While reporting on the Christians facing violent attacks by Adivasis and ex-communication by tribal elders over the past six months in Chhattisgarh, I visited the Narayanpur district headquarters in the southern part of the state.
As I waited for someone to unlock the metal gate of a government shelter for recent Christian converts from Mahaka village, I watched children playing and a sweets vendor who seemed to be drawn to the cacophony of their games.
“It’s mostly women and children,” the vendor told me.
At the shelter, the first thing that stood out to me was the number of children of different ages running around.
“Most women have come with their children,” said Nareshbati Netam, a displaced mother of three from Bhatpal village.
The Chhattisgarh Bachaao Aandolan released a fact-finding report on the violence against Christians and their displacement from their villages in Narayanpur in January 2023. The report found that in Narayanpur and the nearby regions, more women were ousted than men as more women converted to Christianity.
Due to the anti-conversion law in the state, only the district magistrate can permit religious conversion. Official figures reflect only registered numbers of religious convertees. Several others simply live as vishwasi, translated to believers, without documentation of their changed faith.
The violence against the Christians in Chhattisgarh needs to be seen in the backdrop of the petitions filed against religious conversions. In February 2019, the Chhattisgarh High Court ruled that conversion to Christianity would not affect any tribal status held by an individual. The Supreme Court in November 2022 said that forced religious conversions threaten national security.
The tribal leaders say that to be identified as tribal, one needs to be part of the rituals and customs that bind the community.
As my interviews with various villagers, who almost had the same story of being called to meetings in their villages and told to leave, started to wind up around four in the afternoon, I noticed the children playing closest to me.
Eight-year-old Hidme was the first to break off from a group of 10-odd boys and girls playing an old game of Vish-Amrit or catch; vish, meaning poison, is the command to standstill, and amrit, meaning antidote, allows one to run.
Hidme was followed by two younger girls who climbed the stairs to the first floor of the shelter. On top of a small stage, the girls jump around the dias and onto the podium before running down the stairs. The older children at the shelter had started a basic literacy class for whoever wanted to attend while the government shelter was functional.
For Hidme’s mother, Lamni, a resident of Borawand village, all the playing is a cause of concern. “It seems like a long holiday to them,” she said. “Once they return to school, they won’t want to sit and study.”
You can read Gargi Verma’s full story here.