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Conversions in currency

This tussle for souls — through the physical manifestation of beliefs, traditions and practices — continues in such forgotten corners of India like Jashpur, writes Vikas Pathak.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2008 22:22 IST
Vikas Pathak
Vikas Pathak
Hindustan Times

Jashpur, Chhattisgarh: Sixty-year-old Bhubaneshwara Bhagat became a Christian some years ago. Bhagat, an Oraon tribal, is a resident of Gaati Mahua village, 80 km from Jashpur Nagar, on the junction of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa. But he was soon ‘reconverted’ and now calls himself ‘a Hindu’. The reason for ‘reconversion’? The death of some cows and buffaloes at home that made him think that converting to Christianity was the reason for the misfortune. Bhagat still celebrates the Oraon festivals of Sarhul and Karma, but he now believes that the trees that are worshipped symbolise Shiva and Parvati.

Nasreet, once a Christian, ‘reconverted’ to Hinduism under the influence of his ‘Hinduised’ Oraon in-laws. He has a Saraswati calender at home, but also celebrates Oraon festivals. Chand Kumar calls himself Hindu, but his home has images of Jesus and Mary, which he says his children brought from schoolfriends. “The church plants these through children,” asserts Dev Nandan, an activist of the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, an RSS-affiliate founded in Jashpur in 1952 to counter the Catholic Church, which has been active here from the 19th century.

Fifty-five-year-old Nistar Toppo of the same village is a Christian. He celebrates Christmas and Good Friday but not traditional Oraon festivals. No Christian in this remote village does. Jitendra Tigga, a Christian shopkeeper on the outskirts of Jashpur Nagar, celebrates tribal festivals alongside Christmas.

Caught in a triangular battle for their minds, Jashpur tribals are in a dilemma. Festivals and rituals of Christian, Hindu and tribal origins are pulling them in different directions. There is a disruption of old tribal traditions. There are elements of syncretism along with new sources of conflict.

The ‘Hinduised’ tribals have been made to see their religion as a branch of Hinduism. They celebrate Sarhul and Karma alongside Holi and Raksha Bandhan. The Hindutva method of conversion is not a replacement of their traditions but an assimilation of them as branches of Hinduism. However, Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram activists reluctantly admit that ‘Hinduised’ tribals still bury their dead.

There is another current too. An Oraon tribal mahapanchayat at Ranchi recently raised slogans against the church. It claimed that a version of the Bible — the Nemha Bible — in the local Kurukh language tells worshippers to destroy the religious sites of those who worship trees. At the gathering, there was a demand for Oraon traditions to be ‘left alone’. “Christian converts should not get Scheduled Tribe (ST) quota, as they don’t follow a tribal lifestyle now. They get triple benefits of minority rights, tribal quota and foreign wealth. This is wrong,” says Karma Oraon, an anthropologist with Ranchi University. History professor Diwakar Minz asserts that the “Sarna religion has no link with the Hindu religion and is self-guided. Its independence should be maintained.”

This tussle for souls — through the physical manifestation of beliefs, traditions and practices — continues in such forgotten corners of India like Jashpur.

First Published: Nov 12, 2008 22:17 IST