Growing up as a child in the remote and dusty fields of Hazaribagh, Santhosh Minj had no inkling that one day he would lead the mission that Australian Jesuits started there.
It is no mean achievement for someone born in an ethnic Oraon family in eastern India.
The Oraons are one of the Dravidian-language-speaking tribal peoples of the Chota Nagpur plateau covering the present states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal.
Steeped in rich history and diverse tribal culture, the eastern state of Jharkhand is a strange paradox. It’s rich in natural resources, including forests, minerals and rivers, with abundant rainfall and fertile soil, yet the majority of its people live in abject poverty.
Jharkhand has 40 percent of India's total mineral reserves and is additionally blessed with majestic hills, wild forests, breathtaking waterfalls and verdant valleys. But hidden beneath is a story of the socioeconomic backwardness of its tribal communities.
Father Minj’s parents were like any other tribal people in their native Karamtoli-Bardauni village in the heart of Hazaribagh. They were unlettered and, like generations before them, barely managed to survive by tending the land, herding cattle and collecting forest produce.
The Oraons hardly had facilities for modern education and health or exposure to the outside world until six Australian Jesuits initiated Hazaribagh as a separate mission in 1951 with a special focus on education.
The Jesuits dedicated their lives to educating tribal people in their remote villages of present Latehar district, inspiring many local boys to lead a life similar to theirs.
This is perhaps the reason that today the Jesuits' Hazaribagh Province is educating more than 24,000 students with nearly 800 staff members. It also runs 15 student hostels with nearly 3,500 hostellers.
St. Joseph High School in Jharkhand state's Mahuadar village, one of several schools the Jesuits of Hazaribagh Province manage in the district. (Photo supplied)
“This is the reason today I am a Jesuit and not only a Jesuit but the provincial of Hazaribagh Province, a mission which I had never thought of,” said Father Minj with a sense of achievement.
As a small child, Minj met the late Australian Jesuit Barry O'Loughlin. The priest was his family’s parish priest in Mahuadanr, the oldest mission station in the present Hazaribagh Province.
Father Minj credits his developing a rare bond with the Jesuits to Father Barry’s happy and simple demeanor. “He used to be very close to the common people, and I think this probably led me to the Jesuits,” he said.
During his schooldays, he would often tell his mother that he wanted to become "very handsome, happy and cheerful" like the Jesuit priests. His mother would smile and encourage him to study harder, he recalled.
The priest said that like him “there were several boys who wanted to join the Jesuits because we found Jesuits mixing with our people easily and joyfully.”
The Jesuits’ behavior was in contrast to the indigenous peoples who avoided interaction with those outside their tribes.
“I met some Jesuits regularly. They genuinely cared for you, were kind and encouraging while being very jovial. Yet they were very committed to their mission,” Father Minj said.
He joined the Jesuits in 1990, was ordained a priest in 2005 and was appointed provincial in December 2016.
The original team of six Australian Jesuits, who came to the Hazaribagh mission. From left, Kevin Grogan, Herbert Balding, Louis Lachal, Edmund O’Connor, John Moore and Leonard Forster. (Photo: Jesuit.org.au)
Five decades of change
In 1951, close to 60 Jesuits worked in the region to lay foundations for modern education. They also encouraged local vocations.
The first Indian joined the order as early as 1954. The province currently has 172 Jesuits working in seven districts of Jharkhand, 152 of them local tribal men and the other 20 from other Indian states.
Together they serve the poorest by imparting education and socio-pastoral assistance to people, mostly from tribes such as the Oraon, Santhal, Asur, Korwa, Nagesia, Birjia, Munda, Kharia, Bhuiyans, plus a sizable number of poor Dalit communities.
Father Minj told UCA News that his province now has only four Australian Jesuits. “In the span of last three years or so, four returned to their home county.”
But the presence of Jesuits in the region ensured the indigenous tribes took to education.
Hazaribagh district has 1,734,495 people and boasts an average literacy rate of 70.48 percent. It is higher than Jharkhand's literacy rate of 67 percent, according to the 2011 India census report.
That is so despite people's livelihoods continuing to revolve around forests, agriculture and animal husbandry. In the absence of major industries and employment opportunities, the options for economic development are also limited.
Hindus form 80 percent of Hazaribagh's population followed by Muslims, who comprise 16.21 percent. Christians continue to be a minority in Hazaribagh district at only 0.99 percent of the population. There are minority Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists too.
The Jesuits have served the entire population regardless of religion and ethnicity.
“There has been a huge change in the economy and lifestyle of all the people in and around Hazaribagh,” Father Minj said. “People used to walk miles and miles once upon a time. Now many own motorcycles while some even have four-wheelers.”
Many people benefited from modern education and are employed with the government as well as the private sector.
“The people in Hazaribagh value good education, health services and decent living. Many are moving from the mud houses to cement houses,” the priest said.
A gathering of Jesuits in the Hazaribagh Province in 2019. (Photo supplied)
The Indian face of mission
The Hazaribagh mission, which was part of the Jesuits' Ranchi Province, became an independent province in 1992. Father Edward Mudavassery, an Indian priest, was appointed first provincial.
The Ranchi Province handed over the St. Stanislaus College in Sitagarha to the newborn province to become its novitiate and juniorate.
“The Hazaribagh mission has truly come of age since then with Indians in core positions of leadership and governance,” said Father Minj. “The Australian baby has grown into an adult Indian.”
In the initial years, there was a real shortage of funds for the mission. The Australian Jesuits had to secure funds from their native land. It was much later, and largely because of the clever investments by Father Tony Ryan, that the financial state of the province improved a lot.
So much so that the province is now financially secure and standing on its own feet, assured Father Minj while describing how it offers help to other congregations working in collaboration with the Jesuits.
The last decades of the 20th century were years of relative financial security for the province, he said. It is worth noting that in the course of time two dioceses, Daltonganj and Hazaribagh were formed in the jurisdiction of Hazaribagh Province.
As the number of diocesan priests increased, 11 parishes or mission stations, either inherited from Ranchi or later started by the province, were handed over to these new dioceses.
Trucks loaded with coal travel down a road at the Jharia coalfield in Dhanbad in India's Jharkhand state on Oct. 14, 2021. (Photo: Gautam Dey/AFP)
Stress on education
The first Australian Jesuits found it difficult to gain mastery of the local Hindi or other tribal languages as they had little time to learn. They were also very quickly moved out to other mission stations.
No doubt adapting to a new country was difficult with its varied culture, people, cuisine and weather, but the pioneering Australian Jesuits adapted well.
The fellow Jesuits in Ranchi, a major town and industrial hub, were very supportive, which helped overcome the challenges in dealing with the various problems faced in an area that had suffered centuries of poverty, disease, illiteracy, social and economic discrimination.
The Australians' first apostolate was St. Xavier's Hazaribagh, an English-medium school. Of course, they soon were also working in remote parishes such as Mahuadanr, though it took years to start secondary school education for classes eight and beyond in these areas.
The last few decades have witnessed a tremendous change and expansion, with Jesuits running many Hindi-medium schools, including high schools and colleges for students from tribal and Dalit communities.
Another big improvement is the readiness of many religious sisters to cooperate with the Jesuits in the apostolate, especially in running schools and colleges as well as parish and social initiatives. Many nuns are now holding responsible positions, including as heads of institutions.
Many young priests and scholastics are being sent abroad for studies and tertianship.
Students of a Jesuit school at the tomb of Indian Jesuit Father A.T. Thomas, a social activist who was killed in Hazaribag district in 1997. (Photo supplied)
The challenge of reducing poverty remains as 40-50 percent of people in Hazaribagh were officially below the poverty level in 2004–05. It means they do not have enough income for a full meal a day.
Official records show rural poverty in Jharkhand state was on a decline from 66 percent in 1993–94 to 46 percent in 2004–05. In 2011, it had come down to 39.1 percent.
Hazaribagh with its excellent literacy rate could do better than other districts with the help of the Jesuits' mission.
However, there had been a decrease in vocations in Jharkhand as elsewhere in India.
We are not getting Brothers’ vocations, which is a great pity,” said Father Minj, regretting that local vocations had gone on a downward spiral.
The province has also lately been unable to mobilize local funds. “Therefore, our other concern is the sustainability of our apostolate,” Father Minj added.
He wonders if there is a need to promote and encourage lay leadership as well as organize leadership programs for the serving Jesuits to enhance their intellectual and spiritual capabilities to meet fresh challenges posed by the internet age.
“Our educational institutions need to further develop the ingrained culture of openness to all cultures, languages and religions,” said Father Minj.
Catholic priests and nuns protest against the arrest of Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, a member of Ranchi Province, which was bifurcated to create Hazaribagh Province. Father Stan was accused of involvement in anti-national activities and died as a prisoner on July 5, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
Jharkhand has 32 small and large indigenous groups, with the Santals being the largest among them. According to the 2001 census, these communities accounted for some seven million of the state’s total population of 26 million.
For them, educational opportunities are increasing today in the fast-developing cities and towns across the state. Children and parents are now motivated to gain a good education.
Father Minj said he dreams for the province with prayers.
"Wherever we are working, our quest is for greater discernment, planning, networking and collaboration to establish a society through education where there is dignity, harmony, love, prosperity, respect, understanding and unity among the people,” Father Minj said of his hopes for the future.