NEW DELHI (Morning Star News) – After months of appeals to officials in central India, Christians are still awaiting action against a police officer alleged to have burned down a church building and threatened them with false charges if they continue worshiping, sources said.
In Chhattisgarh state’s Kistaram village, Konta District, Sub-Inspector Bhavesh Shende on Feb. 3 disrupted house church worship on the property of a tribal Christian, Kadti Gurva, told the Christians not to gather for worship and threatened to charge them with being communist “Naxalite” rebels, according to Gurva and another Christian.
“Shende said that he does not like our prayers, and that we should stop praying with immediate effect, and if we do not obey, he will book us all under a false case of being Naxalites,” Gurva and Turram Kanna state in their written complaint to the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum.
Shende on the evening of Feb. 4 summoned Kanna and Gurva to the Kistaram police station and ordered them to burn down their church building, they said.
“We refused to burn the church,” they state in their complaint. “And when we refused to do anything of that sort, he abused us in filthy language and threatened to kill us. He said that he will falsely book us under the Naxalite Act and send us to jail.”
Shende summoned them the next day and told them he had initiated the burning down of their church structure, they said.
“He told us that he has got our worship place burnt and warned us that we must not do such a thing again [meeting for prayer/worship], or else he will arrest us and send us to jail,” their complaint states.
After many attempts by the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum to get authorities to address the complaint, the last week of April officials from the Kistaram police station finally obtained statements against the police officer from the two Christians and witnesses. Though no action has been reported, forum President Arun Pannalal remained hopeful.
“I am certain that the higher authorities will take action against the officer, and soon we will see an outcome,” Pannalal told Morning Star News.
Morning Star News attempts to reach Shende were unsuccessful. While local leaders said he had been transferred to another station, at this writing Shende was still in charge of the Kistaram police station, according to an official at the Konta police control room.
Struggle to be Heard
Pannalal and church leaders visited the Chhattisgarh Director General of Police and submitted a memorandum on Feb. 7 requesting an enquiry and dismissal of Shende for initiating the burning of the church. They submitted affidavits from Kanna and Gurva.
The team also submitted a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.
“Our complaint with the Human Rights Commission has been registered, and they have instituted an enquiry,” Pannalal said.
They also submitted a complaint with the Minority Commission.
“Though they assured us of action, no enquiry has been instituted yet,” Pannalal said.
With Kistaram police now calling witnesses, on orders of higher police officers, to record their statements, Pannalal said he was positive that action would be taken against Shende. Initially Shende himself was to obtain their statements before the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum again intervened, leading to provision for other officers to handle the assignment.
Before the worship place was built in Kistaram in August 2021, the 90 people attending the church travelled from areas as far as 50 kilometers (31 miles) away for services.
Extreme climates often made it difficult for them to travel, said Senior Pastor Vuika Kannaiah.
“Travelling with young children and elderly in the family in rainy season and extreme winter was a challenge for them,” Pastor Kannaiah told Morning Star News.
After the worship building was burned down on Feb. 5, the church rebuilt their building, with a ground-breaking ceremony taking place on April 30.
Radicalization of Higher Officers
Pannalal said that because high officials have become radicalized by hardline Hindus, obtaining justice has been difficult.
“Government is hand-in-glove with the perpetrators of violence,” he said. “The police in Chhattisgarh have also been saffronized [color symbolic of Hindu nationalism]. Because the government is not taking proper action, they [perpetrators] are encouraged to persecute the Christians.”
Pannalal said there are dozens of cases where “the top layer of officials” in Chhattisgarh state have all been radicalized to do the bidding of Hindu extremists.
“If the fundamentalists attack us, we have no complaints because they are misguided people – a criminal will do his crime. That is not the part where we are disturbed,” he said. “We are disturbed where the law is not taking its course. We are disturbed where the constitutional bodies like the police, the administration, the collector are not taking any action against the perpetrators. This is most worrisome part of the government today in Chhattisgarh.”
The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.
India ranked 10th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, as it was in 2021. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position worsened after Modi came to power.