The family of Shyamlal Kashyap were blackmailed – literally – over his dead body.
In May 2023, the 20-year-old wage labourer from Arracote had taken his own life; he left behind his pregnant wife, 20-year-old Martha.
“It was a suicide. The body was taken to the nearest hospital about 15 kilometres from here,” says Sukmiti Kashyap, 30, his sister-in-law. She is sitting outside her dimly-lit hut located at the edge of barren land in Arracote village. “The post mortem report ruled out any foul play.”
At the government hospital, a couple of relatives were waiting to claim Shyamlal’s body and take it home to their village where devastated family members were making arrangements for the funeral. The family were in shock, yet to come to terms with the tragedy.
It was at that moment that some locals informed the family that they would only be able to conduct the last rites in the village if they converted to Hinduism.
The family earns its living mainly through labour work and cultivating a three-acre patch of farmland in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district. Here they cultivate rice for self-consumption. Their only income came from Shyamlal’s back-breaking labour work that brought in around Rs. 3,000 a month.
Sukmiti wonders if the burden of raising a kid in abject poverty got to him. “He didn’t even leave a note,” she says.
The family belongs to the Madiya tribe, among the two per cent population of Chhattisgarh that follows Christianity. Many of them live in the Bastar region that lies in the south of the state.
Shyamlal Kashyap went missing in the the second week of May earlier this year. The incident triggered a frantic search through the forests of Bastar with family members up all night.
The next morning, their search came to a tragic end when his lifeless body was found hanging from a tree not too far from their home. “We were confused, shaken and disoriented. We couldn’t think straight," recalls Sukmiti.
Arracote is a small village population of just over 2,500. “In moments like these, you expect people in your village to provide emotional support,” says Sukmiti.
Instead, the family was subjected to heckling and intimidation – influential members of the village, egged on by right-wing leaders had decided to take advantage of their vulnerability. They decreed that Shyamlal’s funeral would be allowed in the village on one condition: the family had to convert from Christianity to Hinduism and conduct the last rites according to Hindu rituals.
A burial with a Christian priest was off limits.
Sukmiti says their family had been following Christianity for nearly 40 years. “It has been our way of life now,” she adds, pointing to a cross marked on her door. “We pray regularly, and it gives us strength to deal with tough times. How do you just abandon your faith overnight?”
The grieving family were mobbed by right-wing supporters who told them they had no access to the cemetery in the village where the burials have been happening for all these years. “We are being targeted only because we chose to follow a particular faith. But you can follow whatever religion you want to follow. I have read that in the news,” says Sukmiti.
What’s more, “they
wouldn’t even let us bury Shyamlal in our backyard,” she adds. “That’s where we
had buried his grandmother. We thought the two could rest next to each other.
But we were told we couldn’t do it because we stood up to them and refused to
The family of Shyamlal belong to the Madiya tribe and follow Christianity. When he died, influential members of the village decreed that his funeral would be allowed in the village on one condition: the family had to convert to Hinduism and conduct the last rites according to Hindu rituals
The hostility with which tribal Christians have been treated by Hindu groups is not new in Chhattisgarh. But the frequency of blackmailing or threatening people after a death in the family is escalating alarmingly, says Ratnesh Benjamin, vice president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum in Bastar.
Right-wing groups are targeting families that have lost their loved ones and the harassment is also carried out by tribals who do not follow Christianity. One gram sabha passed a resolution which disallowed cremation for the people following Christianity within the boundary of the village.
Finally, Shyamlal’s body, instead of being brought to the village, was directly taken to the district capital of Jagdalpur – 40 kilometers from Arracote – and buried there. “The burial has to happen at its pace for us to process the loss of our loved one,” says Sukmiti.
Shyamlal’s last rites seemed like mere logistics. It was rushed through. “It felt like we didn’t send him off properly,” says the family.
Their refusal to convert to the Hindu fold created tensions in the village, which was on edge for days after Shyamlal’s death. Police were deployed to maintain law and order. Unfortunately, their solution for peace was to give in to the majoritarian demands.
“This is largely a post-covid phenomenon,” says Benjamin. “Before that, the right-wingers attempted to convert Christians to Hinduism using various methods, but death was respected by and large. Sadly, not anymore.”
The Bastar region is rich with mineral wealth but its people are among the poorest in India. Nearly 40 per cent of the state's largely tribal rural population live below the poverty line.The region has been embroiled in an armed conflict since the 1980s. The Maoist insurgents, or armed guerillas, claim to be fighting for the rights of the tribal communities by protecting the forests, which are being eyed by the state and rich corporations. In the last 25 years, the armed conflict has claimed thousands of lives. In 2018, when the state witnessed a change in power after 15 years of BJP-rule, the Congress had won 11 out 12 seats in Bastar region – consisting of seven districts including Bastar district.
Now, in the run-up to the impending assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, members of right-wing groups have been working on the ground to polarise the climate in order to wrest the state back.
Ravi Brahmachari, a senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader in Bastar, says that VHP and Bajrang Dal have recorded over 70 such funerals over the past year and a half, where Hindus intervened and made it difficult for tribal Christians to cremate their loved ones. “The Christian missionaries have been preying on poor people and taking advantage of their illiteracy,” he says. “We work for Gharwapsi [return to the fold]. Our job is to awaken Hindus. Those who have been ‘enlightened’ by us don’t let tribal Christians conduct funerals in the village.”
Not too far from Arracote, in the village of Nagalsar, members of Bajrang Dal went a step further in harassing a tribal family that followed Christianity.
Panduram Nag, 32, lost his grandmother, Aayati, in August 2022. She was 65, but ailing, and passed away peacefully. However, her funeral was anything but peaceful.
“While we carried her to the cemetery, a group of villagers, which included members of Bajrang Dal, started pushing us around,” recalls Nag, who belongs to the Dhurwa tribe. “We lost balance and my grandmother’s body almost fell. They even pulled the rug under her dead body. All because we refused to convert to Hinduism.”
The family stood its ground. Nag insisted on not giving into majoritarian pressure. “We own a three-acre farmland and what we do on it is our business,” he says. “We decided to bury her over there. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”The members of the Bajrang Dal eventually backed down and the burial went through without further disruptions. Even then, people were distracted, looking out for one while giving Aayati a respectable send-off. “Is it too much to expect peace while conducting last rites?” he asks. “Yes, we won that battle. But we don’t want our children growing up in this atmosphere. Even the village heads didn’t stand by us.”
Fear is so palpable that even those who don’t agree with right wing groups prefer to sit on the fence.
In May this year, Datturam Poyam, 23, and his father, Kosha, 60, sat in their small hut next to the body of Kosha’s wife, Ware, who had passed away the same day after being bedridden for a while. This was in the village of Alwa in Bastar district – about 30 kilometres from Jagdalpur.
Suddenly a group of men barged into their home and started beating them up. “Nobody in the village intervened,” says Datturam. “We have lived here all our life. Not a single person in the village had the courage to stand up for us.”
The Christian family belongs to the Madiya tribe and had refused to convert to Hinduism. The group of Hindu men – which included Bajrang Dal members – didn’t care that the coffin with Ware’s dead body was still in the house. The two were beaten up black and blue to the extent that Kosha fell unconscious and had to be admitted to a hospital for a week.
“I have never felt so helpless in my life,” says Kosha. “My wife had died and I couldn’t be with my son to mourn her loss.”
Benjamin says that the perception of a non-BJP government protecting the minorities is untrue as the Christians in Bastar have been under attack even under the Congress regime’s recent rule since 2018.
Datturam too had to go to Jagdalpur to conduct her last rites. “We rented a pick-up truck that cost us Rs. 3,500,” he says. “We are a family of labourers. We earn that money in a good month.”
He says the incident was unsettling but certainly not surprising. “This incident didn’t happen out of nowhere. We have been told to leave the village if we want to follow Christianity,” he adds.
The marginalisation of tribal Christians has been going on. “We aren’t allowed to fetch water from the common well in the village anymore,” Kosha says. “We have to do it clandestinely.”
Reports of similar persecution have been coming from other parts of Bastar as well. In December 2022, over 200 tribal Christians were forced out of their village in the district of Narayanpur. The incident compelled hundreds of locals to camp outside the District Collector’s office, protesting against their persecution at the hands of people instigated by the right-wing Hindutva groups.
The protestors reportedly submitted a letter to the Collector documenting dozens of attacks on Christian minorities in just the month of December 2022.
Back in Arracote, Sukmiti says the family were not allowed to go to a wedding in a neighbouring village because it was a Christian family getting married: “The family had to throw away the food they had prepared for the guests because nobody could reach there.”
Despite the Constitution (Article 25) stating that “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion,” tribal Christians are facing hostility and intimidation.
“The situation is such that when someone dies in a Christian family, our first reaction is fear and logistics, not grief. What sort of death is this?” she says.