Every spring, just before the forests of Jharkhand become heavy with the sweet smell of sal and mahua trees, Kunu Oraon gathers the villagers for a special ritual: A few grains of rice are put on the head of a hen. If it eats the rice when it falls to the ground then a bumper crop is predicted. If it doesn’t, it is believed, disaster awaits the community.
It is part of an ancient tribal festival that is neither Hindu nor Christian. Yet, Sarhul is celebrated by Christian missionaries and Hindu preachers alike, turning the ritual into a pawn in a wider contest for the hearts and minds of the indigenous, animistic tribes of the Chota Nagpur plateau.
“The pastor says come to the church to celebrate Sarhul. At the same time, the local Hindu temple throws a feast on the occasion,” says 42-year-old Oraon, a marginal farmer who has refused to become either a Christian or Hindu.
“It’s our tribal ritual, not theirs.”
In Jharkhand, where focus on religious conversions has revived over the ongoing assembly elections, such apportioning of the tribal way of life masks a deeper political strategy, one that shows the work of both Hindu and Christian groups to be more than just a religious and cultural project.
And in this unrelenting battle for influence, the state’s indigenous forest-dwellers are forced to take sides, gradually obliterating what is a distinct identity far more ancient than either faith.
“Behind the religio-cultural struggle lies a wider political battle for votes in which the Church, Hindu groups, tribal entities, all are involved,” says Harishwar dayal, director of Institute for Human Development, a Ranchi-based think tank.
To understand how that works, the headquarters of Vikas Bharti is a good place to look.
From inside its sprawling compound of cobbled roads and shady trees right in the bustle of capital city Ranchi, Ashok Bhagat runs hundreds of free schools, hospitals and community kitchens, hoping to endear the tribespeople to a Hindu way of life and, as an ancillary benefit, amplify the number of votes for his political masters.
How far he will succeed could determine if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will win a strong mandate in the mineral-rich state, where indigenous forest-dwellers, or adivasis, hold the balance of power. Twenty eight of the state’s 81 seats are reserved for tribes.
In the April-May Lok Sabha elections, the BJP led in only nine assembly segments of the tribal seats, a tally Bhagat is desperate to improve.
“We are sure all the sincere hard work we have put in will pay off,” says Bhagat, whose social organisation, backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is replicating the work of Christian missionaries across the region.
A short distance from Vikas Bharti is the Cardinal House, a sprawling high-walled compound that Hindu groups say is the nerve centre of church politics in eastern India. Every election, politicians visit the office to seek the “blessings” of the influential Cardinal Telesphor Toppo.
Traditionally, the Church has supported the Congress, and more recently the regional, tribal-focused party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM).
“The Cardinal does decide which candidates to support, so he does influence the politics,” says a local Christian lawmaker on condition of anonymity because officially the Church says it doesn’t back any political party.
But caught in the cleft stick of Hinduism and Christianity are tribespeople like Laldev Bhagat.
“I am Sarna and I am proud of my religion,” he says.
“Our religion gives us ample freedom to practice what we like.”
Some 26% of Jharkhand’s population today is tribal. For most part of the 19th century Christian missionaries converted many of them, both by inducement and coercion. But the region became riven by conversion politics after the RSS started its counter campaign in the 1970s.
Now, Hindu groups say all indigenous people, many of whom practice animism, are really Hindus, whether or not they realise it.
Such claims make people like Oraon angry.
“We pray to the soil, the trees, the river, the sun. Our gods are different,” says Oraon, his large brown eyes misty, voice choking.
“We have our unique identity. We will not lose it to the politics of conversion.”
(Additional reporting by B Vijay Murty)