Right to die with dignity: Christian tribal denied burial rights, shrill campaign on ‘conversion’ afoot Another poll-bound state, Chhattisgarh, which is set to see voting for the state assembly elections on November 7 and 17, 2023, sees attempts at a communal campaign, by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), again.

06, Nov 2023 | CJP Team

Home Minister for the Union government, Amit Shah in his speech on November 3 accused  the Congress of inaction against the alleged cases of conversion in the state. He has also further alleged that the state machinery was being “misused to convert impoverished tribal communities.” During the rally held in the Pandariya Assembly constituency in the upcoming poll-bound state, he asserted, along with a discussion on corruption, “Our Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to worship their chosen God. However, using government machinery to convert poor tribal people is detrimental to Chhattisgarh, resulting in conflicts in homes and villages and a disturbed law and order situation.”

However, the case of tribals in Chhattisgarh is more complicated. On January 2, 2023, Newslaundry reported of an instance where a church in Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur faced vandalism, ostensibly due to allegations of engaging in “conversions.” Furthermore, between December 9 and 18, a distressing situation unfolded where nearly 1,000 Adivasi Christians were subjected to persecution, resulting in their displacement from their homes. These findings were documented by a fact-finding committee, led by the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. According to a press release by the United Christian Forum, about 520 Christians have been in turn arrested on accusations of forced conversions without any concrete evidence. 

In March earlier this year, the situation became tense and complicated when two groups disputed over the burial rites of a tribal woman in the Christian tribal populated region of Bastar. About two percent of Chhattisgarh’s Christian population, primarily resides in the southern Bastar region of the state. The situation of the burial soon escalated and became a law and order situation after the police tried to control the two groups, one of which also started stone pelting at the police. According to Times of India, it took about 24 hours for the police to maintain control over the situation. Slogans against religious conversion were also raised. 

The incident took place in the Parpa area of Bhejpadar village when at the death of an elderly woman, Mate Bekko, on March 19 a disagreement arose among the villagers over the question of how to lay her to rest. While the deceased woman’s family wished to perform a burial in their backyard the following day, a faction of villagers arrived at the site to voice their objections. They argued that despite the tribal family’s conversion to Christianity, a burial should not be the chosen method for the final rites.

After the law and order situation came under control, the burial was slated to take place as per the family’s wishes. However, even the burial ceremony had to be conducted under the protection of the police, which also witnessed heated events given the large number of people who arrived at the burial. It was only after the burial was prevented and the body was handed over to the police that the mob of people gathered calmed down. 

On the part of the Bhupesh Baghel-ruled Congress government, during the incidents of violence and intimidation of tribals in the Bastar region, the former and present district presidents of the BJP from Narayanpur were arrested following two violent attacks. The Hindu had reported, in January this year, that the police arrested at least 11 persons — including the current and former district presidents of the BJP — in connection with separate, violent incidents over allegations of eligious conversions in Narayanpur in January. The police had taken action on two incidents — one in Gorra village where two groups clashed, and the church attack in which a Superintendent of Police was injured a day later. Among those arrested BJP leaders Rupsay Salam, 55, and Narayan Markam, 50, have been arrested in connection with an incident, in which Narayanpur Superintendent of Police (SP) Sadanand Kumar was injured and a church vandalised. Mr. Salam assumed charge as the BJP district president in October and since then, the duo have led several campaigns against Christian missionaries in villages across Narayanpur, sources said. This period has coincided with several violent incidents over the sensitive issue of religious conversions in the State.

According to a report by Parth M N, a similar case of violation of burial rites had further erupted back in May 2023 when Shyamlal,  a wage labourer hailing from Arracote was found dead after he had been missing. He was survived by his then pregnant 20-year-old wife Sukmiti. Shyamlal had been missing for some time when his dead body was found hanging from a tree. This left the family, who reportedly belongs to the Madiya tribe, in shock, however, this was not the end of their troubles. The situation took an even more dangerous turn when the family was confronted with an ultimatum as some local residents came and informed Shyamlal’s relatives that the customary last rites, which they intended to perform in their village, could only proceed if the family converted to Hinduism.

Instead of receiving the compassion and support they desperately needed, the family encountered harassment and intimidation. Driven by influential village members and incited by right-wing leaders, the people stated that Shyamlal’s final farewell would only be permitted in the village under one condition: the family must not bury him in accordance to Christian rites, but instead must conduct the Shyamlal’s final proceedings with Hindu rites. 

According to the report, Sukmiti says that they have been following Christianity for about 40 years and it is very much a way of life for them. Shyamlal’s body could not be buried in the backyard. Sukmiti says that is where their ancestors are buried and that’s where they thought they both would be buried – next to each other. However, due to the vulnerable position they were in, Shyamlal had to be buried some 40 kms away from his home as the village remained tense with additional police force deployed.  

According to a report by Sabrang India, violence against Christian minorities continues to rise. The violence tends to only be further intensified especially if the Christians affected belong to vulnerable and marginalised groups, such as scheduled tribes. According to the report, Chhattisgarh saw a second highest number of violent incidents, totalling 118 reported incidents by the mid of 2023 itself, according to data collected by the United Christian Forum (a human rights-based forum based in Delhi). Bastar, out of all the districts, retained the district with the highest number of instances with 51 incidents, amounting to almost a half of the incidents reported in Chhattisgarh. From which we can infer that the location of being a tribal Christians in Chhattisgarh are even more vulnerable to their social location. 

Compounding this about 54 cases of social boycott of Christians have also been reported, mainly in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. This reveals that Christians occupy a vastly vulnerable spot in India, with tribal Christians who are besieged by a number of structural upheavals, such as poverty, discrimination, usurping of forest and land rights, are further left in a complete travesty of justice. 

Furthermore, if we look at the idea of burial, we see that the violation of the right to appropriate burial rites according to an individual’s belief systems has been declared as nothing short of sacrosanct by Indian legal and judicial system. It is a punitive offence of the Indian Penal Code to “act irresponsibly with dead bodies”, according to Legal Insider. The article cites Section 297  which reads, “Whoever, with the intent of wounding the feelings of any person or insulting the religion of any person, commits any trespass in any place of worship, on any place of sculpture, or any place set aside for the performance of funeral rites or as a depository for the remains of the dead, with the expertise that the sentiments of any person are probable to be maimed, or with the wisdom that the spirituality of any individual is likely to be affronted thereby, or offers any ignominy to any human.”

Furthermore, in 2020, the Madras High Court stated that the right to decent burial is part of the fundamental right to life.  Thereby, violating the burial rights of an individual is a deep seated attempt to deny the fundamental rights of a marginalised community, furthermore it is linked to the rights to religion that is guaranteed by the Indian constitution. 

Image Courtesy: Twitter


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