Sarna Code Will Have a Long-Term Impact on Jharkhand’s Tribes

On 11 November 2020, the Jharkhand government convened a special session and passed a resolution to send the Centre a letter to recognise Sarna religion and include it as a separate code in the Census of 2021. For the last many years several protests and meetings have been held by various tribal groups in Jharkhand and elsewhere pushing the same demand. Last February, then Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das too had announced in the Assembly a move to recommend Sarna as a separate religious code. However, the JMM-led Soren government has finally gone ahead and done it.

The followers of Sarna faith believe pray to nature. The holy grail of the faith is “Jal, Jungle, Zameen” and its followers pray to the trees and hills while believing in protecting the forest areas. Jharkhand has 32 tribal groups of which eight are from Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups. While many follow Hindu religion, some have converted to Christianity — this has become one of the planks of demanding a separate code “to save religious identity”— as various tribal organisations put it. It is believed that 50 lakhs tribal in the entire country put their religion as ‘Sarnain the 2011 census, although it was not a code.

Many of the tribals who follow this faith have later converted to Christianity—the state has more than 4% Christians most of whom are tribals. Some who still follow the Sarna faith believe the converted tribals are taking the benefits of reservation as a minority as well as the benefits given to Schedule Tribes. They also believe that benefits should be given specifically to them and not those who have converted.

The issue reached a crescendo in May 2013 when a statue was installed in Singhpur on the outskirts of Ranchi showing Mother Mary in a white saree with a red border, her hair in a bun, bangles around her wrists and carrying infant Jesus on a sling like a tribal woman. Followers and leaders of Sarna faith saw it as a ‘tactic’ to convert tribals into Christianity. In 2017, state BJP too passed an anti-conversion law deepening the divide between them.

The letter sent by the Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister says the population of tribals in the state had declined from the 38.3 per cent in 1931 to 26.02 per cent in 2011. It cited that one of the reasons for this was tribals who go for work in different states not being recorded in the Census. In other states, they are not counted as Tribals, the letter said. It added that the separate code will ensure recording of their population. The letters also said that the declining numbers affect the constitutional rights given to them and how the rights will be bestowed upon the Adivasis under 5th Schedule of the Constitution.

The protection of their language and history is an important aspect with tribals. Between 1871 and 1951, the tribals had a different code. However, it was changed around 1961-62. Experts say that when today the entire world is focusing on reducing pollution and protecting the environment, it is prudent that Sarna becomes a religious code as the soul of this religion is to protect nature and the environment.

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