Mar 2024


The state of Chhattisgarh was carved out of the central state of Madhya Pradesh in 2000. The demand for a separate state was expressed as early as 1955 and grew significantly in the 1990s. The region is home to some of the country’s largest reserves in minerals. Although Chhattisgarh is only 4% of the total area of India, the state contributes significantly to coal, iron ore, dolomite and tin ore mining[1]. The northern part of Chhattisgarh that shares a border with Jharkhand has a large population of Oraon Adivasis, many of whom have converted to Christianity. The middle part of Chhattisgarh is dominated by Hindu lower castes known as Other Backward Castes (OBCs). It should be noted that the current Chief Minister, Bhupesh Baghel of the Indian National Congress (INC) belongs to the OBC and hails from Chhattisgarh. The southern part of Chhattisgarh shares a border with Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, as well as Odisha. The Adivasis here are mixed, with dominant Adivasi groups being Gond, Muria, Korwa, Maria, Dhurwa, and Kol. Each of these have subgroups such as Pahari Korwas who live in more remote areas and more nomadic compared to the Korwas. The northern and southern part of the states are home to some large coal and iron ore mines. Both public and private mining infrastructure has resulted in large scale expropriation and exploitation of Adivasis and has triggered violence against Adivasis by the State forces who favour the mining companies. Both BJP and Congress have failed to stem large scale mining of coal, iron ore and other minerals. Discoveries of Uranium and other minerals in the state will likely see an intensification and continued exploitation of Adivasis in the name of modernity and development. This state is part of the Chottanagpur area that has seen historical violence against Adivasis and also witnessed Adivasi rebellions against outsiders[2] (from the 17th century onwards) – be it British colonisers or Hindu caste groups who are seen by some Adivasis as internal colonisers[3].

According to the 2011 census data, Chhattisgarh has approximately 47 per cent of OBC, 13 percent Dalit (Scheduled Caste), and 31% of Adivasis (Scheduled Tribe), which together comprise of 90% of the state’s population[4]. Electorally the state has 90 Assembly Seats of which 29 seats are reserved for Adivasis and 10 seats are reserved for Dalits. The state’s first Chief Minister Ajit Jogi was an Adivasi, and the current Chief Minister is an OBC, but the Chief Minister from 2003-2018 (serving three terms) was Dr. Raman Singh of the BJP who is an upper caste (Rajput, a warrior caste) politician. Even today, across parties, the Adivasi politicians are denied the top post. Instead, Adivasis are seen as a vote bloc, and Adivasi leaders are used by parties to ensure that this vote block is loyal to their party.

Some of the earliest missionary activity in the region can be traced back to the missionaries of St. Francis de Sales (MSFS) in the 1830s and 1840s leading to the formation of the Raipur Diocese in the 1970s. The German Evangelical Mission Society (GEMS) through Oscar Lohr played an important part in spreading Christianity in the state and was later joined by missionaries in the early 20th century – American and General Conference Mennonites, Disciples of Christ, Methodists, Pentecostals, and others[5]. The colonial regime of the East India Company and subsequently the British government recognised that the freedom to convert to a religion outside Hinduism meant an escape from caste oppression as well as a means to establish a new social identity rooted in self-pride and dignity. This recognition led to the Caste Disabilities Removal Act in 1850[6] – basically preventing punishment of those who convert their religion. However, upper castes have resented this resistance and fought back through legislation. In 1936, the Raigarh princely state brought into force the Raigarh State Conversion Act, followed by the Surguja State Apostasy Act in 1945. The Central Provinces and Berar Act of 1947 required any conversion to be validated in front of a District Magistrate – a clause later deleted with strong opposition from Christians. The first ‘anti-conversion’ law to be passed was the Madhya Pradesh Act in 1967 penalizing conversion by ‘force, fraud or allurement’[7].  Culturally too, right wing nationalist organisations have opposed conversion by advocating for the Ghar Wapsi (or homecoming) to Hinduism[8]. For example, the popular BJP leader Daleep Singh Judeo has organised hundreds of Ghar Wapsi ceremonies where Judeo used to wash the feet of Christian Adivasis and announce that hundreds of them have reconverted back to Hinduism[9]. Even though in practice none of them reconverted officially on paper, such ceremonies help build a cultural discourse of religious reclamation that now features centrally in the political discourse of contemporary right-wing politics. In August 2006, the then BJP controlled government passed an anti-conversion bill providing for three-year jail term and a fine of Rs. 20,000 (approximately 240 USD) for those indulging in religious conversion by force or allurement[10].

The last Assembly elections were held in 2018 where the INC (popularly known just as Congress) defeated the BJP comprehensively, winning 68 seats and 43% of the vote share while BJP could only win 15 seats and 33% of vote share. The Congress nominated a backward caste (officially belonging to the Other Backward Classes or OBC) leader, Bhupesh Baghel as the Chief Ministerial candidate who has consolidated his popularity amongst OBCs across the state while simultaneously spending huge amounts of money on publicity to promote a Chhattisgarhi identity. In celebrating the latter, Baghel hopes to beat the BJP drawing away Hindus from them[11]. However, for the Christian community, the victory of the Congress has meant that BJP has increased its efforts to divide the Adivasis through engineering a social split between Christian and non-Christian Adivasis. While Christian Adivasis differ in terms of which church they go to and which denomination they are affiliated to, non-Christian Adivasis differ in terms of their ethno-linguistic identity. Murias, Gonds, Oraon are some large and well-known ethno-linguistic identities that are spread across multiple states in Central India. Adivasi in that sense is an umbrella term for an internally heterogenous group. Social engineering has resulted in greater persecution and violence against Christians since 2018 and is expected to continue well into 2023 when the next Assembly elections are to be held. The following incident illustrates these underlying dynamics clearly.

Seetapur (name changed) is a small village is in Kondagaon district of Chhattisgarh, with about 300 people or approximately 50 to 60 households. This case study reflects the decades-long persecution which Christians have experienced. 9th of August 2022 was celebrated by both Christian and non-Christian Adivasis as Adivasi Day but the Christians were not allowed to be a part of these celebrations because some people calling themselves the representatives of Gondwana Samaj (the society of Gond Adivasis) confronted them with several accusations that Christians were leaving the traditional rituals of Adivasis. They insisted that Christians have to publicly declare that they are no longer Adivasis but now are Christians. The Christians were told that if they want to be accepted as Adivasis, they had to stop going for prayers to the local church and instead join the Samaj, believing in what the Samaj believed. The Samaj worships a local deity called Buda Dev (there are approximately 15-20 festivals held in the area to worship him in the area). Every year, the Christian Adivasis in a spirit of cooperation and communal harmony gathered funds, Rs. 100/- (nearly 1.30 USD) from each family that was then collected and donated to the Samaj as their contribution for Buda Dev festivals. However, the Samaj is not happy with this amount, they are now asking that each Christian family ‘donate’ at least Rs.1000/- (13 USD) which is clearly impossible given the poverty in the region. The Christians in Seetapur village are all Muria Adivasis and resent being clubbed as Gond Adivasis that is represented through the Gondwana Samaj. Clearly, the category of ‘Adivasi’ is a heterogenous one where Gonds are trying to homogenise through the institutionalisation of the Gondwana Samaj. Interestingly the leader of the Gondwana Samaj had converted to Christianity himself in the past (as recently as a year ago) but has since gone back to the fold after being offered a leadership position (through the influence of BJP and RSS leaders) and is now playing a leading role in persecuting Christians.

This is not a new problem. In 2013, six families were locked out of their houses, their belongings were thrown out and these families had to live under a tree for weeks until they could re-gain access to their homes. In 2017, a believer B. Markam’s shop was forcibly shut down and burnt. Attacks like these must be seen in the context of an increase of anti-Christian sentiment with the BJP led Parliament passing the Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion Act in 2006 (commonly known as the anti-conversion law) that could imprison converts or those who are alleged to have facilitated conversion to three years imprisonment along with fines. In another village not further than 10 kilometres from this village, a church was destroyed in 2022 after rumours were spread that it was an illegal church built without the required permissions. Also in 2022, a Christian believer in a nearby village was publicly identified and socially boycotted (no one in the village would help him or work with or for him) in addition to the local government imposing a fine of Rs. 5000 on him. The Superintendent of Police and the local revenue officer intervened and prevented further persecution.

The Christians of Seetapur said that even on their own land, they are not able to bury their dead since the BJP and other right wing nationalist leaders and the Samaj leaders claim that these lands are ‘Adivasi’ land, not meant for burying Christians. On 25th September 2022, a Christian woman, Geeta (name changed) from Seetapur village (name changed) died of illness at a nearby hospital but was not allowed burial. The Gram Panchayat of this village (local government) headed by a leader of the Gondwana Samaj and supported by the RSS, held a Gram Sabha (public meeting) declaring that Christians will not be allowed to bury their dead, even in their own land. Instead, they demanded a written statement from the Christians that they will not bury their dead anywhere in the village, but rather only in the Christian cemetery in Kondagaon (roughly 30 to 40 kilometers from the village). The husband of L brought her body to the village for burial on the midnight of 25th September but the president and vice president of the local Panchayat quickly assembled a mob of about 2000 people in half an hour. This mob prevented the family from burying L. This mob had assembled from villages of 14 Panchayats (village governments) surrounding Kondagaon, indicating some amount of preparation and mobilisation had taken place quickly.

The village has a Pentecostal church and L used to attend this church. The pastor of this church was also present when the mob arrived at the village. Some people of the mob surrounded the pastor and started threatening him. Facing intense pressure, the pastor promised to only visit the church and stop home visits in the future. However, the mob forced him to write a letter declaring he will stop coming to the village for any purpose, that the church in that village was illegal. He was told that if he does not write and sign the letter immediately, he would be beaten up severely. Remarkably, all this happened in front of the police – the station-in-charge officers were present from a couple of nearby police stations. The revenue officer came later with a few other officials. The Christians finally agreed to bury her in Kondagaon in the Christian cemetery and there too the mob made an objection that since she was an Adivasi, she should be buried in the traditional not the Christian way. The Pastor and his wife still haven’t gone back to Seetapur, they are scared for their safety and life. The couple has received multiple threats to their lives before, without any support from the local administration and police. While their faith remains unshaken, a certain level of resignation seems to have crept in. They said that they are not sure for how long they can continue doing the work of Christ, but as long as they have even one avenue open, they will not stop.

Upon speaking to the Christians in this village, they said that they are facing harassment from both RSS sympathisers as well as people affiliated to the Samaj. These two groups have differences between themselves. The Samaj does not necessarily identify as Hindu, but for the moment, both groups have made the Christians a common enemy. It is a case of the constructed pure Adivasi identity coming into conflict with a religious Christian identity, even though the latter also identify as Adivasis. Let us take two recent instances where these differences play out leading to conflict and violence.

The first instance is the continued demand for better implementation of the Panchayat Extension Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) 1996 by many Adivasi groups and leaders. The Act is a progressive that constitutionally provides Adivasi inhabited areas with a framework for participatory and bottom-up vision of governance[12]. In these areas, the village governments or Panchayats are reserved for Adivasis, and the resolutions passed by the Panchayats are safeguarded by the PESA legislation. The Gondwana Samaj has invoked the PESA as grounds to block Christians from burying their families. The Christians who spoke for this case study were vocal about clarifying that PESA is not about total autonomy for a sub-group of Adivasis to claim whatever they wanted. PESA should not clash with the constitutional and fundamental right to practice one’s religion. The second instance is a current controversy around reservations in government jobs that is creating ripples in Chhattisgarh. Around the time researchers visited Kondagaon for this case study, there was a huge rally organised by the Samaj and other Adivasi groups to protest a recent judgment of the Bilaspur High Court (the highest court of Chhattisgarh). In 2012, the then BJP government had changed the reservations policy by slashing the Scheduled Caste reservation from 16% to 12% (slash of 4%), hiking the Scheduled Tribe reservation from 20% to 32% (hike of 12%) and keeping the OBC reservation unchanged at 14%. Together, the total reservation came to 58%[13]. After the Congress came to power in 2018, the government announced in 2019 that it would increase reservations in jobs for SCs and OBCs (since they were not represented in proportion to their population). The reservation for OBCs was increased from 14% to 27% (hike of 13%), SCs was increased from 12% to 13% (hike of 1%) and reservation for STs was kept unchanged at 32%. This made the total reservation of jobs at 73%, even higher than the 2012 policy[14]. In September 2022, the Bilaspur High Court struck down this policy and reduced reservations for Scheduled Tribes (STs) from 32% to 20%, the level of reservations available to Adivasis pre-2012. Since September 2022, in the aftermath of the High Court judgment, Adivasis have been agitating for increase in reservations up to 32% given that their population in the state is close to 32%. Adivasi Christians have been caught in the cross-fire. The leaders of the Samaj and the popular perception amongst non-Christian Adivasis is that by converting, Adivasis are reducing their own demographic strength, since in their view, once an Adivasi converts from Scheduled Tribe to being a Christian, they become a religious minority member, eligible for a minority certificate not a ST certificate. This would naturally reduce their population when STs are counted, thereby potentially justifying the decrease in reservations. Christian Adivasis however were eager to clarify that none of them have legally converted in front of a Magistrate. They have held on to their ST status and certificate. Only in daily practice they attend church and believe in Christianity, without changing their official identity status.

Such complications come from the contestations around what is the ‘authentic’ Adivasi identity – the Samaj believes in a traditional identity of the Adivasi linked to worshipping nature and following certain rituals from the past; the state maintains a technical and governmental identity called the Scheduled Tribe and provides a ST Certificate. Adivasi Christians propagate an anthropological notion of Adivasi identity in terms of shared ancestry, language, customs and so on. While there are possibilities for dialogue and understanding to reconcile these varying notions of Adivasi, the current trend is worrying since violence and hostility is breaking out in between Adivasis frequently. Just as activists told us in Jharkhand, in Chhattisgarh too, the BJP being out of power in the state has seen an increase in persecution of Christians. Here too, there is a behind the scenes nexus between RSS forces and the Adivasi Gondwana Samaj targeting Christians although for different reasons. While the RSS forces have an alternative vision for Adivasis – preferring to call Adivasis as Vanvasis (forest dwellers) and locating them as primitive pre-Hindus who later became civilised, enlightened and now part of Hinduism. For the moment, this kind of identity politics has taken a backseat and the RSS is intent on splitting the strength of the Adivasis by creating a divide between Christian and ‘traditional’ Adivasis. This strategy will undoubtedly pay off handsome dividends for the BJP in the next assembly elections due in 2023 – unless urgent conversations and dialogues are held between Christian Adivasi and Samaj Adivasi communities for shared futures. The splitting of the Adivasi community on identarian lines will only hinder their capacity to resist economic exploitation through democratic means.

[1] See data from Mineral Resources Department, Government of Chhattisgarh, available at: https://mines.gov.in/writereaddata/UploadFile/Chhattisgarh_PDAC_2014.pdf.

[2] See Purushottam Kumar, “Mutinies and Rebellions in Chotanagpur, 1831-1857”, 1991. Janaki Prakashan Publications.

[3] Adivasi activists see caste Hindus as internal colonisers in the sense that caste Hindu society has over time coerced Adivasis into being a part of Hinduism thereby changing their identity and contributing to their exploitation.

[4] See https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/chhattisgarh-government-constitutes-sc-obc-advisory-councils-1997572-2022-09-07

[5] See Saurabh Dube, “Issues of Christianity in Colonial Chhattisgarh”, Sociological Bulletin, Volume 14, No. 1/2 (March-September), 1992. Pg. 97-117

[6] See https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1508011/

[7] See https://lawbeat.in/columns/legal-history-anti-conversion-laws-india

[8] Ghar Wapsi, which literally translates to home coming, is a symbolic public event where Christians or Muslims convert ‘back’ to Hinduism. The assumption here is that all those who lived in the subcontinent were originally Hindus, and therefore any Christian, Muslim individual converting to Hinduism is in fact, converting back to Hinduism. Official conversion of religion must follow procedure as per the conversion laws in the state, but Ghar Wapsi is the symbolic and political aspect of (re) conversion for radical Hindu leaders.

[9] See Rajendra K Sail, “Conversion in Chhattisgarh: Facts and Myths” Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), 2003. Available at: https://www.indianlabourarchives.org/bitstream/20.500.14121/448/1/Booklets%20-Conversion%20in%20Chhattishgarh%20%28Fact%20%26%20Myths%29.pdf

[10] https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/india/chhattisgarh-passes-anti-conversion-bill-1.248514

[11] See https://indianexpress.com/article/political-pulse/chhattisgarh-bhupesh-baghel-congress-bjp-8076296/

[12] See https://cjp.org.in/pesa-act-origins-workings-and-challenges/

[13] See https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/raipur/reservation-over-50-unconstitutional-chhattisgarh-hc/articleshow/94306376.cms

[14] See https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/others/chhattisgarh-to-table-bill-to-provide-reservation-on-the-basis-of-population-101669036236943.html

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