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Sarna: Their Right to Stand Apart

Julian S Das Julian S Das
04 Oct 2021

The indefinite postponement of the Indian census 2021 by the Home Ministry is a blessing in disguise, because whether one believes it or not, the census criteria are replete with mistakes and anomalies, which need to be set right before the three lakh-odd enumerators venture into the nooks and crannies of the subcontinent. But would anyone in the Home Ministry, including the incorrigible Home Minister Amit Shah, admit that there are issues which need to be sorted out before the nationwide exercise takes place? Or would the Registrar General and Census Commissioner concede that the census form for 2021 requires amendment to incorporate some of the elements which had been left out, either out of callousness or deliberately? 

Scholars and social activists feel that the delay in getting the census 2021 data would adversely affect many of the schemes of the government, including the public distribution system (PDS) that is based on the census data, and other welfare schemes the government had rolled out. 

The forthcoming census is also hoped to focus on hitherto forgotten reality of migrant labourers, as the census 2011 did not have mention of the category of migrant labourers. Thanks to the Prime Minister's hastily announced nationwide complete lockdown, which brought to fore the plight of the unacknowledged and unregistered migrant labour force, the migrant labourers now can hope to find a place in the census.

But the undue delay in starting the Census 2021, thanks to the pandemic and the lockdown, has given a sizable number of representatives of tribal population, especially in the north Indian states, the grace period to put before the Home Ministry a glaring mistake in the listing of religions the enumerators have to choose from. One of the mistakes in the previous census is not providing 'Sarna' as the religion of most of the indigenous tribal groups, but cunningly forcing them to demarcate them as Hindu, thus surreptitiously augmenting the percentage of the Hindu population; in reality that is only a preposterous and pernicious wrong committed by the law-makers and law-enforcers.

Better late than never

Perhaps it had taken the tribal leaders of six states -- Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam -- so long to realize that the census of the population on several criteria did not provide a place for the tribal communities on the basis of their faith, not bordering on any existing major religion, but a faith which is unique and has a name for it: Sarna or Sarna dharam. Considering the followers of Sarna as part of the Hindu pantheon could solve many problems, and the fact also reveals that a good proportion of the tribals do keep the images of Hindu deities in their houses, and celebrate Hindu festivals too, as if they are part of the Hindu-fold. This is more so in the case of tribals who live in the midst of Hindu-majority villages or towns.

Thus it would not have been easy to claim an identity for the religious identity of the tribal communities, who are spread not only in the aforementioned six states but in other states too. For instance, the tribal population in the nation's capital cannot be brushed aside as a negligible percentage. Thus one can observe such tribal population in all the major cities where they provide cheap labour and unalloyed faithfulness to the masters and middlemen.

While we may decry the fact that the tribal leaders did not have the guts and courage so far to claim the inclusion of Sarna as an alternative in the case of religion, it is never too late, especially when the nation is going through moral and political nadir, to assert the true identity of the tribals, whose religious identity cannot be sacrificed in the name of strengthening the base of the majority religious group.

Sure enough, there would be people who would ask: Would adding another alternative in the religious column as Sarna make any difference in the census data? Sure, it would. So far the tribals were categorized as Hindus, and now classifying them as Sarna would make them a separate religious group, on par with Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists, however small that religious group may be. The strange fact is that the tribal population is much more than many of the religious groups in the country.

According to the census data of 2001, there were 84,326,240 tribals, which was 8.2% of the total population. Sure this is more than the third major religion, Christianity, in the country. With such a big population following a homogenous religious faith, should they not be identified and grouped as a religious faith of its own?

Jharkhand shows the way

It may come as a surprise that Jharkhand should show the way to the nation regarding the unique religious identity of the tribal population of the country. Known for its rich natural resources, the state is home to majority of tribal population, particularly the Santal tribals.

On November 12, 2020, the Jharkhand Assembly passed a resolution unanimously to include Sarna as a separate religion in census 2021. The BJP members had asked for the removal of the oblique in "tribal/Sarna" during the one-day Assembly session which, the Chief Minister Hemant Soren said, they had accepted, and sent the same to the Centre for approval and necessary action.

On August 12, 2021, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) had made a fresh appeal to the Centre to include 'Sarna' in the national census 2021, and appealed that the census be conducted on the basis of caste lines. The general secretary of JMM, Supriya Bhattacharya, said that the outcome of the census 2011 had not been tabled in the Parliament yet, though successive Union Ministers under the BJP had assured the same time and again.

JMM was joined by 32 other tribal communities of the state who stated that with the centre abolishing the "Others" category in the religion column, and leaving six alternatives -- Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh -- the tribals would be either forced to leave the column blank or choose one of the six, which would be detrimental to their specific religious identity. According to the tribal representatives, only 26 percent of the state's population identify themselves as Hindu, Muslim or Christian.

The severed Sarna

The tribal religion in India, otherwise called as pantheism, which worship natural forces and elements, has its own nuances far removed from the traditional mainstream religions, but over the years, the tribal religious practices too have undergone tremendous changes, thanks to their interaction with some of the dominant religious groups, especially Hinduism and Christianity. It were the Christian missionaries who endeavoured to help tribals come out of inhuman and slavish treatment meted out by the non-tribal masters.

The tribals of Chaibasa in Jharkhand can never forget the contribution of the Belgian Jesuit missionary Father Constant Lievens who freed hundreds of tribals from the clutches of money-lenders, fighting for them in the court of law. It is thanks to him that many of the tribals of the area got back their lands. 

But as the case is, the social reforms of the missionaries also paved way for them to get introduced to a new religion, which considered their pantheistic religious rituals as devilish, and gave them a viable alternative in the 'Roman' Catholic rituals. While the earlier missionaries branded every tribal ritual as demoniac and invited the people not to adhere to their traditional customs and practices, which were part of core tribal belief system, the people did not have any problem to leave their centuries-old practices in order to embrace Christianity. Thus the Santal creation story came to be an adaptation of the biblical story, with a few nuances peculiar to the tribe.

In the post-independence India, with the decline of foreign missionaries and the growth of local missionaries, the tribal rituals and customs were retained, though often they were tamed, and when required even exorcised, so that the tribals did celebrate most of their festivals and conducted their rituals, albeit with new meaning and significance.

The influence of Hinduism on tribal religious beliefs and customs was obvious as the tribals often worked under Hindu masters and lived in the midst of Hindu communities. Thus the tribals also came to celebrate some of the most popular Hindu festivals, including Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja, Kali Puja, Shiv Ratri, Dol Jatra, and did not mind keeping the idols of Hindu deities in their houses, and doing pujas as the Hindus did. Thus today one may come across basil shrubs (tulsi altar) at the courtyard of tribals, an influence of Bengal Hindus. While naming of tribal children too one may come across Hindu names given them.

But did that water down the tribal religious and cultural identity of tribals of the states where they are in a sizable number? Whatever be the case, the tribals most often were faithful to the celebration of their major tribal festivals, even if that meant taking time off from their work commitments.

Politicising the Sarna

It is hard to imagine anything major in India without political colour; even the innocuous advertisements on the silver-screen are loaded with political innuendos, quite often subtly inserted into the visuals and the audio. More so when it comes to such vital component of social living as religious affiliation : everyone wants to have the lion's share of the booty, often unclaimed treasure. Thus the hardcore Hindu groups have always claimed that the tribals are basically Hindus, and therefore when a group of tribals embraced Christianity, they applied the notion of ghar-vapsi, this time not to their Sarna faith, but to Hinduism, sprinkling them with water from the Ganges.

There had been several occasions when such things happened in broad day light, and sadly no tribal leadership came forward to assert that such claims by the Hindu fanatics were false, and as citizens of the secular democratic, everyone had the right to choose one's religion. But thank God, the tribal leadership has woken up to assert their specific identity as a tribal group, and that is sure to blow a death-knell on the people who claimed the tribals were basically Hindus, even if they did not articulate it that way.

When the tribal Christians in Ranchi had adorned Mother Mary in tribal attire, politically-motivated tribal leaders, claiming to be the followers of Sarna, filed a case in the court, demanding the Christians remove the tribal attire from Mother Mary, lest they Christianise the tribal culture. Under pressure, the Church was forced to do so. But if the same happens with the tribals incorporating Hindu deities, there would only be jubilation and not condemnation.

As equal citizens of the nation, the tribals deserve a special place in the census data of the nation, not only to demystify the notion that a huge majority of the Indian population belong to the Hindu community, but also to give the tribals a unique place they deserve in the democracy. If minor religions can find a place in the census criteria, then Sarna surely deserves a better place. But are our leaders listening?

(The writer is a freelance video program producer, specialised in production of open online courses. His doctoral studies focused on Santal tribal rituals in West Bengal)

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