Conversion in C'garh: Aggressive BJP, silent Congress, insecure community
Forty-four-year-old Viju Phillip, like most other Christians in Raipur, has been fielding anxious calls all week.
On September 5, Phillip watched, on television, a group of men, predominantly of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), enter a police station in the heart of Chhattisgarh’s capital, and as mobile phone videos beamed the footage live, attack a pastor inside.
Ever since then, each day, Phillip has received and made the same phone call, asking the same question, with no readily available answers. “What is happening?”
“People call me in fear, panic and gloom. The community wants to know what happens from here. If a pastor can be beaten inside a police station, then anyone can be targeted anywhere,” says 44 year old Phillip, who works as a contractor in Raipur.
On Monday, the day after, the Chhattisgarh Police arrested two accused, both members of BJYM, for manhandling the pastor and two others. The station house officer (SHO) Yadumati Sidar and the superintendent of police (SP), Ajay Yadav were both removed.
Ostensibly then, action was taken. And yet, Chhattisgarh’s Christian community — which is 1.92% of the state’s population according to the 2011 census, the same as it was in terms of its proportion to the population in 2001 — is worried. For they see what happened on Sunday as indicative of a larger narrative of “conversion” that is playing out in the state, reigniting old fissures, and a political reaction, even from the ruling Congress, that is providing them no succour.
The immediate trigger
Last Sunday, Pastor Harish Sahu and a group of people had gathered in Bhatagaon, a locality in Raipur for prayer. They were accosted by a group of BJYM members who accused the group of attempting to convert people to Christianity.
As things became heated, calls were made to the Purani Basti police station. The SHO, Sidar, called Sahu to the police station, who arrived with the angry group led by BJYM members in tow. Outside the police station, the angry mob only grew.
“The right-wing leaders messaged several WhatsApp groups in Raipur, and asked us to reach the police station,” said a resident of Amilidih in the state capital, one of those that arrived after the call. In the drama that followed, as the assault took place inside and slogans were chanted outside, the situation only became more restive.
For Phillip, the problem wasn’t just the impunity of the attack, but the silence of the Congress after it. No Congress leader or spokesperson publicly condemned the attack.
The ruling party’s defence of this silence is political. “Proper action was taken by the government but if the Congress gives any statement, the BJP and others right-wing outfits will get a chance to attack us on conversion, which is not an issue in the state,” said a senior Congress leader, asking not to be named.
The politics around conversion
The incident is not isolated, Christian community leaders argue, but a continuation of a series of friction points that have been increasing in intensity over the past year, beginning with a group of Christian community representatives even meeting Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel on August 31. Five days later, the attack on the pastor took place.
On the same day as the representatives met Baghel, the Chhattisgarh BJP kicked off a three day long “Chintan Shivir” in Bastar to prepare a road map looking ahead to the 2023 assembly elections. At the end of the shivir, former Chief Minister Raman Singh made it clear that the issue of “conversion” would be a cornerstone of the BJP’s strategy. On August 2, Singh said, “Conversion is rampant in the state at the behest of the Congress government.”
For the BJP, concern about “conversion” is not new in Chhattisgarh. During their first tenure as government beginning 2003, the government passed the Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2006 which provides for a three-year jail term for people engaged in forced religious conversion and mandates anyone who wants to be convert to take permission from the district collector 30 days in advance.
Much of the politics of the BJP in the tribal areas of North Chhattisgarh, the tribal dominated tracts of Surguja, Balrampur, Jashpur and Ramanujganj, from the 1980z to the turn of the millennium was, driven by the issue of “ghar vapsi”, led by senior BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo, of the royal family of Jashpur. By 1993, the campaign began showing results, with the BJP winning the three tribal seats of Jashpur, Tapkara, and Bageecha.
Even before this, the royal house of Jashpur was instrumental in the setting up of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-backed Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in 1952, aimed at controlling conversions, which then got a permanent office in 1963, inaugurated by RSS Chief MS Golwalkar.
Is there a pattern of attacks?
Cut to the present and this narrative has only intensified over the last year, with Christian groups alleging that among the first triggers was a case in September 2020, in the Kondagaon district of Bastar, where a group of tribals allegedly attacked others who had converted to Christianity. Such clashes, with much the same modus operandi of clashes with Christians, during prayers, accusing them of conversion, have been reported from Chingavaram in Sukma district, Lakholi in Rajnandgaon district, and Daundilohara in Balod district; in Kabirdham and Raipur, pastors were attacked too.
Then, in July 2021, the Superintendent of Police in Bastar’s left-wing conflict hit Sukma issued a notice asking officials to “maintain strict surveillance” on the activities of Christian missionaries.
“The Christian missionaries and converted tribals residing in the district are reaching the interiors of the district and they are luring local tribals for conversion. Hence we cannot deny the possibility of conflict between converted tribals and locals. Keeping in mind this sensitive issue , the local officers should keep a close eye on Christian Missionaries and converted tribals and if they are found involved in any illegal activity , appropriate legal action should be taken and information should be passed senior police officials,” the letter dated July 12, issued by SP Sunil Sharma said.
Almost immediately after, on July 16, senior BJP leader Ramvichar Netam , wrote a letter to Union Home Minister Amit Shah and urged him to intervene into the matter. “The issue of conversion is not only in Sukma but across the state,” said Netam in his letter. The Congress response was not to oppose the issue on principle, but to argue that the Congress government has been providing funds to “Devgudis”, a temple like structure for tribal deities, to ensure “people do not visit churches,” and arguing that churches were built in Bastar during the 15 year Raman Singh led BJP rule.
“During 15 years of the BJP rule, 30 churches were constructed (in Sukma) while not a single one came up in the last two years. To ensure that conversions do not take place and people do not visit churches, the state government has been providing ₹5 lakh (each) to Devgudis and ₹10 lakh to Ghotuls in Bastar… We want our temples and Devgudis to be in good shape. In the last two years, no religious conversion has taken place,” Kawasi Lakhma, industries minister in the Baghel government and a five-time legislator from Sukma said.
Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel also waded into the debate, seeming to take issue with the “number of churches constructed in the BJP rule.” “Records show that maximum number of churches were constructed in BJP rule in Chhattisgarh. BJP is desperate to return to power hence they are raising the issue of conversion,” said Baghel in July, mentioning no figures.
Asked about the Congress pushing a “soft Hindutva” line, as activists in the state have alleged, Shailesh Nitin Trivedi, Congress state communication head said, “To be secular doesn’t mean the opposition of Hinduism.”
Former Chief Minister Raman Singh however called this a “false narrative”. “If the current CM is saying that more churches were erected in my 15-year old tenure, then why didn’t they raise this issue earlier?”
A shocked Christian Christian Forum in the state then issued a statement which said that the construction of churches was neither illegal nor unconstitutional. “Why should one political party be blaming the other on the number of churches that were constructed in whose rule? If BJP rule constructs more churches what’s the problem..? Parties should not allow religious matters to be converted into political issues,” the statement read.
“Cities have churches where we can assemble and pray but this is not true in the villages. People in small groups get together and pray and these prayer meetings are attacked, a ruckus is created in the name of conversion. Had there been a conversion at the scale that they allege, then all of Chhattisgarh would have become a Christian state,” said Father Sebastian, public relations officer ( PRO) of Archdiocese Raipur, one of the representatives of community who met CM Baghel on August 30.
An eye on 2023 polls
Political commentators said that the BJP was attempting to revive “conversion” as a political issue, and the Congress’s reticence is a “well thought out strategy”.
“The right wing wants to draw battle lines along the word ‘conversion’, which for others is a non-issue. If the Congress is giving the impression of fighting shy, it is perhaps the result of a well thought out strategy. Congress can and should only oppose or act against proselytism which, as of now, is not the issue. The BJP and its allies are trying hard to package and present peaceful propagation of religious views as “forcible” conversion. Congress so far has avoided the trap,” political commentator Parivesh Mishra said.
Prabal Pratap Singh Judeo, the son of Dilip Singh Judeo, who is both a BJP leader in North Chhattisgarh and the president of the Akhil Bharatiya Ghar Vapasi Abhiyan, said that the issue was set to dominate the next assembly election. “I get calls every day from people across complaining about the conversion. After Congress government came conversion has become a normal act in the tribal parts of Chhattisgarh. I can assure you that in upcoming election conversion will be one of the biggest issues,” he said.
TS Singhdeo, Health Minister, who has considerable influence in North Chhattisgarh, however said that this was part of the BJP’s strategy to “divide society.” “In other states, they do this with Muslims, but here that is not an issue, so they are shifting their lens to tribal areas. The BJP used this narrative when Ajit Jogi was chief minister and started saying that everyone will be converted. The strategy of BJP to play with the sentiments of voters where other things are failing will never succeed in Chhattisgarh,” Singhdeo said.