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'Unconstitutional': Tribal Activists Slam Campaign to Delist Christian Adivasis

The activists asserted that JSM’s campaign to exclude Christian Adivasis from the ST list is unconstitutional and divisive.
Tribals in India

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Kolkata: The Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch (AARM) has expressed grave concern, alleging that the Janjati Suraksha Manch (JSM) is intensifying efforts to target Christian Adivasi communities across different states. AARM, during its recent National Executive Council (NEC) meeting, issued a press release stating that the JSM is reportedly supported by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and has affiliations with various known Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders.

AARM asserted that JSM’s campaign to exclude Adivasis who have converted to Christianity from the Scheduled Tribes list is both unconstitutional and divisive. The tribal rights forum clarified that neither religion nor conversion serves as criteria for categorising any community as a Scheduled Tribe, as per law or the Constitution. AARM accused the JSM of shielding pro-corporate, anti-tribal policies under the Modi government, citing flagrant violations of constitutional and legal protections for land rights of Scheduled Tribes, Gram Sabha rights in Adivasi areas, and amendments that undermine laws such as the Forest Rights Act and PESA.

Reported instances of demands to remove Christian Adivasi communities from the Scheduled Tribe category have emerged from TelanganaTripura, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. Sources indicate similar movements are planned in West Bengal as well. 

On December 25, during Christmas celebrations, a call for a rally has been made by the JSM in Tripura with the demand to alter the Constitution to exclude Christian Adivasis from the Scheduled Tribe category. Opposition parties in the Northeastern state, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist), have opposed the JSM’s demand.

“All across India, adivasis are mobilising for the protection of jal, jungle and zameen (water, forest and land). They (government) have passed the Forest Conservation Act, 2023, and have curbed our Pesha Kanoon, and the rights of Gramsabhas in the tribal areas our land is being given to mining corporations; we are witnessing this in Bengal’s Deocha Pachami region. Mining projects are coming up in Purulia’s Ayodhya Pahar region, Jharkhand’s Lohaburu and Ghontaburu in the scheduled areas. Sometimes, they do it in the name of religions like Sari and Sarna dharma,” said a leading activist of AARM while talking to NewsClick.

“Before the Lok Sabha elections, they are trying to bring in the Uniform Civil Code. This will end the special identities of Adivasis in the country. This rule, once passed, will also put an end to laws like the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Our special status within the Constitution will be taken away,” he added.

Speaking to NewsClick, DR Pulin Behari Baskey, National Convenor of AARM, said that it is learnt that during the Christmas season, the JSM has given a highly provocative call for programmes in different states, such as Tripura and Jharkhand, to hold programmes to delist Adivasis of the Christian community. 

The NEC of AARM called upon all its units across the country to counter the JSM’s call through a strong campaign, including demonstrations and dharnas. AARM also urged all secular and democratic forces of the country to raise their voices against this alleged design of the RSS-BJP in the guise of JSM. It also called upon the state governments to deny permission during the Christmas period for such provocative activities by the JSM.

Baskey added that the eastern regional headquarters of the RSS is at Gopali near Kharagpur, West Bengal, from where they are purportedly planning rallies in the region.

He added that the Indian Constitution is not in line with efforts to inculcate divisive mindsets by starting schools training young minds of the tribal diaspora against their own interests. “More than 1500 such schools in the Adivasi-inhabited districts of Purulia, Jhargram, West Medinipur and Bankura in West Bengal are running a lethal campaign. The ST quota is also not based on any religion. What they are doing is an unconstitutional thing. They are trying to harm the unity of the Adivasis across the country and are trying to bifurcate the tribal society. They are not doing work for the Adivasi people, but in the interest of the corporates,” Baskey said.

Apologies for the oversight. Here are the revised excerpts with direct quotations:

NewsClick spoke with Dr Mary Grace Zou, a leading Tribal activist from Manipur and an educationist at the Anthropology Department of the University of Delhi. She emphasised, “Article 342 of the Indian Constitution confers rights to tribals to belong to the Scheduled Tribe category based on distinct customs and practices.” Whereas, under Article 341, one needs to be Hindu to be an SC, in Article 342, there is no criterion that is needed to be an ST. Dr Zou clarified, “Being an ST is not about religion but about tribal customs and practices.” She also highlighted the absence of a caste system in Scheduled Tribe communities.

She expressed concerns regarding changes in fundamental rights and urged the preservation of the Constitution’s integrity, stating, “It’s about upholding our Constitution, not emotion. I was born in a secular country, and I will always uphold its secular nature,” Dr Zou said.

Philip Hembrem, a prominent activist of Christian tribals in West Medinipur district, asserted, “Delisting converted tribals from the ST status would vandalise the Constitution.” He criticised campaigns against Sarna or Sari religions followed by the tribals, stating, “Religion does not play a role in tribal categorisation.” 

Hembree further told NewsClick, “I had once challenged the teachers of an RSS-backed Saraswati Vidyamandir school, who were referring to Tribals as Banbasis or Janajatis. Both these terms are derogatory to us; next they might refer to us as monkeys because we live in jungles. When they are talking about delisting the tribal Christians, they should tell which religion should be the basis of giving ST tags. They are playing with fire. They organised a Gita Patha campaign in the tribal areas, which is against the Sarna or Sari religions, which we follow and trees are our gods.”

Bimal Baskey, a follower of the Sarna religion of the Adivasis, condemned the campaigns seeking to remove Christian Tribals from the ST list. Baskey denounced such efforts, labelling them as attempts to divide the closely-knit tribal society. He stressed, “The Sarna religion isn’t part of Hinduism,” expressing concern that future efforts might deny ST status based on religion. Baskey criticised the JSM for its “destructive designs” targeting the tribal society.

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