On Friday, when thousands participated in the Run for Unity in New Delhi, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the residents of Madhota village in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district ran around the courts in Jagdalpur to deal with the fallout of the social divide deepened by the visit of the local Bharatiya Janta Party MP.

On October 9, on the invitation of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Dinesh Kashyap, the BJP MP from Bastar, came to the village, washed the feet of 35 people and announced their return to the Hindu fold.

“We were given a shawl, a sari, a gamcha,” says Sona Lekham, one of the villagers whose feet were washed. “We were told that we are now Hindus.”

The ceremony, called ghar wapasi, was devised in the 1990s by a former princely ruler in north Chhattisgarh, BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo, who claimed that by washing the feet of tribal people, he had purged them of Christian influences and reconverted them to Hinduism. Hindutva groups have maintained that tribal people are Hindus, even though their religious beliefs and practices differ greatly from mainstream Hinduism.

Confined to the north, Judeo’s reconversion drive petered out in the last decade. So it made news when it resurfaced last month in the south of the state in a village where the VHP had established presence by recruiting workers.

A few weeks before the ghar wapasi programme, a Sunday congregation in Madhota village had been disrupted. “We were praying,” said Mangal, the young man who built the mud hut where people gather on Sundays to pray, “when some villagers entered the church and started beating us.”

The church-goers took the complaint to the police but the local officer fobbed them off. After the ghar wapasi programme, they wrote to the district superintendent. The local officer finally agreed to come to the village to settle the dispute. On October 25, the kotwar, or village warden, beat the drums and asked villagers to gather for a meeting with him. The Christians waited in the church and its compound, while other villagers gathered under a tent near the school. People from nearby villages also showed up. By afternoon, with no sign of the officer, the crowd grew restive. Around two p.m, a scuffle began, which swiftly turned into a full-fledged riot. According to Mangal, “a large crowd came to the church and started beating us up”. However, the village sarpanch, Dhaniram Baghel, a BJP worker claims the fight was started by the Christians. “They abused the kotwar,” he said.

Outnumbered, the Christians sustained more injuries. Twelve people were admitted to the district hospital. Seven villagers were arrested – two of them were Christians, who were released on bail the next day, while five others spent a week in jail.

On Friday, when I visited the village, a large posse of police personnel was on vigil outside the church. The corner shop was closed. Few people had stepped out for work even though the crisp paddy crop stood waiting to be harvested.

Policemen posted out the church in Madhota.  Picture: Supriya Sharma. 

The build up

A few kilometres short of Jagdalpur, the first signs of a Hindutva campaign appear on the highway in the form of a quick succession of newly painted saffron coloured boards which say, “Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal welcome you to Bastar.”

Often called the last homeland of the tribes in mainland India, Bastar is no stranger to conflict. For three decades, armed guerillas of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) have been waging an insurgency here against the Indian state. But the region has been largely free of religious strife, despite the long presence of both Christian and Hindu missionaries.

The first Christian missionary arrived in Jagdalpur in 1892, bringing the Methodist Church to Bastar. The Catholic Mission arrived in the 1960s and established a network of educational institutions in the region.

Later, the Ramakrishna Mission, an order of Hindu monks based in Kolkata, came to Bastar and set up schools, as did the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, an organisation set up by the Sangh Parivaar with the express purpose of working among indigenous people to create in them a sense of belonging towards Hinduism .

In addition to these established organisations, the region has seen a string of individual preachers. Drawn to the teachings of a Hindu reformer called Kanthi Waale Baba, a large number of adivasis became Bhagats, giving up the consumption of meat and alcohol. Now, many are flocking to a bewildering array of small, evangelical churches, which promise to heal through faith.

Hoardings with messages from preachers. Picture: Supriya Sharma. 

Decades of religious cross-currents have produced a syncreticism where it is not uncommon to find young adivasi people worshipping village deities at community festivals, bringing home the image of a mainstream Hindu god, while also attending the prayer meetings of Christian preachers.

But such fluidity in matters of faith does not altogether rule out social friction – villagers are known to take unkindly to those who decline to participate in community festivals and ceremonies after they start going to church. But it needed the intervention of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to make such village matters worthy of newspaper headlines.

The bottomline of an official text

“More than 35 villages ban the entry of outside religions,” the Hindi newspaper Patrika reported in June. But the story cited the case of just one village. “The panchayat of Sirisguda has taken an unsual decision to protect adivasi culture and traditions. It has decided to ban the entry of all other religions except Hinduism.”

The news came as a shock to Shibu Ram Mandavi, a resident of the village and the pastor at the Sirisguda church. “We did not know any such gram sabha meeting had been held,” he said.

Tension had been building up in the village after the visits of VHP and Bajrang Dal workers became frequent this year, he claimed. The church had existed in the village for eight years, but this summer, a dispute arose over donations to the village jatra, and for two months, 52 church-goers were denied food rations. “We were told that we would get our rations only after we paid Rs 100 as donation to the jatra,” said Mandavi. When they complained to the administration, two officials of the food department visited the village on 16 June. As soon as the officers left, the church-goers were beaten up.

“No point lying. We did beat them up,” said Mahadev, a young man who stood as part of the group of villagers to whom I asked if the allegations made by the church-goers were true. “We had told them you can pray in the church if you want to, but you should also continue to join the community festivals. It should be 50-50.”

On the intervention of the district collector, the food rations have been restored, and the Sunday prayers continue, but the Christians in the village are scared. They chose not to meet me in Sirisguda, gathering instead in the church of a nearby village. “We don’t know what they will do next,” said a middle-aged man.

Sirisguda people at a church in a nearby village.

Meanwhile, the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum has filed a writ petition in the High Court, challenging the Sirisguda resolution and Section 129 C of the Chhattisgarh Panchayati Act under which it has been passed. The section empowers villages to take measures to protect their traditional culture and practices, but district collector Ankit Anand said the mandate of village bodies was limited to protecting burial grounds, commons, markets – powers devolved to panchayats – not policing entry to the village, which was a matter of law and order, and hence, the power of the state administration. He also denied that 35 villages had passed such resolutions, as had been reported in the press.

But as a local journalist explained. it does not matter how many villages have passed such orders, or whether or not such orders are legal. “All that matters is the message that has gone out to Christian groups,” this person said.

What is most striking is the text at the bottom of the resolution.

Along with the collector, the tehsildar and the police in-charge, the gram sabha resolution has been officially copied to “Honorable President, Vishwa Hindu Parishad”.

A resurgent VHP

Suresh Yadav, a native of Haryana, now in his fifties, claims he first came to Jagdalpur in 1992. Two years ago, he rose to the rank of president of the VHP in Bastar. He claimed VHP activists were not “encouraging” villagers to ban Christian missionaries but simply “guiding” them how to. “If you have cold, I can tell you which medicine to take. But it is upto you whether to take it or not,” he said. “All that we are doing is jan jagran” or social awakening.

The chief problem with Christian missionaries, according to him, is that they work in secrecy.

“Two days ago, we attended the peace committee meeting called by the district collector,” he said. “We asked him how many Christian families are there in Madhota village. He did not have an answer. Even the Christian groups sat in silence. But we insisted, ‘Tell us, how many people have you converted in Madhota.’ They finally said, ‘We only change people’s hearts, hum sirf matantran karaate hai’.’ Now, that can’t be an answer. After all, I can change my heart five times a day.”

But what is the VHP upset if religious conversions have not taken place?

“If all you have done is change people’s hearts,” said Yadav, “how can you claim the status of minorities for them?”

“On every government document, even the marksheets of their children, they claim they are Hindu,” his colleague Shashank Srivastava chimed in. “But when there is a dispute, they become minorities, start crying loudly, and mobilise support all the way till Delhi.”

The question of faith

It is true that those flocking to the churches in the villages have neither formally converted to Christianity, nor do they identify themselves as Christians. But they are keenly aware that their change in faith sets them apart from other villagers, and to describe it, they use terms like prathana mein aana (coming to prayer) , prabhu mein aana, (coming to god) and vishwaas aana (coming into belief).

Bhuvaneshwar Nag “came to prayer” as a child. His father used to drink a lot and his mother heard that prayer might help. Paru More’s son was blind and his daughter lame. A pastor offered to pray for them, as well as helped find them admission in schools for the disabled in Jagdalpur. In a region with poor health and social services, it is not surprising that a change of faith is often a mechanism for coping with illness and addiction.

Educated till the tenth standard, Laxman Kashyap works as an agent for lawyers, bringing to them villagers who need legal aid. “My mother-in-law was cured of leprosy after joining prayer, and the pastor asked me if I wanted to quit my drinking habit,” he said. “I had earlier taken vows of the Navkhand Mahabharata, of Budha baba, of a kalash. Each time I failed to quit alcohol, nothing happened. But after I took the vow of Prabhu, when I went out drinking with a friend, my stomach started to churn. I immediately realised I had made a mistake. I was finally in the midst of a powerful god.”

Since then, Kashyap has been regularly going to church on Sundays but he does not identify himself as “Masih”, or Christian.

“We are Madias,” says his wife. Madia is the name of a tribe, one of the largest in Bastar. “We cannot leave what we have inherited from our parents, grandparents, our ancestors.” And so they participate in all community festivals, give donations to jatras, even attend the Ganesh and Durga festivities, the recent additions to the village calendar. The only thing they refrain from is partaking in the offerings made during the animal sacrifice.

It isn’t just that they have reservations, even the other villagers don’t want them to touch their gods. Every Dussehra, like other villages, Madhota sends its god on a palanquin to Jagdalpur. This year, it was the turn of Paru and his relatives to bear the palanquin. The old man was willing to perform his duty, but the villagers said it was better he abstained, instead he could contribute by making a double donation to the festival fund.

When Kashyap went to admit his children to school, the teacher asked him their religion. He ended up saying, “Hindu”. Why so, I asked. “I am born in Hindustan. What else can I be?” he said. “Though sometimes I wonder if Madias are Hindus, then why don’t they [the non-tribal people] sit and eat with us?”

Law versus practice

Chhattisgarh inherited a law from Madhya Pradesh that mandates that the priests presiding over a conversion ceremony must inform the district collector within a month of the event. An amendment in 2006 sought to make it mandatory to seek the collector’s permission before conversions. But Ankit Anand, the district collector of Bastar, said, “Not a single case of conversion has been brought to either my attention, or that of my predecessor, or even his predecessor.”

In the villages, the pastors – who happen to be locals, not outsiders – told me that they were no longer converting people formally since most who joined the services of the church did not stay long. When Shibu Ram Mandavi, now the pastor in Sirisguda, joined the church in 2000, inspired by a priest from Kerala, he signed a formal affidavit as per the conversion law. But today, he said it was not worth taking the trouble to sign up others because “they come and go, depending on their will”.

In Madhota village, Dashrath, who lives opposite the church, told me he attended the prayers for a few years, but no longer does. He left of his own will, when the prayer stopped working for him.

But his neighbour, Sona Lekham, said he was forced to quit, pressurised by a man called Sukhdev. “He said if you don’t quit, we will take away your land.” Lekham was one of those whose feet was washed by the BJP MP in the ghar wapasi ceremony earlier this month.

Sukhdev turned out to be a newly recruited karyakarta of the VHP. He told me that he had joined the organisation last year, after a friend took him to one of its meeting in Jagdalpur, attended among others by senior leaders of the BJP. Educated till 12th, Sukhdev said he was 32. What did he do, I asked. “Nothing much,” he said. “I am unemployed. I hope I can get a government job.”

The politics of religion

The increased activity of the VHP in Bastar, said Navneet Chand of the Bastar Masih Mahasangh, is directly linked to electoral politics. In 2003, BJP won 11 of the 12 assembly seats in Bastar. A decade later, even though it won the state election for a third time, its tally in Bastar declined to just four seats. “The villages where the trouble is erupting lie in the areas where the BJP lost to the Congress,” says Chand. “They are trying to polarise voters and regain lost ground.”

Dinesh Kashyap, the BJP MP, rubbished these allegations. Speaking with Scroll on phone, he claimed there was nothing wrong in participating in a ghar wapasi programme. “The programme was peaceful,” he said. “The atmosphere heated up later. We are not responsible for that.” Asked if he would attend such programmes in the future, he said, “Why not? Hindu hai hum. Our people are being weaned away from their culture. Hindus were being made a minority.”

Suresh Yadav, the garrulous, talkative president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, is not sure whether or not to take credit for the resurgence of the VHP in Bastar. “Even my predeccessors worked hard,” he said. “But everyone has a different working style, kissi ki dhar kam, kissi ki tez,” said his lieutenant Shrivastava. “Now, look at Modi ji,” Yadav picked up the thread. “Earlier, when our ministers went to America, they were stripped and searched. But Modi ji got such a wonderful reception.”

“Has Modi ji’s victory in the election galvanised VHP cadre?” I asked.

“No, no, don’t connect this to Modi ji,” said Yadav.

But Laxman Kashyap, the court agent, the church-going man who still identifies himself as Hindu, believes there is a connection. “After elections, the same people have come to power in both the centre and in the state,” he said, when I asked him what he thought had led to the recent violence. “Unka power ab badh gaya hai. Naturally, they have become more powerful.

BJP MP Dinesh Kashyap washed the feet of Sona and his wife.