Ever since he assumed office in December 2019, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren has ventured into a dangerous and divisive political game. This was recently seen at the 18th Annual India Conference at Harvard University, where he asserted that “Adivasis were never Hindus, and they will never be…”. But this claim is flawed and can be countered with well-established facts.
Soren has apparently based his gigantic argument on a fragile premise. In the Harvard lecture he said that Adivasis are different from Hindus because their practices are different, and “the community has always been of nature worshipers, and that this is the reason why they are counted as “indigenous people”.
But does Hinduism not worship nature? The Sun god, known as Surya Dev, is worshipped in umpteen forms, apart from the Chatth festival that is dedicated entirely to the god. The Sun temple in Konark, Odisha is one of the most important religious destinations in the eastern part of the country. A replica of this temple, situated in the tribal heartland of Bundu, 40 km from Ranchi, draws Hindus and tribes alike, in droves.
No Hindu ritual is complete without the river. The importance of a holy dip in the Ganges, among other rivers, for purification of the body and soul can’t be underscored enough. Similarly, there are many other Hindu festivals celebrated in three different parts of the country that celebrate nature.
The Bathukamma or ‘the floral festival’ observed in Telangana celebrates the relationship between earth, water and human beings. During Vat Purnima, celebrated in Western India, a married woman marks her love for her husband by tying a ceremonial thread around a banyan tree. The worship of a peepal tree every Saturday is commonplace for many. The significance of the Tulsi leaf, or holy basil, can’t be emphasised enough in Hindu religious practices. With such glaring similarities between Hindu and tribal societies, one is not sure what makes Soren base his claims on feeble, fallible arguments, unless he has been forced to borrow the naiveté of his alliance partner — Congress’ Rahul Gandhi.
The Birsa Munda factor
In the last one year, I have been working on a book on the life of iconic tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda, whose legacy Hemant Soren aspires to champion. I have researched extensively on the subject.
It is worth noting that Birsa Munda’s mentor in the early 1890s, after he shunned Christianity and walked out of the Lutheran Mission School in Chaibasa was a Vaishnavite preacher, Anand Panre.
It was the time spent with this preacher, who employed learnings from the Bhagavad Gita and generously quoted anecdotes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, that led to a spiritual transformation in Birsa, evident and documented from 1894 onwards.
In 1895, while Birsa initiated a religious movement that came to be known as Birsait, his rebellion was focused against the ‘dikus’ or oppressors/encroachers who were Christian missionaries and landowners. In fact, a good chunk of those who joined his religious movement were Munda sardars who had previously converted to Christianity. Birsa, in his teachings, drew from all three — Hinduism, Christianity and Mundari. He continued to quote from the Ramayana and Mahabharata to his followers, while his tirade was directed against the church, which is evident in the trail of destruction witnessed in the armed revolution starting December 1999.
At no point in Birsa Munda’s life is there any definitive antipathy towards Hinduism. In fact, one book on Munda — The Life and Times of Birsa Munda by Gopi Krishna Kunwar, even claims that he had prayed at the Jagannath Temple near Ranchi before his 1899 revolt.
Therefore, if Hemant Soren claims he is taking Birsa Munda’s philosophy forward, he is being mischievously economical with the truth.
A research paper by Kapil Kr Mishra, titled, ‘Shiva legends in the sacred traditions of Indian tribes’, traces the worship of Lord Shiva by indigenous people. The paper goes on to explain how, “Indian tribes worship Shiva in their natural abode – jungles, hills, mountains, agricultural fields. It is the Hindus who brought him into temples. Shiva is always worshiped among the tribals in His presence as lingam.”
It gives multiple examples, from Deoghar in north Jharkhand to Gumla in South-west Jharkhand, of Hindus and tribals following identical religious practices. It states: “The supreme God of Santhal is called Marang Buru, Thakur Buru, or Mahadeo. His character is basically very similar to that of Shiva. Interestingly, the great and historical Jyotirlinga of Baidyanath, popularly known as Ravaneshwar Mahadeo, is located in the heartland of Santhal at Deoghar. Many Santhals claim that it is the entry point to the Santhal Territory. It is a place where all gods and goddesses reside with Lord Baidyanath.”
The inference drawn by this research paper can be corroborated by my personal experience. While growing up in Jamshedpur, I have witnessed the Adivasi devotion for Lord Shiva. Our domestic worker’s family, who used to stay in our out-house, would travel in a large group to an ancient Shiva temple in Dalma Hills, 30 km outside the city, every Maha Shivratri. I have witnessed the same devotion in Adivasis for Deori Mata, (a form of Maa Durga) whose temple on the Jamshedpur-Ranchi highway became world famous after Indian cricketer M.S. Dhoni’s visits.
Therefore, the view expressed by Hemant Soren is certainly not the view of the tribal majority in Jharkhand. It is a political narrative, much like the demand for a separate state was, and is driven by self-serving vested interests.
History of missionaries in Jharkhand
It is a well-established fact that Jharkhand, over the last century and half, has been the hub of religious conversions. As such, Christian missionaries have had to bear the brunt of Right-wing groups for their persistence. In 2006, the state’s Raghubar Das-led Bharatiya Janata Party government had not only introduced an anti-conversion law, but had also constituted an Special Investigation Team (SIT) investigation to probe religious conversions in the state.
Once Sarna becomes a separate religious code, for the followers of the Sarna faith who believe in praying to nature, Christian missionaries will escape Hindu scrutiny in poaching this population. The possibility of Hemant Soren acting in connivance with the conversion lobby can’t be ruled out. Like Andhra CM Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, Soren has shown an open antipathy for Hinduism as a religion, and had avoided the mention of the word “Eeshwar” (God) in his oath as CM.
The entry of foreign missionaries in Jharkhand goes back to the 1840s. It was part of a British strategy to make the tribal population culturally subservient, in addition to the societal and financial subjugation they were already subjected to. The first to enter the region was the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Mission in 1845. Also known as the German or the Lutheran mission, this mission found its first set of Munda converts in the year 1851. By 1868, around 11,000 Mundas had been converted to Christianity. In fact, during Birsa’s rebellion in the late 1890s, much of his ire was directed against the German pastor Johannes Hoffman and his German mission, according to the book Birsa Munda and His Movement by K.S. Singh).
Today, with his phoney assertions, Soren may have played into the hands of modern-day missionaries or possibly acted at the behest of the conversion bogey.
Not in Birsa Munda’s Name
Nobody denies that the Adivasis follow certain distinct cultural practices. These practices are largely attributable to their habitat and do not specifically transcend into a separate religious identity. Therefore, the Sarna Code, ideally needs to be seen as a cultural code, both within Hindus (for its entire tribal population), as well as within Christians (for those tribals who have already converted).
It must be factored in that India has an 8.6 per cent tribal population spread over several parts of the country, including the northeast. The Bhils and Gonds living in western and central parts of the country themselves may not agree with Soren’s view.
Instead of trying to emerge as a pan-India tribal leader, Soren’s myopic vision has made him adopt the same divide-and-rule policy that the British used to subjugate tribals. Birsa Munda’s call for revolt, the slogan Abua Disham Abua Raj (our land, our rule), was for the tribals. While the first part — Abua Disham — was actualised by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who created Jharkhand in the year 2000, the second part, has been a big let down, with politicians like Hemant Soren sowing newer seeds of divide in the state.
The writer is an author and a prominent voice of the BJP in the media. Views are personal.