Federal Home Minister and BJP leader Rajnath Singh garlanding the statue of a freedom fighter and a popular tribal leader in Khunti district of Jharkhand on Aug. 13, 2106. Tribal people say BJP appropriate their leaders and traditional religion as Hindu, attempting to destroy their indigenous culture. (Photo by IANS)
Catholic bishops in India's tribal-stronghold states have supported an ongoing struggle for legal acceptance of a traditional tribal religion, amid claims by some Hindu groups that all tribal people are Hindus.
"There is an attempt to project tribal people as Hindus in the country, tacitly denying them the right to represent their traditional religious identity," said Auxiliary Bishop Telesphore Bilung of Ranchi, based in the Jharkhand state capital.
He and other church officials are backing an ongoing demand for government recognition of the Sarna religion of tribal people in the central-eastern states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Sarna is the collective name for animist tribal religions.
The church in India "strongly supports the tribal people's aspiration for establishing a Saran religious code, as it will help reaffirm their traditional practices and restore their original identity," Bishop Bilung told ucanews.com Sept. 9.
Christian leaders say although Sarna religion has existed since time immemorial, it has no organized system or codified procedure, prompting Hindu groups to dismiss it as at best a folk-Hindu culture.
"Even in census records, Sarna-following tribal people were recorded as Hindus, which is not correct," Bishop Bilung told ucanews.com.
In recent months, Jharkhand state witnessed several public protests demanding recognition of Sarna as a separate religion and acceptance of their customs and traditions along the lines of recognition given to other religions.
The protesters alleged the state's ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) represent Sarna tribal people as Hindus in official documents.
The BJP has been accused of being the political arm of groups working to make India a Hindu theocratic state. Such groups accuse Christian missionaries of using their social services and education projects as a front to convert tribal people to Christianity.
Tribal leader Devkumar Dhan, who is coordinating Adivasi Maha Sabha (the grand forum of original inhabitants), said more public protests are being organized to promote official acceptance of Sarna.
The forum works for the interests of the tribal community in Jharkhand, which was carved out of Bihar in 2000 as a separate state purportedly to ensure tribal advancement.
"We are traditionally nature worshipers (animists) with our own culture, dress code and life style," Dhan told ucanews.com.
"But efforts are underway to eliminate such practices."
India has some 104 million tribal people, but only about 9 million of them are Christians.
Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya states have Christian majorities as most local tribal people there have accepted Christianity by adapting their animist religions.
In the same fashion, Sarna religion is prominent among the Munda and Oraons tribal people in the Bihar-Jharkhand area, but there are estimates that some 25 percent of them have already accepted Christianity.
Archbishop Victor Henry Thakur of Raipur, based in the Chhattisgarh state capital, said Hindu groups fear the growing influence of Christianity.
"Nobody should tell tribal people what they are, instead ask them what they are and accord status to their claim, he told ucanews.com.
He noted that in the census tribal people were forced to record their religion as Hindu for want of a separate column to indicate Sarna.
While the church supported the demand for legal recognition of their religion, the BJP would not will easily succumb on the issue as it believes there would be a negative political impact, Bishop Bilung said.
He added that accepting Sarna clashed with the idea of a Hindu theocratic state.
Tribal leader Gulzar Singh Markan said often illiterate tribal people were forced follow Hindu practices.
"Such things will come to an end when there is a recognized religious code," he said.