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India's tribal bishops to unite their people  

A new consultation has raised issues and solutions to issues facing India's indigenous people

India's tribal bishops to unite their people   

Cardinal Telesphore P. Cardinal Toppo of Ranchi addressing the first consultation of tribal Catholic bishops in Ranchi, Jharkhand state on Feb. 23. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj)

Catholic bishops of tribal origin have resolved to unite against politically-motivated moves to divide indigenous people in India on the basis of religion.

"Our people are very innocent and honest and the sectarian forces know the trick to exploit it," said Cardinal Telesphore P. Toppo of Ranchi, India's first tribal cardinal, during a consultation in the capital of the tribal-dominated Jharkhand state in central India on Feb. 23-24. The meeting brought together 11 tribal bishops.

Father Stanislaus Tirkey, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops' office for tribal people, said that 26 of India's 171 Catholic dioceses are tribal-dominated and are situated in central and northeastern states.  


The big issues

The biggest issue for tribal people in central India is the growth of Hindu nationalist groups who divide tribes into Hindu and non-Hindu for political gain, Cardinal Toppo said. He warned bishops that if action is not taken, "things may get out of hand."

Cardinal Toppo said that the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that rules central Indian states, blames tribal Christians for creating trouble. For example, Jharkhand state amended two laws in November 2016 that were meant to protect tribal lands. The changes empowered the government to use tribal land for industrial and welfare projects, a move that  triggered widespread protests. Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das, who heads the BJP government there, blamed Christians for instigating the protests. 

Unfortunately, the BJP is supported by the majority of non-Christian tribal people. Cardinal Toppo said "it is sad" that they are trapped by false promises and "the situation is very severe."

Bishop Vincent Barwa of Simdega, chairman of the Indian Catholic bishops' office for tribal people also pointed out that  "Our people are facing migration and displacement in all [tribal] states." 


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Actions suggested

The bishops have decided to appoint a priest and layperson in each diocese to work full-time as part of an awareness group. They will collect statistics and data on tribal issues and work to interact and network with local people.

The bishops also resolved to politically empower parishioners in areas where Christian numbers are large enough to affect the outcome of elections.

Benjamin Lakra, a tribal and former civil servant, told the bishops that they ought to prepare suitable political candidates in their respective areas.

Bishop Binay Kandulna of Khuti said tribal people could help win elections or impact issues if Christian and non-Christian tribal people were to unite.

"If we can build a bridge between all the Christian denominations the [election] results could be different. We should unite for the betterment of our people or else our situation will not change," Bishop Kandulna said.

India has some 28 million Christians and published studies show some 30 percent of them or 8 million are tribal people. At least half of them are Catholics, forming little more than 20 percent of the total 19 million Catholics in the country.

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