Indigenous people take part in a rally demanding official recognition for their traditional Sarna religions in Gumla in India's Jharkhand state on April 24. (Photo supplied)
Thousands of indigenous people marched through the streets of Gumla town in India's Jharkhand state demanding recognition of their traditional religions.
The rally of about 10,000 people on April 24 aimed to put pressure on the eastern state's government run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which considers indigenous people as Hindus and refuses to give official status to the animist Sarna religions.
Church leaders and activists working for indigenous people said the rally succeeded in bringing together indigenous people of diverse groups and religions.
The government is counting Sarna followers as Hindus as part of a political game, said Father Cyprian Kullu, vicar general of Gumla Diocese, which supported the rally.
"It is certainly a positive move because this was the first time in the region that indigenous people of all religions have come on a single platform and demanded their rights," Father Kullu told ucanews.com.
He said the ruling government and Hindu groups worked to keep the state's indigenous people divided for political purposes and to weaken their efforts to assert their rights.
"The success of the mega rally proved that people have understood the agenda behind the politics of the divide-and-rule policy," Father Kullu said.
Leaders of indigenous groups claim the 2011 census undercounted their numbers because of seasonal migration. Officially, indigenous people form only 26 percent of Jharkhand's 33 million people, but the figure should be over 30 percent.
Church leaders have been supporting the demand for recognition of the Sarna religions in the central-eastern states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Sarna is the collective name for animist tribal religions.
Indigenous people of all religions came together for the rally in Gumla. (Photo supplied)
Leaders like Father Kullu said official recognition of the centuries-old religion will help indigenous people establish their traditional practices and restore their original identity. But Hindu groups are working to demolish tribal identity in their goal to make India a Hindu-alone nation.
The government moved to change a law protecting tribal land rights but a massive protest supported by church groups forced the government to withdraw it.
The government said land acquisition would bring jobs and development for indigenous people but the church was opposed to it. Critics said the legal amendment aimed to take over land on behalf of large companies.
Father Vincent Ekka, who heads the department of tribal studies at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, said government policies were all aimed at annihilating the identity and resources of indigenous people.
"The government wants to end tribal identity and existence, but those who run the government also know they have to face an election next year. It is their tactic to use religion and ethnicity to win votes," the Jesuit priest said.
The 1.4 million Christians in Jharkhand almost come entirely from indigenous groups but are a minority in the state's official count of 8.5 million indigenous people.
However, considering that Christians form 4.3 percent of the state's population, double the national average, some pockets of Jharkhand are considered Christian strongholds. For example, Christians account for more than 20 percent of Gumla district's 1 million people.
The state, under BJP rule since 2014, has witnessed a series of anti-Christian activities including Hindu hardliners banning Christian prayers and the entry of pastors to villages. Many Dalit and tribal leaders allege that their communities are threatened with violence to dissuade them from becoming Christians.