The young rebels of Jhumra hills

Babita Mahto, who has been with this Local Guerrilla Squad of CPI (Maoist) a year, said that joining the party gave her a sense of purpose and immortality.

“So many women in the Mahto community kill themselves due to the stress from dowry, tilak [social ceremonies]. If I die at home, my parents will mourn for some months; we had a daughter who died, they will say. But here, there are so many of us who will remember — there was such and such didi [older sister], our comrade; she died for the people.”

An article based on this and other interviews with Maoist rebels in this area appeared in The Hindu.

The curious case of the alphabetically accused

On January 30, 2015, the Supreme Court while hearing a Special Leave Petition for bail for two jailed Maruti workers, Sunil Kumar and Kanwaljeet, gave the Haryana government two weeks to respond why the workers should not be granted bail. SC had on 17 February 2014 declined to hear the workers’ bail plea as eye-witnesses were still being examined. It asked the Haryana court to complete examine eye witnesses by April 2014, though the local court later missed this deadline. Below is a report from August 2014 on the legal case against a majority of the workers.

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Co-workers, families of jailed Maruti workers marching to Haryana Chief Minister Bhoopinder Singh Hooda on August 3, stopped on the way by the police in Rohtak. Photo: Anumeha Yadav

The Hindu

Manesar (Haryana): On Thursday, 147 workers of Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) in Bhondsi jail will be waiting patientlyfor the decision of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana on bail plea of two of the 147 workers. They have been in jail since two years after manager Awanish Kumar Dev was killed in an instance of rioting in Maruti‘s Manesar plant on 18 July 2012. The rioting in July 2012 was preceded by months of strikes by the workers demanding an independent union in 2011 that had caused a loss of over Rs 2500 crores to MSIL, India’s largest automobile manufacturer.

While all 147 workers have been charged on eighteen counts, including rioting charges, and under Section 302 of IPC for murder of Mr Dev, a pattern has emerged from the evidence against the workers. In case of 89 workers, the Haryana police cited the testimonies of only four labour supply contractors hired by the MSIL. Each contractor has testified to witnessing workers indulge in violence such that the names of the workers allegedly seen rioting fall in an alphabetical order.

Rioters seen in alphabetical order

Court documents show witness Virendra alias Rajender Yadav has named 25 workers such that all workers’ names fall in the alphabetical range of A-G. Another witness contractor Yaad Ram testified that he saw 25 workers rioting all of whose names fall in the next range G-P. Witness Ashok Rana names 26 workers who were allegedly rioting whose names range from P-S.The final witness Rakesh of Tirupati Associates who supplied 900 contract workers to MSIL testified to allegedly seeing 13 workers whose names, continuing the alphabetic sequence, are in the range S-Y.

On July 5 in the district court, all four contractors failed to identify any of the 89 workers named by them. “The management had originally named 52 persons in the FIR, mainly from the union’s body. The police picked up another 100 workers over the next two-three weeks and assigned 89 names alphabetically to the labour contractors with there being no other witnesses. They did not produce any witnesses at all against another 11 workers,” said defence counsel RS Hooda commenting on the evidence against 100 of 147 workers.

Special Public Prosecutor KTS Tulsi declined to comment on this pattern of the testimonies. Witness Virendra alias Rajender Yadav who has named workers with names ranging from A-G told The Hindu that his firm VGR Engineer Pvt. Ltd. supplied 700 workers to the Manesar plant in July 2012, and at present it supplied 600 workers to MSIL’s Gurgaon plant.

Car doors’ recovery

As rioting weapons, the police show they have recovered 139 car door frames and iron rods from workers weeks after the incident. For instance, they show Maruti Suzuki Workers Union’s head Ram Meher was arrested 13 days later on August 1, 2012. The Recovery Memo records that a car door frame over 2 feet in length, with sharp metal planks welded at both ends allegedly used as rioting weapon was found inside his bed in his residence in Ashok Vihar, 25 km from the Manesar plant. Similarly, they show Sarabjeet, the Union’s General Secretary, was arrested on August 1, 2012 and a car door frame recovered from inside Sarabjeet’s bed at his Laxman Vihar house, 22 km from the Maruti plant, was the alleged weapon.

Inside Bhondsi jail, 15 km from Gurgaon, Ram Meher said the pattern was repeated for several workers. “The police say we hid and carried door frames for kilometres, in some instances till another district. How could have we? The police planted these and showed arrests after many of us surrendered,” said Ram Meher.

“The alphabetic order of witness is a matter of probability. It is less probable but not impossible. I cannot comment on other details as I was not the DCP in charge at that time,” said DCP (South) Gurgaon Vivek Sharma.

The District Court in Gurgaon has already rejected the workers’ bail plea thrice, most recently this June. The High Court turned it down in May.

Jharkhand polls: In Jharia, Nirsa, coal leaves a mark on polls

The Hindu

At the tri-junction at Govindpur, Mahendra Mahto paused to look both sides before continuing pushing his cycle. Mahto, in his 20s, wearing a shirt and trousers and open-toed sandals, had six sacks weighing 40 kgs each of coal tied to both sides of the cycle. He began walking, pushing the 250-kg load five hours earlier at 6 am. At Govindpur, he joined six cyclewallahs who were waiting for everyone in their group to catch up. They sold the sacks to dhaba-owners, tea-shops at Rs 50 a sack at the market, before cycling home to Godhar.

Mahto had hesitated before speaking about his journey from Godhar coal mine, 17 km away, till here. After the central government nationalised coal in 1971, digging coal by hand and using it in small quantities as household fuel, or selling it in the open market is illegal. Thousands of landless families, a majority of whom are dalit and OBC, pushing cycles loaded with coal every day in Jharkhand’s coal-rich areas are a criminalised community, and live and work in perpetual fear of being jailed for their livelihood.

Coal traders, however, have prospered. In Dhanbad’s Jharia, which will go to polls in the fourth phase of elections in the state on December 14, the two main candidates, representing BJP and Congress belong to the “Singh Mansion”, said to be the richest family in the coal business in Jharkhand. The BJP candidate Sanjeev Singh, the son of the sitting MLA Kunti Singh and former MLA Surya Dev Singh is set for a face-off with his paternal cousin, Neeraj Singh, the Deputy Mayor of Dhanbad.

The Singhs are accused of controlling the loading of coal in trucks and at railway slidings, and of demanding a tax on every tonne loaded, in collusion with Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) officials. They are accused of running syndicates which bid at electronic auctions and keep prices low. Every year, upto 20 million tonnes of coal is estimated to be diverted.

Sanjiv Singh, BJP candidate in Jharia, at Hurriladih mine where 19 workers died when the mine flooded on 14 September 1983. photo by Manob Chowdhury

Sanjeev Singh, BJP candidate in Jharia, at Hurriladih mine where 19 workers died when the mine flooded on 14 September 1983. photo by Manob Chowdhury

“Not a single trader can say we have stopped them from doing business. In fact, we help whoever wishes to do business in coal here,” said BJP candidate Sanjeev Singh, as he sat in his SUV after addressing a rally at Bhaura grounds, Jharia. Sanjeev Singh was one of the accused in the murder of Suresh Singh, a rival in the coal business who was gunned down at a wedding in 2011. “The police was not able to prove that I was even present in Dhanbad that day,” pointed out Mr Singh, as his villagers and mine workers walking on the road offered salutations everywhere Mr Singh went. Both candidates claim ownership of Janta Mazdoor Sangh (JMS), a trade union set up by Sanjeev’s father, former MLA Surya Dev Singh, through which the family is said to influence coal loading and transportation.

Congress candidate Neeraj Singh said that after training in engineering, he worked in Kolkata and Ranchi before returning to Dhanbad. He began public work in Jharia by taking up the cause of contract workers of BCCL to get wages and hours of work in parity with BCCL’s permanent workers. “When BCCL tried to move families living on top of Jharia coal-fields, I backed their agitation for rehabilitation and courted arrest,” said Mr Singh, as he finished addressing his supporters late in the evening at Lodna.

A few kilometers away, in bastis in Bhandora, Jayrampurmod, Jagdorha, in the midst of Jharia’s mines, the landless cyclewallahs, too poor to find temporary jobs in the mines, had begun returning home after another day of evading arrests and harassment.

Villagers and mine workers at Congress candidate Neeraj Singh's election rally in Jharia. photo by Manob Chowdhury

Villagers and mine workers at Congress candidate Neeraj Singh’s election rally in Lodna near Jharia. photo by Manob Chowdhury

NIRSA: At late noon, there is hectic activity in the open-cast coal mine at Dahibadi. Workers can be seen loading trucks before they slowly make their way up the massive open quarry. A hundred meters away, at the Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL)’s Basantimata colliery all is quiet except ocassional sounds of a water
pump from underneath the ground.

Gopal Singh, the attendance clerk in shift ‘A’ says 104 mine workers are 1500 meters underground. There are six hours more to go before the shift ends. Both Singh and Birendra Ram, the Haulage Operator, working nearby seem to turn philosophical when they speak of work. “This is a place of pure darkness,” says Ram. “Workers find a new life every time they emerge from the mine. It is a relief for all of us once the full shift comes out,” says Singh, in his late 50s. Every BCCL employee seems to recount the histories of mine accidents from decades ago. “Nineteen workers at Hurriladih took jal samadhi, the mine had got flooded, on 14 September 1983. It was the same at Gajritand. In Chasnala, the entire shift, 370 workers, died underground.”

At Basantimata colliery, a few meters from Singh’s small cabin, there was an accident just last year. On November 13, 2013, three workers Harilal Hairjan, Litti Sau, Sitaram Manjhi, died when a portion of the mine’s roof collapsed. The sitting MLA Arup Chatterjee of Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC) spent six hourse inside the mine coordinating the rescue efforts after the body of a BCCL manager had remained trapped a day after the three workers’ bodies had been removed.

Nirsa goes to polls on December 14 in the fourth phase of elections in Jharkhand. The MCC’s Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union (BKCU) and the rival Janta Mazdoor Sangh (JMS) both compete for cadre membership and workers’ votes. Both MCC and BKCU were founded in early 1970s by AK Roy, a founder of the Jharkhand Movement. Nirsa is the one of two assembly seats in Jharkhand the Left has been able to hold on to for the last two decades. JMS was set up by former MLA Surya Dev Singh, whose son Sanjeev Singh is contesting from nearby Jharia on a BJP seat. BJP candidate in Nirsa is Ganesh Mishra, a RSS functionary.

The rivalries between the two parties erupted in clashes between MCC and BJP on December 11 in which MCC wrker Machan Ravidas was killed in hours before the MCC was to hold a rally at Pithakyari, a few kilmeters from Basantimata. “For us, this is a fight against growing corporate clout here and for the rights of people of Jharkhand as Comrade AK Roy envisioned,” said Sushanto Mukherjee Central Committee member of MCC.

On social security and pensions in a 60-plus republic

India’s growth story of the last two decades has had one recurring theme: that the pattern of economic growth is accentuating insecurities. Yet, there continues to be a deep divide over whether the gains from growth ought to be ploughed to achieve social security for everyone. Social security has come to be linked to job benefits, trying it to one’s status as a worker in the formal or the informal economy when, fundamentally, it originates from the notion of ensuring everyone protection against vulnerability and deprivation.

In the Constitution, Directive Principles Article 41 asks the State to “within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want.” Article 42 says the State shall make provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity benefits.

India does not yet explicitly recognise a national minimum social security cover. In recent years, including with an intervention by the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, the government moved forward to providing nutrition, and beginning 2006, employment support to the poor through MNREGA.

Economists Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze distinguish two aspects of social security – “protection” and “promotion”. While the former denotes protection again a fall in living standards and living conditions through ill health, accidents, the latter focuses on enhances living conditions, helping everyone overcome persistent capabilities deprivation.

A close look at India’s record in providing social security shows that while only a fraction of citizens enjoy any “protection” at all, these are being further eroded with the current pattern of economic growth. Among provisions aimed at “promotion”, social security through nutrition, work entitlements for all, are threatened with fund cuts and further shrinking.

The poor and pensions

In 2011, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court on the official poverty line, the Planning Commission estimated that based on the Tendulkar Committee report 30 percent of the population live below the official poverty line. Several debates followed on how the poverty line ought to be defined. But what has remained absent from both public discourse and laws is a more crucial question: how do these 35 crores people on survive Rs 32 per person per day in urban areas and Rs 26 per person per day in rural areas? What do they do in contingencies of health, illness, old age, and death, and how do they protect themselves from slipping into further poverty?

The government launched the first pensions program for the poor, the National Social Assistance Program, starting with of a pension Rs 75 per month, in 1995. Under the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme and Widow Pension Scheme, the central government contributes Rs 200 and Rs 300 per month respectively. Several states, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar provide between Rs 400-300 per month. Tamil Nadu provides Rs 1,000 per month.

A recent survey, which included pensions, found the leakages to be small, and found encouraging evidence that the scheme is reaching its intended beneficiaries. The Public Evaluation of Entitlement Programmes(PEEP) survey in 2013 by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi) recorded that among nearly 900 rural respondents selected at random from the official pension lists in ten states, 97 per cent were getting their pension and recorded only one case of “duplicate” pension i.e. one elderly person getting two pensions. Majority of beneficiaries, 76 percent, however, said they received pensions in their post office and bank accounts after delays of over a month. Thus, while the pension amounts are meagre, they are crucial in supplementing the elderly’s ability to afford medicines, food, and other necessities.

A universal social security

The biggest gap, and one which may only widen, is in social protection for the working poor. The UPA government appointed the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS) in 2004 to look into livelihood conditions and social security for unorganized workers – employed in the unorganized sector and those in the formal sector without any social protection. It found that only those in the formal sector, 8 percent of India’s workforce, enjoys social security. Over 91 percent of workers, over 39.5 crore workers, are in the informal sector.

The Commission highlighted that there had been almost no growth in formal employment since early 1990s and almost all growth in employment was in the unorganized sector. NCEUS’ finding that 79 percent of workers in unorganized sector lived on an income of less than Rs 20 a day made it evident that the gains of growth were bypassing the majority of the working population.

NCEUS proposed legislation for a national minimum security package for unorganized sector workers, social insurance, social assistance for life and health cover, old age benefits to all workers within a period of five years financed by the Centre and state governments, employers (where identifiable) and workers at a cost of less than 0.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product after five years. The UPA discarded the Commission’s recommendations for statutory backing to social protection. “NCEUS suggested a National Fund for this and a notional Rs 1500 crores was set up. It proposed that National and State Social Security Advisory Boards were to be created but only 14 states set these up,” says a senior government official.

India spends 1.4 percent of its GDP on social protection, among the lowest in Asia, far lower than China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and even Nepal (5.4, 3.2, 3.6, 2.1 percent, respectively). The NDA government has not yet indicated any support to the idea of legally guaranteed social protection for all workers. Officials say the government is proposing to issue a smart card, “U-WIN”, Unorganized Sector Identification Number, to every worker in the unorganized sector with a unique identification number for accessing social schemes. What these benefits will be, and what their legal guarantee is uncertain.

A doctor tells stories

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Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, the story of a Santhali family over four generations, is remarkable for a deep and masterful observation of lives and descriptions of a tribal village – its tree groves, weekly markets, festivals, fights, and gatherings.

The debut author, a doctor with the government of Jharkhand, lives in Pakur, along the state’s border with West Bengal. Once or twice, in descriptions when Rupi and her husband Sido visit doctors to seek cure for Rupi’s mysterious ailment, the writer’s professional knowledge seem perceptible in the narrative. At others, the descriptions of the characters’ emotions of envy, loss, uncertainty are so natural, the supernatural seamlessly flows from them in the story.

What does being shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014 mean to you?


I think it means that something good is being expected of me. So I should try to work harder and write better books.

How did your closeness, or distance, from the lives of the people you were describing affect your writing?


The Santhal village, as I have shown in my novel, is how I have seen my village. I have always lived in a Santhal village. My village, Kishoripur – where I revised Rupi Baskey – and my hometown, Ghatsila – where I wrote Rupi Baskey – are just 40 km apart. We would always be at our village for one reason or the other every 10-15 days, or so. Sometimes I would be at Kishoripur in the morning and return to Ghatsila in the evening. There was no question of being close or distant here. I was both. What I have written in Rupi Baskey is from my own life.

How do you compare observing as a doctor to observing lives around you as a writer? Was there ever a temptation to diagnose Rupi’s ailment in the plot, or in your mind?


I remember, when I was working as a house surgeon at my medical college in Jamshedpur, my colleagues and I once saw a very fair young lady in a ward. Our immediate response was: Is this lady really this fair or is she anaemic? You wouldn’t get such a response from ordinary people; only from medicos. Doctors pay attention to the minutiae, the finer details. That is, I think, the beauty of being a doctor.
While writing Rupi Baskey, though, I felt neither as a doctor nor a writer. I did use my experience as a doctor in writing the childbirth scene in Chapter 1, but I never tried to consciously put my knowledge of medical sciences into my book. I was not comfortable thinking of myself as a writer at the time. In fact, I am not comfortable even now being called a writer. What you read in this book, was more as a person seeing an other person and then telling that other person’s story. And no, I never felt like diagnosing Rupi’s ailment. There would have been no mystery then.

What is your writing routine like? How did your novel come to be published?


The less said about my writing and revising routine the better. I am not a disciplined writer. Although, while writing Rupi Baskey I was a bit more focused than I normally am. Now, however, I have returned to my lazy ways. I don’t know when my next book or even a short story is going to come. I write only when I have something to write.
As for how Rupi came to be published, well, I sent the usual synopsis and first 50 pages to various agents and publishers. I had submitted to Aleph, too. My package was addressed to David Davidar. Two months later, I received an email from Ravi Singh – who was the publishing director of Aleph at that time – that Rupi Baskey had been accepted for publication. And I lost sleep after that.

Did you write the short story Adivasis Will Not Dance published in 2014 in The Dhauli Review before or after this novel? What was the thought behind it?

I wrote Adivasis Will Not Dance in 2013. I wrote it after there was the foundation stone-laying of a thermal power project in Jharkhand. I thought, thermal power projects located in other states take their coal from Jharkhand, hydroelectric power projects have their dams in Jharkhand, but people in Jharkhand do not have electricity. I find this tremendously unfair. In August, a neighbouring state stopped supplying potatoes to Jharkhand, which led to a rise in price of potatoes here, and potato is an essential food item. I wonder what the scenario would have been like had Jharkhand, too, stopped all the coal from here going to the thermal power plants in that state.

An interest, or love other than writing that you enjoy.


My favourite activities are sleeping and eating. I sleep a lot; I can fall asleep in buses, trains, anywhere. I am a glutton. I find eating therapeutic. If I am happy, I eat; if I am upset, I eat. At 1 A.M., when people are tucked into their beds, you could find me munching on a kaju barfi, chocolate, or potato chips, or stirring a glass of nimboo paani.
I love watching films.

I want to learn how to knit; but all I have been able to do so far is buy a ball of yarn (the end of which I was not able to find, so I cut the yarn at some random point) and a pair of no. 10 knitting needles, and save knitting videos on my YouTube.
I think I need to stop being so lazy.

Do you believe in ghosts, spirits, witches?
Yes, I do.

(:) An edited version appeared in The Hindu here.

new list

defenestration
ergonomic
fettle
osculate
otiose
peripatetic
philippic
propinquity
sousveillance
taradiddle
thanatology

Tribals torn apart by religion

The Hindu
Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened

Photo by Manob Chowdhury

Photo by Manob Chowdhury


Two months before polling began in Jharkhand, Ajay Tirkey began dividing his day between campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ranchi and attending to his real estate business. Mr. Tirkey, who heads the Central Sarna Committee(CSC), with lakhs of animistic Sarna tribals as members in urban parts of Ranchi, Gumla and Hazaribagh, believes that the BJP’s Narendra Modi will get the community what it has been demanding for decades: the distinction of being a minority religion with all attendant benefits. “We submitted a memorandum to Modi in December to introduce a Sarna code in the census, and [the] BJP’s State leaders agreed,” he says.

Mr. Tirkey — tall, stout, dressed in white shirt and trousers and wearing a golden watch on one wrist and a vermillion thread on the other — speaks softly and smiles often, even while narrating the violence that has broken out following his organisation’s attempt to stop religious conversions in the last decade. The office of his company, Deoshila Development Private Limited, is sparsely furnished, with only a poster of Hanuman for decoration. Mr. Tirkey owns the commercial complex we are sitting in. “This is a century-old fight. I have not let the Christians get away with conversions since I became the head in 2000,” he says. “We broke the walls of a church in Tape in Ormanjhi while it was being constructed. There was a case of conversion of five families in Ghagrajala village in Ranchi; we re-converted three. Then a few families in Gaitalsud, Angada, of whom only one member escaped because he worked somewhere else. He has not come back since; he fears us,” he recounts, beaming.

Mr. Tirkey, the BJP’s mayoral candidate from Ranchi in 2013, describes the “re-conversion” ceremonies as being similar to the ghar-waapsi (homecoming) ceremonies conducted by BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo in Chhattisgarh, in the mid-2000s. Mr. Judeo used to wash the feet of the converted person with holy water and declare the person Hindu again. Sarnas, Mr. Tirkey says, besides washing feet, made the converted person taste a drop of blood of a freshly sacrificed rooster and sprinkled water on them. A member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) or Dharam Jagran usually accompanied CSC members for this ceremony, he says. Sitting by Mr. Tirkey’s side, Manoj Kumar, a member of the BJP’s Jharkhand Kisan Morcha Pradesh Samiti, nods in agreement.

Conversion politics

In the last century, religious conversions in the Chotanagpur region have led to tensions. The first missionaries to arrive were the German Protestants in 1845, followed by the Catholics. The rift between Christian and non-Christian tribals was visible in 1947-48. Concerned with the growing influence of Christians, Sarna leaders formed a ‘Sudhar Sabha,’ notes academic Dr. Alex Ekka in an essay on the Jharkhand movement.

The former captain of the Indian hockey team, Jaipal Singh Munda, is credited with getting equal rights including reservations for Christian tribals, as a member of the Constituent Assembly. A few Sarna leaders opposed this move then. Congress MP Kartik Oraon introduced a bill in Parliament in 1968 to de-schedule Christian tribals, albeit unsuccessfully.

The Jan Sangh and the RSS began making inroads in the Chotanagpur region in the 1960s, initiating developmental activities in forest villages to counter the growing reach of Christian missionaries. While the VKA already has a strong presence in the Gumla and Latehar districts of West Jharkhand, more recently it has focused on increasing its influence in Sahebganj and Pakur along the State’s border with West Bengal, close to Bangladesh. Both districts feature in a map of areas from Uttar Pradesh to the north-east as “Areas of high Muslim and Christian influence” in a publication by Sankat Mochan Ashram, New Delhi.

“The church was trying to proselytize in Pakur but slowed down after we increased our presence. We recently performed ghar-waapsi for 50 families there. Sarna groups are doing re-conversions themselves now; we prefer it this way. We explain to them that 2000 years ago, we worshipped trees. Sarnas are Hindu too,” says Prakash Kamat, the Bihar-Jharkhand zonal secretary of the VKA.

Tribals constitute 26.3 per cent of Jharkhand’s population. According to the 2001 Census, of the State’s population of 3.29 crore, 68.5 per cent are Hindus and 13.8 per cent are Muslims. Only four per cent follow Christianity. Though Sarnas, who worship their ancestors and nature, are not counted separately, they make up most of the ‘Other’ category, estimated at 11 to 13 per cent of the population. Sarna groups claim that the actual numbers may be higher, given the absence of a separate category for them. A common perception is that despite their small numbers, Christian tribals have better access to higher education and jobs. Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened.

A deep divide

The most stark instance of this was in 2013 when a spate of protests erupted in Ranchi soon after the Cardinal Telesphore Toppo unveiled the statue of a “tribal” Mary — a dark-skinned Mother Mary wearing a white and red saree and bangles, holding an infant Jesus in a sling, as is common among tribal women. Sarna dharamguru Bandhan Tigga, considered more moderate than Ajay Tirkey’s group, gave the Church three months to remove the statue, describing it as a conversion tactic. In August, over 3,000 Sarna tribals marched to the site, a small Catholic church in Singpur on Ranchi’s outskirts, threatening to bring it down. The police imposed Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code in the area to stop the protesters. Three days later, a FIR was registered against members of Sarna groups after they threatened families in Ormanjhi, 50 km from Singpur, who had converted to Protestantism several years ago, to re-convert to Sarna religion within a week, even breaking the gate of the house of one of the families.

Sources close to the Cardinal claim he had not known that the statue was that of a “tribal” Mary before he reached the parish for the inauguration, but have chosen to stay silent, fearing that a step back now may only weaken the church’s position. Before this, in 2008, the church was on the back foot when Sarna groups questioned the ‘Nemha Bible’ published by a Lutheran church in the tribal language, Kuduk, which they said contained portions offensive to animistic worship.

In Singpur, the residents still recount last year’s protests cautiously. “Thousands marched from Dhurva to the parish. While the march had been called by Sarna groups, several Bajrang Dal members wearing saffron bands marched with them. Even tribals from neighbouring Odisha, Chhattisgarh districts reached here,” recalled a member of the community. It was done by evoking Sarnas’ pride, say Dharam Jagran members.

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