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 — tall, stout, dressed in white shirt and trousers and wearing a golden watch on one wrist and a vermillion thread on the other — speaks softly and smiles often, even while narrating the violence that has broken out following his organisation’s attempt to stop religious conversions in the last decade. The office of his company, Deoshila Development Private Limited, is sparsely furnished, with only a poster of Hanuman for decoration. 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 movement.
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 unsuccessfully.
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.
A deep divide
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 members.