Christian family beaten and separated from children in India

Tribal villagers violently attacked and expelled an old man and a couple for refusing to renounce their Christian faith.

Christian Daily International , Morning Star News

NEW DELHI · 22 MARCH 2024 · 15:34 CET

Sukma District, India. / <a target="_blank" href="">Sukma gov.</a>,
Sukma District, India. / Sukma gov.

A Christian couple in central India have not seen their two young children for more than a month after an attack by followers of traditional tribal religion drove them from their village for refusing to recant their faith.

Aayatu Ram Podiyami, 35, was assaulted twice in Gupanpal village, Sukma District, 31 miles from the Sukma city in Chhattisgarh state, for refusing to recant his Christian faith.

Aayatu Podiyami managed to escape into the jungle on both occasions, but his father, Mangu Ram Podiyami, “is not young and swift” and was unable to outrun the second assault.

The mob stopped beating him after he passed out, and his assailants thought he was dead,” Aayatu Podiyami said.

He and his wife and father have not returned home since taking refuge at a secure place on Feb. 12.

The couple has two daughters, ages 7 and 4. Aayatu Podiyami is the sole surviving son among three siblings, and also remaining at his house are his mother, younger brother’s widow and child, and his older brother’s son.

“I cannot go back home to see my children,” Aayatu Podiyami told Morning Star News. “Our assailants are on the watch, eyeing on our house, waiting for me to return. God is our only hope. Please pray for us. I can see no way forward.”

His father was released from a government hospital after receiving care for critical injuries for 16 days, and he is still being treated at a private medical center. “I still have pain in my chest and breathing difficulty,” Mangu Podiyami said.

Aayatu Podiyami has worked as a daily laborer to survive since the Feb. 12 assault.


Pressure to recant

The village leaders govern both Gupanpal and another village, and on Feb. 6 they summoned the two Christian families from Gupanpal and 10 others from the other village and ordered them to renounce their faith in Christ or be expelled, Aayatu Podiyami said.

All 11 of the other Christian families returned to their animistic, tribal religion, he said.

“What have you decided?” the village head asked him. “Will you renounce your Christian faith or leave the village?”

“I told them, ‘Where will I go? This is my home,’” Aayatu Podiyami told Morning Star News. “I have been believing in Jesus for four years, and I want to continue believing in Him.”

Soon a mob of about 100 people attacked the Christians with axes, knives and sticks, he said. While Aayatu Podiyami fled to the jungle, his father locked himself in a room in their home.

After hiding in the jungle for an entire day and night, Aayatu Podiyami filed a complaint at Tongpal police station. Officers summoned the village representatives to the police station on Feb. 8 and negotiated an agreement between residents and the village leaders, citing individual right to religious freedom. No formal complaint was registered.

On the morning of Feb. 12, however, villagers gathered in front of Aayatu Podiyami’s house and repeated the ultimatum, questioning him six times. His reply was the same as before, and they told him to relocate to another village.

“Where will I go?” Aayatu Podiyami responded. “My forefathers lived in this village, and I am born and brought up here. This is my home.”

The mob then assaulted Aayatu Podiyami, he said. His wife and children somehow managed to free him from the assailants, and Aayatu Podiyami again fled toward the jungle.

“About 15-20 men chased me for almost a mile,” he said. “I ran and ran as fast as I could while the men ran after me. I continued to run in the jungle, as the men intently searched for me in the woods. I had foot sores for a week into the incident.”

The mob turned to his father, Mangu Podiyami, and began beating him. They also assaulted those who tried to rescue him, including Aayatu Podiyami’s wife and other family members. Mangu Podiyami was beaten unconscious and left for dead.

Aayatu Podiyami hid in the jungle for several hours, shifting locations as he knew the villagers were hunting him.

“I was so worried for my father,” he said, his voice quavering. “I knew I had left him behind as a soft target. He is old and frail. He cannot run to save himself as I did. All the while in the jungle, I was not sure if my father survived the assault or was killed.”


Police bias

Arun Pannalal, chairman of Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, accused police of inaction, saying the Station Head Officer had received written information about the potential for more major attacks after the Feb. 6 assault.

“The police did not take proper action,” Pannalal told Morning Star News. “Mere talks and words were not enough. Police inaction strengthened the assaulters to redo what they had done earlier, but this time with much brutality.”

In spite the use of deadly weapons like axes and knives, after the second attack officers registered only a case under sections for preventative measures such as “abetment of a thing” and “abetment of offense punishable with imprisonment,” Pannalal said.

“It was a clear attack with intentions to kill,” he said. “The mild charges imposed by the police show their bias. Despite severe head injuries and Mangu’s critical condition, immediate medical assistance was not provided by the police.”

The family called for emergency services and an ambulance. “The villagers surrounded the ambulance and would not let them transport my father to a hospital,” he said. “My family begged to let them take him, otherwise he would die.”

Aayatu Podiyami reported the second assault to police, but the First Information Report finally registered portrayed the assault as a mild scuffle, he said.

With the help of an attorney, Aayatu Podiyami submitted a written complaint to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate office, Collectorate and police headquarters.

“A complaint is lodged with the National Human Rights Commission about the police deliberately indulging in and supporting attacks,” Pannalal said.

The only other Christian family in Gupanpal village, which came to faith six years ago, returned to tribal religion on Feb. 12, “when they witnessed the brutal assault of my father,” Aayatu Podiyami said.

“I will not renounce my faith even if I have to leave my home, my village,” he said. “If I go back, they will kill me. I have two children, and I have to think of them. If the situation does not improve, I will relocate to a different place and work as a daily-laborer and provide for my family but will not renounce Christ.”

Aayatu Podiyami’s two children had to stop going to school because of the turmoil and danger to their lives. “For several weeks my children could not go to school, and their education suffered greatly,” he said.

Church worship in the area has ceased. Previously about 50 people gathered regularly to worship at an open structure at a nearby village.


Christian response

“Christian society will not tolerate further attacks,” said Pannalal, adding that Christians have formed rapid action teams to promptly reach the sites of reported attacks.

Thousands of Christians on Feb. 28 gathered in Raipur, capital of Chhattisgarh, to protest the state government’s refusal to protect Christians.

Organized by the Chhattisgarh Yuva Manch, the rally culminated in a peaceful demonstration after foot processions and motorbike processions from all over the state.

Organizers protested violations of basic human rights, targeting of churches, police bias and neglect by media that do not report on anti-Christian attacks.

“The government will be solely responsible for any untoward situation that arise between the communities in future,” Pannalal said.

Requesting the government to pay heed to the plight of the Christian community and take stringent action against the police, Pannalal said, “We still have faith and hope that Chhattisgarh government will follow the Indian constitution in spirit and word.”

Sukma, located in the Bastar region at the southern tip of Chhattisgarh, has a population that is 85%  tribal and is known for a significant Maoist presence.

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 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position worsened after Modi came to power.

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