The persecution of Christians in the Bastar District of India’s central state of Chhattisgarh began in June 2014. Following a dispute over food rations, Hindu radicals convinced over 50 village leaders to essentially make the practice of Christianity illegal. Following the passage of these unconstitutional resolutions, local populations began to socially boycott Christians from everyday village life. Christians were no longer allowed to collect water from the community well. Christians were no longer allowed to cultivate and harvest from their fields. Christians were no longer allowed to talk to other non-Christians in the village. Christians were even not allowed to bury their dead. Unfortunately, due to lack of government action, this persecution of Christians has not only continued for over 2 years, it has spread to more and more villages across India.
9/7/2016 India (The Wire) – On May 25, 2016, Saradi Bai, an elderly Christian woman from Bhadhisgaon village in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district, died a natural death. But in the days that followed, a chain of unnatural, divisive events flooded the tribal hamlet. Soon after she died, the local unit of Bajrang Dal, a militant Hindutva organization active in several parts of India, led a campaign to deny her a rightful burial. Led by local Hindutva activists, the group said that Christians could not be allowed to carry out their religious rituals, bury her in a casket or place a cross in her grave. They argued that any Christian ritual is a violation of section 129 (C) of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA), which gives the gram sabha “the power to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity and community resources and customary mode of dispute resolution”.
In the last two years, the sudden burst of Hindutva aggression in the region, especially under the stewardship of the Bajrang Dal, has unnerved Christians. But denying basic burial rights to an elderly woman left the minority community flabbergasted like never before. With no other alternative, Saradi Bai’s family were forced to seek police intervention. After hectic negotiations through the day, the Bajrang Dal allowed her to be buried in a coffin but without a cross on her grave. It also said that no Christian burials will be allowed in the village henceforth.
This event that polarized the village on religious lines prompted around 200 Christians of the village to appeal at the constitutional offices of the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM), tehsildar, police and sarpanch asking for a separate burial ground for Christians. “The sarpanch refused to accept our application, while the SDM and others are yet to respond,” said Pastor Pilaram Kawde of Bhadhisgaon while talking about the state government’s apathy.
Meanwhile, Saradi Bai’s husband Sukhdev Netam died on June 6, leading to yet another round of similar events in the village. “They (Bajrang Dal activists) declared that they did not recognize the authority of the police, tehsildar, SDM or anyone else,” said Kawde. Netam was finally buried while the police kept guard. This time, the Bajrang Dal went a step ahead and threatened to kill if the community tried to bury Netam.
The communal attacks against Christians in the village began around September last year. Kawde laid the foundations for a prayer hall on his own land, for which he has all the papers. However, the panchayat, under the influence of the Bajrang Dal according to Kawde, refused to give him a no objection certificate (NOC). “The panchayat orally refused to issue a NOC for construction. I asked them to give me the order in writing. When they failed to do so for several days, I resumed construction. I was then given a written notice citing sections 55 (1) and 55 (2) of the Chhattisgarh Gram Panchayat Act 1993 saying I cannot be allowed to construct a place of worship for Christians because ‘people of big-big castes and religions live in this village, and every Dusshera even the Roopshila Devi Ma joins the celebrations,’ and that the panchayat has the right to demolish the prayer hall,” Kawde said.
This attack on the Christian community in the Adivasi-dominated Bastar region is not an isolated one. Kawde claimed that Christians in many other villages have been prevented from burying their dead, fueling a demand for separate burial grounds among the community.
Several other narratives of this kind were brought to light in a recently published fact-finding report by the All India People’s Forum (AIPF), a collective comprising a few political, non-governmental and student organizations.