2003-05-22 00:00:00

Some 100,000 tribal people in India´s Jharkhand state surrounded the governor´s house recently to demand official status for their religion.

Tribals in Jharkhand state who are not Christians follow "sarna," an animist religion. However, census reports have categorized them as Hindus. A census is conducted every 10 years, the last in 2001.

Dev Kumar Dhan, a tribal leader, told the May 15 gathering their religion is older than Hinduism. "The tribals worship nature, not idols," he said.

Dhan, a member of the Congress party in the state legislative assembly, accused pro-Hindu groups of influencing census officials to categorize tribals as Hindus.

The Congress party is the main federal opposition party. It and two organizations representing sarna tribals organized the demonstration in Ranchi, the state capital, 1,160 kilometers southeast of New Delhi.

Heads of the top administrative bodies of the Ho, Munda, Oraon and Santhal tribes took part in the demonstration.

Dhan said the chiefs´ participation symbolized growing unity and solidarity among the various tribes in the region.

The demonstrators handed the governor a 15-point memorandum addressed to the Indian president with copies to the prime minister, federal home minister and Jharkhand state chief minister.

Santhal leader Ramchandra Murmu said the governor, as head of the state, should ask the government to safeguard people´s rights.

Sawna Lakra, a Congress legislator, told UCA News the sarna tribal people do not want to be classified as Hindus and it is up to the authorities to take the appropriate action. Only time will tell what will happen if the tribal sentiments are not respected, he warned.

Protesters had entered the city from several directions, beating traditional drums used for hunting and war. Dhan said this was done to symbolically alert the government as tribals never attack enemies without first warning them.

The demonstrators then assembled at the city´s largest open space before marching to Raj Bhavan (royal house), the governor´s house.

In addition to their main demand for inclusion of "sarna" in the census form, they also demanded recognition of tribal people´s traditional administrative systems and of their rights over forests and natural resources.

Other points in their memorandum call for their children to be taught in tribal languages up to ninth grade and the establishment of an autonomous university exclusively for tribal students. Among their other demands, they want a ban on the sale of tribal lands and the return of unused land acquired from tribal people earlier for a heavy engineering firm near Ranchi.

Dhan blamed right-wing Hindu groups for the exclusion of tribal religion from the census form. "Even smaller religious groups have separate religious codes in the Census Performa," he added. The tribal leader alleged that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, national volunteers corps) has been trying to split Christian and sarna tribals in the state for political gain.

The RSS is the umbrella organization of Hindu nationalist groups. Its political affiliate, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian people´s party), now heads Jharkhand´s coalition government and the federal coalition government.

The status of tribals in caste-ridden Hindu society was another issue raised at the demonstration. The four main caste divisions are Brahmin, the priests; followed by Kshatriya, the warriors; Vaisya, the traders; and Shudra, the menial workers. Those outside these categories, once called "untouchables," are now called dalit but still face discrimination.

Bagun Soy, a Ho tribal leader, asked at the demonstration, "Will (the Hindu groups) classify us with the Brahmins or with the lowest rank?" According to him, the Hindu caste system is based on inequality and therefore cannot accept the tribal concept of social equality.

Countering the allegations, Babulal Marandi, former state chief minister and an RSS worker, accused the Congress party of creating hatred between tribals and Hindus. "All tribals are Hindus," asserted the Santhal tribal politician at a May 16 press conference in Ranchi.

According to him, Hinduism is not a religion but a system of life that embraces all existing faiths. "All people living in India are Hindus, whatever faith they adopt and practice," he said.

Church authorities in the state have kept away from the controversy. "Let the people of the state judge what is right and wrong," Archbishop Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi told UCA News when asked for his reaction.

However, at a meeting of sarna leaders on April 13, the Oraon archbishop asserted that whether Christian or sarna, tribal people are in the first place tribal. Archbishop Toppo was the only Christian invited to the meeting.

During the meeting, participants decided to stop worshipping Hindu gods, which they said were introduced to tribal people by the RSS as part of its "conspiracy" to subjugate them by bringing them into the Hindu fold.


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