Why Are Tribals Demanding The ‘Sarna’ Religion Code

Why Are Tribals Demanding The ‘Sarna’ Religion Code

Tribals argue that they have their own religion, religious practices and customs, which should be recognised by the government.

Protest for demanding Sarna Code in Khunti District, Jharkhand.

There has been a recent surge in politics centred around the tribal communities in Jharkhand. The tribals who follow the Sarna religion are demanding a separate religious code. Additionally, the Hemant Soren Government of Jharkhand has resubmitted the ‘Domicile Policy’ bill to the Governor.

Political analysts predict that this bill could attract tribal voters and result in the ruling party ‘JMM’ gaining more support. Furthermore, there is an organisation called ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch,’ allegedly supported by the BJP party, campaigning to delist tribals who have converted to Christianity or Islam from the tribal category. This move is creating a conflict among tribals and may result in the polarisation of votes, which the BJP could take advantage of.

Experts believe that this step by ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ will increase dissatisfaction among tribals towards those who have converted to other religions, who are accused of taking away the rights of tribals in terms of education, scholarships, and jobs.

There is immense resentment among the tribals of India, a country defined by the phrase ‘Unity in diversity’. They claim that despite India gaining independence in 1947, they have not yet had religious freedom to date.

According to Article 25, only six religions; including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, have received religious recognition in government data and census. Meanwhile, nature-worshipping tribals across the country have been waiting for 70 years for their ‘Sarna’ religion to be constitutionally recognised.

Petition in the Odisha High Court & scholarship form that has Christian, Muslim, Hindu and others option for Tribals in Odisha.

Two PILs have been filed in the Odisha High Court in Cuttack by tribals following the Sarna religion. The first PIL was filed by Budhan Mardi in 2011 after he did not find a place for the Sarna religion of the tribals in the census form. However, this PIL is still pending.

Barial Hembram, a former tribal student from Mayurbhanj district in Odisha, filed the second PIL. Hembram says that while doing intermediate in 2015, he and other students applied for a post-matric scholarship on the Odisha government portal. However, while filling out the form after entering the ST category, there were only two options in the religion column: Christian and Hindu. He was neither a Hindu nor a Christian, so he first complained to the college principal. When he got no support, he and his classmates filed a PIL in the High Court, Cuttack.

According to the petition of PIL number 23156/2015, the petitioner demanded that “An application for seeking direction directing the opposite parties to add ‘Sarna’ religion column code in the scholarship application form of the petitioners otherwise there is a preface violation of Article 25 of construction of India which is a fundamental right of citizen on religion.”

According to petitioner Hembram, five people, including the Chief Secretary of State of Odisha and the Home Secretary of the Government of India, were parties in the PIL. Under this, apart from Hindu and Christian, the option of ‘others’ appeared in the online scholarship form as soon as the notice sent by the High Court reached all the parties.

“After selecting ‘others’, the scholarship was approved. But the question is, for how long will we choose ‘Other’? I am preparing to go to Odisha High Court again so that a permanent solution can be found for those who follow the Sarna religion,” he says.

It is worth noting that Odisha has a tribal population of approximately 23 per cent, which includes mostly Santhali. There are 15 assembly seats in the state where the tribal population exceeds 55 per cent. Furthermore, the tribal population is more than 30 per cent in about 35 assembly seats.

A senior journalist from Jharkhand, Surendra Soren, who belongs to the tribal community, believes that the voice for the Sarna religion is not being raised only in Odisha. Still, the tribals of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, and Jharkhand have started a campaign for the Sarna code.

“In India, when Jainism, with a population of 43 lakhs, has got religious identity due to their separate religion code, then why was a separate religion code not given for the 1.25 crore tribals who follow Sarna religion,” he argues on the Sarna religion code.

It should be noted that religious codes are available in schools, colleges, scholarships, jobs, and census forms for all six religions except the tribal’s Sarna. However, there is no column related to the tribals, and no bill has been presented in Parliament regarding this matter.

Bishweswar Tudu, State Tribal Minister, Government of India.

According to Bishweswar Tudu, a BJP MP from Odisha and Minister of State for Tribal Affairs in the Government of India, many MPs raised questions about the Sarna Code. Still, there was never any serious discussion in Parliament about it.

He further says, “Just as there are castes and sub-castes, similarly there are Hindus and Sarnas; I mean, Sarnas religion comes under Hindu as sub-religion. Being a tribal, I follow the Sarna religion but believe in Shri Ram, Sita Mata, Lord Shiva, etc.”

But Tribal Professor Ramchandra says that the Constitution of India allows you to believe in anyone, but Sarna comes under the Hindu religion, and this is wrong. “The big difference between Sarna and Hinduism is that we believe in nature worship whereas Hinduism worships idols; they believe in reincarnation whereas we have no such belief,” he says.

But Bisheshwar Tudu, State Tribal Minister of the Government of India, believes that due to the subordination of the tribal society to the Hindu society, there is practically no justification for implementing the Sarna religious Code. “It is just an attempt by regional parties to break the unity of the tribals by following ‘divide and rule’ to do vote bank politics,” he says.

According to him, if we consider it technically, after receiving the Sarna religious Code, the tribal community will be regarded as a minority, which means that the tribals will lose the privileges of being tribal.

Prof. Ramchandra Oraon, an expert in the Indian Constitution and law, is a professor at the National University of Study and Research in Ranchi. He disagrees with the state tribal minister and says that the provision of reservations is not based on religion; its basis is only economic and educational backwardness. “Therefore, the reservation that tribals are getting is because of their economic and educational backwardness and not because of their religion,” he added.

Salkhan Murmu, a two-time BJP Member of Parliament from Mayurbhanj in Odisha, has advocated for the Sarna Religious Code for several years. He argues that tribals are currently left with only two options to indicate their religion: either to use the Hindu code or to choose ‘others’ as an option, which results in their religious identity being taken away. According to him, this situation forces tribals to use a code that doesn’t represent their religious beliefs.

He further says, “Look at the religious data recorded in the 2011 census of states like Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand; where are the tribals? The question is, why are we facing discrimination?”

What do Census 2011 data say?

According to the 2011 census data, the majority religion in the tribal-dominated districts of West Singhbhum, Gumla, Khunti, and Lohardaga in Jharkhand is ‘others,’ while in Simdega district, the majority religion is Christian.

In West Singhbhum district, with a population of 15,02,338, the percentage population of Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jain is 28.22, 2.54, 5.83, 0.06, 0.03, and zero per cent respectively, while 62.96 per cent of the people chose the ‘others’ option. Similarly, in districts like Gumla, Khunti, and Lohardagga, the percentage of people choosing ‘others’ is 44.62, 45.37, and 51.10 per cent.

Salkhan Murmu asserts that those choosing the ‘others’ option are conditional tribes; if they had their religious code, they would never have selected ‘others’ as an option.

According to him, being forced to choose between the ‘Hindu’ or ‘others’ option is broader than just four districts, including West Singhbhum. It is prevalent throughout Jharkhand, where tribals comprise 26 per cent of the population across 24 districts.

Furthermore, out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Jharkhand, Rajmahal, Dumka, Singhbhum, Khunti, and Lohardaga are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. Similarly, 28 of the 81 assembly seats in Jharkhand are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. “When 28 assembly and five Lok Sabha seats in Jharkhand can be reserved for tribals based on caste, then why is their Sarna religion being taken away from them,” says former MP Salkhan Murmu.

In the example of West Singhbhum district, he further says that this district’s Lok Sabha and four assembly seats are reserved for tribals. Still, tribals need to be visible in the 2011 census data for this district. Because one part of the tribals chooses ‘others’ while the other part chooses ‘Hindu’. In such a situation, our existence does not exist anywhere in religious data.

In fact, out of the total population of Jharkhand of 3.3 crore, the tribal population is 86 lakh. Due to the tribals not having the Sarna religious code, they were divided into two parts – ‘others’ and ‘Hindu’. According to Census, 40,12,622 tribals are shown in ‘Others’, and 32,45,856 are shown in ‘Hindu’.

All India Protest for demanding Sarna Code.

Former MP Salkhan Murmu argues that when the religious figures of the tribal census are forcibly shown as Hindu and others, then gradually, this society will lose its religious identity. Because when the census is conducted every 10 years, our population will be counted among others or Hindus, as it has been happening since independence.

He further says, “This is why the tribals of five states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, and Assam, demanding the Sarna Dharma Code, showed solidarity by calling for Bharat Bandh on 30th December. In the coming months, our effort is to make society aware by conducting door-to-door campaigns in the tribal areas of the five states for the Sarna Code to achieve the Sarna religious Code.”

Protest for demanding Sarna Code on December 30.

Is the demand for the Sarna Code a political stunt?

Bisheshwar Tudu, the Minister of State for Tribal Affairs in the Government of India, has described the demand for the Sarna Dharma Code by the tribal community as a political stunt aimed at securing votes. But, tribal activist Devkumar Dhan disagreed with the minister’s argument. Activist Dhan, who has been demanding a separate religious code for tribals for several years, says that in the census of years 1871, 1881, and 1891, there was an ‘Aboriginal’ religious code for tribals, whereas in the census conducted in the year 1901, 1911, 1921, ‘Animist’ was the religion code. But words like ‘Tribals religion’ in the year 1931, ‘Tribes’ in the 1941 census, and ‘Schedule Tribes’ in the year 1951 were used as religious codes for the tribals. The sad thing is that from the 1961 census, only ‘others’ started being used to indicate the religion of the tribals, which continues even today.

“What was the need of Indian governments since 1961 for the religious code of tribals to be removed from the census? Therefore, this removal of our religious code points towards a clear conspiracy, which is a strategy to make the country tribal-free,” he added.

Professor Ramchandra Oraon agrees with the argument made by activist Dhan, stating that not providing a religious code for tribal communities is an attempt to hinduised the country. He does not believe that any government will work towards preserving the religious existence of tribals, which has become a serious issue, leading to a significant number of tribals adopting Hindu traditions like Pind Daan, Kali Puja, Mansa Puja, etc.

“Therefore, I believe that various tribal communities like ‘Gonds and Bhils’ have been mentally hinduised. Like ‘Gond and Bhil,’ the same effort is also being made with Sarna tribals. That’s why our religious identity is not visible in scholarships, jobs, and census forms,” he added.

Kariya Munda, addressing cadres of ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ on December 24.

But on the demand for Sarna’s religious code, senior BJP leader from Jharkhand and former MP Kariya Munda argue that Sarna is the name of a place of worship. He asks whether any religion has been named after a place of worship. Since the name of the religious place of all the tribals is not Sarna, will the tribal communities across the country be able to accept Sarna as a religious code? The answer is no. If any community gets the Sarna religious code, other tribal communities will also demand a religious code based on the name of their place of worship. Therefore, I am not against the religious code, so there is a need to select such a religious code with which all the tribal communities agree.

Former INC MLA and Activist Devkumar Dhan says that there is no consensus among all the tribals present across the country on the word ‘Sarna’ regarding the religious code. The code ‘Tribal religion’ was used for tribals during the 1931 census. Therefore, it has been decided by mutual consent that a demand should be made to the government to restore this religious code of the tribals across the country.

According to Surendra Soren, a Jharkhand-based journalist, the tribals’ demand for the Sarna religious code is not a political stunt. But he says that recently, there seem to be only two political stunts in Jharkhand; one is the Domicile Bill brought by the ruling party of the Jharkhand government, which was sent to the Governor of Jharkhand without amendment.

On 20th December, the Jharkhand Assembly passed this domicile Bill based on the Khatian of 1932 and sent it to the Governor for approval. The government had previously passed the bill on 11th November 2022, but the Governor returned it with suggestions for amendments.

According to journalist Surendra Soren, through this bill, it is expressed that the ruling party is struggling to bring a domicile bill, but the Governor is not implementing it. The intention is to benefit from public sympathy in the upcoming parliamentary and assembly elections.

Referring to another political stunt towards creating a tribal vote bank, journalist Soren pointed towards the delisting campaign.

Ganesh Ram Bhagat, addressing cadres of ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ on December 24.

‘End the reservation of Tribals who became Christians & Muslims’

A rally was organised in the capital of Jharkhand on 24th December by a tribal organisation called ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’. RSS allegedly backed them. During the rally, around 10 thousand cadres demanded that tribals who have converted to Christianity or Islam be delisted from the ST reservation. Prominent politicians, including Kariya Munda, a seven-time BJP MP and Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker awarded with the Padma Bhushan, Sudarshan Bhagat, BJP MP from Lohardaga, Sameer Oraon, BJP Rajya Sabha member from Jharkhand, and Ganesh Ram Bhagat, a former BJP minister, and president of ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ from Chhattisgarh addressed the rally.

Kariya Munda says that it is written in the Constitution that the benefit of reservation is for the economically and educationally backward, i.e., tribals, who have different lifestyles now the tribals who have adopted Christianity or Islam after conversion are counted as minorities in the country because they dropped the lifestyle of tribals. Now, despite being a minority, these people are killing the rights of the tribals by taking advantage of ST category reservation in jobs after being educated. Hence, we demand that the converted tribals should not get reservations. With this demand, we gathered in Ranchi on 24th December under the ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ banner.

Cadres of ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ during a rally on December 24.

According to Kariya Munda, before the delisting rally in Jharkhand, he was part of three rallies organised in Maharashtra, which were also successful. Other than this, under the banner of ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’.

Delisting rallies have also been organised in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

Alok Putul, a senior journalist based in Chhattisgarh who closely observes the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections, says that rallies and seminars were held throughout the state to spread the message that tribal rights were being infringed upon. The aim was to explain to the tribals that Christian tribals were taking their rights away.

He further says that for five consecutive years, BJP, RSS, and other Hindutva organisations have continuously made delisting an issue, and its impact has been felt in the tribal areas; how can it be denied?

In such a situation, the question arises whether the BJP and RSS support the ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ rally in Jharkhand. In response to this question, Professor Ramchandra Oraon says that, like Chhattisgarh, BJP and RSS have a hand in the delisting rally in Jharkhand because they are talking about delisting through ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’.

Does BJP RSS support ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ on the issue of delisting? On this question, former BJP MP Kariya Munda gave a vague answer and asked what was wrong with standing with a needy person. He further says this protest against delisting started in 2006 and is now visible as a movement.

But tribal activist Devkumar Dhan says that if delisting were not a mere political issue of polarisation, then ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ or BJP and RSS would have raised this issue in Delhi because this is not a state issue; there is a BJP government at the Centre. So they should go to the center and bring the bill on delisting.

If delisting is a serious issue, so will you bring any bill on it in Parliament? On this question, Bisheshwar Tudu, tribal-State minister of the Government of India, says that if our Central Committee decides on this issue, it will be.

On making a law regarding delisting, Kumar Dhan says that the BJP cannot bring a law on delisting because the day delisting is implemented, there will be a rebellion in the North East. “Therefore, my personal opinion is that instead of making a law on delisting, the BJP is trying to polarise the tribal votes in the name of delisting.”

On the issue of delisting, Shilpi Neha Tirkey, MLA of the ruling party in Jharkhand, says that this is just an attempt of the BJP to polarize votes by using the so-called ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’. This step is taken to divide the tribal people in the country.

If ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ is so sympathetic, why does it not speak on the demand of religious code for tribals? Therefore, Jharkhand’s tribals will unite in the ‘Adivasi Ekta Manch’ rally on 4th February in Ranchi to expose the ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’.

Senior Jharkhand journalist Surendra Soren believes that in response to the rally of ‘Janjati Suraksha Manch’ organised on 24th December, the rally of ‘Aadivasi Ekta Manch’ on 4th February 2023 will give rise to mutual conflict among the tribals. The reaction to this action will lead to polarization of non-Christian tribal votes, which will benefit the BJP.

Will this conflict between Christian and non-Christian tribes repeat the situation like Manipur in Jharkhand? In response to this question, tribal journalist Soren says that Mental polarisation is sure to happen, which will break the unity of the tribals. But there is no situation of violence like in Manipur because here, if there are two brothers in a family; one is Christian and the other follows the Sarna religion, in such a situation, it does not seem possible for one brother to shed the blood of the other brother.

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