In the world’s largest democracy, issues related to the tribal or the Janjatiya/Vanvasi belt are rarely discussed. It is a fact that the respective Indian governments till 2014 never gave a serious thought to the upliftment of the Vanvasi or Janjatiya community. It is only after 2014 that the central government decided to give this community due credit and to recognise the contribution of its unsung heroes.
Nevertheless, in spite of the recent efforts, the community is still facing a serious threat to its very existence – from the Christian missionaries and radical Islamist elements in the tribal belts of the country. Worried that this trend will finish their cultural identity eventually, tribal communities are now strongly demanding the delisting of the Scheduled Tribes. The rallying point of this movement is a demand for delisting of those tribals from the list of Scheduled Tribes who have converted to Christianity or Islam.
In the last decade or so, conversions within the tribal community have seen a marked rise. In this period, experts say, the methods employed by Christian missionaries to convert tribals has taken a paradigm shift. Now they’re using more money power as a conversion tool.
Tribal leaders are of the view that the benefits of reservation are exclusively meant for the Scheduled Tribes which fall within the Hindu fold, not for those who follow any other religions. The government must immediately de-list the converts from list of the Scheduled Tribes, they demand
Whether it is Punjab, the Northeastern states or the remote regions of Chhattisgarh or Tamil Nadu, the modus operandi of conversion remains the same. One technique to attract tribals is to begin by citing similarities between the Indian gods and Jesus Christ, and then cunningly convert them by spreading fallacy or by luring them with money. And if they are not able to convert them to Christanity directly, the trick is to encourage them to choose a different path. The sarna code in Jharkhand is an example of that.
However, the biggest concern is the trend wherein the converts practice their adopted religion embraced cardinally, but still remain Hindus on paper. By retaining the Hindu tag, the converted tribals continue to avail the benefits of reservation and other facilities provided by the government to the Scheduled Tribes and Castes.
THE LOVE JIHAD PHENOMENON
While Christan missionaries have been silently converting tribals since long, this community is also in the crosshairs of radical Islamists now. Recently there have been a number of incidents in which tribal girls have fallen prey to love jihad in Jharkhand and West Bengal.
It’s reported that after marrying the girls, these men (some of them affliated with Harkat ul Ansar of Bangladesh) are forcibly encroaching the traditional lands of the tribal communities. Such elements have found support from the respective state governments, all due to the vote bank policy.
DELISTING, THE ONLY WAY OUT
Leaders of tribal communities now feel that if they continue to remain silent to these developments, then it is a matter of time that their traditional customs will be entirely eliminated. This is the reason they are now unanimously raising their voice.
The community leaders across the country are of the opinion that there should be an immediate inquiry across tribal belts, that whether the concerned person claiming to be part of the tribal community is still following the custom and tradition of the community or has secretly abandoned the faith of their ancestors.
Birsa Munda and his fingh against Christian Missionaries
Even though he lived for just 25-years, Birsa Munda is one legend who has made a long-standing impact on India’s fight against the British. A young freedom fighter and a tribal leader, whose spirit of activism in the late 19th century, is remembered to be a strong mark of protest against British rule in India.
Birsa Munda is a folk hero belonging to the Munda tribe. He spearheaded an Indian tribal mass movement that arose in the tribal belt of modern Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh in the late 19th century during the British Raj. Munda is one of the most important faces of Indian tribal movements against the British, who inspired various tribes not only Mundas but also Kharias and Oraons, who accepted him as their leader.
Born at Ulihatu in the Bengal Presidency (presently in Jharkhand) on 15 November 1875, Munda spent his childhood amidst poverty in a typical tribal setup, where he converted to Christianity and became Birsa David in order to receive an education from a missionary school.
During the late 1880s, Munda began to understand the nature of exploitation of native tribals meted out by the British. He witnessed not only British economic and political policies but also aggressive religious and cultural policies of the Christian missionaries which belittled the tribal people and their culture.
Between 1886 and 1890, Birsa Munda spent a long time in Chaibasa which was close to the centre of the Sardars agitation. By the time he left Chaibasa in 1890, Birsa was strongly entrenched in the movement against the British oppression of tribals. The British agrarian policies provided the spark for the Mundas to revolt. The Mundas had followed the Khunkhatti system of joint landholding. The British replaced this with the Zamindari System, which allowed outsiders to enter these tribal areas. The entry of outsiders aided by the British lead to exploitation of the native tribals. Mundas, who were once the landowners were soon reduced to forced labourers.
As a reaction to the Zamindari system or permanent settlement in tribal areas, Birsa Munda in 1894 declared “Ulgulan” or revolt against the British and the Dikus – the outsiders. He was soon known as Birsa Bhagwan in these areas and a huge number of tribals began to follow him. Not only the tribals but also many other Hindus and Muslims also flocked to see the new leader of the masses.
Birsa Munda travelled to every village to create awareness. He declared an end to Victorian rule and proclaimed the beginning of Munda rule. He organised an effective movement wherein people stopped paying taxes to the British.
The Christian missionaries were unnerved. Many within Christianity also began to join the Mundas . He was arrested in 1895 and released after two years. After his release in 1897, Munda picked up the movement by re-organising the tribals. He went underground and by 1899, he had built a strong army with proper training to tribal soldiers.
On December 24, 1899, Munda launched an attack on police stations and churches, killing few policemen. The energised tribal uprising had spread to almost entire Chotanagpur region. Birsa Munda called for a decisive war against the British and attacked the places loyal to the British for the next two years. The British forces put all their might to suppress the revolt and attacked heavily on Munda guerrillas. The Britishers attacked the tribals and killed hundreds of people. Birsa made a tactical retreat to the hills of Singhbhum.
On February 3, 1900, Birsa Munda was finally caught by the British from Jamkopai forest, Chakradharpur. Birsa Munda died on June 9, 1900, while lodged at the Ranchi jail aged just 25. Authorities claimed he died of cholera though this is doubted. Even after 120 years, Birsa Munda is remembered by the masses as one of the greatest tribal icons and a symbol of anti-feudal, anti-colonial struggle despite the fact that Left-leaning Marxist historians deliberately played down his greatness to establish their ideological narratives.
Conversion sharks have been hunting the tribal (Aadivasi/ Janjati/Vanvasi) community since centuries. Christian missionaries have been at it since the British era.
The targeted conversion of Vanvasis through fallacy and economical aid began from the mid 18th century, which augmented briskly after the arrivals of pastors like Verriyar Elwin. Elwin, in the name of exploring the exclusive culture of the Vanvasis, drew imaginary divisionary lines between the latter and the majority community.
The agenda driven literature of the Left-leaning historians, where the communist apparatus had a strong presence, only added the fuel to the fire. Their vicious propaganda narrative, in tune with missionaries’ agenda, widely propagated that the Vanvasi community had a different lineage than the majority Hindu community. The reality is that the tribal community has been an unalienable part of the Hindu ethos since time immemorial.
Unfortunately, the propagandas and the helplessness of the community before independence yielded results for the missionaries in the Northeast, where the demography of a vast region was changed as a result of rampant conversions.
Despite their success in the Northeast, the missionaries failed to penetrate the tribal heartland of India which comprises parts of modern day Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha – thanks to the courage and valor of heroes like Dharti Aaba (Bhagwan Birsa Munda) who stood firmly against the agenda of the missionaries.
Nevertheless, it is also a fact that the conversion activities of missionaries in the tribal heartland have never been stopped since then. The indifference of respective Indian governments has knowingly or unknowingly contributed towards the cause of the missionaries, who on the pretext of improving education and livelihoods of the Vanvasis pushed their own agenda of conversion.
After decades of uninterrupted targeted attempts, the conversion activity has now begun to disrupt the peace of the tribal heartland. A large chunk of people who got converted are now posing a huge threat to the very beliefs and rituals of the Vanavasi people and their culture. The converts, on the behest of local churches, provoke the Vanvasi community by passing lewd comments on their worship methods and rituals. They have also joined forces with the Church to mislead the people by spreading fallacies – such as citing similarities between Budha Dev (an incarnation of Shiva) and Jesus Christ and other similar delusional theories.
On many an occasion, the convert activities have met with solid resistance from the local Hindu Vanvasi community, resulting in altercations on a regular basis. The recent spate of incidents in the tribal dominated Narayanpur of Chattisgarh are the latest example of the growing animosity between the converts and the Hindu Vanvasi community.
The biggest reason for the growing resentment within the Vanvasi community is that though the converts now follow their adopted religion, on paper they still remain practicing Hindus and avail constitutional benefits.
Tribals leaders are of the view that the benefits of reservation are exclusively reserved for the Scheduled Tribes which fall within the Hindu fold, not for those who follow any other religions. They say the reservation benefits for the Schedule Castes in India are exclusively for persons practicing Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism, as all of them are Indian origin religions. Thus, they argue, the government must immediately conduct de-listing of those who have converted to any other religion.
In recent times, these community leaders cutting across political affiliations have hit the streets with the demand for de-listing in different cities of the tribal dominated regions of states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, and Madhya pradesh. The growing sentiment within the community to safeguard their future generations from the conversion cabals can be better understood by the fact that, in the last year or two, there is hardly any region in the tribal heartland where rallies and protests demanding de-listing have not been organised.
Though the community believes that the wrongdoing of the earlier Congress governments shall be rectified by the current regime, owing to the fact that the President is now a lady from the tribal community, their hopes also got bolstered when the NDA government in 2021 announced to celebrate ‘Janjati Gaurav Divas’ on the birth anniversary of the Dharti Aba. The central government has also announced to set up a large number of museums in memory of tribal heroes across the country.
These initiatives have given a ray of hope to the community that their long standing demand for de-listing can be fulfilled by the Central government.