Can the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA Act) be fashioned as a tool to divide the Adivasis and create unrest among the community? Is that why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is insisting on implementing this Act? These questions are at the top of the minds of those working among the Adivasis and advocating Adivasi self-governance. Surprisingly, these questions have emanated from the Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh, the reason for which is the violence being unleashed in the name of Sarva Adivasi Samaj.
On 18 December, a well-organized mob attacked hundreds of Adivasi families professing Christianity in about 35 villages in Kondagaon and Narayanpur districts. The frenzied mob did not even spare the old, the sick, and women, even those who were pregnant. The assailants demanded that these families leave the villages as the Gram Sabha enjoyed supreme powers under the PESA Act. They alleged that these families were encouraging other Adivasis to convert to Christianity. The attacked families and church authorities deny this charge and say that it is politically motivated. On the other hand, the Adivasis says it is a conspiracy to divide the community.
Chhattisgarh, a state with about 32 per cent Adivasi population, has allegedly witnessed more than 500 attacks on Christians over the past four years of Baghel regime. It is also alleged that in most of such cases, the police refused to register FIRs and even did not accept complaints from the victims.
Most of the Adivasi activists say that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Baghel government are working in tandem to do away with Adivasi identity by dividing them into Hindus and Christians. They say that blaming the Sarva Adivasi Samaj for the violence is also a part of the conspiracy. B.S. Rawate, president of Sarva Adivasi Samaj, Chhattisgarh, says that the BJP and the Congress have forged an undeclared front of the Gond Adivasis and are running a campaign for delisting (from Scheduled Tribes) and ghar wapsi (homecoming) of Christian Adivasis. Neither the Sarva Adivasi Samaj nor the Gonds at large have any role in it. Condemning the incidents in Narayanpur, he demanded that the administration should take stringent action and protect the life and the property of the Adivasis who have embraced Christianity.
The campaign for ghar wapsi of Christian Adivasis has gained momentum over the recent past. The violence in Narayanpur and Kondagaon was the fallout of this campaign. The residents of Benur village in the Narayanpur district, in their written complaint to the Benur police station, have clearly stated that the assailants were asking them to either quit Christianity or leave the village.
Former Antagarh (Kanker district) BJP MLA Bhojraj Nag says that this violence was triggered by the friction between the two groups of Gond Adivasis. On one side, he says, are those who believe in gods and goddesses and in their own culture, while on the other side are those who criticize the religious beliefs of the former. He says that the violence was unacceptable and that the administration should initiate dialogue between the two groups and try to find out who is in the right and who is in the wrong.
Degree Prasad Chouhan, president of the state unit of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and an advocate who has filed a PIL in the High Court in the matter, says that apathy and negligence on the part of the administration led to the violence. He says that, in central India, only economic imperialism and loot of natural resources was not the cause of the endless atrocities against Adivasi-Mulniwasis – mass murders, social and economic boycott, ban on burial of the dead and attempts to drive them out of the villages and settlements. These atrocities, he says, are also rooted in caste and religion and in cultural imperialism, of which Hindu nationalism is a manifestation. It seems that fascist forces have managed to infiltrate the so-called people’s movements that were demanding village republics and working to save jal, jangal, zameen (water, forest, land). These forces are using the PESA Act as a pretext to pit Christian Adivasis against the others.
Even as charges of conversion fly thick and fast, and the ghar wapsi campaign gains momentum, it is easy to overlook the fact that the percentage of Christians in the population of the state is almost constant. In the 2001 Census, Christians formed 1.92 per cent of the state’s population. The figure remained unchanged in 2011. The 2021 Census is yet to be held, so no official figures are available. But according to estimates, the share of Christian population has grown slightly to 1.94 per cent. On the condition of anonymity, a youth Adivasi leader, who is a Christian, said that it is not that Christian Adivasis and non-Christian Adivasis are at loggerheads. The fact is that Christian voters play a decisive role in 19 of the 90 assembly constituencies in the state, and neither the Congress nor the BJP is comfortable with this scenario.
(Translated from the Hindi original by Amrish Herdenia)
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