Sarna tribal people praying at their Sarna sthal near Ranchi in India's Jharkhand state. (Photo supplied)
Tribal organizations including Christian leaders in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand have complained about Hindu groups taking soil from Sarna sthals — sacred tribal places — to Ayodhya to use in the construction of a Ram temple.
They said Hindu groups such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have tried to take sacred soil, which was opposed by all tribal groups in the state.
“We are not opposed to the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya," a city in neighboring Uttar Pradesh, "but VHP and RSS should understand that Sarna tribals have their own religion,” Ratan Tirkey, a member of the Tribes Advisory Committee of Jharkhand, told UCA News.
“Sarna tribals are not Hindus. They are worshipers of nature, regarding forests, mountains and rivers as sacred. Taking soil from their worship places is interfering with their religion and identity.
“Tribals have been demanding official recognition of their Sarna creed as a separate religion and this act [taking soil] is clearly a tactic to include them within the Hindu religion, which is not acceptable.
“All tribal groups including the Christian community have supported their demand for the Sarna creed in the past and condemn Hindu fanatics interfering with their religion.”
As the property of the Bonga Buru deities of the entire tribal community, Sarna sthals are sacred groves in the Chotanagpur plateau in the states of Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal, he said.
Meanwhile, a woman has lodged a complaint at Dhurva police station against a woman named Megha Oraon, who has been accused of stealing sacred soil.
Kundarasi Munda said Oraon had taken earth from a Sarna site without obtaining permission from the people of the village. Police are investigating the case.
Munda said Sarna tribals are not Hindus under Article 342 of the constitution. The religion and culture of the tribals are completely different from those of Hindus.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit Ayodhya on Aug. 5 to lay the foundation stone of the Ram temple.
“The Church always speaks on behalf of tribals. We have always stood with them over land rights, identity and the Sarna religion,” said Father Vincent Ekka, head of the department of tribal studies at the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute in New Delhi.
“Regardless of religion, tribals are interconnected and if one is disturbed all are affected. They respect all religions, but some groups with vested interests try to divide them for political gain.”
He added that the latest incident is a ploy by the BJP to include tribals within Hinduism.
Santosh Tirkey, secretary-general of Ranchi’s Kendriya Sarna Samiti, told UCA News that Sarna sthals are "our sacred places where we worship our gods and taking anything like mud, tree saplings, flowers, fruits or leaves is prohibited.”
“We have directed all our pahan [priests] not to allow taking mud from our revered places and those doing so will face strict actions,” Santosh said.
“Tribal people number around 100 million in India and we have been demanding for recognition of the Sarna religion. Many political parties have promised to do so during election campaigns, but they never keep their word. We hope our demand will be met before the 2021 census.”
Christians, mostly tribal people, account for 1.4 million of Jharkhand's population of 33 million.