In this Aug. 3 photograph, Indian tribal villagers stand near a traditional home in Jharkhand state. Indigenous communities in India are often marginalized. (Photo by Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP)
Tribal Christians in northern India are observing the death anniversary of Jesuit Father Constant Lievens, a great missionary and liberator of the tribals of Chotanagpur, a region that now spreads across Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh states.The tribal communities for which Servant of God Lievens worked has changed much since the death of the Belgian missionary 122 years ago on Nov. 7. Today, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, with a combined population of 46 million, has some 1.8 million Christians, mostly indigenous people.The first key to Father Constant Lievens’ success, besides his deep faith and confidence in God, was his experience and knowledge of the social, economic, political and religious conditions of the tribal people.Secondly, he understood the pain of injustice, exploitation and oppression done to the tribal people and he tried to resolve them. He first tried to understand the pathetic economic situation of the people caused by the unjust sociopolitical situation of the time. He learned the land system, people's rights and traditional claims. He made them aware and defended their land rights. He empowered them with knowledge and prepared knowledgeable personnel who could strongly stand behind the people in their legal fight for their rights.Thirdly, he and his companions were not discouraged or panicked by the retaliation of the landlords. Instead, the work of evangelization, stabilization and strengthening of the communities went side-by-side to become a model for integral liberation. The church has grown over the years. But people, especially in the rural areas of Chotanagpur, are still struggling with the same type of difficulties they faced a century ago. They struggle to live their faith in peace and freedom, and are worried about their survival.
A church of the poor
Today, the Bharatiya Janata Party, a political party that follows an ideology to make India a Hindu country, runs both Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh states. So when we speak of the tribal situation in the present sociopolitical context, we need to think of a collective tribal society as the focus: not just tribal Christians, but all indigenous people.The problems affecting tribal people are more from within than from outside. I say this because often our own weaknesses become the means of attack for others. Tribal people are aware of losing their rights over land, water and forests. They are aware of losing their tribal identity. They are aware of this hazardous situation. The question here is this: Who will play the role of a liberator today — society as a whole, the church alone or the government?In itself, tribal society is weak economically and politically in comparison to others. It will remain weak in knowledge and power unless it becomes a united front. In such a situation, people feel helpless in the absence of strong support and help. They are also discouraged by government policies because good ones never reach the needy, and the benefit goes to others.All broad-minded people look at the church with expectation and hope. However, we should not forget that the church in Chotanagpur is a church of the poor. Forces that work against the church and tribal communities are giants. It is an acknowledged fact that the church has played a very important role in uplifting indigenous people, especially in the areas of education, health care and social work. The church continues to do so.The missionary approach of Father Lievens is relevant even today. What is required is a change of methods and means.The major crises or today's tribal issues are a lack of quality education, land-alienation, deforestation, homogenization, detribalization, forced migration, human trafficking, religious fundamentalism, alcoholism, extremism and the loss of tribal identity.Divisive elements have played their role in dividing tribal communities on the basis of race and religion. The need now is for tribal unity and the awakening of both the elite and underprivileged to the tribal soul.Leaders of the church and tribal communities must both individually and collectively search for and grasp every opportunity to express solidarity with all, especially the needy.I wish the Catholic Church would take up the leading role in bringing together all other churches and non-Christian tribal communities and that they all make a concerted effort to tackle these serious issues. United together we are strong, divided we remain weak.
Bishop Binay Kandulna of Khunti, 51, is himself a tribal person. Bishop Kandulna, a priest of Khunti Diocese and collaborator with the Apostolic Nunciature in New Delhi, was auxiliary bishop of the Ranchi Archdiocese before heading Khunti in 2012.