Tuesday, Dec 26, 2023

RSS affiliate on one side, lines sharpen between tribals, ‘converted’ section in Jharkhand

Growing pressure that 'converted' tribals be stripped of benefits of ST status, as Janjaatiya Suraksha Manch convenor argues that Adivasis are essentially Hindus

jharkhandSarna tribals with their traditional weapons stage a protest rally demanding removal and delisting of the names of converted tribal Christians from reservation category, at Morhabadi Grounds, in Ranchi. (PTI)

WITH FOUR months to go for the Lok Sabha elections, and a little longer to the Jharkhand polls, there is a new line sharpening between tribal communities, which hold the key to electoral success in 28 out of 81 seats in the state.

On one side are the likes of BJP stalwart and Padma Bhushan Kariya Munda, a seven-time MP from Khunti district, who was part of an ‘Adivasi De-listing Rally’ on December 24. Held under the banner of RSS affiliate Janjaatiya Suraksha Manch (JSS), the rally argued that tribals who have converted (essentially to Christianity) should lose the right to ST status, arguing that, otherwise, converted tribals avail the benefit of being both tribals and religious minorities.

JSS Convenor Ganesh Ram Bhagat, originally from Chhattisgarh, where the issue has seen violence in the past, further argues that Adivasis – whose practices do not traditionally fall within the definition of organised religion – are actually ‘Hindus’.


Says Kariya Munda: “The late Kartik Oraon (a three-time MP from Lohardaga) espoused the idea of delisting around 1970, but unfortunately it could not fructify. We are just saying that converted tribals are getting triple benefits: minorities get funds from India and abroad for the socio-economic upliftment of their community; they get the benefit of schemes meant for religious minorities; and they also get the benefits meant for Adivasis. At the same time, the non-converted tribals get miniscule benefits.”

About Adivasis “being Hindus”, JSS convenor Ganesh Ram Bhagat argues: “Adivasi jo roorhi ko maanta hai, woh Hindu hai. Woh dharti ki pooja karta hai, prakriti ki pooja karta hai, mandir bhi jaata hai (In their essence, Adivasis are Hindus. They pray to Mother Earth, to Nature, go to temples)… They may go lesser, but they go.”

Festive offer

Speaking to reporters after the December 24 rally, Bhagat said their protests would continue until the Centre heeded their demands.

On the other side are tribal leaders and civil society members who see the move as a bid to divide the community for political gains. Questioning the demand to “delist converted tribals”, Kartik Oraon’s daughter and Congress leader Geeta Shree Oraon says: “We as a community have already been delisted, as we don’t have any separate identity like we had earlier.”


Asserting that “the identity and entity of tribal communities is Sarna religion”, she adds that “an Adivasi adopting any religion, including Hinduism, is a convert”.

Referring to Kartik Oraon’s book ‘Bees saal ki kaali raat (20 years of dark night)’, Geeta Shree says those invoking his idea for their demand did not completely understand what he was seeking regarding justice for tribals. “While he said that benefits reserved for tribal communities should be given to them and not others, he did not ask for the rights of others to be taken away. He called for reservation to be given to the ‘backwards’ among the converted too. Now RSS-backed organisations, which consider tribals Hindus, are trying to polarise the community electorally.”

At 28, ST-reserved seats in Jharkhand can swing the election in any party’s favour. In 2014, the BJP had won 12 of these seats, out of its total of 37, and allied with the All Jharkhand Students’ Union to form a government. However, in the 2019 elections, the BJP tally of ST-reserved seats fell to just 2, with the JMM-Congress alliance winning 25, and an Independent winning 1. (Currently the ruling coalition has 26 seats).


The JMM-Congress government has also made its leanings on the issue evident. Last year, the Jharkhand Assembly passed a resolution seeking a separate religious code of ‘Sarna’ in the upcoming Census, which it forwarded to the Centre. Earlier this year, Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating that there was provision for a separate code for Adivasis in Census 1951, which was later abolished.

His letter said: “Tribal/Sarna Code is very important for the proper development of the tribal community… a proposal in this regard passed by the Jharkhand Assembly is currently pending for decision at the Central government level.”

Officials are wary that the political push against “converted” tribals may lead to discord. A former Tribal Welfare Department official said: “Within a village, there are various tolas, and there are already divisions between converted tribals and those who follow the Sarna religion. It seems that the division will now be pushed towards tension as the polls near.”

Civil society group Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha says the demand for delisting converted tribals is completely “unconstitutional”, while pointing out that many posts in the government and education sector reserved for the community remain vacant.

“There is a clear provision under the Constitution that any tribal group be considered a ‘Scheduled Tribe’. There is no mention of religion anywhere in these sections. (There is an attempt) to create communal divide in tribal society on the basis of baseless facts related to religion and reservation,” Mahasabha recently said in a letter to the government.

First published on: 26-12-2023 at 15:08 IST
Latest Comment
Post Comment
Read Comments