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Divisive integration

Jharkhand’s anti-conversion law is part of an ongoing project to politicise tribal identity along religious lines

Written by Shahana Munazir |
Updated: September 25, 2017 7:57:46 am
Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Bill, religious conversion, jharkhand tribals, jharkhand news, indian express news Through centuries of cultural contact with both Hinduism and Christianity, tribals in Jharkhand have dynamically syncretised their traditional belief system of nature worship with exotic elements borrowed from other religions.

The recently passed Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Bill, 2017, that is touted as a check on religious conversion, should steer our focus towards the broader question of identity politics among the tribals in the state. Notably, this bill follows from a series of calculated moves by the government, such as the draconian cow slaughter law and recent amendments to the Land Act, which deviously dilute the distinctiveness of tribal identity in Jharkhand.

Tribals constitute around 27 per cent of Jharkhand’s population. Among them, 4.3 per cent are Christians, about 13 per cent Sarnas (animistic believers) and the rest are largely Hindu tribals. Thus, a homogeneous tribal identity is a misnomer. Identity is not a static construction: It evolves with confronting situations. Tribals are no exception.

Through centuries of cultural contact with both Hinduism and Christianity, tribals in Jharkhand have dynamically syncretised their traditional belief system of nature worship with exotic elements borrowed from other religions. Despite such conversions, tribals have followed their indigenous festivals, worshipped trees, and believed in totemism. However, the BJP and sangh parivar’s outlook towards tribals has centred around the belief that tribes are “backward” Hindus. This derisive outlook encourages them to homogenise the sui-generis tribal identity under the “Hindu” umbrella.

The tribes of Jharkhand significantly differ from each other yet their indigenous identity, comprised of a unique cultural value system, is extolled for its symbiotic connection with nature that is distinct from other religions. Such an identity has evolved over centuries by selectively imbibing the beliefs and practices of other religions. For example, many Oraons of Chota Nagpur who have converted to Christianity still believe in supernatural powers like darha, gujar, etc. even though witchcraft is not accepted in Christianity. Similarly, when tribals convert to Hinduism they incorporate many of its elements, such as worship of Hindu deities. For Oraons, their revered deities — Devi Mai and Mahadev — are Hindu gods, whereas Barndo Pachcho, a household deity, has a Munda origin.

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Syncretism, therefore, is a fundamental feature of the tribal belief system. It is this continuous process of construction and re-construction which imparts distinctiveness to the indigenous tribal identity that has been jeopardised time and again by its divisive politicisation by majoritarian forces.

Christian missionaries have been active in Jharkhand for centuries. Motivated by material considerations, many tribals have converted to Christianity, although never completely giving up on their original practices. Census data (2011) indicates a high rate of growth among the Christians (29.7 per cent). However, the missionaries have allegedly disapproved of many animist Sarna tribals who have resisted complete conversion.

The right-wing has carefully escalated its influence in Jharkhand by tapping into the deep wells of alienation within the tribal community festered by Christian conversions. The RSS has attempted to make the Sarna worshippers as their base in the region by striving to assimilate them into the fold of Hinduism, while simultaneously vilifying anything that remotely suggests any influence of Christianity. In effect, this has further engendered communal divisions between the “Christian” and “non-Christian” tribals. Checking Christian religious conversion has been at the forefront of the Hindutva political agenda.


In such an atmosphere of disruptive politics of identity, an anti-conversion bill will only act as another tool that would encourage divisions within the tribal community. Notably, Jharkhand is the seventh state after Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh to enact such a law. Many of these laws, including the one proposed in Jharkhand, define “conversion” as “renouncing one’s own religion and adopting another”. The majoritarian view perceives tribal as Hindus. Hence, tribal conversion to Hinduism or re-conversion of Christian tribals into Hinduism does not draw the attention of the state. In principle, then, re-conversion of “Hindu tribals” from Christianity seems acceptable, even favoured.

Since the 1990s, the RSS has been operating Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams, Vanbandhu Parishad, etc. in Jharkhand; “re-converting” tribals back to Hinduism and celebrating it as ghar wapasi. Sangh parivar outfits like the Bajrang Dal are noted for their aggressive propagation of Hindutva sentiments, even through the use of violence. This kind of politicisation and communalisation of social relations has disrupted harmony by pitting one group against the other. These efforts have not only created a wedge among the tribals but have also cultivated hatred towards Muslims, Christians, and Christian tribals.

The present government has successfully capitalised on the rhetoric of a threatening “other” to foster a Hindu utopia, so to speak. The BJP denies any difference between the Hindu religion and indigenous tribal religion. Such a ruthless processes of acculturation denies a syncretic tribal identity. The recent beef politics in Jharkhand is a case in point. The draconian cow slaughter law has inadvertently tried to force an unwanted Hindu custom on the tribals, although beef has been traditionally a part of their diet. For example, cattle sacrifice is part of the indigenous Doson festival of the Santhals, who have incorporated Hindu customs without giving up on their traditions.


Draconian state-laws and the politicisation of socio-religious identity of the tribals have festered communal and casteist divisions in Jharkhand. Playing politics with issues of conversion in the garb of protecting religious freedom harbours an imperfect agenda of tribal integration and only weakens the collective and individual agency of tribals.

The writer is an independent researcher and has been an Indira Gandhi Scholar of social anthropology at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (ISCA), University of Oxford

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First published on: 25-09-2017 at 12:07:49 am
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