Why tribal communities call for a separate code of religion

Tribal communities from 5 states including Jharkhand, Odisha and Assam claim their religion as ‘Sarna’ and ensure they fall under that category at the next census.

They argue that tribesmen have their own religion, religious practices and customs that should be recognized by the government. The tribal communities are being lured into adopting other faiths in the country.

BCCL/representative image

Salkhan Murmu, a prominent tribal leader from Jharkhand, told PTI: “We Adivasis are neither Hindus nor Christians. We have our own way of life, religious practices, customs, culture and religious thoughts that are different from any other religion. We worship nature and not idols. In our society there is neither the Varna system nor any kind of inequality,” he said.

What is the Sarna religion?

People who believe in Sarna believe in worshiping nature. They believe in “Jal, Jungle, Zameen” and therefore their followers worship trees and hills and also believe in protecting the forest areas.

There are 32 tribal groups in Jharkhand, 8 of which are particularly vulnerable tribal groups. According to The Indian Express report, many now follow the Hindu religion, while some have converted to Christianity. This prompted part of the community to save the community’s religious identity, which is why they began calling for a separate religious code for Sarna for the upcoming census.

The report also indicated that over 50 Lakhs tribes across the country reported their religion as “Sarna” in the 2011 census, which was not even a code.

What is the demand for the Sarna religious code?

In November 2020, the Jharkhand government passed a resolution to request the center government to recognize the Sarna religion and include it as a separate code in the next census.

tribal communities
BCCL/representative image

In Jharkhand, the tribal population had declined from 38.3% in 1931 to 26.02% in 2011. However, it has also been said that tribesmen who migrate for work are not counted in the census as they are not counted as tribesmen in other states. Therefore, the separate code helps in tracking their population across the country.

The tribesmen had a different code between 1871 and 1951, which was changed between 1961 and 1962.

Politics around demand

Currently, Jharkhand has more than 4% Christians, most of whom are tribal. The tribesmen who still follow Sarna claim that converted tribesmen enjoy the benefits of reservation as a minority along with the benefits afforded to the Schedule Tribes. They argue that benefits should only be granted to tribesmen who have not converted.

The call for a separate code grew stronger when a statue was erected in Singhpur in 2013 depicting Mother Mary in a saree, her hair in a bun, bracelets around her wrists and carrying the baby Jesus in a sling like a tribal woman.

This was seen by Saran supporters and leaders as a tactic to convert tribesmen to Christianity.

tribal communities
BCCL/representative image

According to The Hindu Report, with growing calls for a Sarna religious code in the next census, RSS-backed groups are trying to convince the tribesmen that they are Hindus in Jhrkhand.

Activist Handu Bhagat told The Hindu: “Christian missionaries first began converting poor tribal communities with promises of English education, jobs and hospitals. Now Hindu groups are using the same methods to do something even more sinister: They are changing the nature of what indigenous peoples believe Sarnaism is and how it should be practiced.”

tribal communities in India

Article 342 of the Indian Constitution defines ST as “the Proposed Tribes are those tribes or communities, or parts of or groups within such tribes and communities, which have been declared such by the President by public proclamation.”

According to the 2011 census, the Scheduled Tribes (ST) number 104 million, which is 8.6% of the country’s population. Over 700 tribes are notified under Article 342 of the Indian Constitution. All of this spread across various states and union territories including Mizoram, Lakshadweep, Nagaland, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Assam and West Bengal.

Some of the well known tribes of India are Gonds, Bhils, Santhal, Munda, Khasi, Garo, Angami, Bhutia, Chenchu, Kodaba and the Great Andamanese Tribes. The census revealed that the Bhil tribal group is the largest tribe in India, accounting for 38% of the country’s total ST population.

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