In the wake of Khunti gangrape incident and a subsequent stand-off between police and Patthalgarhi supporters over the abduction of policemen, the BJP has accused the Church of backing the movement that has disrupted administration in many villages. While the Church has denied the charge, this is yet another issue centred on religion, land and tribal rights that has snowballed into a face-off between the Church and BJP since it came to power in 2014.
On June 19, Patthalgarhi supporters allegedly abducted five women from a school in Kochang village of Khunti where they went to perform a play and gangraped them. Police arrested two accused on rape charge and a Catholic priest, a member of the school management, for allegedly not doing enough to prevent the incident. Following the priest’s arrest, state BJP spokesmen accused the Church of being behind Patthalgarhi movement. They said the Church should “stick to religion” and Opposition JMM to politics.
Subsequently, at a press meet, Secretary General, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, Theodore Mascarenhas, said the BJP was making such charges because not all was well with the administration and government. Newly elected Archbishop of Ranchi, Bishop Felix Toppo, could not be contacted.
The BJP’s state ST cell president and Khijri MLA, Ram Kumar Pahan, said, “Why did the Father who has been arrested not raise an alarm in time? There are questions which need to be answered.” He said ever since Patthalgarhi movement started, BJP leaders have been trying to make people understand that they were being “misled through wrong interpretation of the Constitution”.
Last year, the state BJP launched an initiative to counter the movement, which had just started taking shape. However, over the next few months, barring intermittent statements, the party did not do much in this direction. Pahan claimed that party leaders were monitoring the situation. Asked why leaders of the movement still had tribals’ support, he admitted, “Probably, we should have gone to people a little more.”
State BJP general secretary Deepak Prakash said, “It is not that our leaders are not meeting people and telling them the facts. But, these people (Patthalgarhi supporters) are backed by the Church and use unscrupulous means to make people do what they want.”
“Such incidents (abduction of policemen from Khunti BJP MP Kariya Munda’s residence) are attempts to provoke the administration into taking a drastic step. I appreciate the administration and police for exercising restraint.”
A BJP leader said the Church started “feeling unease” when the Centre put curbs on funding from abroad.
“First, their funding, which was used for conversion purposes, was tightened. Then, the state government defined a ‘local’, besides introducing proposed amendments in Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act [the government later backed out on these]. On that issue, the Church came out against the state government, as they have usurped tribals’ land in violation of CNTA and SPTA. They are the state’s biggest landowners,” said a BJP leader. He said things came to a head when the state government brought in the anti-conversion law, which prevents conversion through “allurement or force”. “It’s not surprising the Church is reacting in this way.”
BJP MP Munda recently alleged that the Church was behind the Patthalgarhi movement. Contacted after abduction of guards posted at his residence, Munda said: “Whether or not this problem was allowed to become big is something you should ask the government and administration, not me.”
Defending the Church, JMM MLA from Torpa in Khunti, Poulus Sureen, said: “Blaming the Church is not the solution. The problem is with the government, which is hell-bent on taking away all safeguards provided for Scheduled Areas under the Constitution. It is in a hurry to give land to corporates.”