Chheribeda in Narayanpur district’s Narayanpur block pooled resources to build a 12-foot statue of Hindu deity Hanuman outside their village. "We had some pastors coming to the village,” pujari (priest) Ram Nag said. “No one has converted here. We wanted to erect the statue to show our unity.”
In Khadkagaon, an eerie silence prevailed. Residents said marriages had been postponed, and nobody wants to spend time outdoors. Anita Yadav's older sister Devika, mechanically doing the chores in her marital home, refused to talk about the attack. On hearing her sister's name, she enquired about the younger sibling’s clothes.
"In the chaos, she wore my slippers while leaving for the meeting. She didn't take anything, all her belongings are here, clothes, shoes, even this," she said, holding up Anita’s red and black school satchel, its books untouched for weeks.
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(Gargi Verma is an independent journalist based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh.)