Tuesday, July 22, 2014

RLPB 270. India: a test for India in Chhattisgarh

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 270 | Wed 23 Jul 2014

By Elizabeth Kendal

Located in north India's tribal belt, the Indian State of Chhattisgarh has long been a focus of Hindu nationalists' determined effort to secure the allegiance of tribal Indians. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is the 'cultural wing' of the Sangh Parivar, the Hindu nationalist umbrella body.  Along with organising Hindu festivals and facilitating the 'safronisation' of Indian media and education, the VHP also conducts Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) missionary work amongst the tribals. This missionary work includes the 'ghar vapsi' (home-coming) campaigns in which thousands of tribal Christians are coerced and even forced to convert to Hinduism.

[For background on Hindutva, see Religious Liberty Monitoring: 'Hindutva!' (23 July 2014).]

In early May Hindus in Sirisguda village in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region complained to the VHP that Christians had refused to donate money to the annual Hindu festival and had used 'derogatory language against the Hindu deities and customs'. The VHP pointed the Sirisguda Hindus to Section 129 (G) of the Chhattisgarh Panchayat Raj Act which facilitates rural self government by empowering 'gram sabhas' (village assemblies) to issue rulings for local implementation. Subsequently the Sirisguda gram sabha issued a ruling banning all non-Hindu religious practice in the village. Since then, more than 50 villages in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region have followed suit and used the Act to ban non-Hindu practice. Even though the rulings are contrary to the Indian Constitution, the VHP has said it will lobby the Chief Minister Raman Singh and Governor Balramji Dass Tandon (both of whom are Hindu nationalists) to ensure the bans are imposed.

Effectively these gram sabha rulings legitimise communal hostility towards Christians; consequently serious persecution is escalating. There have been numerous reports of Christians being violently attacked, refused access to amenities (particularly water) and denied food rations. Sonuru Mandavi's family converted to Christianity in 2002. She told India's The Hindu that the Christians in her village have been unable to collect rations for over two months and when they tried to collect them they were physically attacked. The only alternative is to pay full price in retail stores, something these Christians cannot afford due to the systematic discrimination they have long suffered.

Economic interests might also play a role. Multi-national mining corporations have interests in mineral-rich Bastar and a community at war with itself cannot make a united stand against them or the [often corrupt] government bodies with which the corporations deal. Christian leaders are concerned that tribal Christians are being bullied out of their homes and off their lands by Hindu elites and petty criminals who have conspired to seize their property so they can claim the compensation when the multi-nationals acquire the land.

Denouncing the bans as 'illegal and unconstitutional', the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum (CCF) has called on the governor to intervene and uphold the law. Meanwhile, the Bastar district president of the VHP, Suresh Yadav,  insists that district administration must implement the gram sabha rulings, 'otherwise we will protest'. However, CCF president Arun Pannalal has denounced the bans as a blatant violation of fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution of India. 'This Act is ultra vires (beyond the powers) of the constitution of India, and the state government should scrap it,' he said, adding: 'We will go to court if the state government does not act on this issue.'

Numerous Christian leaders and religious liberty advocates are warning that if these ruling are allowed to stand and if impunity persists, then a new wave of Hindutva inspired, VHP incited, violent anti-Christian pogroms may be imminent. 

The danger is that the government will re-interpret the religious liberty provisions in the Constitution, so as to kill the spirit of the Constitution while retaining its words (thereby avoiding the need for a referendum). How this crisis is resolved will say much about the future direction, not only of Chhattisgarh, but of India under Hindu nationalist BJP rule.


* intervene in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region to protect and provide for poor tribal Christians who are being persecuted for their faith.

* sharpen the consciences of local Hindus, so they will resist the pressure to persecute their Christian neighbours.

* raise up voices for liberty, justice and harmony across India; may he magnify those voices, in the media, in the judiciary, in politics, in education, as they defend the spirit of the Indian Constitution and defend religious freedom.

* raise up voices outside India that will speak out for genuine religious freedom, security and justice inside India; may he magnify those voices,  in media, international politics, diplomacy, advocacy and in the Church worldwide, as they speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

'Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. ... Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God.' (Psalm 146:3,5 ESV)


Since mid-May over 50 villages in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region have followed the advice of the Hindu nationalist VHP and used the Chhattisgarh Panchayat Raj Act to ban all non-Hindu religious practice. As Christian leaders note, these rulings are contrary to the Indian Constitution. Despite this, the VHP has said it will lobby the authorities to ensure the bans are imposed. Persecution has escalated, with numerous reports of violence and social boycotts whereby Christians are being denied access to water and food rations. The Chhattisgarh Christian Forum has requested that the Panchayat Raj Act (which facilitates rural self-government) be scrapped and is threatening to take the authorities to court if they do not act. They fear that persecution could escalate into anti-Christian pogroms. Please pray for India and its Church.


Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
'Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah speaks to Christians today'
(Deror Books, Dec. 2012)