Tensions, and benefits, for tribals in battle for souls | india | Hindustan Times
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Tensions, and benefits, for tribals in battle for souls

The great competition for souls among Hindu and Christian missionaries here in the heart of India has had one great benefit: improved living standards and spreading education among people who lived deep in this country's forgotten tribal hinterlands.

india Updated: Oct 26, 2008 00:52 IST
Vikas Pathak

The great competition for souls among Hindu and Christian missionaries here in the heart of India has had one great benefit: improved living standards and spreading education among people who lived deep in this country's forgotten tribal hinterlands.

Ask Christopal Minj, educated and fluent in Hindi. He's a Christian farmer of the Oraon tribe — traditional forest-dwellers and rice cultivators whose settlements run from here to Jharkhand, Orissa and even West Bengal and Assam — and articulate about his gratitude.

“Whatever we are today is because of the church,” said Minj as he sat on a charpoy outside his thatched-roof house, near the church where he prays every Sunday. “We have been educated in Christian institutions here.”

The Church came to what was the Jashpur princely state in the 19th century, spreading education and setting up medical facilities. Many tribals turned Christian.

It took nearly a century for Hinduism to launch a competing mission. In 1952, an affiliate of the Hindu nationalist RSS landed here: The Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram.

Today, the district of Jashpur — its headquarters is Jashpur Nagar — is the national headquarters of the tribal wing of the RSS and the centre of India’s conversion-reconversion debate, brought into focus after the anti-Christian violence in the
Kandhamal district of neighbouring Orissa.

Here’s the irony: The Hindu organisation arrived at the invitation of Ravi Shankar Shukla, former Congress chief minister of what was then Central Provinces and Berar.

Shukla was shown black flags by Christian tribals, who wanted a contiguous tribal state with neighbouring south Bihar (Jharkhand).

The Ashram set up schools and medical centres and ‘Hinduised’ many tribals.

Hinduised tribals in Gaati Mahua village, about 350 km north-east of Raipur, laugh when you ask about the anti-Christian violence in Orissa. There is an unmistakeable touch of pride when they say they joke about the violence with their Christian neighbours.

Christianised tribals refuse to discuss their ‘Hindu’ neighbours. Christian converts believe the Ashram has been founded to control them and divide the tribals. Hinduised tribals believe that Christianity destroys tribal culture.

“With the coming of democracy, numbers have become important for community strength,” said Kripa Prasad Singh, Kalyan Ashram joint general secretary. “It is necessary to preserve Hindu numbers and the best way is social service. Children from madrasas and Christian schools learn to see things through the prism of global Islam and the Church, developing separatist tendencies.”

There's no question that competition has changed lives: literacy in Jashpur Nagar is 71 per cent, against the national average of 65 per cent; female literacy is 67 per cent, 13 percentage points higher than the national average.

The Catholic Church has 24 high, 44 middle and 88 primary schools, a hostel with each girls’ school, four development centres for social, economic and cultural development, one large hospital and 8-10 health centres.

The Kalyan Ashram runs five boys’ and two girls’ hostels, one middle and high school, three primary and one pre-primary school, 36 Ekal Vidyalayas (one-teacher primary schools), 38 daily Bal Sanskar Kendras — where children are taught about Hindu traditions and heroes — and one library in the district. There's more: two agricultural development centres, one vocational training centre, three daily health centres, 110 mobile health centres, one hospital, and 76 medical camps.

This has also a meant a rise in the socials status of tribals and greater respect for a people outside the fold of conventional Hindu society.

So, Dilip Singh Judev, a BJP MP, a scion of the Jashpur royal family and the face of the ghar vapasi (return home) programme, has for the last 30 years been proferring that respect by washing the feet of Christian tribals during the reconversion process.

Judev is available to any tribal at his first-floor office — above a shopping centre — in Jashpur Nagar. “I consider reconversion as important for nationalism. Experience shows secessionist tendencies develop wherever Hindus become a minority.”