NARAYANPUR, India — Over two decades of practicing and proselytizing Christianity, Badinath Salam had been kicked out of his home several times and often harassed. But in December, he recalled, the vitriol turned virulent.
When the drumbeats began again a week later, on Jan. 9, Salam ran for his life. In this part of central India, he wasn’t the only Christian forced to flee.
Since December, Hindu vigilantes in Chhattisgarh state in eastern India, enraged by the spread of Christianity and rallied by local political leaders, have assaulted and displaced hundreds of Christian converts in dozens of villages and left a trail of damaged churches, according to interviews with local Christians and activists and as seen during a recent trip to the area.
That visit to the remote region — a day’s drive from the nearest airport — revealed the extent of the chaos and its uneasy aftermath. In villages, bruised and beaten Christian converts picked through the rubble of churches destroyed by mobs wielding sledgehammers. In dusty townships, Hindu nationalist leaders led impassioned rallies promising more action against Christian conversions. In an empty government gym of the dusty township of Narayanpur, evicted families including Salam’s sought refuge, sleeping on mats next to a few sacks of spare clothes and grain.
The violence played out in one of the most culturally unique parts of India, a stretch of forested hills where missionaries from different religions and even Maoist guerrillas have long vied for the hearts and souls of Indigenous tribes. But the episode also illustrated a broader truth about India today: that antipathy toward the Abrahamic religions of Islam and Christianity — often portrayed as alien religions brought to India by its historical invaders — can be wielded as an effective mobilizing force for political ends.
Across India, reports of violence against Muslims often increase in the run-up to elections, a phenomenon that some political scientists have attributed to attempts by Hindu parties to energize their base. In the region of southern Chhattisgarh known as Bastar, the boogeyman has been the Christian.
The violence that roiled Bastar began in December and eventually affected about 100 villages, local activists said.
On Jan. 2, members of a local Hindu group known as the Janjati Suraksha Manch stormed a Catholic church in Narayanpur town, where they destroyed statues and threw rocks through stained-glass windows. On Jan. 12, more than 200 men in Chimmdi village climbed onto the roof of the small church built by Jai Singh Potai and tore it down. Around the corner, they smashed another church and wrote on a blackboard: “If you don’t leave Christianity then the same will happen again.”
“It’s not going to work between Hindus and Christians,” Potai said as he surveyed the damage one night under cover of darkness. Soon, he would move away for good, he said.
For a century, the poor, Indigenous tribes that lived here outside India’s caste-based society, worshiping trees and rivers rather than the Hindu pantheon, were seen as ripe for conversion by Catholic missions that gradually took root.
But in the past two decades, residents and outside experts say, religious tensions have escalated after a new wave of evangelical missionaries swept in from south India and abroad, prompting a backlash from local leaders and Hindu nationalists, who also have gained traction.
Nandini Sundar, a sociologist at the Delhi School of Economics, said the increase in conversions to Christianity in Bastar was part of the same global evangelical movement that has achieved rapid growth in other countries, including the United States and Brazil.
“Except here, Christians are in the minority, and they get beat up, and the Hindutva fundamentalists have state support,” she said, using a term for Hindu nationalist ideology. “There is aggressive fundamentalism from both sides, and it’s being played out through these villagers.”
The latest available government statistics, from 2011, show only 1.9 percent of Chhattisgarh state is Christian, in line with the 2.3 percent, or 28 million people, across all of India who are Christians.
But that may be an underestimate because the government counts only people who identify themselves as Christian in official documents. In Bastar, the true number of Christian believers — or “vishwasi,” as they call themselves — may be closer to a fifth of the population, say activists on both sides of the Christian-Hindu divide.
Salam’s wife, Sonari, became the first Christian convert in their village of Remavandh 20 years ago. She was left with an infant orphan, the daughter of her dead sister, and handed her out of desperation to an Indian Christian couple in Narayanpur. The couple took the child in, Sonari recalled, and invited her to their house church.
Within three years, “everyone in the village saw how they took care of her, and they became inspired,” Sonari Salam said. “One after another, they started to come.”
Before long, Sonari’s husband, Badinath, began proselytizing himself. During times when traveling preachers did not stop in Remavandh, he would lead sermons about the miracles of Jesus and the promise of eternal life. As his small congregation grew, to about 10 households, Badinath Salam said, so did his neighbors’ resentment.
Still, tensions never boiled over, he said, until 2018, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the Hindu nationalist party that controls India’s central government but lags politically in Chhattisgarh — lost power in the state to the Indian National Congress party.
“Once they started losing, the troubles started,” Salam said.
Souls and votes
Christianity was said to have been brought to the Indian subcontinent by the apostle Saint Thomas, who landed in Kerala in A.D. 52.
In the early years of independent India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his left-leaning Indian National Congress party fretted about an influx of missionaries overwhelming India’s tribal cultures and banned foreign missionaries.
Those on the political right worried, too. In the 1990s, Dilip Singh Judeo, a BJP leader, began holding “homecoming” ceremonies in Chhattisgarh. He would gather Christian converts and wash their feet. Hindu priests would smash a coconut on the ground. After that, the Indigenous men and women — even if they never practiced Hinduism in the first place — would be declared Hindus.
“These unclaimed souls, so to speak, were always seen as up for grabs by everybody,” said Shalini Gera, a prominent human rights lawyer based in Bastar.
In earlier decades, Catholic missions gradually embedded themselves into the community, Gera said. Statues of the Virgin Mary were sometimes draped in saris. Carvings of biblical characters had Indigenous facial features. Some churches conducted marriage ceremonies according to hybrid tribal-Christian customs.
But when evangelical Christians arrived with their fiery sermons in the past decade, they made swift inroads, Gera said. They also sparked local anxieties.
Dinesh Kashyap, a former member of Parliament from the BJP who lost his seat in 2019, said the situation for local Hindus was dire. Evangelists were roaming the countryside and enticing poor, gullible villagers, already converting 40 percent of them, he said.
“They offer food, clothes and money,” Kashyap said, sitting in his office. “They even get homes built.”
Kashyap has led his own “homecoming” foot-washing ceremonies, organized rallies to denounce Christian conversions and led protests to demand that Christians be denied government benefits reserved for tribal peoples. In recent weeks, he has helped mobilize the Janjati Suraksha Manch, which Christians say is behind the violence.
Kashyap denied wrongdoing, saying he has been advocating peaceful protest.
Hindu villagers “do not want to fight anybody,” he said. “But they are very concerned about conversions. If someone in your family suddenly changes their faith, wouldn’t you find that odd? That’s how people in this region feel.”
Kashyap, trailed by bodyguards carrying submachine guns, hopped into an SUV on a recent afternoon and pulled up to a rally where local BJP leaders were demanding the release of Hindus who had been jailed for recent attacks on churches. State officials led by the rival Congress party were abusing their powers by denying the Hindus bail, the BJP leaders told a small crowd.
One by one, the speakers described the dispute over conversions not just as a battle over faith, but also as a battle at the ballot box. Later this year, state elections will be held in Chhattisgarh.
“If we tolerate this government’s actions, they will destroy tribal identity and culture,” Raja Ram Todem, a state assemblyman who also mobilized the Janjati Suraksha Manch, said into the microphone. “Prepare yourselves to uproot this government in the upcoming elections.”
In mid-January, local police announced several arrests — angering local BJP leaders — but restored calm. Last week, police said they had escorted all of the evicted Christians back home.
But many remained pessimistic. “This will go on until the next election,” said one Christian leader in Narayanpur, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.
In recent weeks, more reports of attacks against Christians elsewhere in India have surfaced. A church in Mumbai’s Mahim neighborhood was vandalized. A group of Jesuit nonprofit workers was reportedly assaulted in Maharashtra state. In Uttar Pradesh state, South Korean students were accosted at a university by men who accused them of being missionaries, making headlines in national newspapers.
Fear has also radiated across Chhattisgarh. At a recent Sunday service at the AIM Bethel Pentecostal Church, located in an alley in the district neighboring Narayanpur, men and women held their arms aloft, swaying to a rock band and crying “Hallelujah!”
Near the back, the newest member of the 300-strong congregation, a nervous woman named Pavan, squeezed her eyes shut and prayed fervently. Leaders in her own village near Narayanpur were threatening to evict her, she said, so she got up before dawn, wrapped herself in a sweater and quietly got on a bus to attend this service, three hours away.
Ten years ago, she had depression and attempted suicide before finding Christianity, she said. “He never left me when I needed him,” she said. “So how can I leave Jesus now?”
The church pastor, Able Varghese, ordered an assistant to close the church gates. His neighbors belonged to the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organization, and some worshipers feared unnecessary confrontation.
Varghese, a native of Kerala in south India, recalled moving to Chhattisgarh in 1997 with no church and no followers. “There was always pressure, but it has never gotten so extreme,” he said.
And today? Varghese smiled.
“I’ve dedicated my life to spreading the word of Jesus. If I die a day early, so be it,” he said. “It is in the hands of God.”