A member of a mob demolishing a Virgin Mary statue outside a church in Chhattisgarh state highlights growing intolerance against religious minorities in India. Photo: HindutvaWatch
The pristine white and blue statue of the Virgin Mary clasping her hands in prayer stood out brightly against the surrounding sand-coloured buildings. When a man smashed a wooden plank into it, the statue’s hands stayed in prayer as the statue broke into pieces. The man was with a mob wielding sticks and rods that arrived outside a church on Jan. 2 in the forested tribal belt of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. They went on a rampage and ransacked and vandalised religious statues. The mob then attacked anyone in their path, including a cop, who was left bleeding from the head.
The videos taken by witnesses and captured through CCTV in Narayanpur district went viral as the police registered complaints against 40 people and arrested 11. Two of those arrested are members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). One of them was spotted raising anti-Christian slogans in a rally weeks before the Virgin Mary statue was attacked.
Dharamraj Maravi, who was at the scene, told VICE World News that he was hit in the head and his sisters were harassed by the mob. “[The attackers] told us this is not our home anymore and that if we come back, they’ll attack us with a knife.”Gopal Maravi, another man present, said the mob asked, “Where’s your Jesus now?” while beating him. Dharamraj and Gopal are Christian tribal people from Chhattisgarh. As far-right Hindu nationalist sentiment rises in India, accelerating under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the country's religious minorities are subject to growing scrutiny and violence. Christians make up just 2.3 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion people, but central to the hate they face is fear mongering about the supposed prevalence of forced religious conversion, often spilling over into mob violence. A third of Indian states ban forced conversions, including Chhattisgarh, where Christianity intersects with persecuted indigenous tribal identities.
A press release by the Narayanpur police said that 2,000 non-Christian tribe members and two BJP leaders received permission to “peacefully” protest against alleged forced conversions in the area. Sadanand Kumar, the senior police official who got attacked, told local media “some [from the protest] chose violence and went to attack the church.”Just a day before, kilometres away in the same district, hundreds of non-Christian tribes attacked nearly a dozen Christian tribals, forcing them to flee their homes in Gorra village. Victims told the local media that they were attacked for following a “foreign religion.” The police described the attack as a “clash between two groups.” “These are not isolated incidents,” Arun Pannalal, who runs Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, told VICE World News. “We’ve been seeing these cases for years, but recent months have seen a drastic increase.” And the violence has been seen across India, in the south, west and east. Three weeks before the incident in Narayanpur, 1,300 kilometres west in Gujarat state, members of the extremist Hindu outfit Bajrang Dal beat up men dressed up as Santa Claus in the days leading up to Christmas, accusing them of forced conversions after they distributed free chocolates and Bibles. In June, a mob also barged into a Christian prayer meeting in Karnataka state, 1,300 kilometres south of Gujrat, and burnt their Bibles.
Most recently, footage of more anti-Christian violence in Karnataka has gone viral this week, showing a group being assaulted for distributing chocolates and Bibles last month. “How dare you distribute the Bible in our area? Do you want us to join [your faith]?” an attacker is heard saying. They then grabbed their Bibles and destroyed them.
Pannalal attributes this series of hate, which has proliferated among non-Christian tribes in recent months, to the work of Hindu extremists over the last 15 years. “I have been warning of an impending genocide in Chhattisgarh for the last 10 years or more,” Pannalal said, likening the situation to the 2008 mass-murder of Christians in Kandhamal district, Orissa state, a mere few hours drive away. Official data says 39 Christian tribes people were killed by Hindu mobs then, but unofficial data collected by fact-finding teams places the number at over 500 deaths. Hundreds of churches and thousands of Christian homes were also razed.Religious conversions are controversial in India, with the issue playing into far-right Hindu nationalist politics that view minority groups as a threat to a religiously pure nation.
Christian converts are mostly Dalits, the “untouchables” from the lowest strata of India’s ancient caste system, or from indigenous tribes—both of whom convert to escape economic and societal disenfranchisement. India’s constitution provides special protection and benefits to indigenous tribes and Dalits, but they’re still among the most underdeveloped communities in the country. Those benefits no longer apply to them once converted to other religions, but Christian missionaries and churches provide their own support—especially in remote tribal pockets—in the form of education, food and a sense of community. Consequently, Indian Christians face abuse in the form of slurs such as “rice bag converts.” “Social issues such as untouchability, caste supremacy, inequality and lack of sense of community are the reasons why tribals are leaving their belief system,” Pannalal said. “And this outflow is challenging the power and authority of other religious heads because tribal communities are headstrong and don’t leave their faith easily. This explains the conflict and confrontation on ground level.”
In Chhattisgarh, Christian missionary activities and communities are closely surveilled by Hindu vigilantes and authorities. In 2021, police in the region ordered officers to monitor churches, missionaries and Christian tribals, accusing them of “influencing [other] local tribals by luring them with perks to make them accept Christianity.”
The BJP and its officials are accused of enabling far-right hate by maintaining silence on such events. But in Chhattisgarh, where the ruling party is the Indian National Congress, the biggest opposition party that often accuses the BJP of spreading anti-minority hate, there have been at least 380 anti-Christian attacks in the last four years. By comparison, Pannalal’s Chhattisgarh Christian Forum documented just 18 anti-Christian attacks while the BJP was in power from 2003 to 2018. Early last year, a pastor was stabbed to death in the state by Hindu vigilantes.Christians make up 31.8 percent of Chhattisgarh's 29 million-strong population, and the state has the second-highest number of anti-Christian crimes in India. Data collated by the United Christian Forum documented nearly 500 anti-Christian hate crimes in 2021 across India—a 70 percent jump since 2020.With a growing hysteria surrounding religious recruitment, Hindus are responding to this perceived threat posed by minority groups by conducting their own conversions.
In 2021, local news outlets reported a “ghar wapasi,” Hindi for “homecoming”, campaign in a Chhattisgarh village where Christian tribals were shaved and forced to “convert” by local Hindus. Conversion to Hinduism is described by Hindu nationalists as a “homecoming,” implying that religious minorities were originally Hindus. That’s not true for indigenous tribes, who don’t traditionally identify with any religion.
Early this month, an independent fact-finding team investigated anti-Christian attacks in Chhattisgarh between Dec. 9 and 18, which displaced 1,000 Christian tribes people. They found that the violence was preceded by an “organised campaign” conducted by non-Christian tribes people and led by local Hindu leaders to forcibly convert Christians to Hinduism. The slogan of the campaign is “Roko, Toko, Thoko” (“Stop Them, Interrupt Them, Hit Them.”)The report also detailed incidents of assault and beatings with sticks and rods, resulting in dozens of tribal Christians being hospitalised.
“Those displaced were told to give up their Christian faith and convert to Hindu religion, failing which they were threatened [to leave] their village or face dire consequences, including death,” the report said. Sammi Bai Mandavi, a widow and mother to three children, recalled one such meeting at her village in Chhattisgarh’s Sadadi village, where villagers threatened her with violence if she didn’t convert to Hinduism.“When we refused, they told us to leave our homes and never come back, or they’d kill us,” Mandavi told VICE World News. “We had been living in complete squalor before Jesus Christ had saved us. Why would we leave him?”The villagers attacked her with pipes, after which she ran off to a relief camp and hasn’t gone back since. Pannalal said her attackers have issued another warning, saying they’ll come back. “They said we should be prepared for similar violence in the coming days.”Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.