The BJP and Church are involved in open confrontation in Jharkhand over the issue of proposed amendments in the state’s tenancy laws, with the Church accusing the BJP of trying to drive tribals out of the state, and the party saying the Church is trying to keep them poor and gullible so as to continue to influence politics from behind the scenes. Underlying the tussle is the fight for the tribal vote base in the state, which has largely been with non-BJP parties.
Protests over proposed amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act and Santhal Paragana Tenancy (SPT) Act have been on for the past few months. Recently, a delegation of tribal Christian priests, led by Cardinal of Ranchi Telesphore Toppo, met Governor Draupadi Murmu, urging her not to allow the proposed amendments as it would deprive tribals of their lands.
Soon after, state BJP chief Laxman Gilua issued a statement, saying the meeting vindicated the party’s belief that the Church was fuelling the protests against amendments to the two Acts. He added, “Bhajapa in dharm-guruon ko aagaah karti hai ki wah Jharkhand ki janata ko apna swarth siddhi hetu bargalaane ki koshish na karen. Janata Church ki mansha samajh chuki hai aur kisi keemat par safal nahin hone degi. Dharm-guruon ko sirf apne karyakshetra mein seemit rehna chahiye (The BJP warns these religious gurus not to to mislead the people of Jharkhand for their selfish interests. People have understood their intentions and won’t let them succeed at any cost. The religious gurus should limit themselves to their sphere of work).”
The proposed amendments — cleared by the Assembly last November but lying with the Governor — seek to open up tribal land for non-agricultural purposes and earmark projects for which the government can take their land. The amendments also propose to dissolve the Scheduled Area Regulation (SAR) Court through which tribal lands can be taken over. Currently, tribals cannot sell agricultural land, to even fellow tribals, unless certain strict conditions are met. The tribal organisations and Church say that the amendments would expose tribal land to commercial use and to exploitation by corporates. And that the resultant influx of outsiders would change the demographics of the area.
The BJP argues, however, that the Acts have only served to keep tribals poor, and that it suits the Church to keep them thus. The BJP has also called the Church itself “the biggest violator of CNT-SPT Acts”, usurping large tracts of tribal land and, in the process, destroying their original culture.
Apart from the claims over land, the Church sees the amendments as a BJP ploy to divide tribal Christians from the followers of Sarna (tribal religion). The BJP government has been reaching out to the Sarnas — estimated to be over 40 lakh in a state with over 3.25 crore population — while RSS affiliates have been repeating from various fora that Sarna and tribal Christians are separate. While Cardinal Toppo could not be reached for comment, an aide close to him said they would wait for a response to their memorandum on the amendments.