By Saji Thomas
Tribal people who have converted to Christianity and Islam should not contest India’s general election in seats earmarked for tribal candidates, according to a traditional tribal group.
Central Sarna Samiti, an organization of non-Christian tribal people based in Jharkhand state, petitioned state authorities on March 31 as campaigns continue for the April-May polls. It called on the Election Commission of India to ban Christians and Muslims from contesting seats reserved for tribal people, arguing that those who convert have abandoned tribal culture and ethos.
However, Christian leaders say the demand aims to keep Christian and Muslim tribal people away from the political mainstream to satisfy groups pressing to make India a Hindu-only nation.
“This is yet another conspiracy of pro-Hindu groups to divide the tribal community and it will have a nationwide impact,” said Prabhakar Tirkey, president of ecumenical Christian forum Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh. He noted that the demand is only to keep away tribal people who have converted to Christianity and Islam but not to Hinduism.
“That shows who is behind it and the hatred they have for non-Hindu people,” he said.
Of the 543 elected seats in parliament, 47 are reserved for candidates from tribal communities and 84 reserved for those from socially poor scheduled castes.
The reservations aim to ensure their representation in making laws. Tirkey said that if the federal body approves the petition for Jharkhand, it will be applicable across all seats reserved for tribal people.
Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal said the move to discriminate against people on the basis of religion goes against the spirit of secularism. “They always kick up such controversial issues ahead of the elections to parliament or state assemblies to garner votes,” he told ucanews.com
The archbishop said it is “part of the agenda” of nationalist Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the engine room of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) that runs the governments in New Delhi and Jharkhand.
“The Hindu outfit opposes Christians because they influence people with their good work in the fields of education, health care and other social developmental work,” he said.
Hindu groups are opposed to Christians because of their work to “educate and strengthen tribal and Dalit people to stand up and assert their rights,” Archbishop Cornelio said.
Education will also keep people away people from fanatical ideas, he added.
Christians comprise just 2.3 percent of India’s population of 1.3 billion and are politically insignificant as they are spread across the country.
Archbishop Cornelio said the plan to keep Christian and Muslim tribal people away from the political fray will not succeed as “many intellectual Hindus and other secular-minded people are now openly exposing their agenda through talks, write-ups and other means.”
Jesuit social worker Father Davis Solomon believes the petition is part of a long-term agenda to weaken minorities, especially Christians and Muslims.
The BJP is opposed to giving any benefits to tribal and Dalit people joining Christianity and Islam, primarily to discourage conversion.
“But they are silent about those becoming Hindus. They also want all tribal people, who follow the traditional Sarna religion, to be recognized as Hindus,” Father Solomon told ucanews.com.
Auxiliary Bishop Telesphore Bilung of Ranchi told ucanews.com that “the Sarna Samiti is sponsored by the BJP to split the tribal people ahead of the polling.”
He said the demand will not have much impact on the election. “There won’t be many takers for such divisive demands,” he said.
The prelate, himself a tribal, said it was only a “tactic to divide people on religious lines. They have employed such methods before but were not successful.”