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´Hinduization´ Trend Among Tribal People Comes Under Scrutiny By Tribal Leaders


May 18 2006

Eastern India´s top tribal council has banned Hindu practices, images and priests from tribal religious ceremonies.

"We have banned (tribal people) going to Hindu temples and having idol worship," said Beokumar Dhan, convener of Bisu Sendra, the highest council for tribal people in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal states.

About 50,000 tribal people and their leaders from these states attended the recent four-day convention that served as the Bisu Sendra. It ended May 8 at Borsidag, a village in Jharkhand state´s Latehar district, 1,100 kilometers southeast of New Delhi.

At the convention, a panel of tribal chiefs was chosen as a decision-making panel for the council. It decided to ban Hindu priests from conducting tribal marriages and religious ceremonies.

Explaining the decision, Dhan said that according to Sarna, the traditional tribal religion, God is nirakar (formless). The tribal leaders felt disturbed after some Sarna adherents started using "an imaginative image of the Sarna deity," he told UCA News.

The tribal religion does not have formal structures for worship, and Sarna worship places, surrounded by native sal trees, have no statues.

Dhan said the leaders also had noticed that in recent months, some people have distributed pictures and statues of a Sarna "goddess" in villages, calling the goddess Sarna Mata (Sarna mother). Many tribal people have placed these pictures in their houses and started worshipping them as Hindus do.

"We have no goddesses. We believe in only one God, who is almighty, creator of heaven and earth," Dhan explained. He added that the council has asked tribal priests, called pahan, and village chiefs to remove those images from houses. The council also directed them to destroy audiocassettes containing songs of Sarna Mata that some groups have distributed in villages. It has asked the tribal priests to punish people who play those cassettes.

Bisu Oraon, a member of the decision-making panel, said the meeting also decided to oppose the presence of right-wing Hindu groups in tribal villages. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, national volunteers corps), an umbrella organization for right-wing Hindu groups, has opened hundreds of units in the region.

"The Bisu Sendra has decided to restrict RSS activities in Jharkhand state. Tribal people will not tolerate RSS efforts to turn them into Hindus," Oraon told UCA News May 10.

Dhan said the council received more than 100 complaints about tribal people conducting their marriage with a Hindu priest. It has taken the matter seriously, he continued, and ha asked tribal priests to nullify all those marriages and to conduct them afresh according to tribal customs.

"If the couples do not obey they must be driven out of society and no tribals will cooperate with them in anything," Dhan said.

He said most cases came from places where the RSS and other Hindu groups are active in Jharkhand. According to him, the right-wing Hindu groups are trying to "Hinduize" tribal people. "They are trying to impose Hinduism and Hindu culture and belief on tribal people," he asserted.

Asked about tribals becoming Christians, Dhan said the council did not discuss anything related to Christianity or the Church. "I think pahan and tribal heads are not worried about the Church, because the Church has never affected tribal values. Even after becoming Christian, tribal people have not left their traditions, culture, languages and other religious and social values," he added.

Many tribal priests told UCA News that their people are facing various new challenges.

One of the priests, Bishun Bhagat, said tribal people used to hold pahan in "great respect," but after the Hindu activists´ entry many families have gone to Hindu priests. The tribal council decision would help the pahan to curb trends that harm tribal society, he added.

Gendu Tigga, another pahan, was upset over the recent developments in tribal society. "Our people are in a hurry to join mainstream society at the cost of destroying our own society," he bemoaned. "They are ready to become Hindus. They are getting married in Hindu temples. But their dead bodies would not find a place in the tribals´ graveyard. Let the Hindus burn their dead bodies," he added angrily.

Until now the tribal priests could not take action against erring couples, he explained. "We eagerly waited for this convention to get directives. Now we have the power to take action against them and their families," he said.