On 2 February, a mass marriage for 133 economically-backward adivasi couples was organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) at Malda, West Bengal. But armed activists of the Jharkhand Disom Party (JDP), attacked the venue of the mass marriage ceremony and disrupted it.
The JDP had merged with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 but has, over the last couple of years, been trying to reassert its separate identity. JDP leaders alleged that Hindu, and not tribal, rituals were being followed at the marriage ceremony.
The Bengal government booked 10 senior VHP leaders under stringent and non-bailable sections of the IPC and SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 on a complaint filed by JDP leader Laxmiram Handsa.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee referred to the incident a few days later and accused the VHP of “attempting to convert poor tribals to Hinduism”! She also hailed the police for arresting a VHP leader.
The VHP had taken permission from the district authorities for the ceremony and policemen were also present at the venue, but did nothing to stop the armed JDP activists who vandalised the venue and injured over a dozen people.
On 10 February, the Bengal government stopped another mass marriage ceremony for adivasis working in tea gardens in North Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district.
This ceremony was to have been organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Shree Hari Satsangh Samiti and Alipurduar Ganabibaho Samiti.
The Alipurduar Police said that the organisers had not sought permission from the district authorities, but also admitted that they had received complaints from some tribal (adivasi) organisations that the RSS was trying to lure tribals into Hinduism.
Those unnamed tribal bodies had nothing to say when local Trinamool leaders went ahead and organised the mass marriage that the RSS affiliates were to hold on the very same day (10 February). They perhaps knew that the Trinamool would brook no opposition to its hypocritical game of oneupmanship.
But what is of grave concern is that it appears that the Mamata Banerjee government has bought into and is furthering the narrative that adivasis follow their own ‘Sarna’ religion that is distinct from Hinduism.
Demand For Recognition Of ‘Sarna’ As Separate Religion
Many tribal organisations, allegedly at the behest of Christian missionaries and Maoists, have been demanding that Sarna be denoted as a separate religion in the 2021 census.
At present, Indians can opt for only six religions — Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh — or opt for ‘Other Faiths’ column while being enumerated in the Census.
Organisations like the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (a constituent of the ruling coalition in that state), the Bharatiya Adivasi Ekta Mancha and Adivasi Sengel Abhiyan have demanded that the adivasis be given the option of marking their religion as ‘Sarna’ in the 2021 census (read this, this and this).
These organisations assert that in the 2011 Census, 42 lakh adivasis in Jharkhand and about 6 crore adivasis from across the country had declared ‘Sarna’ as their religion, but were included in the ‘Other Faiths’ category.
The adivasis are nature worshippers and follow many practices that can be defined as animism. They worship trees, water bodies and mountains and the Marang Buru (Mountain God), Jaher Aayo or Dharti Aayo (Land God) and Gosai Aayo (God who protects humans from evil spirits) are their primary deities.
The adivasis believe their deities reside at the Sarna sthal, a sacred grove in the periphery of or inside every village, where animal sacrifices are offered twice a year.
The term ‘Sarna’ means a grove and is etymologically related to the name of the sal tree which plays a crucial role in the lives of adivasis. Adivasi villages have a gram devata or protector of that particular village who they worship.
The adivasis also worship a small stone in the shape of a Shiva linga in every village. Goddess Durga is revered as ‘Mother’ and is worshipped as the prime protector who vanquishes demons.
The adivasis believe in one supreme being, who is the creator of the universe and lives on sal trees. This supreme being is known as ‘Dharmesh’ and also as ‘Mahaedeo’.
The adivasis have a religious flag that they call the Sarna jhanda — a triangular piece of cloth with horizontal red and white stripes. While worshipping, adivasi women wear a white saree with red borders and they hold this saree as auspicious.
The most important festival of the adivasis is Sarhul, or the spring festival, which coincides with the flowering of the sal tree. Adivasi women in red-bordered white sarees gather around a sal tree at the Sarna Sthal and sing hymns in praise of Dharmesh and other deities.
The base of the sal tree is surrounded by a mud or concrete circular platform, exactly like the ones that surround banyan trees, where offerings are made.
The two other prominent festivals of the adivasis are the Maghe Porob (celebrated during the month of Magh in the winter season) and the Hal Punhya to mark the start of ploughing.
Adivasis also perform the chhau dance which involves enacting episodes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas and other ancient Sanatan texts. Chau is a syncretic dance form that is a fusion of classical Indic and tribal dance forms.
Not A Separate ‘Religion’
As would be evident to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Hindu religious practices and traditions, ‘Sarna’ can by no means be labelled a religion separate from Hinduism.
Nature worship is an integral part of the Hindu faith and there are numerous Hindu rituals and ceremonies for worshipping trees, rivers, mountains and even animals.
In the earlier times, villages in many parts of India had the gram devata and many clans had a kul devata or protector of the clan. The adivasi practice of worshipping a gram devata (also called the Gram Devi Chala-Pachho) is exactly what their co-religionists (Hindus) also do.
The supreme being that the adivasis believe in is, in Hinduism, known as Param Brahmo. The names that they have for the Supreme Being — Dharmesh and Mahaedeo — are Hindu names for god and Shiva.
Red is considered auspicious by the adivasis as well as the devotees of Shakti or Devi among Hindus. Worshippers of Shakti, especially in Bengal, also hold the red-bordered white saree to be sacred and wear it during many religious ceremonies.
Many customs of the adivasis, like the Maghe Porob and the hal punhya, are common to Hindus. And the chhau dance form is also rooted in Sanatan Dharm.
The adivasis revere Bhagwan Ram, Lakshman and Sita. Many adivasis, including those belonging to organisations that want to label ‘Sarna’ as a religion separate from Hindu, have Hindu names like Ram, Sita, Lakshman etc.
Adivasi hymns like Ramayani and Pandavini extol the glories and virtues of characters in Ramayana and Mahabharata. The style of rendering these hymns is very close to the traditional Hindu bhajans.
The common adivasi salutation ‘Ram-Ram’ is Hindu, as is the tradition of holding each others’ folded hands and greeting ‘Johar’.
The Missionary-Maoist Gameplan
The demand for denoting ‘Sarna’ as a separate religion is being raised by various adivasi organisations, reportedly at the behest of Christian missionaries and Maoists who had, in the past, encouraged Dalits to declare themselves as non-Hindus.
“This conspiracy has been afoot for a long time to break Hindu society and then enfeeble Bharatvarsh,” said senior RSS functionary Jishnu Basu. He said that taking adivasis out of the Hindu fold and getting them a separate religious identity would make them sitting ducks for conversion by Christian missionaries and Islamists.
In this recent article in Hindu Post, author Sudhir K Singh explains the issue succinctly: “Elimination of tribals from the Hindu eco-system fits in perfectly with the agenda of minority appeasing parties whose apron strings are tied to church and mosque interests”.
However, since this cannot be openly stated, specious reasons anchored in ignorance have been advanced to justify the need. The most simplistic logic offered is that tribals have their own culture, and their identity should not be tampered with.
Underlined is the intrinsic disparateness of their traditions. Any attempt to lump them under the Hindu umbrella, it is argued, would be tantamount to doing violence with the inherent purity of their body of belief. Which, of course, is plain poppycock.”
Adivasis form about 8.5 per cent of India’s population and if they are taken out of the Hindu fold, they can be easily converted to Christianity or Islam without attracting the provisions of anti-conversion laws in some states like Jharkhand.
“The adivasis are simple and impressionable people. The Christian missionaries and Islamists want to convince them they are not Hindus since their customs, traditions and beliefs are distinct from Hindus. Once they fall for this and declare themselves as ‘Sarnas’, the missionaries start appropriating their beliefs, religious symbols and practices and convince them they are actually Christians and then convert them,” said a senior RSS functionary, who has been working with the adivasis of Bengal and Jharkhand for the past four decades.
This is exactly what has been happening for over two decades now. In the mid-1980s, the Vatican directed its proselytisers to pursue inculturation (appropriating religious and cultural symbols, practices and traditions) of non-Christian faiths (read this) with renewed zeal.
Thus, adivasi symbols, musical instruments, some indigenous practices, traditions and rituals have been appropriated by the church in the name of ‘inculturation’. The sinister objective is to portray Christianity as a tribal religion.
One prime example of this was the depiction of ‘Virgin Mary’ as a dark-skinned tribal woman with the infant Jesus in a sling (just as adivasi women carry their infants) and clad in a red-bordered white saree.
The statue of the ‘adivasi Virgin Mary’ was inaugurated by a Vatican-appointed Cardinal at a church in Jharkhand’s Ranchi district in May 2013. It sparked widespread protests.
As an adivasi dharmaguru, Bandhan Tigga, rightly said: “the Church is trying to confuse our people (adivasis) into believing that Mary was a tribal. A hundred years from now, people here will start believing that Mary was actually our tribal Goddess”.
Tigga had said that such ‘inculturation’ is a long-term missionary project to convert adivasis. “Mary was a foreigner and depicting her as an adivasi woman is definitely not right,” he had said.
But ‘inculturation’ has picked up momentum since then and in Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bengal and Maharashtra, churches catering to adivasis have tribal symbols, and have appropriated many adivasi rituals. Jesus and Mary, and Christian apostles, are often depicted as tribals attired in tribal costumes.
“Once the adivasis are taken out of the Hindu fold, they will fall prey to conversions through allurements or brainwashing or a combination of both,” said VHP spokesperson Sourish Mukherjee.
He added that the fact that the Mamata Banerjee government has no problems with Christian missionaries proselytising adivasis is indicative of the anti-Hindu bias of the government.
In order to defeat this sinister gameplan, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has recently directed Sangh functionaries and affiliates to ensure that the adivasis declare themselves as Hindus in the 2021 Census.
This informal directive by the RSS Sarsanghchalak has sent alarm bells ringing among the Christian missionaries. According to senior RSS functionaries, the church has of late been very proactive in encouraging some adivasi organisations to push the false narrative that adivasis are non-Hindus and are adherents of a separate ‘Sarna’ religion.
Apart from Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, her Madhya Pradesh counterpart Kamal Nath has also recently warned the RSS against forcing tribals to declare themselves as Hindus.
The tussle between the RSS and its affiliates who want to protect the adivasis and help them preserve their faiths, beliefs, culture, practices and traditions, and the Christian proselytisers and the organisations they back is set to intensify in the months to come.
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