Animist Army vs. Christian Crusaders

The Church had sinned by engaging in a spot of idolatry (blasphemy??) by portraying Mother Mary as a tribal lady with Baby Jesus in a sling. The Animists are not prepared to take this outrage lying down and now a (century old) fight is reaching its Waterloo phase. With the fading of the Catholic-Parsi-Brahmin First Family of India from the scene the Christians will have a tough time (post elections) in keeping their ranks united and their flanks protected.


Two months before polling began in Jharkhand, Ajay Tirkey began dividing
his day between campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ranchi
and attending to his real estate business. Mr. Tirkey, who heads the
Central Sarna Committee(CSC), with lakhs of animistic Sarna tribals as members in urban parts of Ranchi, Gumla and Hazaribagh,
believes that the BJP’s Narendra Modi will get the community what it
has been demanding for decades: the distinction of being a minority
religion with all attendant benefits.
“We submitted a memorandum to Modi
in December to introduce a Sarna code in the census, and [the] BJP’s
State leaders agreed,” he says.

Mr. Tirkey owns the commercial
complex we are sitting in. “This is a century-old fight. I have not let
the Christians get away with conversions since I became the head in
2000,” he says. “We broke the walls of a church in Tape in Ormanjhi
while it was being constructed. There was a case of conversion of five
families in Ghagrajala village in Ranchi; we re-converted three. Then a
few families in Gaitalsud, Angada, of whom only one member escaped
because he worked somewhere else. He has not come back since; he fears
us,” he recounts, beaming.

Mr. Tirkey, the BJP’s mayoral candidate from Ranchi in 2013, describes the “re-conversion” ceremonies as being similar to the ghar-waapsi (homecoming)
ceremonies conducted by BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo in Chhattisgarh,
in the mid-2000s. Mr. Judeo used to wash the feet of the converted
person with holy water and declare the person Hindu again. Sarnas, Mr.
Tirkey says, besides washing feet, made the converted person taste a
drop of blood of a freshly sacrificed rooster and sprinkled water on
them. A member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s Vanvasi Kalyan
Ashram (VKA) or Dharam Jagran usually accompanied CSC members for this
ceremony, he says. Sitting by Mr. Tirkey’s side, Manoj Kumar, a member
of the BJP’s Jharkhand Kisan Morcha Pradesh Samiti, nods in agreement.

In the last century, religious conversions in the Chotanagpur region
have led to tensions. The first missionaries to arrive were the German
Protestants in 1845, followed by the Catholics. The rift between
Christian and non-Christian tribals was visible in 1947-48. Concerned
with the growing influence of Christians, Sarna leaders formed a ‘Sudhar
Sabha,’ notes academic Dr. Alex Ekka in an essay on the Jharkhand

The former captain of the Indian hockey team, Jaipal Singh Munda, is
credited with getting equal rights including reservations for Christian
tribals, as a member of the Constituent Assembly. A few Sarna leaders
opposed this move then. Congress MP Kartik Oraon introduced a bill in
Parliament in 1968 to de-schedule Christian tribals, albeit

The Jan Sangh and the RSS began making inroads in the Chotanagpur region
in the 1960s, initiating developmental activities in forest villages to
counter the growing reach of Christian missionaries. While the VKA
already has a strong presence in the Gumla and Latehar districts of West
Jharkhand, more recently it has focused on increasing its influence in
Sahebganj and Pakur along the State’s border with West Bengal, close to
Bangladesh. Both districts feature in a map of areas from Uttar Pradesh
to the north-east as “Areas of high Muslim and Christian influence” in a
publication by Sankat Mochan Ashram, New Delhi.

“The church was trying to proselytize in Pakur but slowed down after we increased our presence. We recently performed ghar-waapsi
for 50 families there. Sarna groups are doing re-conversions themselves
now; we prefer it this way. We explain to them that 2000 years ago, we
worshipped trees. Sarnas are Hindu too,” says Prakash Kamat, the
Bihar-Jharkhand zonal secretary of the VKA.

Tribals constitute 26.3 per cent of Jharkhand’s population. According to
the 2001 Census, of the State’s population of 3.29 crore, 68.5 per cent
are Hindus and 13.8 per cent are Muslims. Only four per cent follow
Christianity. Though Sarnas, who worship their ancestors and nature, are
not counted separately, they make up most of the ‘Other’ category,
estimated at 11 to 13 per cent of the population. Sarna groups claim
that the actual numbers may be higher, given the absence of a separate
category for them. A common perception is that despite their small
numbers, Christian tribals have better access to higher education and
jobs. Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by
different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian
tribals has widened.

The most stark instance of this was in 2013 when a spate of protests
erupted in Ranchi soon after the Cardinal Telesphore Toppo unveiled the
statue of a “tribal” Mary — a dark-skinned Mother Mary wearing a white
and red saree and bangles, holding an infant Jesus in a sling, as is
common among tribal women. Sarna dharamguru Bandhan Tigga,
considered more moderate than Ajay Tirkey’s group, gave the Church three
months to remove the statue, describing it as a conversion tactic. In
August, over 3,000 Sarna tribals marched to the site, a small Catholic
church in Singpur on Ranchi’s outskirts, threatening to bring it down.

The police imposed Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code in the area to
stop the protesters. Three days later, a FIR was registered against
members of Sarna groups after they threatened families in Ormanjhi, 50
km from Singpur, who had converted to Protestantism several years ago,
to re-convert to Sarna religion within a week, even breaking the gate of
the house of one of the families.

Sources close to the Cardinal claim he had not known that the statue was
that of a “tribal” Mary before he reached the parish for the
inauguration, but have chosen to stay silent, fearing that a step back
now may only weaken the church’s position. Before this, in 2008, the
church was on the back foot when Sarna groups questioned the ‘Nemha
Bible’ published by a Lutheran church in the tribal language, Kuduk,
which they said contained portions offensive to animistic worship.

In Singpur, the residents still recount last year’s protests cautiously.
“Thousands marched from Dhurva to the parish. While the march had been
called by Sarna groups, several Bajrang Dal members wearing saffron
bands marched with them. Even tribals from neighbouring Odisha,
Chhattisgarh districts reached here,” recalled a member of the
community. It was done by evoking Sarnas’ pride, say Dharam Jagran


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