Jharkhand government plans to crack down on misuse of funds and what it calls forcible conversions of tribals by Christian missionaries after a report accused the Church of inciting the state’s sizeable population to block development schemes.
Alarm bells were set ringing in the power corridors of Ranchi last month after a massive tribal protest against proposed changes in the state’s land acquisition law — demonstrations that the government says were planned and funded by Christian missionaries with foreign money. On September 15, more than 100,00 tribals converged in Ranchi to protest against two ordinances that proposed acquisition of tribal agricultural land for development purposes such as roads, schools, hospitals and flyovers.
Never before had the state seen such a huge congregation of tribals — who account for more than a quarter of the state’s population — in the capital on a non-political platform daring the government. A little known Adivasi Buddhijivi Manch (ABM) — Tribal Intellectual Cell — headed the protests.
A shocked state government asked its special branch to probe the protests. The branch’s report — a copy of which is with HT — says the rally was conceived and executed by the churches, who are allegedly using foreign funds meant for development work to incite tribal unrest. The report comes roughly a year after the 2011 census threw up a surprise when it recorded Christians as the fastest-growing religious group in the state. Christians grew up a staggering 29.7% while Hindus grew by 21. 1%. The Muslims were behind Christians, registering a rise of 28. 4%. The figures for Jharkhand were in sharp contrast to pan-India numbers that showed a sharp fall in the decadal growth rate across all major religions.
The Conversion Cycle
The census figures and now the report have energized right-wing groups, who have argued for years that the Church spearheaded conversions — both forcible and through allurements — across the tribal belt. Senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionary Indresh Kumar has demanded a ‘surgical strike’ against conversion. Government sources say chief minister Raghubar Das has taken the report very seriously and has instructed senior authorities to check conversions while ensuring that NGOs do not misuse government money for religious conversions.
He vented his feelings on October 18 at Mudma village near Ranchi while addressing a tribal festival, Jatra. “My government will not spare anyone trying to destroy tribal customs and traditions. If you come across people trying to convert you in the name of religion through force or allurement, please call 181 and we will ensure action within 24 hours,” the CM said. He said tribals had the full freedom to practice their Sarna religion and any effort to lure the community women into another religion will not be tolerated.
Special branch Report
The report says priests and tribal Christian leaders raised money, shut government schools to ensure participation of teachers and children, forced villagers to donate and imposed `100 fine against those who skipped the September 15 rally.
The document says over the last three years, more than 100 Christian religious groups and NGOs affiliated to the Church got `310 crores of foreign funds, mobilized through the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which was used for conversions.
The report mentions an alleged instance of conversion of around 300 Asurs, a particular vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) in Gumla’s Bishunpur block in October last year. It says Christian NGOs frequently misuse government funds earmarked for upliftment of PVTGs.
However, many Christian groups and tribals say the report is fabricated and is being used by the ruling BJP to target minorities. “The CM doesn’t have any understanding of tribal society,” said ABM president Premchand Murmu, the man who apparently led the September 15 protests. He said if conversions were happening, the Christian population in the state would not have been merely 0.43%. “Christians constitute merely 5.8% of the total tribal population while 37% tribals were enlisted as Hindus in the census columns against their wishes,” he said.
He accused the state government of turning a blind eye towards the alleged forcible conversions of tribals, who mostly follow the Sarna religion, into Hindus by the RSS and other right wing groups.
“The Chief Minister is threatening the minority community in the state. Instead of finding a solution to the rising protests over controversial land ordinance, he is trying to divert attention by raising the conversion issue,” Adivasi Sangharsh Morcha (ASM) convener Karma Oraon told reporters.
Others say the issue has been blown up for political reasons and that most conversions happened without allurement. “There was no force or allurement. I converted out of my will. I like going to church,” said Kamal Lohra in Gumla district’s Badri panchayat. He converted to Christianity two months ago.
But the matter is unlikely to die soon. The chief minister, insiders say, has directed all tribal BJP legislators and parliamentarians to raise the matter at all public forums and check conversions in their respective constituencies. The battle lines, for now, have been drawn.