In Jharkhand, Widespread Backlash Against BJP's Attempts to Divide Adivasis on Religious Lines

Adivasi leaders and activists say that behind the recent communal legislations is the state government's hidden agenda to transfer community land to corporates and deflect attention from its failure to address crucial developmental issues plaguing the state.

Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das (left) and Sarna tribals. Credit: PTI

Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das (left) and Sarna tribals. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The abuse and heckling that Jean Drèze had to face at the hands of BJP leaders on the eve of 70 years of India’s independence is startling, not just because of the saffron outfit’s increasing disdain for researchers but also because Drèze is one of the few internationally-reputed economists and scholars who has devoted most of his life to working in Indian villages, trying to weed out corruption in welfare programmes at the grassroots level.

On August 14, Drèze was speaking at an event organised by a Jharkhand-based Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar in Ranchi. As he was on course to point out the alleged illegality of a state-sponsored advertisement that he thought was not only blatantly communal but also propagated falsities, BJP leaders yelled at him, refused to let him speak demanded he be removed from the stage immediately.

The advertisement, a full-page jacket that adorned all the major dailies of Jharkhand as a preface to the controversial anti-conversion Bill passed by the Raghubar Das government in the assembly on August 12, was quite brazen in its attack on Christian missionaries, who have always been in the line of BJP’s fire. The content of the advertisement held the missionaries responsible for “forcible religious conversions” – an age-old accusation by the Sangh parivar, although it has never been able to provide any credible evidence to back the claim.

It prominently displayed chief minister Das at the centre and quoted Mahatma Gandhi as being opposed to religious conversion. While most scholars have already proven that Gandhi was quoted out of context to gain political support for the religious freedom Bill, the BJP remains unfazed even as the Bill has precipitated a political storm in the state.

Front page advertisement by the Jharkhand government in the Dainik Bhaskar, Ranchi edition, August 11, 2017. A similar advertisement ran in most newspapers across the state

The Religious Freedom Bill 2017, which seeks to control religious conversion, entails strict punishment – upto three years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 50,000 – for those who facilitate the conversion of a minor, a Dalit or an Adivasi. Although the Bill is awaiting governor’s approval at the moment, many Adivasi leaders say that the Bill violates the basic tenets of the constitution and that a mere allegation of forcible conversion may be enough to land someone in the prison.

A hidden corporate agenda?

Opposition parties and civil society groups view this as yet another attempt by the state government to deflect attention from its failure to address crucial developmental issues in the state like rising unemployment, poor social infrastructure and growing poverty. Amidst widespread criticism from the opposition, whispers of dissent were also noticed against the Das government within the ruling BJP.

Speaking to The Wire, Arjun Munda, former BJP chief minister of Jharkhand who is also considered an arch-rival of Das within the party, hinted at his discomfort with the Bill. “We have to see whether the Bill is in the framework of the constitution or not. If it can be fit into the constitution, then it’s fine.”

The Bill has come on the heels of a widespread movement against the proposed amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT), 1908 and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy (SPT) Act, 1886. The amendments, which were hastily passed in the Jharkhand assembly last year, sought to give the government the power to change the land use of Adivasi holdings for non-agricultural purposes. Irrespective of whether they followed Christianity or their traditional faith Sarna or nature worship, Adivasis of the state had, after years, recently fought a united struggle to force the state government to withdraw the amendments.

They feared that the amendments, which would allow big corporates and private companies to buy Adivasi-owned land, would unleash indiscriminate land acquisition as has happened in other states, where big business houses – in their pursuit of mining and other manufacturing businesses in mineral-rich states like Chhattisgarh – have cared little for participatory development.

According to Adivasi leaders, it is this consolidation of Adivasis that the Das government, on the backfoot after the movement, seeks to break by bringing in the allegedly divisive anti-conversion Bill.

Congress leader Arun Oraon said the Bill is a result of the panic within the BJP rank and file. “After a long time the social composition of protests against CNT/SPT Act reflected a consolidated adivasi voice. And that has unnerved the BJP.”

Prabhakar Tirkey, currently the general secretary of Isai Mahasangh and also the founder president of All Jharkhand Students’ Union, the student’s wing of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, told The Wire, “Ever since the Raghubar Das government came to power, it has been making overtures about turning Jharkhand into an investment destination. In programmes like Momentum Jharkhand, it promised a land bank in the state for corporates to set up their industries. However, with the CNT/SPT Act amendments withdrawn, those plans have failed. The anti-conversion Bill is the government’s cultural-political tool to break this new-found solidarity between different adivasi groups.”

Also read: Jharkhand Government Is Misusing Gandhi, Public Funds to Fuel Anti-Christian Hate

As a representative of a Christian social organisation, he denied any allegation of missionaries converting Adivasis by force. Instead, he said that missionaries have a long history of providing affordable education and healthcare in the remotest parts of the state – something which both Adivasis and non-Adivasis have accessed.

Karma Oraon, noted anthropologist and professor emeritus of Ranchi University, agreed. “Undoubtedly, they [missionaries] have done a commendable job. In a state like Jharkhand, with one of the poorest human development indicators, they have provided much relief,” he told The Wire.

Bandhu Tirkey, former minister and one of the prominent leaders of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, was of the view that had it not been for Christian-minority institutions, any quality education and healthcare would not have been present in Jharkhand.

Speaking to The Wire, he said that the Bill violates the Indian constitution. “Article 25 to 28 guarantees the right to practice and profess any religion in this country. Alongside, the Indian penal code, too, has adequate provisions in section 295A to punish those who indulge in forcible conversions. What is the need of a separate bill completely escapes my understanding. It only shows double standards of the BJP, whose own leaders lobby to get their children admitted to Christian educational institutions. In my opinion, the Religious Freedom Bill is also a violation of fundamental rights of the Indian citizen and is most likely to be misused against minorities.”

How would the BJP and Sangh parivar gain from the Bill?

Christians, including both Adivasis and non-Adivasis, comprise around 4.5% of the state’s population. Out of the approximately 27% Adivasis in Jharkhand, according to the 2011 Census, some unofficial estimates indicate that only 14% of them have converted to Christianity. The Bill, opposition leaders and civil society groups said, is to alienate this minority, who have historically played a vital role in the state’s political movements.

“Targeting this population through such draconian laws would also mean neutralising a significant political opposition in the state. Christian missionaries have played an important role in mobilising the adivasis in their struggle to attain democratic rights. In the recent past, they have been in leadership roles in statehood struggle, anti-land acquisition movements etc. And more recently, they played a huge role in the agitations against CNT/SPT Act amendments,” said Prabhakar.

Prabhakar added that the missionaries have ensured that they recruit adivasis in their social work activities, education centres, hospitals and dispensaries. He said that they have always encouraged adivasis to take up leadership roles in community and political work. “For the BJP, missionaries are therefore the biggest rivals.”

Both he and Bandhu said that in the 17-year history of the state, there are hardly any cases of forcible conversions, and yet, the BJP has raked up the issue. “It only goes to show that its intentions are mala fide. I want to ask why did it not act against the alleged forcible conversions previously despite the fact that the BJP has been in power for the maximum number of years in the state,” Bandhu questioned.

Many political observers felt that as an immediate measure, Das has managed to warm up to the ranks of the RSS by raking up this Hindutva issue. “Through the agitations against CNT/SPT Act, Raghubar Das had to face the ire of the central leadership of BJP. The BJP state president Laxman Giluwa, in fact, came on the record to say that Modi was not happy with Das’s functioning. So much so that there were murmurs that he would soon be replaced. By raising this issue, he has bought some immunity from the ideological parent of the BJP,” said a senior journalist in Ranchi who declined to be named.

Lastly, the possible rift that the Bill may precipitate between Christian and non-Christian Adivasis may help the Sangh parivar in its efforts to consolidate the non-Christian or Sarna Adivasis.

Sarna worshipers following their religious rites. Credit: Wikipedia

Sarna worshipers following their religious rites. Credit: Wikipedia

The Wire had earlier reported how the RSS, through its organisations like Vikas Bharati, Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra, Eklavya schools and several other Hindu cult-like leaders like Jai Gurudev, Amma Bhagwan or Baba Bhagwan, has been trying to bring Adivasis into the Hindu fold.

“The RSS outfits have been gradually introducing Brahminical rituals, Hindu gods and goddesses to adivasis all over Jharkhand. Parallel to this organised campaign, these outfits have targeted missionaries by disrupting prayer meetings of various churches and by leading false campaigns against the church. For instance, the RSS ran an aggressive campaign against Bible a few years before. It magnified a small error in the translated version of the Bible and falsely interpreted the Bible as disapproving the traditional adivasi places of worship. There was a huge hue and cry over the issue, following which the church withdrew the translated text. They keep looking for chances to spread hatred amongst Sarna adivasis,” Neetisha Xalxo, a Delhi university faculty member with intimate knowledge of Adivasi issues, told The Wire.

She said that it is important for the Sangh parivar to consolidate Adivasis as there is a renewed religious consciousness among them which is clearly not Hindu.

“Across different Adivasi communities, the movement to assert their Sarna identity, outside the purview of Hinduism, has become substantially strong over the last few years. And likewise, it has become a threat for the RSS, which dreams of a ‘Hindu rashtra‘.

Many Adivasi leaders have been demanding the implementation of Sarna code in census surveys, which would allow the adivasis to be identified as practicing Sarna faith. 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 UPA governments were open to the idea of including the Sarna code, the BJP is strictly opposed to it.

Congress leader Arun, who was recently appointed as an All India Congress Committee secretary, said that Adivasis were never Hindus. He felt that the controversial government advertisement which credited Kartik Oraon, legendary anti-colonial leader Birsa Munda and Mahatma Gandhi, is misleading at best.

“Kartik Oraon had demanded that reservation for converted adivasis should be stopped but not because he was inimical to the idea that adivasis could not convert but because he felt that non-christian adiviasis had limited access to education and jobs. He withdrew his proposal from the parliament out of his own will. That he was strictly opposed to the idea that adivasis were clubbed with Hindus was conveniently ignored by the Sangh parivar. Similarly, Birsa Munda was a tall adivasi leader. He had converted to Christianity but later came back to the Sarna faith, not Hinduism. The BJP has always used these figures for its political advantage without any true motive of empowering adivasis,” said the Congress leader, who is also Kartik Oraon’s son-in-law. He added that the BJP is running a ‘divisive’ campaign to alienate Muslims in cities and Christians in villages of Jharkhand and that the Bill is a part of that plan.

Similarly, Bandhu told The Wire that the BJP has always looked at Adivasis in a paternalistic way. “During the Jharkhand movement, the Sangh parivar demanded that a separate state be called Vananchal. Now they call adivasis vanvasis (forest dwellers), as if the non-Adivasis who stay in forests are not vanvasis.

It is in this context that Adivasi groups see this Bill as an attempt to scuttle their demand for a Sarna code. The Sangh parivar, which until now has focussed its attention on non-agrarian Adivasi communities like Mahli, Lohra, Karmali or Chik Baraik in Jharkhand, may actually see in the Bill a possibility to consolidate the rest of Sarna Adivasis.

Not surprisingly, BJP’s legislators have hailed the Bill exactly in this pretext. For instance, BJP MLA Shivshanker Oraon was of the opinion that, “The Bill is the inner voice of the Sanatan Dharmi-prakriti Dharmi, which should have been heard since Jharkhand came into being.”

Similarly, another BJP leader Radha Krishna Kishore whipped up its old tactic against minorities. “In 2001, Christian population [in Jharkhand] was 10,93,380. In 2011 Census, this was 14,18,608 – an increase of around 30%. And who are the people being converted? The poor, the Dalit and the tribal population living in the interior areas,” he said, pointing out the demographic surge of Christians but, again, conveniently ignoring the fact that the increase in Christian population has actually been proportionate to the growth in Hindu population.

The opposition to the Bill has only become stronger in the last few days. While dubbing it as the state government’s “damage-control exercise”, many leaders and intellectuals like Karma Oraon have said that the conversion of adivasis to Hinduism by Sangh outfits should also be made punishable under the law and that the Bill should be applicable to all kind of forcible conversions.

“The Bill has to be seen in the context of Brahminical efforts by the BJP to co-opt the adivasis. However, despite all its efforts, the BJP may not succeed as the adivasis understand their interests and BJP stands sidelined at the moment,” said Karma.

Whether the BJP would succeed or not is a matter of speculation, but the fact that the Religious Freedom Bill is one of the oldest polarising tactics in its books stands to be noticed.