Tribal people across Jharkhand state in eastern India are protesting a local government proposal that will weaken legal protection against others buying and selling indigenous people's land. The state’s proposal to amend two laws "is a major threat to the very survival of tribal people," said Auxiliary Bishop Telesphore Bilung of Ranchi. Jharkhand has some 9 million tribal people, who form 26 percent of the state’s 33 million population. About 1.5 million people in the state are Christians, at least half of them Catholics. The church supports their public demonstrations, said Bishop Bilung. Jesuit Father Xavier Sorent, a social activist, said that church people are involved in creating awareness among tribal communities "about the need to rise to the occasion [and] protect their land." "The people are turning up in huge numbers [to] public protest meetings. It is a major worry for the government," he said, adding that the government is also planning programs to drum up support for the amendment. Hundreds of tribal people gathered in Jharkhand capital Ranchi on Sept. 17 to protest (Photo by Saji Thomas)
Jharkahnd state was created by carving out tribal-dominated areas of Bihar state 16 years ago to protect their interests. The proposed amendments will change laws that prohibit the sale or purchase of indigenous land by non-tribal people. They will also make protected land available for mining and industrial development. Bishop Bilung said tribal life was "centered [on] water, forest and land. The moment they are deprived of their land, they are bound to perish," said the prelate, who comes from an indigenous community himself. The state government, run by the Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party, proposed the amendments in the legislature in July, kick-starting protests from tribal groups. The government wants to "hand over the vast swathes of tribal land with coal, bauxite and other minerals to industrial houses. That is why we say the amendments strike at the very root of tribal life," said Jesuit Father Tom Kavala. The indigenous people are "generally unaware of their rights and constitutional safeguards.… The government is taking advantage of it," said Father Kavala.
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However, state Chief Minister Raghubar Das told media
that the amendments will empower the people with better financial and employment opportunities. He also blamed Christians for inflaming protests. Those behind "conversions" are also behind the protests, he told New Delhi’s Economic Times
. "There are parties that do not want tribals to progress; they want the tribals to remain poor, with no electricity. We are planning to bring development and progress however those involved in conversions are opposed to this as they want the tribals to remain in the state that they are. If people remain poor, they can be easily converted," he told the newspaper
on Sept. 21.