On August 25, the Modi government in Delhi released census data on population by religion. The same day, in Lupungpi village in Jharkhand's West Singhbhum district, Rega Gagrai and her family spent their first day under a social boycott imposed on them because they had converted to Christianity.

The previous Monday, hundreds of Ho tribal villagers from five villages had gathered in Lupungpi. The community leaders, the manki-munda, sat at the centre of the village on red plastic chairs surrounded by fields of paddy. They asked Rega Gagrai and 14 other families that had converted to Christianity about five years ago to return to their original animistic religion called Sarna, or face a social boycott.

In Singhbhum's forest villages, Ho tribal villagers collect wood and grass from shared forest patches and pastures, and grow paddy on small plots of land. The families were told they would be blocked from accessing all resources in the village if they did not give up Christianity. “They told us we could no longer take grass from the pastures, or even walk on the common lands,” recounted Gagrai. “'Stop using the water from the pond,' they said.”

All villagers were ordered to stop talking to the Christian families.

Religious conversions have long been an issue of contention in the state, but the conflicts have been mostly limited mostly to the Chotanagpur region in Jharkhand's west, which first came in contact with Christian missionaries. The German Protestant mission arrived here in 1845, followed by the Catholics.

In contrast, the mineral-rich Kolhan region in the South, which borders Odisha, has been largely free of religious tensions. West Singhbhum district, which is part of the Kolhan region, has often been in the news on account of the Maoist insurgency. But as the recent social boycotts showed, the conflict over conversions has arrived here as well.

Sarna resurgence

Under the British, “Tribal religion”, or animism, was counted as a distinct religion in the census till 1941. The practice was discontinued in Independent India. This has been a source of anger among Jharkhand’s adivasis. They believe the removal of this category undermines tribal identity.

The week when the social boycott was enforced in Lupungpi village, about 130 kilometres away, in Jharkhand's capital Ranchi, the release of the census data on religion triggered a renewed demand for the recognition of Sarna, the worship of ancestors and nature.

According to the new census, of Jharkhand's 3.2 crore population, 67.8% or 2.2 crore are Hindu and 4.3% or 14.1 lakh are Christian. “Other religions”, which Sarna leaders say is approximate of the Sarna population, constitute 12.8% or 42.3 lakh.

Dharamguru Bandhan Tigga, who claims to lead 25 Sarna religious organisations, accompanied by Dr Karma Oraon, an anthropologist at Ranchi University, compared this to the population of Jains in India, which is about 45 lakh. If Jains get enumerated as a separate religion, why should Sarna not be recognised as a minority religion with all the attendant benefits, he asked. Tigga has announced that he will lead a protest rally of Sarna tribals from all over India at Delhi's Ramlila grounds in November next year.

The tribal intellectuals take a different view of the religious census data. Following the release of the census numbers, they have raised the question of missing tribals. Tribals, numbering 86.4 lakh, make up 26.2% of Jharkhand's population. Together, the two categories of Christians at 14.1 lakh and “other religions”, which includes Sarna, at 42.3 lakh add up to 56.3 lakh. Where are the remaining 30 lakh tribals, they ask. Were tribals in interior villages not counted, and how many have been assimilated into Hinduism?

Spreading hostilities

Tribal leaders have spoken out against assimilation by Hinduism and have asked leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Jata Party to ensure that the census has a distinct listing for Sarna. They distinguish tribal religion from Hinduism by pointing to the absence of the caste system and idol worship. Yet, Hindus have been able to claim some common ground with Sarna because of the prevalence of nature worship in both the religions.

On the ground, it is Christian missionaries who are under attack for their real and perceived proselytising activities. The most visible manifestation of this was in 2013, when thousands of Sarna tribals marched to a new church on the outskirts of Ranchi. They threatened to remove the statue of Mary depicted in a white sari with red border with an infant in a sling. The indigenisation of Mary, they argued, was part of the Church’s attempts to convert local tribals.

A common perception is that despite their small numbers, Christian tribals have had better access to higher education and jobs. With economic disparities, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened.

Thousands of Sarna tribals marched to Singpur church when a statue of "tribal Mary" was unveiled in 2013.

Divided families

Rega Gagrai said she had converted to Christianty five years ago, soon after a local pastor helped in her son’s medical treatment. Her son Jonga had epilepsy since he was seven. “He would fall down anywhere,” said Gagrai, recalling her struggle in getting treatment for her son. The closest primary health centre at Kumhardunga is 14 kilometres away. A private clinic opened recently but Gagrai's family cannot afford its treatment.

When the family heard that a pastor living in Dipasahi could help, they approached him. He took them to a doctor in Chaibasa, said Rega's son Jonga, in his late teens.

Illness and lack of access to health services was a common leitmotif in the stories of the Christian converts. Siri Devi, holding a few days' old infant in her arms, said her family converted to Christianity after her husband, a driver in Jodhapahad, remained ill for two years. The local pastor took him to a doctor. But Devi sees the recovery as the result of their new faith more than modern medicine. “After we started believing, my husband got better,” she said.

In Rega Gagrai's instance, the issue of conversions has divided the family. When hundreds of villagers came to Lupungpi for the community meeting in August, it was Rega's nephew Roshan, a first year BA student at Tata College in Chaibasa, who led the charge against his own family. “Roshan taunted his cousin Jonga in front of the entire village," said Subani Gagrai, whose family was among the converts facing the social boycott. "‘Pray, and let's see if your epilepsy is cured. What is the need for medicines,’ he said, attacking his family."

Subani Gagrai and her children face a social boycott in Lupungpi.

Curiously, the villagers were aware that several families had converted to Christianity but they enforced a boycott only several years later after the conversion. A leading role was played by the cadres of the Adivasi Ho Samaj Yuva Mahasabha, the youth wing of a political and cultural organisation of the Ho tribals. Active since 2007, the organisation boasts of cadres in three districts in the Kolhan region. In the census, 62% of West Singhbhum's 15 lakh population said they followed “Other Religions”, the highest among all regions in Jharkhand. The Mahasabha took credit for this saying it was a result of their work to raise tribal consciousness on Sarna religion.

In Lupungpi, villagers said the immediate trigger for the enforcement of the boycott was the death of a young man in one of the converted families in Kuida village nearby. “Roya's son died and his brother Sachin, a Christian, wanted to bury him in the burial ground with Christian rites," said Jogu Gagrai, a Sarna tribal. "The villagers did not allow them to bury the body for three days. Finally, Sachin had to bury the body in his own aangan" or courtyard. Gagrai added that the village had long had complaints against the new converts' methods of praying. “They pray loudly, we can hear them in our huts, chanting that Desavli whom we pray to is Satan. They refer to our prayer spaces as uncivilised.”

While Jogu Gagrai and other Sarna villagers were chatting, Rega's nephew, Roshan Gagrai, a cadre of the Adivasi Ho Samaj Yuva Mahasabha, arrived on a motorcycle. He said the boycott was an apt punishment for those who had refused to return to the fold, including his family. “They have stopped listening to our samaj, it seems they want to follow the Constitution. So, we will let them,” he said.

'Homecoming' rituals

Lupungi is not the only village where the Mahasabha has organised meetings in the name of protecting religion. Three weeks later, on September 9, a similar sequence of events unfolded in Sagarkanta village in Tonto block, 30 km from Lupungpi. Ho tribals from ten villages gathered with the manki-munda community leaders and issued a threat to nine families that had converted to Christianity years ago. Return to the Sarna fold, or face a social boycott, they were told.

In two other villages, Kuida and Beechaburu, five families asked to be spared the social boycott and agreed to leave Christianity. For them, the Adivasi Ho Samaj Yuva Mahasabha central committee organised a “jatey”, a purification ceremony to allow them to return to Sarna religion. Roshan Gagrai described the ceremony, which sounded similar to the ghar-waapsi (homecoming) ceremonies conducted by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Dilip Singh Judeo in Chhattisgarh in the mid-2000s. Judeo used to wash the feet of tribals before declaring that they were Hindu again. In Lupungpi, the bonga-buru priest, prayed to the Sarna Desavli, and washed the hands and feet of people and declared them Sarna.

Deepening divide

Thirty kilometres away, the head of the youth wing, the Adivasi Ho Samaj Yuva Mahasabha, Bhushan Pat Pingua, a muscular man in his early 30s, described the work they have done since 2007 to stop religious conversions. “We halted the construction of churches in Kumandlia, Noamundi, Jamshedpur,” he said calmly. “In April, we got information that a Believers' Church was being built in Hesalbaral in Manjhgaon. We went and asked them to stop construction. When they did not comply, we tied the pastor to a tree and hit him."

A First Information Report registered in Manjhgaon police station on April 7 this year recorded a complaint by Sugni Hembrom who owned the land on which the church was being built. “A pentecostal group was building the church on Sugni's land with her consent. The foundation had already been laid when Pat Pingua and his men arrived in the village and threatened us,” said Marcel Hembrom, a local resident who helped her register the FIR. “They tore Sungi's clothes and beat the pastor Vijay Saivayan mercilessly with sticks." No arrests have been made yet in the case, he added.

Pat Pingua boasted that the attack in Manjhgaon was not the only instance when his cadre turned violent against the missionaries, narrating similar incidents from previous years from Tantanagar nearby. “They build churches, schools on our land, and yet the Christian tribals get the benefit of reservation,” he said. He said he will not allow Christian tribals to celebrate tribal festivals, parab, inside the church. “All over India, the missionaries convert 10,000 persons to Christianity every hour. We have to do what we can to save our religion.”

Pat Pingua was surrounded by other young leaders of the Mahasabha, most in their late 20s, fresh graduates from college. The group sat in the sparsely furnished Ho Samaj library in Chaibasa built two months ago with a Rs 25 lakh donation from former chief minister Madhu Koda, who is also a Ho tribal. Madhu Koda was in the BJP till 2005, and has since floated his own political party.

An interdependence

The Mahasabha leaders insist they act autonomously. But unlike the Christian missionaries, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP, has not been the target of any hostilities by Pat Pingua and his group for religious and cultural activities aimed at assimilating tribals into Hinduism in the region. In fact, the Mahasabha maintains fraternal links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. For instance, Inderjeet Samand, the block president of Adivasi Ho Samaj Mahasabha, is also the district president of RSS' farmers organisation, the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh.

It is a symbiotic relationship. RSS leaders say they consider it best that tribals themselves resist the conversion efforts of Christian missionaries. For Sarna tribal leaders, the connections with RSS are useful in getting access to the leaders of the BJP. The party is in power both at the Centre and in the state.

Samand claimed the Mahasabha's youth wing led by Pat Pingua is simply enforcing the policy outlined by the Mahasabha. He blamed the spike in conversions to Christianity on Jairam Ramesh's initiation of a developmental plan in Saranda. Three years ago, the thick forest in Saranda witnessed pitched battles between the CPI (Maoist) rebels and the paramilitary, followed by a central programme for development assistance led by then union minister Jairam Ramesh. “The Congress minister brought NGOs from the South as self help groups," said Samand. "They started preaching and converting in the most interior villages, of which we are seeing the results now.”

In Ranchi, Vijay Ghosh who heads the RSS' Dharam Jagran wing, which is focussed on stopping religious conversions, described himself as the “prerna-strot” (inspiration) for what has been happening in West Singhbhum over the last few weeks. “We are in regular touch with Pat Pingua and Samand,” he said. “But boycott is not the best way, I told them. They have to do ghar-waapsi and bring back those who have left the fold.”

In Lupungpi and other villages nearby, 20 of the 29 families facing social boycott, including that of Rega Gagrai, have decided to stick to Christianity. They said they cannot go back to being Sarna.

Families in Lupungpi that are unwilling to return to the Sarna religion continue to face social boycott.