Amidst the growing effort by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to stall religious conversions, tribals across India are reasserting their demand to remain outside the Hindu fold.
Adivasi leaders across the state have been demanding the implementation of Sarna code in census surveys, which would allow the tribals to be identified as followers of Sarna faith during Census 2021. Until now, the census surveys have included them as “others” in the religion column. The RSS interprets all who fall in the “others” category as belonging to the Hindu faith. While the successive UPA governments were open to the idea of including the Sarna code, the BJP is strictly opposed to it.
In Jharkhand, over the years, the saffron party has pushed the narrative that Adivasis are “by nature” hindus. Moreover, in 2017, the then BJP government in the state passed an anti-conversion law criminalising religious conversion by “use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means.”
The long-pending demand for Sarna code is taking centre stage again. Tribal organisations across the state held protests for over three days beginning September 19. The tribal community has staged multiple protests demanding a separate Sarna code in the 2021 census.
Sarna followers are nature worshippers who do not consider themselves Hindus and have been fighting for a separate religious identity in India for decades. Lakhs of tribesmen who were born in Sarna-following families got converted to Christianity over the past century after the advent of missionaries, claim tribal gurus. These converted tribesmen have also been at loggerheads with the RSS over being tagged as Hindus.
Speaking to NewsClick, adivasi activist Deepak Ranjeet said, “Significant impact of the protest was seen in Ranchi and Jamshedpur. Close to one lakh tribals protested across the state. Our prime concern is the need for the Sarna code, but more importantly, we do not want ourselves to be included in any religious fold. Efforts have been intensified to bring us into the Hindu fold. This is our demand not only for Jharkhand but for tribals across India.”
Tribal rights outfits in Jharkhand have threatened to intensify protests if the Hemant Soren-led government fails to pass a bill for a separate Sarna code.
Praful Linda, state general secretary of Adivasi Adhikar Manch, said, “This is a matter of historical injustice. Prior to independence, we had a place in the census stipulated as indigenous populations. This changed post 1961; in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, tribals could practice any religion.” He added, “Currently, the tribals come under the ‘others’ section. Tribals across India practice different religions and the Sarna population amounts to approximately 20 lakh.”
Behind Conversion Scare:
RSS has for decades argued that the tribals are descendants of Parashurama (the sixth avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism), and Sanatan Dharma and Sarna are the same – explaining why the Sarnas are closer to Hinduism than any other religion.
The BJP has long been concerned with the growth of Christian population in many districts of the state, which they say indicates an organised and targeted religious conversion activity by some groups with vested interests.
In the latest development, BJP MP from Ranchi, Sanjay Seth on September 14 claimed in the Lok Sabha that Christian missionaries were “luring innocent tribals and converting them.”
“Whenever BJP has been out of power in the state, conversion has gained momentum. During the current Jharkhand government regime, the religious conversion by alluring has risen manifold in the state,” Seth said attacking the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha government.
Christians, including both Adivasis and non-Adivasis, comprise around 4.5% of the state’s population. Out of approximately 27% adivasis in Jharkhand, according to Census 2011, some unofficial estimates indicate that only 14% of them have converted to Christianity.
The conflict on the lines of religion was intensified by the state’s anti-conversion law – the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2017. The law stipulates that any person found guilty of conversion through force or allurement will be liable for punishment that includes jail term up to three years and a fine of Rs 50,000. The law, opposition leaders and civil society groups said, is meant to alienate the Christians, who have historically played a vital role in the state’s political movements and significant political opposition in the state.
ALSO READ: How Tribals in Jharkhand Are Being Saffronised