The politics of religious conversions in Jharkhand – Raksha Kumar

Conversion to Hinduism

Raksha Kumar“The worst thing that conversion does is takes away our identity,” said Mr. Kujur. “We are Christian one day and Hindu the next. There is an erosion of self in all this.” – Raksha Kumar  

Ara, Jharkhand—Early on an idle Sunday morning in late August, Ram Singh Kujur perched on the solitary broken wooden chair outside his mud hut, sipping tea from a disfigured steel tumbler. Sundays never used to be such in the Kujur residence. Seven years ago, the Kujurs would have excitedly woken up early, put on their best clothes and head toward the village church. Now, the family of seven bathes and duly assembles in front of Lord Ram’s idol, positioned in the corner of their single-room house.

“We used to pray once in a week; now we pray every day. I am not sure the God is listening to us though,” said Mr. Kujur, 38, a farmer who owns two acres of land in Ara, 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state.

Mr. Kujur and his family converted to Hinduism seven years ago. As a member of the Oraon tribe, his grandfather had converted into Christianity. But in 2006, the late Bharatiya Janata Party leader Dilip Singh Judeo arrived in Ara with the sole agenda of converting 300 Christian families to Hinduism. Mr. Kujur’s was one of them.

Most of the 450 families in this village are adivasis, or tribals, who had converted into Christianity a generation or two ago. The Kujurs decided to convert as they were “fed up” with what they called the Christian double standards.

Mr. Kujur vividly remembered the day he was baptized. “I was 8 years old. The priest sprinkled holy water on my head and named me Gerald Kujur,” he said. From then on, he spent days of the week waiting for Sunday and the months of the year waiting for Christmas. “There used to be beef served in the church on Sundays, and several sweets distributed during Christmas,” he said.

Mr. Kujur was educated in a convent. “They call it missionary school here,” Shashikala, his 32-year-old wife, said. There, Mr. Kujur learned mathematics, science, English and Christianity.

Just as Mr. Kujur began to enjoy the school, the principal of the school, who was also the chief priest of the village, wrote a letter to Mr. Kujur’s father asking him to pay a few hundred rupees as fees. The Kujurs realized that the promise of “free education” expired six months after baptism.

Mr. Kujur remembered bowing in front of a statue of Jesus Christ that day, inhaling the sweet smell of the incense, angry at the injustice. “Is it fair to ask a poor farmer to pay for education when he has nothing to eat?” he had asked.

Two months after Mr. Judeo of the Bharatiya Janata Party converted 300 families in Ara by washing their feet with holy water from the Ganges River and declaring them Hindu, at least 600 tribal people were converted to Christianity in the Vishnupur locality of Gumla district, about 140 kilometers southwest of Ara. The local parish claimed this to be a counter to the Ara conversions by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Jharkhand has been the center of a religious tug-of-war since the 18th century, when a predominantly tribal state saw a flurry of Christian missionaries set up base there. The first Christian missionaries to arrive in the Chotanagpur plateau, which is most of Jharkhand today, were not the Catholics but German Protestants who traveled through Chakradharpur and Khunti to Ranchi. The Anglicans and the Catholics followed.

In the late 19th century, Christian missionaries converted a large number of people, especially tribals. Despite several years of close coexistence, the tribals had maintained their identity separate from the Hindus. The tribals were mostly hunter-gatherers, worshipped their ancestors and nature, ate simple food and celebrated festivals of their own.

According to several scholars, Hindu right-wing organizations like the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh came to Jharkhand in the 19th  century to counter the conversion drives of the Christian missionaries.

“We used to have a unique identity,” said Dilip Oraon, a tribal whose family refused to be converted to Christianity or endorse Hinduism. “Today, we are forced to choose between Christianity or Hinduism. We are Sarnas—those with a distinctive identity, independent of both.”

In 2006-2007, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, asked the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Jharkhand to bring a law to ban conversions to religions other than Hinduism in the state. Their allies in the Janata Dal (United) Party were opposed to the bill, and so it was stalled. There are still calls by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RSS to consider such a bill and to deny government benefits to tribal converts to Christianity.

As per the 2001 census, the latest available, 68.5 percent people of Jharkhand’s 32.96 million people follow Hinduism. Islam is followed by 13.8 percent and there are 13 percent animistic Sarnas. Only 4.1 percent of the population is said to follow Christianity.

These figures are hotly debated by all sections of the population. “The adivasis are Hindus,” claims Lallan Sharma of Vikas Bharti, a nonprofit organization that believes in what it calls the preservation of Hindu values and culture.

Mother Mary RanchiThe Christian organizations counter the claim. “We are Christians by religion and adivasis by race,” said Naman Topno, whose family converted five generations ago.

The debate over religion was revived four weeks ago when a statue of Mother Mary wearing a red-border sari and holding Jesus Christ in a way tribal women of Jharkhand hold their babies was erected by the local church in Singpur village in Dhurwa.

Bandhan Tigga, the dharmguru, or the priest of the Sarna society, said to local media, “The red border means a lot in the Sarna culture. Our women wear white sari with red border during auspicious times. If the idol of Mother Mary is shown in the get-up of a tribal woman, then 100 years from now people will think that Mother Mary was a tribal from Jharkhand,” he said.

Cardinal Telesphor P. Toppo retorted in the local media that the tribal Christians have an equal claim to the sari with red border.

Telesphore ToppoMr. Kujur and his family were familiar with the recent controversy, but they said that in the end, no matter what god they worship, their economic state is the same. “We realize conversion is political,” said Mr. Kujur, “but sometimes we are left with no option.”

When conversions happen, entire villages convert. If only one family dares to convert to another religion, they are outcast by the rest of the families. Therefore, in Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, villagers convert by the hundreds.

Gladson Dungdung, author of Whose Country is it Anyway?, about the adivasi community in Jharkhand, said it doesn’t make financial sense for either the Hindu Right or the Christian missionaries to convert just a few families in a village, he said. A huge investment goes into staging a conversion ritual and the political parties would want to make the most of it. “The promised free food, free education and free medicines that lure the tribals also require money,” he said.

When Mr. Kujur was a boy, the church offered incentives to convert, which included rice and milk. However, these faded after about seven to eight months after baptism.

When Mr. Kujur was 22, a neighboring Christian family approached him with a marriage proposal. Mr. Kujur’s father was against the proposal, as marrying an adivasi girl would have entitled them to more benefits from the church.

“You got nothing by marrying a fellow Christian, but if you married an adivasi and converted them, you’d get rice and milk from the church,” he said, smiling. However, he married Shashikala Rajini Minz, the neighbor’s daughter.

It has been seven years since the Kujur family became Hindu, established Lord Ram’s idols in their home, began going to temples and reciting Hindu hymns. But their condition has changed little. They still depend on odd jobs to substitute their income from paddy farming six months out of the year. They still struggle to fortify their rice stew with lentils and carrots, and they still struggle to pay their children’s school fees.

Mr. Kujur’s family sat in a circle on the muddy floor to have their afternoon meal. It took them some months to remember to stop praying to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit before the meal, and switch to prayers for Lord Ram.

Mr. Kujur’s son, Dharma, 16, still remembered the Christian prayers and recited it without any prompting. “I used to be David, you see,” he said, winking, “but we have been told not to recite these prayers anymore before we eat. I don’t know why.”

When Mr. Kujur goes to his fields, he prays to the soil, the trees that surround his fields and the sun god. It is a very adivasi thing to pray to nature that protects your crops, he said. He said his becoming Hindu hasn’t prevented him from doing so.

However, there are several things that still confuse him and his family about what they can do and cannot. “When some RSS activists came home, they instructed us to remove our footwear outside the house,” he said. “They said it is what a good Hindu would do.” But their house has no flooring, so they have to walk barefoot on rough mud.

Members of Mr. Kujur’s family were promised jobs in various government bodies, by both Hindu and Christian authorities. “When my grandfather converted, he was told his son would be educated in a Christian school and then land a job in the government and enjoy pensions for a lifetime. But my father ended up farming and when he died, he owned only a few pieces of cloth,” said Mr. Kujur, with tears in his eyes.

In 2006, when Mr. Kujur converted to Hinduism, RSS officials had promised that his son would be educated in one of the best schools in Ranchi and would then land a job in a government body. Mr. Kujur was doubtful, but said he has few options now.

“The worst thing that conversion does is takes away our identity,” said Mr. Kujur. “We are Christian one day and Hindu the next. There is an erosion of self in all this.”

His wife added that they are so poor that the only thing they have left to sell is their pehchaan, identity. She was grateful that there are still buyers for that. – India Ink, 1 October 2013

» Raksha Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.

Sarna tribals protesting against Mary statue, dressed as a tribal woman, at Singhpur in Ranchi, Jharkhand