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Indian state to stem tribal marriage land scams

Churches welcome move to stop non-tribal men marrying tribal women to obtain ancestral land in Jharkhand

Indian state to stem tribal marriage land scams

Indian villagers carry tree branches on their bicycles to sell at a border area in Jharkhand. (Photo by Sanjib Dutta/AFP)

Church leaders in India's Jharkhand state have welcomed a state cabinet decision to deny traditional land rights to tribal women who marry non-tribal men.

The Dec. 7 decision will disallow tribal women or their non-tribal husbands from buying lands from tribal people in the heartland of indigenous people in eastern India.

Tribal leaders say non-tribal people marry tribal women to acquire land by circumventing a law that prohibits non-tribal people buying tribal land. The intended new law will seek to prevent gullible tribal people losing their ancestral lands.

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"The government has done the right thing and we welcome it," said Archbishop Felix Toppo of Ranchi, the state capital. "It is a step in the right direction to preserve the land for the entire tribal community."

A new law will be introduced to nullify any new land acquisitions by tribal women or their non-tribal husbands in the tribal areas, said K.K. Soan, secretary of the revenue and land reforms department.

"All such deals will be invalid after the law comes in force and the ownership of the land will automatically go back to the original owner," Soan told journalists.

The Catholic Church has been demanding such a law, Archbishop Toppo said. "Many men from the non-tribal communities marry tribal women who are largely illiterate and ignorant and use their name to purchase tribal lands," he told ucanews.com.

The move by the state government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would "go a long way" in protecting tribal land, the prelate said.

The official church has often been loggerheads with the government since the pro-Hindu party came to power in Jharkhand state in 2014.

Christian leaders accuse the state of supporting violence by militant Hindus against Christians in their effort to establish Hindu dominance.

However, Christian leaders such as Reverend Pastor Tomson Thomas, the state secretary of the Indian Pentecostal Church of God, have welcomed the latest move.

He cited cases of so-called "land mafia" using non-tribal people to marry tribal women just to grab tribal-owned lands in city areas.

There were cases where tribal women had disappeared after exploitative marriages. There were also instances where families got messages of untimely deaths in which doubtful reasons were given, he told ucanews.com.

Rev. Thomas said since most tribal people were poor, illiterate and ignorant of legal formalities, families often did not follow up on deaths or disappearances.

No official records or unofficial estimates are available on the number of non-tribal men marrying tribal women.

However, at least 4,000 acres of tribal land has been grabbed through marrying tribal women, according to Ratan Tirkey, a member of the state's Tribal Advisory Council

"Even children of tribal mothers and non-tribal fathers enjoy benefits of being tribal," he said. "It has to stop."

Holy Cross Sister Manju Kulapuram, a social activist based in Ranchi, also welcomed the proposed new law.

She said it should not be seen as being gender discriminatory as it aimed to stem tribal people being "trapped" into marriages by people seeking to unfairly obtain land. 

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