Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Religious conversion among Jharkhandi people

Are adivasis of Jharkhand region Hindus? When and why did this saga of religious conversion begin?

This is in continuation of my earlier blog with regard to attacks on Christians of Orissa. Since the unfortunate incidents that occurred around Christmas involved tribal regions; in this piece I briefly discuss the story of religious conversion in central India, particularly the Jharkhand region.

Jharkhand means forest land. The tribes, whom I refer as Jharkhandis, are scattered across the adjoining forested regions of Orissa, W. Bengal, and Jharkhand. Here, I refer to these adjoining regions as Jharkhand region. These tribes, also referred as adivasis, have been dwelling in the forests for thousands of years.

Like the tribes of North Eastern India, these tribes of Jharkhand region remained largely untouched by civilization until the arrival of the British. Their traditional occupations included hunting and gathering and primitive agriculture.

Contrary to popular perception, the tribes of these regions are not Hindus traditionally. Their traditional religious practices are essentially animistic. Until their assimilation with the mainstream over the last hundred and fifty years, these tribes have been living in harmony in a uniform society. They were never a part of the Hindu caste structure.

Religious conversions among Jharkhandi tribes began after the arrival of European missionaries. Among the first to arrive, a Belgian priest, Fr. Constance Levens is a revered figure among the catholics of Ranchi and neighbouring districts. Some amount of religious conversion was inevitable given the compassion with which they treated them. In fact, their initial exposure to modern education and medicine can be solely attributed to Christian missionaries. But such conversion was never forced; rather it was an educated choice of the tribes.

As religious conversions became more common among the tribes, Hindu chauvinist organizations arrived in these regions and started competing for their share of the adivasi pie. However, the competition from these organizations was never fair. Often, they would resort to coercion and violence. The worst part of their strategy was to instigate easily impressionable tribesmen to attack their fellow brethren. Such violent strategy has obviously resulted in deadly consequences for many innocent people of the region.

These Hindu fundamentalist organizations proclaim that conversion is violence and that conversion should be banned. If conversion is indeed violence then why are they converting the adivasis from their traditional animistic practices to Hinduism? Their second demand for a ban on conversion is untenable in a democratic and secular society. Religious conversion is a matter of personal choice and any tampering with this freedom of choice will be gross violation of Human Rights.

The tribesmen who come in contact with these fundamentalist organizations should weigh their options. On the face of it, the choice to make is fairly simple: one is of continuing to remain in a uniform society while the other is to convert to Hindu practices and drop to the lowest rung of the caste structure. They should also recognize the political agenda of these organizations and refrain from being instigated by them.

Therefore, my friends from Jharkhand and other such regions: remember, when you engage in violence under the influence of fundamentalists, you either kill or maim a fellow tribal.

Manoj Tirkey -POLEMICS-Diversity of views - ACADEMIA - An academic discourse

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