"Because we go to church, we were expelled from our own homes," said 17-year-old Mohanti Salami, a resident of Borawand village in Chhattisgarh's Narayanpur district.
Mohanti and members of nearly 14 families in Borawand were allegedly forced out of their homes by other villagers and asked "never to return" on Sunday, 18 December.
Unhappy with the families who converted to Christianity, the non-Christian residents of the tribal village reportedly held a meeting on Sunday. After the meeting, they began forcing the converted tribals to leave.
For weeks now, Narayanpur, which has a heavy Maoist presence, has witnessed brewing tension between villagers and those members of the tribe who allegedly converted to Christianity.
The tribals expelled from their homes walked to the district headquarters of Narayanpur to meet the district collector on Monday, 19 December. The administration then made arrangements for the families to stay at an indoor stadium in Narayanpur.
After 10 days, while some have returned to their villages, albeit amidst opposition, around 80 people are still forced to live in exile.
200 Tribal Christians Forced To Leave in December
But this isn't an isolated incident.
According to Arun Pannalal, the president of the Christian Community Forum in Chhattisgarh, around 200 tribal Christians from 14 villages have been forced out of their homes in December alone.
What's worse, according to him and other activists and community leaders, is the Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government's silence over such incidents.
"Christians are being attacked in broad daylight – and there is no action from the government. Around 200 people are lodged at Narayanpur district headquarters. They were forced to flee with their kids and families after they were threatened with murder. Persecution of minorities is at an all-time high in Chhattisgarh."Arun Pannalal
Pannalal added that even as the atrocities against Christians in Chhattisgarh have become more prevalent than ever, there has been no visible condemnation by the government.
"Last year, one of our pastors was attacked inside a police station in the state capital Raipur, and after that, many instances of atrocities against the Christians have been happening in Chhattisgarh. But the government is silent."Arun Pannalal
Bela Bhatiya, a Bastar-based lawyer and human rights activist, said:
"Tribals who have converted to Christianity have been targeted by their own villagers backed by right-wing groups over the last few years. They are being denied access to burial grounds, targeted for their faith – even humiliated and thrashed. But there is hardly any action from the government or the administration to put an end to this."
'Cops Didn't File FIR'
Lodged inside the indoor stadium, the tribal Christians have also submitted a memorandum to the Narayanpur district administration on Monday, 19 December, claiming that the police didn't even file a First Information Report (FIR), despite having received information on the alleged violence against them.
The memorandum – a compilation of around 50 different complaints from individual families – sought action against the villagers who expelled them, and demanded rehabilitation.
The Quint has a copy of the same. It notes, "Incidents of atrocities against the tribal Christians are on a rise, and we are not being allowed to cremate our dead... Our houses are being vandalised, our families are being ousted from the villages, and the police, despite having the knowledge of these incidents, are not taking any action against the culprits and are instead threatening the victim families."
Speaking to the media, Jitendra Kurre, the sub-divisional magistrate of Narayanpur, said:
"We have received a memorandum from the people and we are working towards fulfilling their demands and resolve their issues as soon as possible."
However, Hemsagar Sikdar, Additional Superintendent of Police in Narayanpur district, told The Quint on Thursday, 29 December, said that they have received multiple complaints from the villagers and have also lodged FIRs in the matter.
"We have received multiple complaints from villagers and have already started an investigation into these matters. Prima facie, most of the incidents happened because of disagreement amongst the villagers over their day-to-day life, which led to a fight. Then the argument got ugly. We are processing all the complaints by the villagers who were ousted and necessary action will be taken against anyone trying to disturb the peace in the area."Hemsagar Sikdar, Additional Superintendent of Police, Narayanpur
'Worried for Our Children'
Forty-year-old Ghasiyaram Salam and his family adopted the Christian faith around five years ago after his youngest daughter Saraswati fell ill. The family, however, is now on the run after being expelled from Borawand village.
Borawand village lies in the interiors of the Abujhmad area – and has a population of over 200 people.
In total, 14 families in Borawand converted to Christianity, and they were all expelled.
"When Saraswati fell ill, we knocked on every door to get her cured. We went to hospitals and worshiped our gods. But there was no relief. In the process, we also went to a church to pray. Saraswati didn't get well entirely, but she got relief after we started praying. My entire family started praying after that."Ghasiyaram Salam
People of Borawand village carrying their household items after their fellow villagers forced them out of their homes.
(Photo: Altered by Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)
Banished from their homes, tribal Christians say that they're worried about their children's future.
Photo altered by Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint
Ghasiyaram has three sons and three daughters, who were also forced to flee and now remain out of school and their homes.
Over the past few months, he and other converted tribal Christian families have been facing threats from the rest of the villagers, asking them to denounce their faith and revert to their old ways of life.
Why Are Tribal Villagers Angry?
Locals say that those who converted to Christianity have separated themselves from the tribal culture and do not participate in the village activities as they used to.
A villager, on the condition of anonymity, said that over the last few years tribal Christians have stopped participating in cultural events, tribal festivals, and even in weddings and other ceremonies.
"Those who converted to Christianity would no longer eat food with others or celebrate festivals with others. They even stopped attending local rituals, weddings, and funerals. So, the divide took an ugly turn."A villager on the condition of anonymity
Ghasiyaram, however, claimed that the other villagers started humiliating the tribal Christians a few months ago, and they were doing so due to "outside influence."
"A few months ago, the villagers started holding meetings, and we were initially asked to stop praying. After a few meetings, the requests became demands, and then demands became threats. Outsiders also come to the village and widened the divide. On 18 December, the villagers gathered up and asked us to leave the village and to never come back."
Tribal Christians allege that they have been leading the Christian way of life for years and have never had any problems with other villagers. However, a few Hindutva groups started visiting their villages recently, allegedly creating a divide between them and the tribal villagers who haven't adopted Christianity.
Congress Leader Condemns Attack, but Questions Conversions
Meanwhile, senior Congress tribal leader Arvind Netam, expressing concerns over the spike in attacks on tribal Christians, said: "It's a matter of worry and the government should look into it with utmost seriousness."
He, however, added that the incidents of conversion should also be probed.
"A conversion from one religion to another is okay if it happens of the person's own accord. But if it is happening in places like Abujhmad, where basic education and other necessities are a luxury, then the phenomenon should at least be probed. In the end, we also have to ensure that the tribal culture, traditions, and values remain as they are."Arvind Netam