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.

‘Throw away the Brahman’s scriptures fast’

A poem by Savitribai Phule, circa 1860:

My weak and oppressed brothers,
stop living in slavery.
The day of Manu-worshipping Peshwas is done,
the English, who share knowledge are here.
Learn now. For a millennium you have been denied books.
We will teach our children and ourselves to
seek knowledge; our souls cry out for wholeness,
to leave behind the marks of caste and
unfurl our proud flags in Baliraja’s kingdom.
This shall be our war-cry, we shall rise up now,
Rise up now, to learn and to act.

(found at the end of ‘A Gardner in the Wasteland’. There’s another one called ‘Throw away the Brahman’s scriptures fast’ =)

At Bodh Gaya

Prayers resume under Bodhi tree, at the Mahabodhi temple after serial blasts at the temple two days earlier. July 2013.


The Bodh Gaya temple complex in Bihar was rocked by a series of explosions on July 7. Over a hundred worshippers had just finished 30 minutes of chanting and a few were entering the temple complex — a UNESCO World Heritage site associated with the Buddha’s enlightenment — when the first blast occurred at 5:45 a.m. Nine explosions followed in the next hour — four at temple sites and five in a 500-meter radius.

Soon after, political workers started demonstrations hours after the blast, survivors expressed relief as prayers resumed a day later. The blasts stirred up debate among religious leaders in Bodh Gaya over the controversial Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC) Act, 1949, which provides for a Hindu majority on the committee that looks after the complex.

Parha jatra, and politics

Ravindra Bhagat, the political successor and son of former Member of Legislative Assembly from Mandar Karamchand Bhagat rides a wooden horse as the parha raja at the Bero yatra.

Ravindra Bhagat, the political successor and son of former Member of Legislative Assembly from Mandar Karamchand Bhagat rides a wooden horse as the parha raja at the Bero jatra.

The parha jatra, a congregation of 5/7/12/21 villages which form a parha, has been celebrated in Oraon and Munda villages since long. But what was traditionally a religious congregation has also become a rallying point and an occasion for political leaders to assert clout.
In 1967, Congress MLA Karamchand Bhagat supported and oganized the parha jatra in Bero for the first time. At the time, the police had imposed a curfew after six adivasis of the area were killed in police firing. Bhagat supported the village parhass efforts to organize the jatra to defy the curfew. Since Bhagat first supported it in Bero, it has been organized at the Bero market in Ranchi every 3rd June. Bhagat, who later joined the RJD, died a few years back and this year’s jatra was organized by his son Ravindra Bhagat.

Paika dancers wait at the parha jatra at Baridih, two kms from Bero, which was first organized by support from former Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MLA Vishvanath Bhagat to counter the bero jatra supported by then Congress MLA Karamchand Bhagat. Photos by Anumeha Yadav

Paika dancers wait at the parha jatra at Baridih, two kms from Bero. On June 3, Congress, BJP, RJD leaders attended the jatra at Baridih organized by Vishvanath Bhagat. Photo by Anumeha Yadav

In 1989, Karamchand Bhagat’s political rival former Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MLA Vishvanath Bhagat started organizing the same parha jatra at Baridih, in a ground two kms from Bero, notes anthropologist Alpa Shah in her 2010 book on Jharkhand. (In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and. Insurgency in Jharkhand, Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

As the villagers celebrate, the head of the parha , the parha raja and the parha dewans ride wooden horses and elephants supported on sticks by their supporters. In Bero Karamchand Bhagat started use of political flags at the jatra and political leaders occupied the place of the parha rajas in jatra, something that Vishvanath criticised him for. In Baridih, only children of the parha rajas appointed by the village occupy these seats at the center of the processions even now.

Bero and Baridih are now the site of the two biggest pahra jatra in Jharkhand. Villagers come from 30-40 kms away to attend the jatra which has the atmosphere of a carnival with stalls selling snacks, toys, ferris wheel rides.

Parha rajas arrive on a wooded elephants carried by villagers at Baridih. Unlike Bero where Karamchand Bhagat started use of political flags at the jatra and political leaders occupied the place of the parha rajas in jatras, only children of the parha rajas occupy this seat at Baridih. Photo Anumeha Yadav

Parha rajas arrive on a wooded elephants carried by villagers at Baridih. Photo Anumeha Yadav

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