"We were thrashed like dogs, neither the BJP nor the Congress came to our rescue. This time we will vote for those who stood by us and those who will save us from religious persecution".
These are the words of 57-year-old Budni Korram, a resident of Remawand village in Narayanpur district. Last year, this area became the epicentre for attacks on tribals who had converted to Christianity.
'Conversion' has become a major issue in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region ahead of the 2023 Assembly elections. Elections will take place in two phases - on 7 and 17 November.
Bastar – a Maoist-affected zone – is witnessing tensions between those following the animist faith of their ancestors and those who have recently adopted Christian beliefs.
Due to the tensions, ruling party candidates are fearing a potential loss in the votes in at least 4 other constituencies Antahgarh, Keshakal, Kondagaon and Chitrakot, bordering Narayanpur.
For the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, the issue has come as an opportunity to overcome its deficit in Bastar, where Congress had swept all 12 constituencies last time.
Budni was returning from a public meeting of the CPI candidate from Narayanpur, Phool Singh Kachlami when she commented that ‘she would not vote for Congress’. What are her reasons?
She said that the ruling Congress government left tribal Christians helpless at the time when hundreds of her community members were being attacked across Bastar over their faith.
"It's been over 20 years since I converted to Christianity. There were some heated debates in the initial days of my conversion, but we were never thrashed for visiting churches. But this time the villagers were out for blood. They had been provoked, they were being fed false narratives and were tricked into attacking us. But the government did nothing. They didn't come to our rescue"Budni recounted.
Bastar saw a sudden spike in attacks on tribal Christians and their properties. In some cases, they were even denied permission to bury their dead in their village. Some were even driven out of villages.
A Congress leader in the state capital Raipur said that the party doesn't want to upset the majority section among tribals.
"No party will risk their majority votes for a few minority votes and Congress won't do it either. We are sympathetic to all the groups but we won't upset the members of the majority community for a few votes,"Congress leader in Chhattisgarh.
Though Hindutva outfits also have a history of trying to 'Hinduise' animist tribals, in this case their approach has been to not challenge tribal beliefs but rather stoke the tensions between Christian and non-Christian tribals. Many of these outfits also push the argument that Hinduism is more compatible with tribal animist beliefs than Christianity.
What Brought the Conversion Issue to the Fore in Bastar?
The conflict between tribals following animism and those who embraced Christianity had been common in Northern Chhattisgarh but it came as a shock in Bastar, where the first church was built over 130 years ago in Jagdalpur.
A controversy broke out following an official directive issued by Sukma SP Sunil Sharma on July 12, 2022, ordering all police stations to monitor Christian missionaries and recent converts to prevent 'forced religious conversions'.
This directive may have set off a chain reaction that ultimately led to the violent incidents in Narayanpur in January 2023.
In the subsequent months, Narayanpur, an area marked by a significant Maoist presence, witnessed escalating tensions between villagers and tribal members who had reportedly converted to Christianity.
The displaced Christian tribals, driven away from their homes, embarked on a journey to the district headquarters of Narayanpur, where they met with the district collector on Monday, 19 December. The local administration subsequently arranged accommodations for these families in an indoor stadium in Narayanpur.
Another major event took place in December 2022 in Gorra village, around 15 kilometres from the district headquarters.
Over the last decade, more than one-third of the total around 200 residents of Gorra converted to Christianity, which created a divide in the Gond tribal dominated village.
Upset over the changes in the social demographics of the village, the native tribes held a meeting on 31 December 2022 to ask the converts to return to their fold and follow their customary traditions.
However, the tribal Christians refused following which there was a minor scuffle between the two groups in Gorra.
Two days later on 2 January 2023, the right-wing groups including the BJP organised a protest rally in Narayanpur district headquarters where thousands of non-Christian tribes from Narayanpur, Kondagaon, Antagarh, and Keshkal assembly constituencies took part .
The rally was attended by the BJP district unit and local leaders. The gathering went berserk when a section of the crowd attacked the then SP Sadanand Kumar, vandalised a church and unleashed mayhem on the streets of Narayanpur.
The police arrested over 100 people on charges of rioting. However, both tribal Christians and the non-converted tribes feel that they were betrayed by the government.
Why Do Both Groups Feel Aggrieved Over Congress Government's Actions?
Similar incidents unfolded in the neighbouring districts such as Kondagaon, Kanker, Bijapur, and Sukma, placing the state government in a difficult position. Both groups claim that they were hurt by the government's approach.
64-year-old Amlu Dugga is shouting "Alag Alag ho Jaoge…" to the people assembled at the Devgudi (temple place) of Edka village in Narayanpur.
64-year-old Amlu Dugga urged the community members assembled at the devgudi (temple place) of the Edka village, merely 4-5 kilometres from Gorra village to vote for the BJP as they claim to be supporting the drive against conversion in Bastar.
Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari
Members of majority non convert tribals assembled at the Edka devgudi (temple place) opined that the community should vote for the candidate supporting their protest against tribal Christians.
Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint.
Dugga is referring to the alleged divide within the tribals over conversion and said "This time someone is fighting for us, for the culture and traditions of tribals. We must understand this and vote for them".
By someone, Dugga means the BJP which has fielded former minister Kedar Kashyap who is believed to have played a major role in unifying the non-convert tribals against Christian conversions in the area.
26-year-old Santlal Kumeti from Edka village also voiced his support to the BJP leader Kedar Kashyap who was defeated by Congress' Chandan Kashyap by a margin of around 2500 votes.
"This government didn't reach out to us, didn't support us in our effort to restore tribal customs and traditions. Instead they sided with the Christians, why would we vote for someone who is supporting the divide within the tribal community?"Santlal Kumeti.
While the two big parties battle it out, political equations in Bastar division have become even more interesting with the fielding of tribal convert Christians in 8/12 assembly constituencies by the Sarv Adi Dal. The Dal is a congregation of tribals who have converted to Christianity in Bastar.
The move is being seen as a major challenge to the incumbent Congress which had traditionally enjoyed the support of tribal Christians.
The situation has been made even more complicated by the Sarv Adivasi Samaj fielding candidates in 7/12 seats.
Why BJP Could Gain
The spillover of the conversion issue effect is visible in at least four other constituencies bordering Narayanpur, namely, Antahgarh, Kondagaon and Keshkal and Chitrakot.
Kondagaon, which has been represented by the Congress' former state president Mohan Markam since 2013, is also gearing up for a tough fight. In 2013, Markam defeated BJP's Lata Usendi by a margin of around 5,000 votes while this margin dropped to 1700 votes in the 2018 elections, despite strong anti-incumbency against the BJP government.
27-year-old Kiran Markam who was waiting for her brother at the bus stand said that she is unclear as to which candidate she will vote for but claimed that the locals are unhappy over the ambiguous stand of their MLA Markam and also due to other local issues like water scarcity.
"When all this fight erupted between our people and those who have converted to Christianity, Mohan Markam didn't make it clear which side he was on. Now he has angered people from both sides of the divide. We expect our leaders to have a clear stand and side with the truth. He should have stood with us and not with those who are trying to break apart the tribal way of life,"Kiran, Kondagaon resident
Former state president Mohan Markam told media that although the BJP is trying to make conversion a major issue, it will not have much impact.
"We have worked hard on development and have fulfilled all our promises from the 2018 manifesto. We will again waive off farmers' loans and we will form the government".Former state Congress president Mohan Markam
A local pastor requesting anonymity, however, said that the Christian community may vote for the Christian candidate and not Markam as they would feel safer if they had representation from within their community.
"The Congress government hasn't clarified its stand and the community feels threatened. Markam did nothing when people from my community were being thrown out of their villages. We want someone to be able to raise our voice and hence we will vote for our own candidate in the elections,"the pastor said
The Narayanpur seat might be the most difficult seat for the incumbent Congress since it became the epicenter of the conversion row in Bastar.
The competition is very tough for incumbent Congress MLA Chandan Kashyap because of two factors.
First, tribal Christians who were ousted from their villages claim that the Congress and local MLA didn't help them. Second, those who didn't convert, also claim that the Congress didn't side with them.
BJP is banking on its attempts to drive the narrative among the majority of non-Christian tribes that the Congress is against them and with those who converted while the Congress is trying to steer clear of the issue as much as possible.
42-year-old Budhram Wadde of Taropal village said, "The Congress government helped the Christians and not those who are trying to keep the community together. We will vote for the BJP because they are fighting our fight," Budhram.
There are a little under 1.8 lakh voters in Narayanpur assembly seat Congress has been strong in the Narayanpur block area while the rural Bhanpuri and Mardapal areas tilt towards the BJP.
Budni and other villagers from her village were keen on withdrawing their support from the Congress.
42-year-old Sonari Salam, mother of five girls and a voter in Narayanpur district almost broke down while recounting the horrors her family faced during the anti-Christian drive a few months back.
"We all faced a very difficult time, no one came to our rescue. I was terrified for my daughters and my house. We were thrashed, we were forced to leave our homes and could only return under supervision of the police. But the situation has not improved in our village. We have been ostracised, no one talks to us and things are still tense".Sonari Salam
In the Chitrakot assembly seat, which has a little over 1.68 lakh voters, the residents in the areas bordering Narayanpur expressed strong discontent against the Congress government.
Congress has fielded its current state president and sitting MP Deepak Baij in place of sitting MLA Rajman Benajam against BJP's first team contestant Vinayak Goel.
In the local Bazar of Mardum in Chitrakot assembly constituency, the villagers expressed anger against the party president.
37-year-old Kusum Mandavi, closing up her shop of bangles at the Mardum bazar in Chitrakot, was angry at Baij. She alleged that despite completing two postgraduate degrees in Sanskrit and Psychology, she doesn't have a job and is forced to sell bangles.
"I have completed two MA degrees and yet here I am at the Bazar selling bangles. This is what our MP Deepak Baij has done for us".Kusum, Chitrakot resident.
A local Congress leader said that they are trying to make amends with the tribal community.
"We are trying to mediate with all the stakeholders. Deepak Baij himself is in conversation with all the people. The BJP is also working hard and the party is also united since they have given tickets to a new face, but we are confident that we will win with a good margin,"Local Congress leader
Chhattisgarh's Bastar is looking at close fight between the BJP and the Congress, while the other parties including the Sarv Adivasi Samaj, the CPI and the tribal Christians fielded by Sarv Adi Samaj, may make it difficult for the Congress to repeat the 2018 sweep.