A longstanding Hindu extremist practice of turning animistic villagers against Christians has intensified as elections get underway in India today, with tribal villagers taught that Christianity is anti-Indian.
Upset about tribal Adivasi relatives leaving the animistic Sarna religion to become Christians, 60-year-old Sanpitha Majhi attacked a 28-year-old Christian mother he believed had "forcefully converted" his daughter and son-in-law in eastern India's Jharkhand state. Bale Murmu was washing utensils in an outdoor area of her home on April 1 and did not notice Majhi, her neighbor, coming toward her, pastor Girish Chander Marandi said.
"Majhi with all his force pressed her breasts and pushed her to the floor," Pastor Marandi told Morning Star News. "While he was kicking her in her stomach, his wife, Gouri Majhi, brought a wooden stick, and the couple beat her black and blue."
When her husband, Jaata Murmu, heard her screams and came to rescue her, he too was beaten, Pastor Marandi said.
"Murmu suffered bruises all over her body and, her stomach and breasts were swollen," he said. "We provided her first aid that night, and the next day we went to the police station."
Police refused to receive their complaint until they reminded officers that Majhi had also attacked Christians on Feb. 27, and they implored officers to take action, he said. In the previous assault, Majhi burst into a house where four Christian families had gathered for worship and beat them.
"He attacked nine people and struck their heads to the wall one after the other," Pastor Marandi said. "He snatched a believer's Bible and ripped off the pages. We did not go to the police, since we knew he was drunk and not in his right mind. The next day [Feb. 28], when the surrounding village pastors and I tried to counsel him, he was attacking us."
This month officers at Bangriposi police station booked both Majhi and his wife for house trespass, assault to outrage the modesty of a woman, sexual assault, voyeurism and criminal intimidation. A Baripada Court judge sent Majhi and his wife to remand - triggering further animosity from tribal villagers.
"Last Friday [April 5], the village council held a meeting to devise a plan to attack us on Sunday [April 7]," Murmu told Morning Star News. "They are furious and accuse us that we sent Majhi to jail and so must be punished for it. They blocked the route to the church to push us to put up a fight, but we quietly went our way and refused. By God's grace there was no attack on Sunday."
Majhi's daughter and son-in-law had put their faith in Christ after their 10-year-old son fell seriously ill, Pastor Marandi said. As the boy suffered severe weight loss and was wasting away, the couple noticed that Murmu and others gathered for prayer and worship.
"One day last September, the couple came over and shared about their child," Pastor Marandi said. "We prayed for him, and soon they started joining us regularly for prayers. Their faith healed the child. He is completely recovered now and is going back to school since February."
But Majhi, a staunch Adivasi believer in the Sarna religion, was upset about his daughter, Shanti Soren, leaving the traditional practices along with her husband, Vikram Soren, the pastor said. The couple lived in his house after marriage, and he would come home drunk and beat both of them, he said.
Such violence comes against the backdrop of a draconian "anti-conversion law" in effect in Jharkhand, giving rise to spurious accusations of forcible or fraudulent conversion. And it comes in the context of Hindu extremists turning animistic villagers against Christians, especially with general elections underway today through May 19, sources said.
Hindu extremists have indoctrinated animistic adherents of tribal Sarna religion to believe that they can worship Hindu idols, and also that Christian worship defiles their culture, a legal advocacy group representative said.
"The Adivasis have been misguided to believe that Hindu Dharma [Hindu teaching] and Sarna are the same to incite them to stand against Christians," Sandeep Tigga, coordinator of legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom-India, told Morning Star News. "This wrong teaching has driven Sarnas today to accept idol worship, but the truth is the indigenous Sarna only worship nature."
Hindu extremists need only teach adherents of Sarna that Christianity defiles their culture to cause a rift in a family, he said.
Christians make up to only 4.3 percent of the population in Jharkhand.
"Recently, the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] also issued statements that Adivasis who convert to Christianity must be banished from political parties and must not be allowed to contest in seats reserved for the tribes," said Tigga, who formerly practiced Sarna and is now a Bible college student. "In the villages where idol worship is practiced, tribal families are introduced to the Hindutva ideology, and they gradually develop hatred towards Christianity."
In Pandanwa Tanda of Hazaribagh District, two families put their faith in Christ after years of losing family members to traditional attempts to free them of evil spirits - only to face terrifying tactics from the Adivasi villagers, sources said.
For decades in Pandawa Tanda and surrounding villages, tribal families who refused to go to hospitals for treatment have sought traditional healers known as tantrics, pastor Manoj Munda told Morning Star News.
"The tantric would thrash them with a whip and exorcise on them, and they'd get even sicker and fall prey to death," Pastor Munda said.
Families who put their faith in Christ four years ago have broken the cycle of death from such treatment, though they have to travel miles to neighboring villages for worship due to hostilities from local Adivasis. This year, local villagers practicing Sarna mixed with Hinduism have begun collecting funds for puja (idol worship of gods and goddesses), Pastor Munda said.
"They announced in the village that Christians are deprived of all rights, and that if they do not contribute to pujas, they must be cast out of the village," he said.
When Christians refused to contribute on March 8, two days later villagers surrounded the wife of Christian Belu Ganjo as she went to draw well water at 9 p.m.
"The entire village surrounded her and had decided to tie her with a rope and drown her in the well," Pastor Munda said.
She screamed and her husband came running to rescue her, and the women in the mob attacked her as the men attacked Ganjo, he said. They beat them up with lathis, a bamboo stick bound with iron, and kicked them, he said.
"The mob lifted up their 4-year-old daughter and forcefully threw her to the floor," Pastor Munda told Morning Star News. "By God's grace, the child suffered only minor injuries. Ganjo ran for his life with his child and wife to another Christian's house, but the angry mob followed them, so they locked their houses, and in that night they fled away from the village."
The Christians passed through a pitch-dark forest to reach Bhadka. The next day, they went to police, and officers at Sadar Police Station summoned the villagers and settled matters, Pastor Munda added.
"Even at the police station, they were shouting that Ganjo accepted a foreign faith and that they should not enter the village until they renounce Christianity," he said. "But police told them that the Christians can freely live out their faith, and nobody must stop them."
The inspector warned the Hindus that he would charge them if they continued harassing Christians, but for now they are worshipping secretly, he said.
"The villagers had severed all ties with them already," Pastor Munda said.
Forced to Police Station
In Ranchi, the state capital, Hindus falsely accused Christians of forcible conversion and handed them to police.
Christina Oraon told Morning Star News that she another Christian, her friend Sukro Munda, were visiting Munda's niece Timi Munda, who was ill, on March 30.
Timi Munda told Morning Star News that the two Christians, who are illiterate, had requested she read the Bible to them so they could repeat verses after her.
"Suddenly, two women from the neighborhood came upstairs and was accusing my aunt and her friend that they were converting me," Timi Munda said. "I told the ladies that it's a misunderstanding and that I was only reading the verses since they can't read. But they refused to listen to me and forcefully took them downstairs."
The two villagers forced the two Christians into a vehicle and took them to the police station, Oraon said.
"They had put pressure on the police officers to book cases against us," Oraon said. "Later in the night the police sent us to the women's police station."
Officers at Lalpur Police Station told Morning Star News that Oraon and Sukra Munda have been taken into custody for questioning and would be released soon.
"The police sent the women to the women's police station to extend the custody till next day," a local source who requested anonymity told Morning Star News.
At midnight on March 30, the Jharkhand legal aid unit of ADF-India reached higher police officials and secured the release of the Christian women without any charges filed against them.
"The neighbors told my husband and in-laws that my aunt and her friend, Oraon, were attempting to convert me to Christianity by reciting the Bible verses," Timi Munda said.
Deprived of Food
Also in Ranchi, Hindu relatives filed complaints of forced conversions against newly wedded Christian couple.
Risha Toppo and Roshani Kachhap married on Jan. 5 but could not live together for two months due to threats. Toppos had gone three times to his parents about his desire to marry Kachhap, but they insisted he marry a Sarna woman, he said.
"I tried very hard to tell my parents how important it is for me to marry a believer, and that I can't give up my faith in marriage matters," he told Morning Star News.
After he became a Christian, his family had restricted him to his house since 2015, "a house-arrest literally, because they suspected that if I'm allowed to go out, I'd go to church and meet Christians," Toppo said. "But I continued praying and reading the Bible. My mother did not allow me into the kitchen for more than 2 years until I finally left the house in 2017. She reprimanded me from touching any utensils or food grains as they believe that I would defile the food if I touched it."
They gave him only leftover food once a day, and sometimes he would go to sleep without a meal, he said.
"Even through that phase when they were hating me, I questioned my parents, 'Why are you worshipping the trees and plants? Why not worship the One who created them? The trees and plants do not hear or speak, but the living God sees us, He hears and speaks. Why are we not acknowledging the Creator?'" he said. "They would get very angry and told me that even though I'm their blood, I would have no share in the property or agriculture produce. We married in court secretly because my family members were planning to attack me if they hear of me marrying a Christian."
After two months, Kachhap's parents organized a thanksgiving prayer for the couple in their church. Toppo's parents found out.
"On March 5, my parents and a mob of extremists from our village came to the church and took my wife and me to the police station," he said. "My mother accused my wife and her family of forcefully converting me."
At the police station, he discovered that complaints had been filed against him and his wife in three police stations in Ranchi, Sadar and Namkum, he said.
Toppo's family banished him from the community.
"I left everything behind and followed Christ," he said. "Today we are surviving with the help of a basic salary I receive from working in a private clinic and my wife's payments from tutoring some school students. We are working very hard but are happy that we are leading a Christian life."
India is ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2019 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 been worse each year since Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.