Can an elected Panchayat deprive a section of its own people belonging to a minority community its constitutionally granted right to practise its religion - e.g. organise prayers or engage in religious propaganda and have sermons ?
Or can it ever deprive them of their mandatory quota of grain under PDS (public distribution system)?
Anyone conversant with rudimentary understanding of law would reply in the negative. It appears that in Chattisgarh they do it differently. In fact, Sirasguda, Kunguda and many other villages in Jagdalpur and adjoining areas in the state are in the news for similar reasons.
Few days back a team of civil liberty activists belonging to PUCL had visited the villages and had come back with stories of intimidation faced by a section of the villagers - mainly belonging to Christian community - at the hands of Hindutva fanatics. Many amongst them have even left for Jagdalpur fearing reprisal attacks by them. These tribals are being pressurised to 'return to Hinduism'.
The local MP from the area - belonging to BJP - had organised a big 'reconversion' programme (presented as 'gharvapasi') in Kunguda on 11th October which 'witnessed' 33 tribal families embracing Hinduism. It is rumoured that the actual figure was low and many of the 'convertees' were Hindus only. The big congregation organised on this occasion was followed by a procession in the village itself where anti Christian slogans were raised which further terrorised the people.
A tragedy is that the local media is either silent over these developments or is presenting one sided versions of the whole developments there. And as far as the police is concerned it is no better. The very fact that resolutions of the local Panchayats are being used to deprive the minority Christians ( all of them tribals) of their basic constitutional rights does not seem to be their concern. The hapless christian tribals are even denied grain under PDS Scheme.
Double standards adopted by the district administration vis-a-vis conversions are for everyone to see. Concerned citizens are raising a very valid question about the selective application of the tough anti-conversion law in practice in the state. While the law mandates that before any conversion the said party should contact the distict administration , activists are saying it is strictly implemented in case of Christians and other minorities only while similar attempts by the majority community are going unchecked. It is as if the state is protector of a particular religion and not its secular principles.
It need be reminded that it is not for the first time that these villages are in the news. Few months back reports had appeared in a section of the press ('The Hindu' Updated: July 5, 2014 23:18 IST) about developments in these villages. According to it an '[a]ggressive campaign by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had led to a ban on the entry of and propaganda by non-Hindu missionaries, especially Christians, in more than 50 villages of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region in the last six months.' Referring to a discussion with a local VHP leader it had even talked how these Panchayats passed orders under Section 129 (G) of the Chhattisgarh Panchayat Raj Act banning all “non-Hindu religious propaganda, prayers and speeches in the villages.”
An order passed by Sirisguda Panchayat read as follows :
“To stop the forced conversion by some outsider religious campaigners and to prevent them from using derogatory language against Hindu deities and customs, the Sirisguda Gram Sabha bans religious activities such as prayers, meetings and propaganda of all non-Hindu religions.” (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/in-bastar-50-villages-ban-nonhindu-missionaries/article6180825.ece)
It is disturbing to know that despite the 'illegal and unconstitutional' step not much was done to rein in the perpetrators and the situation was allowed to deteriorate further. Reports in few national dailies were to no avail. Today when the situation seems to have become worse, there is further silence on part of the media.One does not know what will happen next.
Whether the Raman Singh government would rise from its deep slumber and would do something about it remains to be seen.
As an aside it may be mentioned that the Narendra Modi government, which believes itself to be efficient and hard working, recently got a slap on the wrist from the Supreme Court which said it behaved like 'Kumbhakarna', the mythological character who loved sleeping for long periods, and 19th century story character 'Rip Van Winkle', who shirked hard work. A two member bench of the highest court was deliberating on the failure of the ministry of environment and forests to submit a report in stipulated time.
Perhaps it is high time that the highest courts of the country suo motto reminds the Raman Singh government of its constitutionally mandated duties and tell it not to behave like Rip Van Winkle in executing them.