Friday, September 19, 2014

Marginalising Christians

CHHATISGARH’S Bastar region looks seductive in its tranquil beauty. The calm on the surface, however, is deceptive because the area is simmering with a hate campaign, spurred by the Hindutva organisations led by the VHP. There has always been a subterranean terror campaign against members of the minuscule Christian community in this region, but the arrival of a BJP-led government at the Centre has emboldened these organisations to such an extent that a particularly systematic campaign to drive Christians out of the State has begun. To make matters worse, even the police turn a blind eye; no first information reports (FIR) get registered and representations to the Chief Minister, the Chief Secretary, or the police chief have no impact on the ground reality.
It all began on May 10 in Sirsiguda village when a meeting of the gram panchayat was convened and a resolution passed under Section 129(G) of the Chhattisgarh Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, which sought to “preserve the traditional cultural unity of the village; prohibit non-Hindu religious practitioners from either practising, preaching or propagating any other religion; banning the entry of non-Hindus in the area; and prohibiting the construction of any religious place without the prior permission of the gram panchayat”. The resolution stated that anyone violating these clauses would be liable for action. The resolution (a copy of which is with Frontline) was signed by the village sarpanch and other office-bearers of the gram panchayat. As many as 50 gram sabhas have passed similar resolutions.
The 50-odd Christian families in Sirsiguda village have been denied their PDS rations on the grounds that their ration cards are fake. They filed a complaint with to the district Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection Department on June 16. After the authorities arrived in the village to investigate the issue, those who deposed before them, mainly Christians, were beaten up by a group of 150-odd VHP activists, in full public view, with the local policemen remaining mute spectators. Even though an FIR naming the perpetrators of the violence was lodged the next day, so far no arrests have been made (Frontline has a copy of the FIR). The shops in the village refuse to sell their goods to the Christian families, who have been repeatedly warned by VHP activists to either convert to Hinduism or leave the place.
Arun Pannalal, president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, told Frontline that this incident had triggered a chain reaction in the entire Bastar region. Efforts to apprise the Chief Minister and other senior Ministers have been in vain. “We have sought an appointment with the Chief Minister more than 50 times, but he has not given us time. Complaining to other State government officials has been of no help as they only give assurances and nothing changes on the ground,” Pannalal said. (The forum filed a writ petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court on September 5 challenging the constitutionality of the resolutions adopted by the village councils. On September 8, the court asked the State government to file its reply within three weeks.)
Attacks on Christians, systematic and in full knowledge of the authorities, have become frequent since the Modi government took office in New Delhi. On July 27, in Parapur village, where only two Christian families have been living for the past several years, Sukhram, 22, was beaten up by VHP activists and the police refused to register an FIR. Instead, his family was told either to compromise or to face the consequence. Intimidation and attacks have been happening in and around the Dhamtari area, which has a concentration of Christian families, too.
“No one is doing anything for us. We are totally helpless, at the mercy of Hindutva goons. The government does not listen to us, the police take no action, the political parties just don’t care. Where do we go? What do we do? We are not even allowed to pray in peace,” Pannalal said, conveying the despondency and frustration the community as a whole is experiencing in the State.
Attacks on Christians in Chhattisgarh are not a recent phenomenon. In January 2012, activists of the Hindu Dharam Sena created a ruckus in the Catholic Convent School in Korba, protesting against the principal not allowing Saraswati puja in the classroom. In February 2008, BJP Minister Renuka Singh led an attack on a Christian meeting at Fatakpur village in Sarguja district. Eleven pastors, accused of conversion, sustained injuries in the attack. They were arrested and later put in jail where they continue to remain. In June 2006, five practising Christian women from Bothili village in Durg district were disrobed at a public meeting by goons led by BJP MLA Pritam Sahu, who was accompanied by one Madanlal Sahu.
But the difference now is that with the BJP in power at the Centre, the attacks have become more brazen and the indifference of the authorities has become starker. Take for example the Sirsiguda gram panchayat resolution. The gram panchayat sabha is a local government meeting attended by local body representatives, but a copy of the resolution banning non-Hindus in the area was sent to the local VHP head. This raises serious concerns about the state officially encouraging non-state actors in matters as sensitive as religion. According to Chhattisgarh Christian Forum members, even the police are in cahoots with VHP functionaries. “In such a scenario, where do we go?” one of them asked.
“Physical violence was something that has been present over the years, but now structural violence also has begun, which is far more dangerous because it aims at systemically targeting Christian believers. This is more dangerous because Christianity has been in existence in the Bastar region for the last 100-125 years and to suddenly displace people, calling them outsiders, accusing them of conversion, is painful. It breeds hate, causes pain and frustration, and polarises society communally,” said Akhilesh Edgar, honorary regional secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, an organisation that has been taking up such issues with the State government over the years, without much success.
As for the role of the secular parties, “the less said, the better”, Edgar said. The CPI, however, has tried and intervened effectively sometimes, but the Congress could not care less, he said. 

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