HYDERABAD, India (Morning Star News) – In an area of central India where tribal animists enlist Maoist militants to kill Christians who refuse to recant, Sodi Joga took it seriously when relatives threatened to kill him, his wife and 5-year-old daughter.
“The villagers demanded that Joga and his family must partake in the cleansing ritual, a puja, which would cleanse them of Christianity and restore them to their previous faith,” Dudhi Bandi, an elder of New Bethesda Yishu Krist Ministries in Sukma District, told Morning Star News. “But they refused to bow to the tribal deities.”
The family had been attending Christian worship services for more than a year in Gadiras village, Chhattisgarh state. When they refused to bow to the tribal deities, villagers expelled the family from their home in the Kalgundapara area of Gadiras village on Nov. 4, Bandi said.
“The villagers threw out the belongings, animals and chickens owned by Sodi Joga,” Bandi said. “Joga did not know where to go. It was his relatives and kinsmen who were threatening that they would kill him, his wife and 5-year-old daughter.”
The family took refuge at a church building in another village for two weeks, and then they returned in spite of the threats, he said. Bandi said he encouraged them to leave as soon as they sense any danger.
“I pray for the Lord’s protection over them,” he said. “Usually in such cases, the village council would let Naxals [Maoist militants] take over, and they won’t hesitate to take lives. We had already counselled them and made them aware about these dangers.”
He accompanied Joga and his wife to the Gadiras police station on Nov. 7 and helped them file a petition. The officer did not issue a receipt for the petition and told them that he would need time to investigate before filing a First Information Report, Bandi said.
About a week later, Bandi received a phone call from the village president.
“He told me that we should not have gone to the police station when it is an internal matter of the village,” he told Morning Star News. “I said, ‘Alright, sir,’ and asked for forgiveness for not approaching him at first. He went on to clarify that only he vests the rights to solve the issues in the village, and that we cannot go to the police.”
Joga and his family had faced harassment for three months prior, according to his petition.
“They would quarrel with us over trivial issues and link it with our Christian faith,” Joga stated in the complaint. “We had been quiet and never said a word.”
In area districts and others nearby in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states, violence against Adivasis (indigenous tribes) who have put their faith in Christ has reached a level of at least one incident every other week, according to legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom-India.
“Adivasi Christians in Chhattisgarh face the brunt of the anger of their kinsmen,” ADF-India attorney Son Singh Jhaali told Morning Star News. “It is intriguing that the village council and its president, who enjoy supremacy in the village administration matters, decide the family matters also. Even police accept their judgement as final and refuse to file cases against anybody in the family who puts an Adivasi to suffering because of their faith in Christ.”
If a man in a tribal, animist family becomes a Christian, the village president summons his brothers to appear before the local council, and members declare the Christian unacceptable in the community and incite families against him, he said.
“This has long been the trend,” Jhaali told Morning Star News. “The brothers are also made to believe that if they oust the odd one from the village, they can get a larger share in the property or agriculture produce which once belonged to the Christian. They are manipulated to go against a brother who is related by blood and with whom they had spent their entire lives together.”
If the shunned Christian, unaware of the village council’s decision, continues to till his land, the community denies him water for farming, he added; the land is allowed to go parched until it is handed to his kinsmen.
A local source who requested anonymity said local councils work with Naxalites to rid areas of Christianity.
“To wipe out Christianity from the village, the council can go to an extent of exerting pressure on Christians to partake in a cleansing ritual,” the source told Morning Star News. “When Christians decline to join the rituals, as the next extreme step, Naxals are informed about the growing Christian faith, and Christians are handed over to them to be killed.”
Naxalites shot an Adivasi Christian from Narayanpur District to death in February.
Shunned by their tribal kinsmen, new Christians must be supported by strong churches, Jhaali said.
“Once a family puts their faith in Christ and starts attending church, they are in fellowship with the members who care for each other through thick and thin. They are no longer in darkness in an isolated tribal hamlet,” he said. “Their network grows, and they are in companionship with fellow believers and become aware of civilities, education and opportunities ahead that can lead to having a better life, far away from the blind practices and superstitions imposed by the Adivasi community.”
Denial of Tribal Status
Infuriated by growing numbers of those turning to Christianity, tribal villagers in central India’s Chhattisgarh state have joined hands with Hindu extremists to persecute Christians, sources said.
“The Indian Constitution granted certain safeguards to Adivasis to uplift them from their social and economic backwardness, but the Hindu extremists’ have issued inflammatory statements in public gatherings that some of the Adivasis had accepted foreign faith and so must be denied the tribal status,” said the ADF’s Jhaali.
In Orcha village, the local president refused to recognize the Adivasi status of Christian converts Ramesh Kumar Usendi and youths from his church, denying them higher studies and government benefits, Usendi said.
The Christians on Nov. 19 went to the Narayanpur District Administrative Office to apply for caste certificates, as a local council member had suggested.
“We travelled about 62 kilometers [38.5 miles] to reach the district office and submitted our applications and waited for hours,” Usendi told Morning Star News. “The official called us and asked us if I and the youths were Christian. We answered, ‘Yes.’ He was very angry that we applied for caste certificates and started using filthy language against us.
“The officer then tore our application letters and dumped them in the dust bin and asked us to never appear before him.”
Older villagers at least recognize the Christians as kinsmen, he said, but younger ones view them as competitors for jobs, he said.
“In the Hindu Sanghatan [Hindu Union] meetings, they are told that Christian Adivasis would compete against them for government jobs,” he said. ‘They want to limit our access to higher education and government benefits. In Orcha village alone, there must be at least 500 to 600 Christians who suffer this social inequality. Christian youths have at least studied 10th grade, but most of them do not possess a caste certificate.”
The Supreme Court and the High Court of Ranchi have held that Tribal status shall continue even after conversion to Christianity. In a 2004 case, the Supreme Court ruled that a tribal person, even after converting to another religion, would not lose Scheduled Tribe status. In February, the Chhattisgarh High Court affirmed that the Tribal status shall continue even if the tribal person converts to Christianity.
In Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur District, tribal people in Mirtur village refused to allow burial of Ramvati Kadti’s deceased 17-year-old daughter unless Kadti renounced her Christian faith.
Anjali Kadti died in the emergency ward of a government hospital in Bijapur District on Nov. 25 after a month-long battle with malaria, sources said.
Active in her church, Anjali Kadti had helped her mother make ends meet after her father died, Pastor Jagdish Chapdi told Morning Star News.
“The villagers threatened Ramvati Kadti, saying that she is only a woman and that she cannot perform the last rites without the support of village council,” Pastor Chapdi told Morning Star News.
The village president imposed a condition that if she gave up her faith in Christ, he would send a male member of the community to dig the grave and plant an incense stick, and only then could she bury her daughter, he said.
“But she stood firm in faith and declined their offer,” the pastor said. “The villagers along with at least 200 Hindu extremist RSS [Rashtryia Swayamsevak Sangh] and Bajrang Dal activists did not let us bury the body for two days.”
Villagers on Nov. 27 gave an ultimatum, telling the family to decide between Christian or Adivasi rituals, and Kadti again refused, he said.
“We spent an entire day pleading with them to allow the burial,” Pastor Chapdi said.
Police declined to act knowing the village president would tolerate no interference, he said, but eventually Mirtur police officials told the council that it is a resident’s right to be buried within village limits, and that land must be granted before it became national news.
“They finally agreed and gave a small piece of land under a tree,” Pastor Chapdi said, but he added that in October the village council took up the matter of Christian revival meetings and Christmas celebrations.
“They said, ‘Go on and celebrate your newly found faith. Enjoy to your heart’s content, we will see what to be done when it is our time,’” he said. “They told us that our Adivasi ancestors worshipped the land, trees and nature, and that Jesus Christ is a new God and we are going with the current trend and following a foreign faith.
“They said, ‘Soon you will taste the bitter taste of leaving your ancestral faith. How will you marry and bury your dead? Without our permission, you cannot marry or even bury your dead. We will show our power then,” Pastor Chapdi said. “A month after, we fully realized what they meant. It appears that they are going to make things even more difficult for us in the future. We request prayers for the salvation of our tribal relatives.”
Likewise in Ulnar village of Bastar District, a mob of around 1,500 RSS and Bajrang Dal members and villagers opposed the burial of another young Christian, Suman Nag.
“I lost my son five years ago to snakebite, and now a teenage daughter,” said her father, Mohan Nag, adding that she succumbed to a severe illness in October. “On Oct. 27, the villagers and scores of Bajrang Dal activists protested that I cannot bury my daughter in the common graveyard in the village limits, and that I should go to a neighboring village and buy a piece of land to perform the last rites.”
The villagers told him that, beginning at that time, Christians who don’t contribute to village funds to celebrate Adivasi ritual and festivals would not be allowed to enter the common burial ground, he said.
“Police force was deployed in the village to control the mob, and the village council was under pressure to grant us access to the graveyard,” Nag said. “Only then were we able to perform the service in Christian way.”
In Kondagaon District, the Taraibeda village council is warning those who become Christians to stop meeting together or it will enlist police to file charges against them – as happened to a pastor who was falsely booked after being beaten unconscious.
After tribal animists under Hindu extremists’ influence on Easter of 2017 took pastor Sadhu Kashyap out of the house-church service he was leading, beat him, and left him nearly unconscious at the police station, officers charged him with causing annoyance in public places by singing or uttering obscenities, voluntarily causing hurt and criminal intimidation, ADF-India attorney Jhaali said.
When Pastor Kashyap reached Kathavan hamlet from Taraibeda village early on April 16, 2017, he was shocked to see the mob of hundreds gathered outside the house church, he said.
“I went inside, and we had decided to hold the worship service as it was Easter Sunday, and the believers were observing fast the previous three days,” Pastor Kashyap told Morning Star News. “Suddenly two persons barged inside the home church and asked me to come out, and that they wanted to talk to me. I reluctantly went to enquire what the matter was. They held my hands tight, caught me by the collar and took me onto the road.”
They took him to a secluded area about a kilometer away and began punching him, he said.
“Some of them kicked me with shoes and beat me up with sticks,” the pastor said. “I almost fell unconscious, and they boarded me on a vehicle and took me to the police station in Kondagaon. I remember that I was fainting, and they stopped at a hotel, sprinkled some water on my face and forcefully made me drink the water. Later I was handed to the police. My health was degrading, and I was soon fully unconscious.”
Police then filed the charges against Pastor Kashyap, who received hospital treatment the next morning. He and church members went to the police station to submit a complaint about the attack, but police refused to register an FIR against the assailants, he said.
Only on Nov. 21 did the chief metropolitan judicial magistrate of Kondagaon District acquit Pastor Kashyap of the charges, Jhaali said.
Christians make up 1.92 percent of total 25.5 million population, according to the 2011 census.
The state of Chhattisgarh was formed in 2000 out of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh’s anti-conversion law, known as the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act of 1968, remains in force in Chhattisgarh also. Hindu extremists frequently invoke it to falsely accuse Christians of forcible conversion.
“The anti-conversion laws are the main reason why worship services are held in homes in secret,” Jhaali told Morning Star News.
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 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 BJP came to power in 2014.