Animists in central India last week told five Christian families they would lose their harvest lands unless they returned to their tribal religion and beat them when they refused, sources said.
When the families answered a summons to a meeting with Salhephal village leaders in Bastar District, Chhattisgarh state on Tuesday (May 5), they found the tribal elders estimating the value of their lands, pastor Sirisguda Ramdhar told Morning Star News. The Christians had forbidden a tribal animist leader, Dulla Poyami, to perform tribal worship on their land, he said.
"The village leaders told the Christians, 'You are not partaking in our tribal rituals, and so we cannot allow you to profit from your agricultural lands,'" Pastor Ramdhar told Morning Star News.
The Christians told them the lands were registered in their names, and that they were working hard to earn their bread, he said. "We follow our faith but have never been a burden on this village or to our kinsmen – you cannot snatch away our lands," they told the tribal elders, according to the pastor.
"Even before they spoke any word further, the elders stood up and stormed at Christians Madda Poyami and Badda Poyami," he said.
They began beating the two Christians, and a mob of at least 60 people soon gathered around them and the Christian families, clamoring for them to renounce their faith in Christ, he said.
"When the Christians refused, they abused them in extremely vulgar language and started beating them," Pastor Ramdhar said. "The mob was very furious and did not spare even the women. They stoned Madda Poyami, injuring him in his head and knee."
Poyami was admitted to the government hospital in Jagdalpur for treatment. Christians Bodda Poyami, Raino Poyami, Sumani Poyami, Hande Poyame, Jagri Poyami and Besalbati Poyami were also injured in the mob attack, and some of them received medical treatment without being admitted to the hospital, Pastor Ramdhar said.
He said the tribal animists, who worship and sacrifice to various tribal gods based in nature, had threatened to expel the Christian families and seize their land for more than a year.
Son Singh Jhali, a lawyer allied with legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom India (ADF India), visited the injured at the hospital and helped them draft a complaint to be filed at the Kodenar police station.
"The medical proofs are important to support the complaint and enable the police officers to register cases against the assailants," Jhali told Morning Star News.
Also on Tuesday (May 5) in Bastar District, residents of Naktoka village who follow a mix of tribal religion and Hinduism threatened to kill Christians if they tried to give a Christian burial for one of their dead in the community graveyard, Pastor Guptaram Kawasi said.
"A mob of more than 100 villagers opposed the burial of Bhima Kashyap in the graveyard allotted for villagers, accusing him of adopting foreign faith," Pastor Kawasi told Morning Star News. "The Christian family was put under immense pressure to perform his last rites as per the Hindu and tribal traditions followed in the village."
Villagers told the family they must undergo a reconversion ritual in order to perform last rites, he said.
"They threatened that they would kill everybody present at Kashyap's home if they proceeded against the village's customs," Pastor Kawasi said.
On Wednesday (May 6), the Christians called ADF India's Chhattisgarh Legal Aid Centre, and shortly thereafter the officer-in-charge of the Mardum police station arrived with the village revenue officer and his police force, he said.
"The revenue officer showed us the land for burial, and the funeral service was possible in the presence of police at around 4 p.m. the next day," Pastor Kawasi said.
More Death Threats
Christians also were attacked recently in Dantewada District.
Nila Kunjam, 25, was at her home the morning of April 19 when three middle-aged villagers stormed in, area resident Sushil Kumar Kunjam said.
"It was around eight in the morning when we heard screams from Nila Kunjam's home," Kumar Kunjam told Morning Star News. "The assailants were shouting at her parents, 'How dare you allow your daughter to partake in Christian prayers?' Soon they drove her forcefully out of her home to a distance of about 50 meters as they beat her on her back, head and knees."
A mob of at least 60 villagers gathered, accusing Kunjam of defiling her caste, he said.
"The mob kept looking on as the three assailants beat the 25-year-old Christian woman and vowed that they would kill her," Kumar Kunjam told Morning Star News. "I followed the mob and started videotaping the brutality happening in front of my eyes, but they snatched away my phone and slapped me tightly on my cheeks."
Nila Kunjam received severe blows on her back and knees and had to be admitted for hospital treatment, he said. Her family filed a complaint at Bacheli police station, but officers told them they couldn't take any action until the government lifts a lockdown ordered to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, he told Morning Star News.
Other village Christians have also suffered. On Friday (May 8), two tribal leaders went to a pond where Christian women were bathing and washing clothes and threatened to kill them if they touched the water again, Kumar Kunjam said.
"As there is a severe water shortage, the common pond is the only source of water," he said. "The common pond is for all the villagers, but they accuse Christians of defiling the pond."
Also in Dantewada District, axe-wielding tribal animists in Jaram village on April 6 lingered outside a Christian family's home at about 11 p.m., Pastor Anand Rao Nag said. Mangduram Kashyap, his wife Lalita Bai Kashyap and their children locked themselves inside fearing for their lives, Pastor Nag said.
They called Pastor Nag, who was unable to go to their home to help due to the coronavirus lockdown, he said. He maintained constant phone contact with them.
"The assailants kept watch outside to hack the Christians to death if they stepped out," he said. "They told me that the village council had sent some persons into the village to enquire if any of the residents had converted to Christianity. The Kashyaps' neighbors had informed the village elders that they go to church and pray inside their home."
At around 6 a.m. the next morning (April 7), six of the villagers took the Kashyap family by force to a place in the village where a mob of around 200 villagers surrounded them, Pastor Nag said.
"Without uttering a word, the assailants started beating the Christian men and woman in Kashyap's family, including their infant grandchild," he told Morning Star News.
The village council told the family they would be brutally killed if they reported the attack to police and fined them 5,000 rupees (US$67) he said. They took the money by force along with the family's goat and chickens.
"Mangduram Kashyap is undergoing treatment for his injured eye," Pastor Nag said. "We request prayers for a speedy recovery."
Villagers had also threatened the Kashyaps in 2012, telling them to renounce Christ, he said. The family complained to police, who took no action, he said.
Sacrifice to Tribal Deities
In Metapal village, also in Dantewada District, animists beat Christians who refused to comply with their demand to sacrifice their animals to tribal deities, sources said.
A mob of around 120 villagers led by tribal leaders showed up at Santuram Markam's home on March 30 at around 4:30 p.m. and beat family members when they refused to renounce Christ, Markam said.
"The village council summoned us to a meeting demanding we bring a goat, pig, hen, coconut, incense sticks and cash of 5,000 rupees [US$66] as sacrificial offerings to the tribal deities," Markam told Morning Star News.
When they refused to give in to their demands, the mob again barged into Markam's home the next night (March 31) and started beating his aged parents, he said.
"I escaped from there and have run into the woods," he told Morning Star News at that time, by telephone. "I will go back only after knowing about the situation there at home. I am very scared to back home now. They beat us yesterday, and they came again today. My Christian neighbor Raju Podiyami and his family also came under attack today."
Superintendent of Police of Dantewada District Abhishek Pallava told Morning Star News that officers were exhausted from working extra hours due to the novel coronavirus and it was not possible to send a force there at midnight.
"I will try to make peace between the groups over the phone," Pallava told Morning Star News at that time. "Nobody can reach there now. All the police force has been working day and nights because of coronavirus. It is a Naxalite [Maoist rebel] area, we cannot take risks by sending forces without any preparation."
The animists on March 31 kidnapped Markam's neighbor, Podiyami, from his home and locked him in a hut as they drank liquor throughout the night, area pastor Sushil Sangam said. After cutting through the thatched roof and escaping, Podiyami took his family of eight, injured from the previous day's attacks, and sought refuge at Pastor Sangam's church site in Tokapal village, Bastar District, the pastor said.
"But the residents of Tokapal, fearing the spread of coronavirus, had informed the police that some unknown persons had entered the village," Pastor Sangam told Morning Star News.
The police took them to a government shelter, where they were quarantined – and there four of them contracted malaria, including Podiyami, according to Pastor Sangam.
The pastor said they are undergoing treatment in Tokapal and staying with him.
"We are taking care of them," Pastor Sangam said. "They are very scared to go back to Metapal now."
Had police taken action against the assailants, the Christians would not have been forced to step out of their village seeking refuge and ended up in a shelter where some contracted malaria, Pastor Sangam said.
"It is very difficult to get any help from the police at midnight, as it is a Naxalite belt, and the tribal extremist leaders are very well aware of this," he told Morning Star News.
ADF India's Jhali said that farmers are preparing the soil, which involves sacrificial offerings to tribal deities, with the village council collecting funds and animals to be offered.
"But Christians refuse to partake in this ritual," Jhali said. "This has been the one main reason for the spike in violent attacks against Christians amid lockdown."
Jhali said officers at the Katekalyan police station had registered a First Information Report against the assailants under sections of the Indian Penal Code for rioting, obscene acts, voluntarily causing hurt and criminal intimidation.
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position has worsened since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.
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