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Folk play aims to convince Indian tribal people they were Hindus

Activists and Christian leaders have branded the move an attempt to 'spoil' traditional tribal culture

Folk play aims to convince Indian tribal people they were Hindus

Tribal people celebrate in state capital Ranchi after the Jharkhand government passed a resolution to recognize their Sarna or tribal religion on Nov. 11, 2020. (Photo supplied)

As the demand for the Sarna code intensifies in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, it plans to organize Ram Leela, a dramatic folk re-enactment of the life of Hindu Lord Rama.

The government claims that Ram Leela will inform tribal people about the connection, relation and influence of Lord Rama in their lives. Tribal leaders and activists say it is a deliberate attempt to destroy the Sarna code or tribal religion.

“Madhya Pradesh state is run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that does not believe in secularism. The Supreme Court, parliament and civil society acknowledge that Sarna people are not Hindus, so why does this government want to push their agenda on them?” Ratan Tirkey, a member of the tribal advisory committee in Jharkhand, told UCA News.

“Madhya Pradesh government does not want their people to enjoy the liberty of the Sarna code, which is awaiting approval by the federal government. 

“Several states, especially those with a sizable tribal population, are campaigning for a separate Sarna code in the forthcoming census. Jharkhand has already passed the resolution in its state assembly last year.”

Tirkey, a tribal Catholic leader who helped draw up the Sarna code draft, said that by organizing the Ram Leela, the Madhya Pradesh government wants to convince tribal people that Lord Rama had a connection with them and they are Hindu by origin.

Meanwhile, the culture department of Madhya Pradesh on March 10 decided to hold Ram Leela activities in the 89 tribal blocks of the state from April, a state government official said.

“When there is a debate going on whether tribals were Hindus or not, we have decided to go with Ram Leela to establish the fact that tribals were followers of Lord Rama,” said Ashok Mishra, project chief of Ram Leela.

“Through plays, we will be telling tribals that Shabri, a tribal woman, and tribal ruler Nishad Raaj were ardent followers of Lord Rama."

Yogesh Tripathi, the scriptwriter of Ram Leela, said many documents suggest that Lord Rama spent most of his 14 years in exile among tribal people. "We will try to explain that Lord Rama belongs to the tribals and the tribals belong to Rama,” he said.

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Tribal rights activists and Christian leaders have branded the decision an attempt to “spoil” tribal culture.

Naresh Biswas, a tribal activist from Dindori in Madhya Pradesh, told Hindustan Times that the government’s move was surprising as it had taken over the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s program to enforce Hinduism on tribal people.

“It is also surprising that the state government is trying for Hindukaran [proselytization] of tribals. It is a dangerous move and will change the traditions of tribals,” Biswas said.

Sunil Minj, a Catholic activist from Madhya Pradesh, said tribal people in the state have been demanding the Sarna code ever since the state was created in 2000.

“Tribal civilization, culture and systems are completely different. The Sarna code demand has been in existence for years to establish a place for tribals in the census in several states in India,” said Minj.

For the last few years, protests and meetings have been held by tribal groups in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh pushing the same demand.

“Sarna tribals are nature worshippers. They do not belong to any religious sect and their demand for a separate code in the census dates back to the 1990s,” Minj said.

In the 1951 census, the ninth column for religion was "tribe," which was later removed. Due to its removal, the tribal population embraced different religions, causing a major loss to the community.

After 1951, in addition to Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain and Buddhist, there was a column titled "Others,’" which was removed in 2011. The definition left out Muslims and Christians, bringing all others within the ambit of the Hindu fold.

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