By AATHIRA KONIKKARA
According to a pastor from Sukma district in rural Chhattisgarh—who wished to remain anonymous—a mob attacked the home of two Christian Adivasi families in the Kokkar Pal village on 20 May. Ravi Kumar, a coordinator of Persecution Relief, an organisation which monitors violence against Christians in India, confirmed this. “The beatings started around 11 pm,” the pastor told me. “They hid in the jungle in the dark of the night. The women lost their way and got separated from their husbands. They were beaten so badly and crawled for three kilometres to reach us.” Ravi told me that the family could not return to their village. “They were in a hospital and are now living in somebody else’s house. We told them not to return to their village because it is not safe there,” he said. The Caravan is in possession of a first-information report filed by the pastor on behalf of the families that were attacked.
The two families, from the Koitur and Mauria communities, respectively, were not able to recognise their attackers, the pastor said. “Clothes were thrown out of their house. They were told to leave if they refused to leave the religion,” the pastor said.
According to the pastor, local members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had been organising a consistent campaign to forcefully convert Christians, particularly Adivasi Christians in the district, to Hinduism. “Since November 2019, they have been facing attacks,” he added, referring to the Adivasi families who were attacked in May. In late 2019, after the first attack took place, the pastor told me, the families decided not to file an FIR, hoping the violence would seize. But they faced a second attack in January 2020. The pastor accused the sarpanch of the village, who was elected in January 2020, of supervising locals from the village who targeted the family. He said that the sarpanch is associated with the BJP. “After panchayat elections, a mob arrived with a tractor to demolish the church, saying that Adivasi people visit your church,” he said. “It was on Sunday during prayer service. The local Hindus have abused and harassed me continuously for three years now.” The houses of the two families were attacked again on 20 May.
The attack in Kokkar Pal fits a pattern that multiple reports by foreign and Indian human-rights groups have noted, of a growing number of anti-Christian attacks in India during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second tenure, and even during the nationwide lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus. In the past two years, a large number of such attacks have occurred in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where religiously discriminatory anti-conversion laws have been drafted or promulgated. These laws making it exceedingly tough for underprivileged groups such as Dalits and Adivasis to convert to Christianity, all the while allowing for ghar vapsi, or conversion to Hinduism, through means that are not always peaceful. In many instances of attacks against Christians in Chhattisgarh, the police and administration appear to have taken no action against the perpetrators. With Christians receiving no support from the police, locals who were antagonistic to them even led social boycotts against members of the community and demolished their houses and churches.
In April 2020, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal government commission, recommended the imposition of sanctions on India after monitoring growing number of violations of religious freedom under the Modi government. The USCIRF panel stated in its annual report that India should be designated as a Country of Particular Concern “for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.” Countries of Particular Concern, or CPCs, are ones where the respective governments “perpetrate or tolerate the worst violations of religious freedom globally.” The United States’ current CPC list includes Burma, China, Iran and North Korea. The report takes special note of the rising number of attacks against Christians in India. “Violence against Christians also increased, with at least 328 violent incidents, often under accusations of forced conversions,” the report states. It further noted that government officials and agencies which are responsible for such violations should be barred from entering the United States.
On 29 April, Anurag Shrivastava, the spokesperson for the Indian foreign ministry, said the USCIRF report was “biased” and a “new level of misrepresentation.” Shrivastava, however, did not contest the statistics presented in the USCIRF report. Commenting on the agency, he said, “We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly.”
Shibu Thomas, the founder of Persecution Relief, told me that Uttar Pradesh has seen the highest number of instances of persecution of Christians between 2017 and 2019. “I think the administration and the religious fanatics are hand in hand. The police, especially, is supporting the fanatics rather than protecting Christians, because the percentage of Christians is very low in Uttar Pradesh,” he said. He added that over a hundred churches have been forcefully shut down under the chief minister Adityanath’s administration. According to Thomas, India’s inclusion by the USCIRF among the top ten states for its record of religious intolerance is also matter of concern given the potential consequence of financial sanctions.
The first quarterly report released by Persecution Relief for this year records 187 incidents of harassment, intimidation and violence against Christians, noting that the attacks have continued “in spite of the curb on religious gatherings owing to the nationwide lockdown due to the Corona Virus outbreak.” During my conversation with Thomas on 1 June, he mentioned a pastor in Jamalkul village of Mau district, Uttar Pradesh, who had been shifted to an intensive care unit after he was attacked with a knife for organising a prayer session in a Christian household.
The Uttar Pradesh government, on the advice of the Uttar Pradesh state law commission, is on the verge of enacting an anti-conversion bill drafted by the state law commission which states that any person wishing to convert to another religion must seek permission from a government official who will investigate the reason for conversion. The proposal by the commission heavily quotes Chhattisgarh’s anti-conversion law, the Chhattisgarh Dharma Swantantraya Adhiniyam (Freedom of Religion Act) of 1968, and an amendment introduced to it by the previous Chhattisgarh government, led by the BJP. Chhattisgarh’s amendment has a provision stipulating that “return in ancestor’s original religion or his own original religion by any person shall not be construed as ‘conversion.’” This would mean that Uttar Pradesh’s proposed law will not deem ghar vapsi—ceremonies organised by right-wing outfits like VHP, in which Christians and Muslims reconvert to Hinduism—as forced conversions.
This story first appeared on caravanmagazine.in