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Reinventing Mission among Tribals

Jacob Peenikaparambil Jacob Peenikaparambil
15 Aug 2022

Every year on 9th August ‘World Indigenous People’s Day’ is celebrated. This is an occasion for people all over the world to become aware of the life, culture and role of the Adivasis and the need to protect their rights and resources, especially land, forest and water.

This is also an opportunity for the disciples of Jesus to evaluate their mission among the tribal communities in India and reinvent it in the light of the fast-changing socio-political scenario in the country. 

Tribals constitute a significant section of Christians in India. No reliable official data are available about the percentage of tribals among the Christians. As tribals constitute one of the marginalized and backward communities from the perspective of education, health care and economic development, missionaries have been active for many years among the tribals, especially in providing education and health care services. The interventions of the missionaries have led to conflicts in some places between Sarna (non-Christian tribals) and Christian tribals who are better placed from the perspective of education. 

The entry of RSS in the tribal areas through various socio-economic and educational interventions has increased the conflict between Christian and non-Christian tribals. The RSS has set up in the tribal areas a plethora of organizations like Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, Ekal Vidyalaya, Seva Bharati, Vivekananda Kendra, Bharat Kalyan Pratishthan and Friends of Tribal Society. According to the Constitution of India, tribals are considered as part of Hindus, although tribal communities have their own religious beliefs and rituals. The RSS affiliated organizations have been focusing on the Hindu identity of the tribals and reconverting the tribals who have become Christians and this movement is known as Ghar Vapasi. 

Ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre, the Sangh Parivar organizations have intensified their activities in the tribal areas. Their strategies include a) Hinduizing tribals as necessary for national integration; b) Using their influence to secure electoral gains; and c) Intensifying the conflicts between tribal Christians and Sarnas. The fact that the BJP could win 31 seats (with 65.95% votes) of the 47 Lok Sabha seats reserved for Tribals in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections shows the growing influence of the Sangh Parivar organizations in the tribal areas. The consequence is that the tribal communities and their leaders are divided on the basis of religion and political affiliations, and enmity between the two groups is intensified. At the same time, the vital interests and burning problems of tribals take a backseat. 

The Tribals continue to be at the lowest of the socio-economic and educational pyramid of the society. There has not been much change in their economic and educational status for the last ten years. According to an article published in Down To Earth in November 2018, about 55 per cent of the country’s tribal population now resides outside their traditional habitats. It is known that migration of tribal population, increasingly distress-driven, has been increasing. 

As per the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2018, 50% of all tribals are poor whereas poverty among the upper castes is only 15%. The Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 has revealed the economic status of tribals in relation to the non-SC/STs. 79% of rural Adivasi households are considered “deprived” whereas the percentage of non-SC/ST deprived households is only 55.

Land alienation, loss of access and control over forests, enforced displacement due to development projects and lack of proper rehabilitation, and indebtedness have been some of the key reasons for the backwardness of the Adivasis in India. Political parties, especially the BJP, do not seem to be interested in development of tribals, their interest is mainly getting votes of tribals. That is why the BJP is using religion as the trump card to garner votes of tribals and it has succeeded to great extent in achieving its goals.    

Against the backdrop of the tribal communities and their leaders being divided on the basis of religion and political allegiance, and their interests and basic needs being neglected, what should be the priorities of the tribal mission by the disciples of Jesus? The Catholic Church in India has been running schools, mainly vernacular medium schools and hostels, for tribal students and health care and social work centres in remote tribal villages.  What changes are needed in the approach of the Church towards tribal development and empowerment in order to face the challenges of today? 

As the Sangh Parivar organizations are bent upon dividing the tribals on the basis of religion, one of the focus areas of the disciples of Jesus should be uniting the tribal communities by adopting an inclusive approach. Instead of running hostels exclusively for Christian tribals, they should be open to non-Christian tribals also. An inclusive approach is to be adopted in the schools and other institutions meant for the public by organizing inter-faith prayer and promoting tribal culture and values. 

As quality education is the key to the empowerment of the disadvantaged sections, supporting tribals to access quality education should be another top priority. But providing quality education is not enough. A large section of the tribal students who got educated from the Christian educational institutions have moved to big cities and metros and they are not much bothered about the issues of tribals. Tribal leaders are often being purchased by the mainline political parties. Hence training leaders with character and competence, leaders who are loyal to the core values of Indian Constitution, leaders who are committed to the empowerment of tribals is an urgent need.

Similarly, the way hostels are being run for tribal boys and girls has to undergo a substantial change. The main purpose of running hostels has to be building leaders. The number of students in the hostels may have to be reduced drastically, competent hostel wardens and teachers are to be appointed as mentors and better facilities for the holistic development of students are to be provided.  Experience of Universal Solidarity Movement (USM) Indore vindicates that remarkable transformation can be brought about in the young people, if focus is given to leadership training. 

A group of 26 tribal students along with two sisters from Ursuline Convent Girls High School Gumla, Jharkhand, participated in one-week leadership training in USM Indore from August 1 to 7, 2022. At the end of the training, the students acknowledged in their personal reports the notable transformation that has taken place in them as a result of the training. According to the participants, an important dimension of the transformation is an increase in self-confidence. 25 of the 26 girls said that it was the first time they got a chance to come to the stage and express their views before an audience. “By doing the five personal projects and presenting them, courage and self-confidence increased in me,” wrote Anamika Lakra. 

Most of the students have resolved to continue the practice of reading newspapers every day, reading inspiring books and writing personal evaluation every day. One of the action plans of the whole group is “Every day we will read the newspaper to become aware of the developments and events taking place in society and the world.” “I will write my evaluation every day evening,” wrote Ankita Tirky, a class IX student. "I will read as many inspiring books as possible and will reflect on them deeply," wrote Secunda Suman Lakra in her report. 

The students also acknowledged in their reports that they understand that the almighty God is within them and they can do anything with the power of God. They have realized that they are unique and they should not compare themselves with others and become diffident.  “I am unique and hence copying is an insult to God; I will be my role model,” wrote Alisha Bage in her report. 

Almost all students mentioned in their report that they understood the difference between dreaming ‘big’ and dreaming ‘small’ and the difference between a visionary leader who is altruistic, broad minded, inclusive and spiritual and an ambitious leader who is self-centered, narrow-minded and exclusive. They have decided to become visionary leaders who will be concerned about all people, particularly the tribal communities to which they belong. They also said that they learned how to formulate goals and policies for realizing vision.  Sneha Beck wrote in her report, “My most important resolution is to dream big and to realize it.”

In their reports the students specially mentioned the three key problems faced by tribals in their areas: 1) land alienation and destruction of forests, the main sources of their livelihood and culture; 2) poor quality of education; and 3) lack of health care facilities. The young students in their speech on the topic, “I am the Prime Minister of India: My policies and Plans”, promised to work for the solutions to these three problems.  

An important dimension of the transformation in the students is increase in sensitivity to others. A good number of students have taken a resolution to reduce eating junk food, not to waste food and not to spend money on birthday celebrations, but to use the money for helping poor children. “I used to spend a lot of money on my birthday; I will not repeat it; I will save money and use it for purchasing inspirational books for reading,” wrote Amrita Kujur. 

Another significant dimension of their transformation is the change in their attitude towards other religions. Almost all of them wrote in their personal reports that they will respect all religions. “I will not discriminate against other religions,” said Reena Ekka while presenting her report. One of the items of the action plan prepared by the participants is organizing inter-religious prayer for peace in their school, as done in the USM. “I used to think that my religion is superior to other religions before taking part in the training; but now I have understood that I have to give equal respect to all religions,” wrote Sonal Beck.  

Jesus has told his disciples to become the salt and the light of the world. In fact, the mission of the disciple of Jesus is to transform society by being salt and light. As salt dissolves in the food items, the followers of Jesus have to become part and parcel of the wider society and enhance the quality of life and preserve society from being corrupted. The ultimate goal of all interventions by the missionaries among the tribals is to transform them as salt and light. Accordingly, the needed innovations and changes are to be introduced in all their interventions like education, pastoral care, health care, social work etc. When the right-wing forces are turning no stone unturned to divide the tribal communities on the basis of religion and create enmity between Christian and non-Christian tribals, the missionaries have to provide the needed healing touch and become the agents of peace and harmony. 

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