Authorities in Jharkhand’s Gumla district on Monday ordered a probe into the conversion of 100 tribal families to Christianity to ascertain whether the conversions were voluntary or forced.
Villagers, including members of the vulnerable Asur tribe, said they took the decision to ensure education and health for their children as well as employment for their youth as they had been excluded from government schemes.
“The media reported a few conversions last week. The block development officers are probing the matter. However, most conversions happened over 20 years,” said Gumla deputy commissioner Dinesh Chandra Mishra. “Whether people have converted by their will or have been allured will be ascertained after the probe.”
He denied the villagers were deprived of government schemes, saying the government had ensured 35 kg of foodgrains, housing and social security for them.
The probe comes as Hindu hardliners become more belligerent and religious intolerance grows in the country, sparking a wider debate on communal polarisation in India after the brutal killing of a 55-year-old Muslim in Uttar Pradesh’s Bisada village over rumours of slaughtering a cow.
Some 26% of Jharkhand’s population is tribal, many of them Christian. According to 2001-11 religion census data, the Christian population grew by 29.7% over the last decade, eight percent higher than majority Hindus.
Hindu hardliners say Christian missionaries have converted the tribal population through inducement and coercion.
“We had demanded a probe into the role of Christian missionaries as the population of primitive tribes is declining in the state and they have been converted to Christianity,” said Ganga Prasad Yadav, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Jharkhand secretary.
However, Father Stan Swamy, who works with indigenous people, said choosing a religion was a personal choice and the decision of the people should be respected.
“The socio-economic condition of particularly vulnerable tribal communities is extremely pitiable. They have little access to health, education, employment and housing. Religion is a very delicate matter and we should respect people’s decision,” he said.
“The government never bothered to fulfil their basic needs, 70% tribal women are anaemic and 80% children below five are malnourished. Why is the government so excited when they want change to their religion?”