Monday, February 20, 2006

Tribal Christians Withstand Insults, Threats To Continue In Faith

February 18, 2006

JARSOL, India (UCAN) -- Dawood Devaria and other tribal people who are not Hindus have to take insults, and sometimes assert their religious identity, as was evident during a recent Hindu fair in his village in western India.

"Get out from here now or I will push you out," Devaria, a Protestant, shouted to a right-wing Hindu activist who asked him to leave Christianity and join Hinduism.

Satyanand Gamit, the Hindu activist, had used crude language to accuse Devaria and other tribal Christians of converting in exchange for free medicine and food from missioners. Alongside Gamit stood a group of people from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, national volunteer corps), wearing saffron headbands.

They came to Jarsol village in Gujarat state to participate in a three-day Hindu fair that ended Feb. 13. The RSS, an umbrella body of Hindu nationalist groups, was among the organizers of the fair, called Shabari Kumbh, in a remote tribal area in Dangs district.

The group is accused of perpetrating anti-Christian violence in various parts of India, including Dangs. In several violent incidents in 1998, Hindu activists attacked Christians including priests and nuns.

But such violence seems to have hardened the faith and minds of tribal people against Hindu militancy.

Devaria shot a volley of questions toward Gamit and his group: "It is my right to do whatever I want to do. Who are you to question me? Are you from this area? Who are you to inquire about my ancestry?" The activists, like most of the 200,000 people who attended the fair, came from outside the district. Faced with uncomfortable questions, they began to retreat.

Devaria continued to shiver in anger, which also made him stammer, as he continued to shout. His wife, Fulnaben, and friends stood by him to protect him in case of a fight. But he cooled down after Gamit started to back away.

Life as a Christian has been tough, Devaria admits. At least nine of the 12 Christian families in Jarsol temporarily moved to relative's houses in neighboring villages as the fair approached, fearing violence, he said in an emotion-filled voice. He and the others who refused to move were given armed security by the administration. He told UCA News that he refused to move out because he doubles as a pastor for the Pentecostal Church in his compound when regular pastors cannot come.

His church was completely destroyed during the 1998 violence. It was rebuilt a year later and was among the first places given security cover after the Hindu groups announced plans for their fair.

Devaria's house and the church stand opposite Shabari Dham, a reservoir built for Hindus to take a ritual bath to wash away sins, a feature of the mela (festivals) held at regular intervals at pilgrimage sites (dham) along holy rivers. The fair site is not among these. Devaria said part of his land was "forcibly taken away" by Hindu groups as they prepared for the event.

"This is our land where we have been living for hundreds of years. But they encroached on it," he said, showing some land near the reservoir. "They have also succeeded in dividing villagers between Christians and Hindus," he said.

As Devaria's temper cooled down, Gamit came back but stood at a distance. The tribal Hindu from neighboring Nashik district in Maharashtra state said a Christian agency worked in the Jarsol area providing tribal people with material support. It later converted some of them, he claimed.

"If this is wrong, please tell me how these people became Christians?" he asked the onlookers in a soft voice, deliberately avoiding Devaria.

But Devaria came rushing at him. "Mind your own business. You have no business to question me. Who are you?" he shouted. This time Fulnaben and a Christian neighbor, Janu Ramu, held him back.

Gamit continued from a safe distance. "I admit these people have been neglected for a long time. But that doesn't mean they should convert to whosoever offered them money," he insisted, moving nearer to a security guard.

M.R. Khushwah, the police constable posted to guard the church, told UCA News there has been "a regular flow of people" asking Devaria to become Hindu. "The conviction by which he resists such attempts -- monetary offers and physical threats -- is exemplary. I might have fallen for such traps," the policeman said. Observing that Christians become offended when they are accused of accepting money to become Christians, Khushwah said he was witness to their simple life and hospitality, despite their being poor.

For example, Fulnaben borrowed wheat and maize flour and made bread for the police, who find it difficult to obtain food while being posted in the village, even though they get a food allowance.

Fulnaben challenged allegations that the Christians took money to change their religion. "If we had money as alleged by this guy, we would not have gone begging to feed these policemen. It pains when donkeys like this make such allegations," she said, pointing to Gamit.

Janu Ramu said the Christians in the village are "made of steel and will not succumb to pressures." The shabbily dressed tribal man continued: "We know this is only a beginning. But we are ready for a fight, not with weapons but psychologically. Let us see whose willpower will succeed."

Devaria's encounter is something faced by "each and every Christian in the area in the past two decades," says Father Anthony Myladumpura, who has been working in the area that long. "I must admit these poor Christians are not only committed but they have successfully withstood the onslaught of these groups," the Jesuit priest told UCA News after hearing of the incident. "That is why, when I see them, I see the Kingdom of God. I see myself as a humble worker at their service," he said.

Many tribal people such as Motilal Bhoi, who follow their own tribal religion, have been approached to take a symbolic bath at the newly built dham and become a Hindu. Bhoi refused, however, saying they have their own "mountain god."

"They put vermilion paste on my forehead and said I am the follower of (Hindu god) Ram. They also asked to me hail him. When I refused, they abused me saying I was acting on behalf of the Christian priests," Bhoi, a daily wage laborer, told UCA News. He admitted he was a beneficiary of social development projects undertaken by a Christian agency, but he asserted that nobody had asked him to convert to Christianity.

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