Religious polarisation has been a major arrow in the BJP’s arsenal going into any elections, they say. But what explains the Congress government's silence in Chhattisgarh, the landlocked state in central India slated to go for Assembly elections later this year?
In this article, we explore three big takeaways from the recent spate of violence:
Reasons for the Congress' silence
The BJP's mission in Chhattisgarh ahead of the 2023 Assembly polls
Political ramifications of religious polarisation in Bastar
1. Congress Can't Afford To Take Action Against Tribals
The violence, which erupted on 2 January in Narayanpur, doesn't seem to have been spontaneous.
Sources – both political and in the police – told The Quint that several cases of scuffle between the tribals and tribal Christians in Bastar, especially in Narayanpur and Kondagaon districts, were being reported from October 2022.
The administration, however, had been underplaying these incidents. The instances of violence, boycott, and expulsion of tribal Christians, which were neglected as small skirmishes, were, in fact, a brewing recipe for a bigger flare-up.
Political experts believe that the ruling Congress didn't want to put itself in a vulnerable position by taking action against the tribals, and hence, allowed them some leeway.
"Back in October 2022, when cases of conflict between tribals and tribal Christians started coming to light, they were brushed aside and downplayed by the ruling government. Trying not to get caught in the crossfire, the government tried to sort it out socially, but it backfired."Senior journalist in Chhattisgarh
Another senior journalist Sunil Kumar, however, opined that the government "chose not to act harshly" on any section of tribal society.
"In Bastar, both the sections involved in the tussle are tribals. Tribals are opposing tribals who (according to them) no longer live as per the tribal customs – and that's an organic conflict. Although the government treated the issue with kid gloves, acting with force would have resulted in casualties, and thus, would have created further unrest in the area."Sunil Kumar, senior journalist
In the meantime, Congress spokesperson in Chhattisgarh, RP Singh, accused the BJP of inciting violence and unrest in the area for "political gains."
"It's clear that the BJP is behind these instances of violence. Their leaders led the attack and injured the Narayanpur Superintendent of Police. This is the modus operandi of the BJP – to divide communities for their vote bank. However, our party's government will not tolerate this – and all legal actions are being taken against the culprits."RP Singh
However, Arun Pannalal, president of the Christian Forum of Chhattisgarh, alleged that the government has not taken the matter seriously – and claimed that the state was witnessing a 'jungle raj'.
"For the last three months, the atrocities against Christians have increased. Cases of violence are being reported... but neither the chief minister nor anyone in the Cabinet or the police took the issue seriously. The state is now officially under 'jungle raj'."Arun Pannalal
2. BJP's Mission Successful!
The Sangh Parivar's push for Hindutva in tribal areas isn't new – and there was no way that Chhattisgarh would have been left out. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has been working in Chhattisgarh since several decades.
A right-wing group called Janjatiya Gaurav Samaj under the leadership of Bhojram Nag, former MLA of Antagarh, initiated a drive against Christian missionaries in Bastar in 2012.
As per local sources, both Roop Sai Salam and Narayan Markam – accused of leading the recent anti-Christian rally which turned violent – were members of this organisation.
After losing to the Congress in the 2018 Assembly elections, the BJP's Chhattisgarh unit took up conversion politics, a political expert told The Quint.
In the first part of this experiment, it raked up the issue of delisting converted tribals and held multiple rallies and public meetings to garner support for their agenda from Jashpur district in Northern Chhattisgarh. Jashpur has a sizeable population of Christians (22 percent, as per the 2011 census).
It demanded that those tribals who had converted to Christianity and had allegedly 'left the tribal ways of life', not be treated as tribals – and their Scheduled Tribe status be rescinded.
But Jashpur came as a failure for the BJP as it could not mobilise and further weaponise the tribal sentiments against those who follow Christianity.
Soon after realising its failure, the BJP's focus shifted towards southern Chhattisgarh – Bastar.
The decades-old machinery was refueled, old guards like Roop Sai Salam and Naryan Markam were called in and the anti-missionary drive was set in motion.
One of the prominent members of this machinery, Roop Sai Salam, was promoted to the post of BJP district president of Narayanpur and his partners like Narayan Markam, senior leaders like Bhojram Nag and Kedar Kashyap re-initiated the anti-Christian missionary movement in Narayanpur.
Speaking to The Quint, BJP spokesperson Ajay Chandrakar accused the Congress of supporting Christian missionaries' conversion efforts and said that their party members have been "jailed for organising a protest".
The activities of Christian missionaries have intensified in Bastar ever since the Congress government came to power. Christian missionaries even attacked the police. Instead of taking action against them, they arrested BJP leader Roop Sai Salam for organising a protest. He didn't pick up any weapons or use them. Bastar will burn in the fire of conversion, if the Congress takes the side of missionaries. They should rectify it.Ajay Chandrakar.
Earlier on 3 January, a day after the violence in Narayanpur, former BJP MLA Kedar Kashyap had accused Christian missionaries of carrying out violence in Bastar.
"It's all the work of Christian missionaries, our tribal brothers and sisters are being beaten by them. They are creating a ruckus, and the Congress government is protecting them... They are trying to capture our Bastar by any means."Kedar Kashyap
Speaking to The Quint, political commentator Parivesh Mishra said that the BJP's intention to create a division and strengthen their vote bank is the only reason behind the violence in Narayanpur.
"The BJP tried a lot to create the same division in northern Chhattisgarh but they couldn't succeed. However, when they shifted their focus to Bastar, their efforts bore fruits, and they were able to create a divide within the tribal community."Parivesh Mishra
3. Communal Polarisation in Bastar Could Pave the Way for Fresh Violence
Experts believe that the rising instances of communal violence and conflict within the tribal community could pave the way for further violence in an already violence-prone area.
Caught in the midst of a Maoist-security force battle, tribals would now be vulnerable to violence in the name of religion.
Speaking to The Quint, a senior journalist, who did not wish to be named, said:
"The way the government is handling the instances of violence in Bastar, it is creating space for this new kind of violence to cement its space. Tension in the name of religion would not only hamper law and order, it would also create a divide within the community and result in the loss of rich heritage and tribal culture."