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Sinister motives behind India's 'Mary in a sari' protest

Feelings were inflamed for political reasons, says commentator

  • John Dayal, New Delhi
  • India
  • September 2, 2013
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Political observers in India should closely monitor developments in Singpur, Jharkhand state, where local tribals professing adherence to the Sarna religion are protesting against the installation of a Christian statue.

The statue is of the Virgin Mary dressed in a tribal dhoti, a cotton sari with a striped border worn by local women, and carrying the infant Jesus in a body sling as is the custom among people in Singpur and much of rural India.

Behind their protest is the visible hand of what is called the Sangh Parivar, a web of organizations of the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and its subsidiary Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, which works among indigenous people in central India.

With national elections in the offing, polarization and tension among people would benefit the political wing of these groups, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which recently lost power in the state.

The statue at the center of the row is a pretty one, very different from your ethereal Italian works of art displayed in a million grottos across the world. It seems to merge with the landscape, quite at home with the people.

That is perhaps how it was designed to be, to reflect the love of the common Catholics, especially the women, keen to see her in their own apparel, looking just like them.

That is how thousands of other statues depict Mary, especially copies of Our Lady of Health at Vellankani on the sea shore in south Tamil Nadu, installed in churches and chapels across the country, including in New Delhi, dressed in the silk “Kancheepuram” sarees, fresh flower garlands adorning mother and child. Quite like icons and statues in Latin American and African churches where Jesus and Mary are not blued-eyed and golden haired, but reflect the warm dark hues of the local populace. No one there has protested.

But in Singpur, a reported 20,000 people professing the Sarna faith marched recently to the village church, accusing the Church of using this as a ruse to convert villagers to Christianity. The group has issued an ultimatum expiring in December to take down the “offending” statue.

Sarna is the traditional faith of the Oraon tribe, which reveres sacred groves. The Registrar General of India does not recognize the Sarna faith as a separate religion, lumping it in with Hinduism together with many other similar traditional beliefs.

Most national political parties are happy with this situation. But the BJP, now making another dash for power, and its ideological parent, the RSS, has never been satisfied with this cover-all definition.

They have for at least four decades looked to absorb local indigenous religions into the Hindu fold in an attempt to assimilate and brahminize all tribal faith discourses.

In fact, it has consistently maintained that all faiths of "Vanvasis" or forest dwellers (which is what it calls Tribals instead of the formal term Adivasis, which means Original Inhabitants) are part of Hinduism.

This is seen in Dangs in south Gujarat and Kandhamal in Orissa, among other places. This assimilation project has succeeded in Himachal and Uttaranchal, even in parts of the Rajasthan Tribal belt. The massive evangelization of tribals to a Vedic or Brahminical Hinduism has been well documented by scholars, writers and film makers.

Some of the evangelizing groups include the pacific Rama Krishna Mission, but others owing allegiance to the RSS network have been more aggressive. Among them have been the “Swami” Assemanand, a physicist who was planted in the Dangs, and the late Laksmananada Saraswati who worked in the forests of Kandhamal in Orissa.  

After exhorting people to give up eating beef and teaching them new forms of worship, they are also adopting “Ghar Wapsi,” a so-call return to the Hindu faith from Christianity.

The targeting of Christians and rousing Tribals against the Church have paid good political dividends. The Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power in a clutch of states in Central India – Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh – for more than a decade. It was only recently that it lost power in Jharkhand when its coalition partner, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, broke ranks.

But there are questions once again for the Church. The Catholic tribal community is large and numerically strong, but so far has not asserted its rights. Even in the current controversy, one misses lay voices which could say it is their right to see their God and His Mother in their own visage and dress.

The people remain unorganized. Surely, much work needs to be done in empowering these people so they can organize and mobilize themselves.

Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, the ranking bishop of Central India, has said that Christian tribals have the right to install a statue of Mary in the dress of a local woman.

In the political sphere, one can understand the timidity of the current ruling coalition of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Congress, but what is secular society in Jharkhand doing? Or is there no civil society in the state? This is an area where the Jesuits work. Surely they should be helping local civil society come together against threats to peace by coercive groups.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council

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