Tribal people celebrate in state capital Ranchi after the Jharkhand government passed a resolution recognizing the Sarna religion on Nov. 11. (Photo supplied)
The Jharkhand state government in eastern India has conceded to a long-standing demand to allow tribal people to record their Sarna religious faith in the upcoming national census.
State chief minister Hemant Soren's administration passed a resolution on Nov. 11, allowing a special column for Sarna religious followers to record their faith in the 2021 decennial census.
"It is a new dawn in Jharkhand history as well as for tribal people in the state because for the last three decades we have been demanding a separate census column for the Sarna religion," Ratan Tirkey, a member of the Tribes Advisory Committee of Jharkhand, told UCA News.
"This is a victory for the voiceless," he said.
The resolution will be sent to the federal government. Once is approved, tribal people who follow the Sarna religion will have a new option as they are currently forced to opt for the Hindu column on the census form.
Sarna tribals are nature worshippers who do not belong to any official religion. Their demand to count them as followers of a separate religion in the census dates back to the 1990s.
Tirkey, a tribal Catholic who helped draft the resolution, said the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations across the state "had supported the demand from the beginning."
A group of Catholic bishops in the state led by Archbishop Felix Toppo of Ranchi had written to the chief minister in September, urging him to make this provision as soon as possible.
"From now on, we as Christians will be not blamed for religious conversion by fanatic groups in the state. We are accused of using allurement to influence tribals to identify as Christian when the census is taken," he said.
In the 1951 census, people had the option of recording their religion as "tribe," which was later removed.
Later a column called "Others' was added for people who do not opt as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain or Buddhist. But it was removed in the 2011 census, which meant all others who do not come under the six religions were counted as Hindu.
The federal government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu groups argue that all tribal people are Hindus and record it as such in census records.
"Our organization has been campaigning for official recognition Sarna religion for years. It is a victory for poor people who cannot even tell the world that they are not Hindus," Santosh Tirkey, general secretary of Jharkhand Kendriya Sarna Samiti, told UCA News.
As the Sarana people have not a column to mark their religion, most opt for Hindu and other religions. "This did not reflect the actual numbers of Sarna believers, Santhosh Tirkey said.
Jharkhand alone has more than 4.5 million Sarna followers and some 150 million in the country, according to him.
The state has 1.4 million Christians in a population of 33 million, some 26 percent of tribal people according to the 2011 census.