A file photo of former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi who is a tribal person and a Christian. The state’s top court on Feb. 1 validated his son’s election from a constituency reserved for tribal candidates. Rivals have challenged it, saying change of religion meant loss of his tribal status. (Photo by IANS)
The high court in India’s Chhattisgarh state has ruled that the tribal status of a person will not alter if they change their religion to Christianity, stressing they can still enjoy state concessions aimed at improving the life of indigenous people.
The ruling was handed down as the court dismissed an election petition against Amit Jogi, the son of former state chief minister Ajit Jogi.
The petition was put forward by Sameera Paikara, a member of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Amit Jogi won a seat reserved for tribal candidates in the 2013 state elections, but his victory was challenged by Paikara who took it to court.
Paikara argued Jogi could no longer claim tribal rights because his family converted to Christianity.
“It can be presumed that even if the respondent adopted Christianity, his right of status of the Kanwar tribe cannot be taken away,” the court ruled on Feb. 1.
Hard-line Hindu groups — with BJP backing — have opposed Christians converted from tribal communities enjoying government benefits such as the reservation of seats in elected bodies, educational institutions and government jobs.
Such measures are in place as a means to improve the status of tribal and Dalit communities.
But since 1950 Dalits who are Christian or Muslim have been denied such benefits on grounds that their religions do not follow India’s caste system.
Successive governments have ignored their plea to restore their pre-1950 rights, reportedly fearing a backlash from majority Hindus.
The failed election petition in Chhattisgarh court was part of a “conspiracy,” to deprive Christian tribal people of their rights, said Bishop Paul Toppo of Raigarh.
He told ucanews.com the court case comes despite several Supreme Court orders stressing “that a change of religion cannot deprive tribal people of their tribal status.”
Those who work against Christians and missioners in their effort to make India a Hindu-only nation are behind such petitions, the prelate said.
Rights activist and journalist John Dayal said the rights of indigenous people are constitutionally protected irrespective of the religion they may adopt.
But he pointed out that deliberate efforts have been made to snatch away such rights. For example, officials in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have cancelled the original land deeds of tribal Christians and issued fresh ones stating their religious identity.
The name description of the new land deed of a Bhil tribal person for example will be read as “Christian Bhil,” a term not found in law books. Eventually they all will lose their tribal identity, Dayal said.
States like Madhya Pradesh now connect tribal identity with residence. For example, if an Oraon tribal woman from Jharkhand delivers a baby in Madhya Pradesh, the baby loses tribal status, Dayal pointed out.
Panna Lall, president of Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, told ucanews.com that tribal Christians continue to enjoy constitutional protection for their rights but the “real issue is of Dalit Christians who have already lost it.”
More than 60 percent of India’s some 27 million Christians are from tribal or other socially poor castes and groups.
Some 33 percent of them are tribal people, mostly in northern and northeastern regions, according to a 2005 Sachar Committee report.
It said only 9 percent of Christians are of Dalit origin but acknowledged another 24 percent of Christians belong to socially disadvantaged communities.