NEW DELHI (Morning Star News) – Incited by Hindu extremists, thousands of tribal animists in Chhattisgarh, India last week drove Christians in three villages from their homes in assaults that police declined to prevent or stop in spite of prior warnings, sources said.
The attacks on Sept. 22-23 by mobs that swelled to more than 3,000 agitators damaged homes, sent Christians fleeing for their lives and left a woman hospitalized with serious injuries, but police officers’ only response was to pressure Christians to contribute to the Hindu festivals that were the touch point of the hostilities.
Sivram Koyam, a resident of Kakadbeda in Kondagaon District, said he and other Christians were at the local police station on Sept. 22 trying to warn officers of impending violence when they received calls from relatives saying fierce mobs were attacking their homes.
“From three in the afternoon till eight in the night, I pleaded with and begged the police officers to go and stop them, but they did not go,” Koyam told Morning Star News. “The furious mob came in search of me, and not finding me home, they picked up my wife and smashed her on the ground three times.”
The mob of about 3,000 animists were chanting Hindu slogans as they damaged homes in Kakadbeda village, he said.
“One of them tore my wife’s blouse [the garment worn beneath a saree],” Koyam said. “Besides grievous internal injuries, my wife was gripped with fear and traumatized by the incident. She developed fever and could not move due to severe pain and injuries.”
She had difficulty breathing due to chest injuries and was rushed to a hospital in Kondagaon 11 miles way, he said. She underwent treatment and was expected to be discharged soon.
The mob damaged 10 homes belonging to seven Christians in Kakadbeda, and the next morning (Sept. 23) they proceeded to Singanpur village, damaging homes of three Christians, and Tiliyabeda village, damaging the homes of two Christians.
Fearing for their lives, Koyam and nine other Christians have taken shelter in the house of a Christian several miles away. As the Christians ran for their lives, the assailants caught one Christian and beat him, he said. His whereabouts are unknown.
Christians registered three complaints – one with Kondagaon police on Sept. 20 based on signs of impending danger, the other with the superintendent of police’s office in Kondagaon on Sept. 22 and the third with the district collector on Thursday (Sept. 24). When Morning Star News called the superintendent of police several times beginning on Sept. 24 using various phones, each time he indicated he could not hear the caller’s voice.
Kondagaon District Collector Pushpendra Kumar Meena told Morning Star News that Christians and the opposing villagers were meeting for negotiations and were “at peace with each other,” though heads of Christian families have not dared return to the damaged homes.
“As of today [Sept. 28], there is no communal tension in the village,” Meena maintained.
While the tribal animists attacking the Christians were not Hindus, Hindu nationalist groups have worked for more than 10 years to introduce Hindu practices into tribal customs and have incited tribal villagers against Christians, sources said.
Tribal villagers in Kakadbeda who have been indoctrinated to undertake Hindu practices wanted Christians to contribute to the monthly Hindu Shivratri festival. When Christians declined to contribute to the latest festival, the tribal Hindus of the village rounded up the Christians and threatened them on Sept. 19, Koyam said.
“They told us to renounce our faith in Jesus Christ and alleged that because of our prayers, their god becomes ashuddh [Hindi word for ‘defiled’],” Koyam said.
The sub-divisional magistrate of Kondagaon confirmed the tribal people’s demands.
“The villagers are demanding that the Christians give up their Christian faith, but the Christian community is not complying,” he told Morning Star News.
Arun Pannalal of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum noted how Hindu extremists have influenced the tribal villagers.
“Tribals are nature worshippers and practice ancestor worship – how come they are celebrating Shivratri?” Pannalal said. “Shivratri is not a tribal festival but a Hindu festival. So how was tribal culture compromised there?”
He added that he and other Christians were disappointed by police efforts to arrange a “compromise” between the assailants the victims.
“They have no business to barter a deal of compromise,” he said. “Under which provision of the law have they refused to file FIRs [First Information Reports]? Are they ensuring an imaginary peace? A crime has been committed, and the law must take its own course. The police must not subvert.”
Villagers had put up a large tent in Kakadbeda on Sept. 19, and the mob began forming there, sources said. Taking their meals from a community kitchen at the tent, the mob swelled to 1,000 people, many of them from outside the area, who stayed at the site as they discussed and planned attacks on area Christian families.
On Sept. 20, villagers from Kakadbeda, Silati and Singanpur villages held a community meeting in Kakadbeda without village authorities but reportedly under the influence of Hindu nationalists. The villagers brought four Christians from Kakadbeda to the meeting and gave them the ultimatum to either renounce their faith or leave the village, Koyam said.
“Many of us have been Christians for over 10 years, and during this meeting, many gave testimony of how the Lord had healed them and why they follow Him,” Koyam said.
Koyam and a few other Christians went to the Kondagaon police station and filed an application for protection. Denying their request to file a First Information Report, police turned the Christians away but promised that they would visit the village on Sept. 22 for investigation.
“The villagers from somewhere came to know that we had gone to the police, so the next day [Sept. 21], a huge, agitated mob came to my house enquiring about me,” Koyam said. “My wife somehow managed to convince them that I was not home. I hid myself till they all left and then secretly fled towards the jungle along with another Christian named Sukram.”
The mob found a Christian, Tularam Suri, and manhandled him as they ordered him to assemble all the village Christians the next day (Sept. 22) at 10 a.m., Koyam said.
“They threatened that if he was not successful at presenting us, they will put petrol on him and burn him alive before the entire village,” he said. “It was then that all the other Christians including Tularam fled, fearing for their lives. Me and Sukram were in the jungle from 4 p.m. till past midnight. Then we went to another village in the house of a Christian brother. We have not returned home since.”
On the morning of Sept. 22, Koyam and the other Christians reported the threatening situation to the superintendent of police, he said.
When the Christians failed to appear at the 10 a.m. meeting, villagers began to hunt for them, shouting Hindu slogans as they went from house to house and, not finding them, damaged their homes. After beating Koyam’s wife, they damaged his home and motorbike, he said.
It was then that the Christians at the office of the superintendent of police’s office began to receive calls from their families and begged him to send units to curtail the attacks.
“He kept assuring us that he will send forces to protect the Christian homes, but he did not,” Koyam said.
Two of Koyam’s three houses were damaged, and the assailants damaged all three of Suri’s houses, he said.
The Christians submitted their grievances in a written complaint at the superintendent’s office on Sept. 22 but did not know if it resulted in a First Information Report.
On Sept. 23, village Christians received word that the mob of now close to 3,000 people was planning to attack Christian homes in Tiliyabeda and Singanpur villages. Again they approached the superintendent of police and requested help. The superintendent sent forces to the two villages, but they were reportedly unable to stop the mob from damaging homes.
Videos circulating on social media show the mob damaging the houses as the unarmed forces look on. The superintendent, however, told local media that no houses were damaged. When Christians later showed the videos to him, he dismissed them as “fake videos.”
The sub-divisional magistrate told Morning Star News that homes were indeed damaged.
“Seven Christian homes were vandalized by the mob,” though the Christians and local media reported a higher number.
The mob damaged five houses belonging to Christians in the two villages that day, and the Christians have fled, sources said.
‘Compromise’ Rather than Justice
On that day, Sept. 23, 22-year-old Phul Singh, a Christian from nearby Chipawand, went to Kakadbeda to give medicines to Koyam’s wife. He found her with a very high fever and unable to get out of bed.
“She was very traumatized as a result of the beating,” Singh told Morning Star News.
As she had breathing difficulties from being thrown onto the ground three times, the district collector arranged for an ambulance to take her to the hospital, where she received medication and was put on oxygen, Koyam said.
The Christians approached the district collector on Thursday (Sept. 24) and filed another complaint about the aggressions.
The mob, meantime, was expanding and sought to attack other villages, including Chipawand and Mulmula. The village heads of those villages declined to give permission to the mob, said C.R. Netam, pastor of Shalom Church in Chipawand.
“Though the village head of Chipawand and Kakadbeda is the same person, she was not informed nor involved in the decision of attacking Christian homes in Kakadbeda,” Pastor Netam to Morning Star News. “She strongly refused to let the mob enter Chipawand and create a ruckus.”
That day a group of 22 Christians including Koyam travelled more than 150 miles to the state capital, Raipur, to meet the leadership of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum. The leaders took their statements and encouraged them to remain steadfast, and the Christians returned early the next morning.
On Friday (Sept. 25), the district collector called the Christians to his office where 300 representatives from the mob were gathered. From 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. the collector tried to formulate a compromise between the aggressors and the group of more than 50 Christians, without success.
That day local media reported the mob had swelled to around 4,000 people and broadcast video footage of them in Singanpur. Shouting Hindu nationalist and anti-Christian chants, the mob demanded Christians leave the district.
Superintendent of Police Siddharth Tiwari deployed police from four districts (Narayanpur, Kondagaon, Kanker and Jagdalpur) in view of the crowd that now included women and children.
On Saturday (Sept. 26), the collector again called a meeting and about 50 Christians and 50 tribal villagers met from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. and pressured the Christians to withdraw their complaints, Koyam said.
“The collector insisted that we practice our faith in silence and contribute financially to the Hindu religious gatherings in the village,” he told Morning Star News.
The Christians, refused, requesting instead that police arrest people they had identified as assailants.
“We have asked for three things: that the attackers should be arrested; that our broken houses should be repaired and rebuilt; and that the villagers would give in writing that they would not do this to us in the future and live in peace,” Koyam said. “While the collector has assured us that our houses would be rebuilt, no assurance has been received from the villagers.”
The villagers have threatened to seize and sell the harvests from the Christians’ field, he said.
“They have also threatened that they will not let any Christian back in these villages,” Koyam said. “We do not know what the future holds.”
The Christians displaced from Kakadbeda continue to take shelter in places far from their village, while their wives, children and elderly parents remain in the damaged houses, lacking roofs during the rainy season.
“The villagers have pitched huge tents in the village, and a large community kitchen has been set up for them,” Singh of Chipawand said. “They are mostly outsiders who have come from four or five different villages. The authorities see everything but are still behaving as if they do not know what is going on. It clearly shows that there is an influential hand behind all of this.”
The anti-Christian sentiment has spread to everyday villagers, he said, citing an incident on Thursday (Sept. 24), when four youths chased a young Christian woman grazing her bulls with intent to kill her.
“She barely escaped and hid herself in the jungle for over three hours and returned home only after it got dark,” Singh said.
A mob beat and slapped Christians in another incident, and in Singanpur a Christian man narrowly escaped an attempt to kill him, he added.
The Rev. Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) said the aggression in Chhattisgarh has the mark of Hindu extremist influence on it.
“What we are seeing in Kondagaon is the same script that has played out during earlier years in Odisha (in 2008, then called Orissa state), Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Gujarat,” Lal told Morning Star News. “Hindutvaization of the tribals and the fracturing of the tribal society on religious lines by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates have led to this situation.”
Lal said he has no doubt that the attacks were well-planned rather than spontaneous.
“How else do you explain the mobilizing, staying and feeding of such a large crowd?” he said. “Someone must finance such a huge exercise. How do you explain hesitation on the part of the police and the administration? If they want, the situation would be normalized within a day. How do you explain that the tribal society is suddenly Hinduized and are up in arms against the church, which has been peacefully present in the area for over 150 years? This is all a yield of the seeds of dissension planted carefully over the years to rupture the tribal community.”
The EFI has written the chief minister of Chhattisgarh requesting his intervention, he said.
“Looking back, I sincerely wish that the superintendent of police would have moved on the very day he was approached by the victims,” Lal said. “None of this would have happened if he had moved then. It seems as if there are compulsions. These things should also be looked into.”
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has been worse each year since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.