Catholic tribal leaders in India are worried over a move by Jharkhand's government to take away tribal status from people who have left their traditional Sarna religion
to join other faiths. The eastern state's move will deprive thousands of tribal people of social benefits meant for their advancement. "It is a deliberate attempt to divide tribal people on grounds of religion ahead of the state and national elections next year," said Bishop Vincent Barwa of Simdega
, who is based in a tribal Christian stronghold. A state election is due at the end of next year, while national elections are due in April. The state government, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wants the BJP-led federal government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declassify the tribal status of tribal people who have adopted other religions, media reports said. "The government move is disastrous and we are keeping a close watch on all developments," Bishop Barva, chairman of the Indian bishops' office for indigenous people, told ucanews.com. Secular leaders like Dev Kumar Dhan, who leads a pan-India group of tribal people following the Sarna religion, told ucanews.com that the government is looking for political gains. On Dec. 3, he presented a memorandum to state governor Draupadi Murmu, a representative the of the federal government, asking her to stop the move "to divide tribal people on religious grounds." Dhan said the declassification of tribal people would help non-tribal people to contest and win elections in tribal-majority constituencies that are now reserved for tribal candidates. The state has 28 constituencies reserved for tribal candidates based on the population of tribal voters. If the proposed declassification happens, the number of seats will come down to 10 as tribal people in the other 18 seats will become non-tribal people overnight, he said. Officially, 26 percent of Jharkhand's 32 million people are tribal people, but declassification would reduce the tribal population to 12 percent, Dhan said. Since the move needs federal approval and would have to be effective across the country, the representation of tribal people in India's parliament would also be reduced. Currently 47 of 543 parliamentary constituencies are reserved for tribal people. Jharkhand has some 8.6 million tribal people, of whom 3.24 million have become Hindus and 1.33 million have become Christians, according to census records. Much smaller numbers have become Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. "The move has far-reaching implications because it will affect not only the social benefits of the people but also the policy decisions of governments in the use of natural resources like land, water and forests," Dhan said.
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Supporters of the move are shortsighted, he said. Megha Oraon, who leads Sarna Vikas Samiti (forum for Sarna development), supported the plan and said it would end conversion to other religions and bring back those who had left the Sarna religion. Tribal leader Babulal Munda agreed that government benefits meant for tribal people such as financial assistance for education and reservations in jobs
should not be given to people who joined other religions. However, tribal leaders maintain that those who converted to Hinduism should not be deprived benefits as the Sarna religion is broadly part of Hinduism. Declassification of tribal people would violate the constitutional stipulation that citizens should not face discrimination over religion, said Catholic priest and lawyer Father Peter Martin. In a federal system, a state alone cannot decide on something that could be applied across India, he said, as the consensus of other states is necessary. "That would not be an easy task," he said. The move will result in a massive uprising in the state as it will adversely affect millions, Father Martin said.