When the great-grandfather of Father Prakash Damor became a Christian more than a century ago, the Bhil tribal people could not have imagined that someone in his bloodline would one day become a Catholic priest.
That was when the Bhil were living in the forested areas of today’s central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh after turning to subsistence farming and manual labor.
“The credit for my education goes to missionaries. My parents are illiterate and nobody in my family knew the value of education,” said Father Damor, who serves as a priest in central India’s Jhabua mission.
Catholic missionaries came to the Jhabua area some 150 years ago and introduced schools and hospitals, unknown to tribal people until then.
Historically, the Bhil people are considered one of the oldest tribes in India and are known for their rugged independence. They were excellent archers with deep knowledge of the forests, which made them experts in guerrilla warfare.
Divine Word missioners who established missions in the Jhabua region were initially reluctant to admit the tribal people for priesthood, primarily because they lacked basic education and were considered too wild to settle down.
A groom looks on as he participates in a mass wedding for members of the Bhil tribal community in Ahmedabad on Feb. 2, 2020. (Photo: AFP)
But things began to change by the fourth generation of Bhil Catholics. Today all Christian children in the Jhabua mission have begun receiving at least primary education.
“Priests and sisters visited my house and encouraged my parents to send me to school. I studied in a mission school until eighth grade,” said 35-year-old Father Damor, who continued his studies in a government school and joined a seminary after the 12th grade.
“I was impressed with missionaries’ dedication to helping the poor and illiterate when nobody bothered about them. At a time of poverty, epidemics and other calamities, only Christian missionaries came to our rescue,” he recalled.
“I thought I should serve the people like them and decided to become a priest,” said the assistant parish priest of Panchkui Parish in Jhabua.
Thriving local vocations
Dinesh Khadiya, a 21-year-old from the Bhil tribe, is among 18 seminarians, all members of once primitive Indian tribes, now undergoing training in the Jhabua diocesan minor seminary.
They all joined after completing higher secondary school education and are now undergoing special training in the English language before pursuing a university degree course as part of their training.
“I chose to become a priest because I wanted to enlighten our people of their rights and human dignity,” a young seminarian told UCA News.
He said the vast majority of the diocese's 50,000 Catholics are tribal people who are still lagging in sociopolitical development.
“Most of our people are still poor and uneducated and needed special care to bring them into the mainstream of life. My life as a Catholic priest can be of immense use as I belong to the same community,” the young seminarian said.
A Catholic nun from the Bhil tribe takes a class for women in Jhabua Diocese in central India, where missioners introduced education some 150 years ago (Photo: Jhabua Diocese)
“I and many in my generation are lucky that we got schooling, but our parents could not think of it,” he said, crediting the Christian missionaries with building up schools among tribal communities.
All his 17 companions in the seminary are from indigenous communities. It indicates a clear transition as missionaries from abroad and other Indian states used to run the diocese because of the lack of local vocations.
Father Manoj Kujur, rector of Preshidalaya (missionary home) Minor Seminary where Khadiya is studying, said the seminary now focuses on encouraging local vocations.
“For the past four years we have been getting only local vocations. Earlier we used to depend on vocations from outside the state as local youths were not qualified enough to join the seminary. But now things have begun to change,” Father Kujur told UCA News.
Hailing from the Oraon tribe from neighboring Chhattisgarh state, the priest said the seminary’s focus on local vocations also means that vocations from outside have drastically declined.
Slow mission work
The Christian presence in the diocesan area dates back to 1896 when Capuchin Father Charles De Ploemeur arrived and established the first mission station at Thandla, a town in the present Jhabua district.
Until the second half of the 19th century, the entire region was under the Archdiocese of Agra, the first diocese established in 1784 as the Vicariate Apostolic of Great Mogul, covering the whole of northern India. Capuchin priests led the mission in the area in the initial decades.
Since 1886, when the Indian hierarchy was established, more dioceses were established. However, mission work in the Jhabua area began to gain momentum only after Society of Divine Word (SVD) missionaries arrived in 1932.
Most overseas SVD missioners in the region came from the German province of the congregation. They took up the mission at the request of the Vatican’s Propaganda Fide as early as 1913.
Bhil tribal men in their traditional dress celebrate the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 9, 2021, in Jhabua Diocese. (Photo: Jhabua Diocese)
Jhabua Diocese was established in 2002 by combining the territories from the dioceses of Indore in Madhya Pradesh state and Udaipur in Rajasthan state. Divine Word missionary Chacko Thottumarickal, a native of Kerala state in the south, was appointed Jhabua's first bishop.
“We have had a very long journey to reach this stage,” said Divine Word Bishop Devaprasad John Ganava, the diocese’s first Bhil bishop, who succeeded Bishop Thottumarickal in 2009.
“Today I am a bishop but some 80 years back even my congregation [SVD] refused to accept anyone from our community to join the priesthood,” Bishop Ganava told UCA News.
“But now the situation has changed drastically as the local Church will have to depend on its local vocations as vocations from other places have virtually dried up.”
The change happened “because early missionaries realized that the Church cannot survive without local involvement in the leadership. They started promoting local vocations,” he recalled.
Bishop Ganava was transferred to Udaipur Diocese and Bishop Basil Bhuriya, another Divine Word priest and a Bhil, was appointed as Jhabua’s third bishop. Unfortunately, Bishop Bhuriya died in May 2021 and the post remains vacant.
Currently, 83 priests are serving in the diocese covering five civil districts. Of them, 68 are diocesan priests, all from indigenous communities including 26 from the Bhil tribe alone.
The diocese has priests and nuns from local communities to carry forward its mission, Bishop Ganava said.
He said the government has now established facilities for education and health care among the indigenous population. “But when missionaries reached the region more than 150 years ago, things were different,” Bishop Ganava said.
Divine Word Bishop Devaprasad John Ganava, the first Bhil tribal bishop of Jhabua (in white dress at center), with his conferrers and friends at Maitrisadan, a Divine Word center for interfaith activities in Udaipur, Rajasthan state (Photo: Maitrisadan)
“There were many instances when we could not even help people from dying of epidemics like cholera and other diseases as there were no communication or road facilities to get information or seek help,” the prelate said.
The Bhil tribal people are one of India’s largest ethnic groups spread across a vast expanse of land covering the central, western and southern parts of the subcontinent. At the time the tribal people barely managed to eke out a living as hunters and gatherers.
“Many even died of poverty, but now things have changed after children of indigenous people started schooling, wearing good clothes and taking medical treatment when sick. Still we need to do more to help them stand on their own,” Bishop Ganava said.
Christian mission work in the area now, however, has become challenging as right-wing Hindu groups have stepped up activities to establish Hindu hegemony in the region. They consider Christians a threat to their goal of making India a nation of Hindu majority.
The Hindu activists argue that the missionaries spread Western education and culture, destroying Hindu traditions and Indian culture. They also oppose indigenous people becoming Christians and have been running a campaign to reconvert Christians to Hinduism.
The Ghar Vapasi (homecoming) campaign was started some two decades ago to reconvert tribal Christians, claiming that the tribal people were originally Hindus.
“It is true our predecessors fought with poverty, wild animals, diseases, lack of basic facilities and other difficulties. But today when we live in peace and harmony, Hindu fundamentalism threatens indigenous Christians. We live in fear,” said Father Rocky Shah, public relations officer of Jhabua Diocese.
A family sit near burning coal kept for domestic use at Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh state on Nov. 18, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
“Christians run close to 40 schools in the diocese educating more than 100,000 children, but still the community is being targeted for alleged charges of religious conversion,” said Father Shah.
Non-Christian tribal people are dominant in Jhabua and Alirajpur districts. Jhabua district has about a million people, of which Christians constitute barely 4 percent or 40,000, most of them Catholics in the diocese.
The district’s Christian presence is almost double the national average of 2.3 percent and four times higher than the central Indian region, where Christians are less than one percent among the dominant Hindu population.
“Indigenous people became Christians out of their choice, but now the Church is being accused of illegally converting them to Christianity,” said Father Shah.
Hindu groups allege the Church’s educational and health services in villages are a facade to attract and convert tribal and other poor people to Catholicism. The pro-Hindu governments that support Hindu groups tacitly help them in policy and legal matters.
Two years ago, the diocese had to shut down some 25 dispensaries it operated to provide health services to villagers after the government banned all dispensaries that did not have a full-time qualified doctor, Father Shah said.
The diocese, however, continues with its free treatment and rehabilitation of people infected with tuberculosis, leprosy and HIV/AIDS among other diseases. It also treats malnourished mothers and children as part of its mission.
“Church initiatives have no doubt done wonders in the area for the past 150 years, but now it is under attack and our services are termed gimmicks for conversion,” said Father Shah.
Madhya Pradesh is among eight Indian states where anti-conversion laws exist, with provisions for up to 10 years in jail for converting anyone through allurement, force, coercion and other means.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists shout slogans during a protest on Jan. 5 against the demolition of an ancient Hindu Lord Hanuman temple by the Delhi government. (Photo: AFP)
Even offering free education or a reward to encourage a student can be construed as an inducement for conversion under Madhya Pradesh’s anti-conversion law.
“Earlier our challenges were to improve the conditions of the people. Now we have to think twice before going to assist a needy person as it could be a plot to trap us in fake religious conversions,” said Father Shah.
“Despite all odds, we will continue to support the needy in whatever way possible. But being a Christian in the changing environment is no longer an easy task.”
Khadiya concurred with his counterpart: “Challenges are part of Christian life and for a missionary it could be more, but with the spirit of God we will face them happily.”
Hindu right-wing activists are active in Father Damor’s Panchuki parish too. But he is resolute. “I am not scared as I have dedicated my life to Christ.”
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