Shankerdeo Jha in Ranchi
If you think it just a trivial battle for a copyright over ‘red border white saree’ for which Sarana Vanvasis of Jharkhand are lately fighting against church missionaries in Jharkhand; there is a flipside of the story that can bring furrow on your forehead.
As late as May this year, the statue of Mother Mary wearing a red border saree and holding infant Jesus Christ in her sling by tying them to a white cloth, was unveiled by Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, Archbishop of Ranchi at a catholic church at Singpur village of Ranchi.
The tanned skinned Mother Mary in red border white saree, hair in a bun, bangles around her wrists and necklace, looks like a traditional Vanvasi woman. “The question is not just that Mother Mary stands replica to a Vanvasi woman; the Sarana Vanvasi feel it a ‘well hatched missionary conspiracy to convert them into Christianity’ by inducing and enticing them.
The battle for colour and dress has flamed into fire to an extent that non-Christian Saranas have not only objected it, but they have stirred agitations with a huge crowd of more than 20000 attended protest rally held at Morhabadi Ground in Ranchi they have yelled to pull the statue down if the church does not withdraw it. Tension triggered in such a way that the police had to clap prohibitory order at Singur village and the area around which is dominated on by Oraon Vanvasi community which is ardent follower of the Sarana faith.
Spiritual head of Sarana Society Bandhan Tigga objected it. “White saree with red border is traditional and religious hallmark of Vanvasi women. We don’t object anybody wearing this. Problem start when you do it with a devil motive. It is a tactical move of church to convert Sarana Vanvasis into Christianity. Mother Mary was a foreigner what if after some 50 years Church starts a misleading campaign among poor and innocent Vanvasi to tell them that Mother Mary originally belonged to Jharkhand. For more than 50 years they (missionaries) have expanded their tentacles in Jharkhand and converting them into Christianity. Our identity is under threat,” he said.
Church remained tightlipped behind new avtar of Mother Mary as Vanvasi woman, but conceded it was a not a mistake but raised enough points to defend the church. “What’s wrong in donning Mother Mary in saree? Why some are getting suspicious? Now elections are coming some political parties are trying to make it an election issue. Thousands of tribals over the year opted for Christianity but they are still tribal and love their identity,” one of the church official said.
But the agitation is now bound to cross the boundary of Jharkhand as states like Odisha, Chhatisgadh and West Bengal have sizeable number of Saranas. All India Sarana Religious and Social Coordination Committee, an umbrella organisation of 21 Vanvasi groups, has supported agitation. “Remove that idol or wait till December 25, this year, when lakhs of Vanvasi will once again assemble in Ranchi to take a final call,” Tigga said. Large part of Jharkhand especially its Chota Nagpur division is a public story of missionaries getting huge dubious foreign funds for conversion also because of the reason that church wields considerable political clouts. The Saranas Vanvasis relatively close to Hindus worship Mother Nature or Maa Sarana. The two consecutive census reports, of 2001 and 2012 suggest Saranas are still in crores in Vanvasi states of the country. In 2001, in Jharkhand around 32 lakh Vanvasi claimed to be followers of the Sarana faith while 68 lakh said they belonged to other religions not mentioned in the list. In 2012 in Jharkhand 50 lakhs identified themselves as Sarana. If you count the number of Sarana faiths in entire India we are around 10 crores in number.
But Saranas battle for cultural and religious survival against church onslaught is an old battle. During early 70s the church missionaries had come with a long drawn plan of conversion which got a popular coinage: “Nagaland se Nagpur via Chota Nagpur.” It reflected a deep design of missionaries the way it planned to reduce Hindu and tribal population through conversion.
“Everybody knows how missionaries on the name of charity have converted Vanvasi population. They are like demons they needed to be stopped,” a noted social worker who runs schools and training centres in Gumla said.
During 1970s the former minister and Congress stalwart Kartik Oraon and wife Sumati Oraon of Gumla had first raised movement against conversion of Saranas by Christian missionaries. Nevertheless, the Congress maintained safe distance from it but the movement drew support cutting across the party line with the late MP getting support of around 300 odd MPs to support the cause of Saranas.