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Christians face ostracism in India's Jharkhand state

Three families who become Christian a year ago are being pressurized to return to the tribal belief system

Christians face ostracism in India's Jharkhand state

Tribal people protest against a land bill passed by the Jharkhand state government in New Delhi in March 2016. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)

Christian families in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand have been ostracized by their village for embracing Christianity.

The three families from Mangapat Sirsai village in West Singhbhum district, who became Christian a year ago, are being pressurized to return to the tribal Sarna belief system centered on the worship of nature.

The gram sabha or village council on Sept. 17 decided that the converted families will not be allowed to use common properties for free movement or grazing cattle. They will also not be invited to any social gatherings in the village and nobody will interact with them.

Gabbar Singh Hembrom, district president of the Adivasi Ho Samaj Yuva Mahasabha, a youth organization of local tribal people, warned the villagers to abide by the decision or end up paying a fine.

A meeting will be held every Sunday to check if the decision to ostracize the Christian families was being followed strictly by everyone.

Hembrom said: “The entire village follows the Sarna religion except for Raut Bankira, Rajendra Bankira and Hiralal Bankira, who converted to Christianity along with their families a year ago. We are ready to accept them if they return to our faith, but they refused.”

There are several smaller sects with no connection to mainline churches operating in the state

Mangapat Sirsai has nearly 200 households with a population of around 700 people.

Hembrom alleged that some Christian missionaries were luring the tribal people with land and money to convert them.

Ajay Linda, the district superintendent of police, said a close vigil was being kept to prevent any untoward incident in the village. “All are free to practice faith according to their choice in this country. Both parties have been warned that strict action will be taken if they try to take the law into their hands,” he said.

An anti-conversion law adopted by the state in 2017 bans religious conversion by either force or allurement and provides for up to three years' imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 rupees (US$800) as punishment for the guilty.

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Social boycott and ostracism are collective acts of refusal to maintain social and economic relations or removal of an individual or group to force them to conform to rules of tribe or caste. It is a very old and rampant practice across India and only the western state of Maharashtra has a law prohibiting such acts.

Bishop Telesphore Bilung, the apostolic administrator of Jamshedpur Diocese, said he had heard of the ostracism of some Christians but they did not belong to the Catholic Church.

“There are several smaller sects with no connection to mainline churches operating in the state. Unfortunately, people of other faiths do not understand this and the reputation of the Church gets unnecessarily maligned,” he said.

In fact, Catholic bishops in Jharkhand have urged the state’s chief minister Hemant Soren to legislate and recognize the Sarna religion.

In a letter on Sept. 19, 2020, the bishops stated: “Articles 25, 29 and 342 of the Indian constitution guarantee the rights of the tribal community to their language, religion, culture and a separate identity.”

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