Religious Freedom Bill Cleared by Jharkhand Assembly; Tribal Leaders Call It 'an Attempt to Break Our Unity'

The politically motivated Bill threatens to rip apart the tribal society in the state which had managed to forge unity among the Sarnas and the Christian groups.

Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das. Credit: PTI

Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das. Credit: PTI

Ranchi: Religion, that has often become a political tool in the hands of the politicians to further their grip on power, was tossed for another round of foul play threatening to rip apart the tribal society in Jharkhand after the state assembly yesterday cleared the Religious Freedom Bill 2017. A day before the anti-conversion Bill was to be tabled in the assembly, the Raghubar Das-led state government had posted a highly controversial advertisement in newspapers, invoking the name of Mahatma Gandhi, Birsa Munda and tribal leader Kartik Oraon on conversion.

Tribals in Jharkhand form about 27% of the total population and follow either Sarna (worship of the nature) or Christianity. While a majority of the tribal population follows the Sarna religion, 4.30% of the total population, according to the Jharkhand Religion Census 2011, is Christian. The politically motivated Bill threatens to further rip apart the tribal society in the state which had managed to forge unity among the Sarnas and the Christian groups through the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act amendment proposal by the state government. Despite tribal leaders like the former chief minister Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), former chief minister and president of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha Babulal Marandi opposing the attempt to bring in the Regious Freedom Bill which targets mostly the church, saying that it is ‘ill-intended against the tribes’; Das went ahead with the Bill.

“Das had committed to industrialists across the country that he would avail land in Jharkhand for them. It was to keep this promise that he brought in the CNT/SPT amendment Bill which met with stiff opposition, eventually snubbed by the governor herself. During the opposition against the land Bill, Sarna and Christian groups had come together as one, and had stood against the BJP. The church played a very vital role in uniting the tribals on the CNT/SPT amendment Bill. So the Religious Freedom Bill has been brought in to serve a twin purpose: to break the unity between the Sarna and the Christian groups and to teach a lesson to the church,” said Prabhakar Tirkey, who fought for the separate state of Jharkhand and was the founding president of the All Jharkhand Students’ Union, the students body of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

Demand for Sarna code 

Sarnaism is a religious practice in which the followers worship the nature. The festival Sarhul is celebrated soon after new leaves grow just before the beginning of summer. Karam, similarly, is the worship of the karam tree, celebrated during monsoon.

Sarna worshipers following their religious rites. Credit: Wikipedia

The Sarna adherents, for the last several decades, have been demanding a separate Sarna code in the census, arguing that in the absence of such an arrangement, they are being counted as Hindus, which they are not. Even during the UPA government at the Centre, delegations had called upon the former Union home minister P. Chidambaram with memorandums. The Congress had assured them that their demands will be looked into. Even in the present NDA government, the main demand of the Sarna adherents has been the same. The BJP, during the assembly elections, had assured them that they too will look into their demands. In this demand for a separate Sarna code in the census, even the Christian tribals are in support of the Sarna adherents.

“The BJP is thinking that it will regain the Sarna vote bank that had slipped away due to the CNT/SPT Act amendment efforts. But, except a few men paid by the party, most Sarna tribals are against this move taken by Das. It will boomerang on the BJP in the long run,” according to the analysis of Tirkey. In fact, most of the animosity between the Sarna and the Christian groups is spread only by a few men through their own groups formed formed in the name of religion, who, according to information revealed by observers, are in the goodwill of the BJP.

“The purpose of the Bill is negative. It has been brought with a clear malafide intension: to break the unity of the tribal society. It will drive in unnecessary social tension. We had been asking for a Sarna code, instead the BJP government gifted us with this politically motivated Religious Freedom Bill,” said noted anthropologist and professor emeritus of Ranchi University, Karma Oraon. Oraon was one among the many leaders who had brought in the Sarna and the Christian groups in order to rally behind the chief minister’s efforts to amend the land Acts.

Sarna tribals. Credit: PTI

Move questioned by many

The principal opposition party, the JMM, has questioned the move by the government. “Most BJP leaders educate their children in convent schools. Bureaucrats and technocrats send their children to Christian schools. Did the schools convert their children? Religious freedom is a fundamental right guaranteed under the constitution. The Bill is tampering with this rights of the citizens,” said Supriyo Bhattacharyee, general secretary of the JMM. He said party leader Hemant Soren opposed the Bill in the House, but Das had little patience to listen to the opposition’s wisdom.

The advertisement issued by the government used the name of Gandhi, Munda and popular tribal leader Kartik Oraon, which jolted the consciousness of the tribal society as a whole. The advertisement said that the dream of Munda and Oraon has come true (with the Religious Freedom Bill).

It is true that Munda had initially converted to Christianity while he studied at Chaibasa, but he had soon come back to the religious practice of his forefathers. But his fight was not against his brethren who had converted to Christianity nor was it against Christianity as a religion. He called for ‘abua dishom, abua raij’ (Our rule in our land). It was this statement that had further inspired Oxford educated Jaipal Singh who sowed the seed of a separate statehood for the tribal people.

Oraon, who practised the Sarna religion, is believed to have said that converted tribals should not be extended the benefits of reservation. This was because converted Christians were mostly educated and cornered most of the government jobs, leaving little for their Sarna brothers. This, however, is not the case now and a large number of Sarna tribals are in high political posts. Oraon belonged to the Congress and served as a minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet.

However, what is noteworthy is that the BJP in Jharkhand has appropriated the Congress politics of the yesteryears for its own politics now. As for appropriating Birsa Munda, many in the BJP simply fail to get the political ethos of the legendary tribal leader even today.

“The Bill is an attempt to scuttle the process of scientific thought that has crept in the tribal society due to education. The BJP wants to take the tribal society in Jharkhand backwards. The BJP is not going to gain anything out of it, instead the exercise will have a negative political impact on it,” says Praful Linda, a tribal leader with the CPI(M). “The Bill is an act of cheating against the Sarnas, who want the Sarna code for a separate identity and nothing else”.

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