Using the powers vested by the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), a gram sabha in Chhattisgarh's Bastar division allegedly passed a resolution, directing members of tribal communities to not work in fields owned by (tribal) Christians or (tribal) Hindus.
"Any tribal villager found working on a field belonging to a Christian will be penalised by the gram sabha with Rs 5,000."Resolution
In the same diktat, they prohibited Christians from cremating bodies within the village limits.
On Sunday, 12 March, members of Ransargipal village, under the Tokapal tehsil of Bastar district, held the gram sabha and passed the resolution claiming that there was an atmosphere of "disturbance" in the area.
The gram sabha resolution said that due to the propagation of different religions, especially Christianity and Hinduism, the area was in the grip of 'untouchability', 'difference of opinion', 'disturbance', and that the 'tribal culture is on the verge of end'.
Tensions over 'religious conversion' have escalated in Chhattisgarh's Bastar following the violence witnessed in Narayanpur district on 2 January 2023. A protest organised by a group of tribals, led by right-wing leaders, over alleged 'forced conversion' of tribals into Christianity had turned violent, leaving a church vandalised.
The mob's assault had come in the wake of hundreds of Adivasi Christians facing attacks – leading to their exodus – in several parts of Bastar.
Responding to the controversial diktat, Bastar District Collector Chandan Kumar said that action will be taken against those discriminating against others on the basis of religion, caste, or community.
He also said that there is 'vested interest' – and that some people are trying to 'disturb the fabric of the society'.
"Nobody has the right to organise a gram sabha and pass resolutions creating discrimination or division in the society. Villagers are misinterpreting PESA Act and the Chhattisgarh Panchayat Raj Act 1993 and their resolutions are creating a divide which is illegal."Chandan Kumar, Bastar Collector
PESA Being Used to Mislead Tribals: Fact-Finding Report
A fact-finding team comprising several civil societies and members, including Irfan Engineer, Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism; Ranchi-based journalist Ashok Verma; Brijendra Tiwari, Convener, the All India People's Forum, Chhattisgarh; and others visited the villages which had expelled the tribal Christians between 22 December and 24 December 2022.
The fact-finding team visited numerous relief camps and villages, and interacted with the victims, as well as the non-Christian Adivasis, including the village sarpanch and residents. The report stated:
"The perpetrators of violence are misled to be acting under the PESA, particularly Section 4(d), without following the due process of law."
Section 4(d) of PESA says that every gram sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources, and the customary mode of dispute resolution.
Around a week after the fact-finding team's visit, an anti-Christian mob led by members of right-wing groups vandalised the church in Narayanpur and injured policemen in the process.
Talking to The Quint, Ravindra Choubey, Minister of Panchayat and Rural Development, Chhattisgarh, said that such events are an attempt to disturb peace and harmony in Bastar.
"Whatever is happening now, and the incident which took place in Narayanpur before this, is sponsored and an attempt to disturb the religious peace in Bastar."Ravindra Choubey
He further added that "representatives of the gram sabha and the Panchayat Raj will be trained so that the villagers understand the intended meaning of PESA, and there's no scope of misinterpretation."
Community Leaders Say 'Not Totally Wrong'
Talking to The Quint, Manish Kunjam, a local Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and also a tribal, said there's context behind these resolutions.
"The resolutions that were passed concern the tribal culture and traditions. With many youngsters getting educated and interpreting laws with their understanding, it can't be said that they are totally wrong. The villagers decided to do this because they fear that their values and culture are in danger of getting forgotten, and hence, the decisions aren't totally wrong."Manish Kunjam
Kunjam further added that the practice of excluding people who don't follow the tribal rules/village rules is not new.
"In tribal communities and settlements, those who didn't follow the long-standing traditions and disobeyed the culture and gods were asked to leave the village. They would no longer be part of the village community and what you are witnessing now is in many ways similar to that practice amongst tribals."Manish Kunjam
Another tribal leader, who did not want to be named, said, "Our values are getting sidelined. Our people are walking away from age-old practices, and one day, our culture will be extinct. This could only be changed if the tribal community takes initiative, and so you are witnessing the events unfold, people using the law to save their culture."
However, Bela Bhatia, a Bastar-based lawyer and human rights activist, said that the 'discriminatory resolution' goes against the 'very intent and spirit of the PESA' that aims to protect and expand the rights of all Adivasis, not reduce them.
"This could be due to an erroneous understanding of the PESA Act since the government has not done enough to educate people regarding the powers, provisions, and rules of the Act. That has paved the way for a genuine misunderstanding. It could also be the result of manipulation by vested interests for political ends."Bela Bhatia