By Bijay Kumar Minj
Indigenous people in a Christian stronghold have established their own bank in defiance of India’s Jharkhand state government.
Hundreds of people gathered in Khunti district headquarters on June 3 to launch the Bank of Gram Sabha, named after the term for their village council.
Community leader Joseph Purty handled the paperwork for about 100 people who opened new accounts.
Purty told members of the media that an important aim of the new bank is to further the advancement of tribal people.
And tribal representatives said it would help protect their land and culture against encroachment by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state administration.
India’s national constitution provides for indigenous groups in so-called “scheduled areas” to be able to develop, consistent with their own customs and administrative systems, without state government interference.
Anabel Benjamin Bara, a teacher at the state’s Jesuit-managed Xavier School of Management, said this means the village council only has to report on development projects to the state governor, who is a national representative.
He believes the state government opposed formation of the Bank of Gram Sabha because it would strengthen indigenous rights to manage tribal land and resources.
The state government has asked tribal people not to conduct a ritual called Pathhalgari to demarcate indigenous land with stones erected in the name of their forefathers.
Bara said the ritual effectively defined their “scheduled area” in the face of proposed government works projects linked to mining and other commercial interests.
Some people have been arrested in the past for conducting Pathhalgari rituals, according to local media reports.
Most Catholic leaders in Khunti diocese declined to comment on the stone-laying development, fearing they could be accused of supporting socially disruptive anti-government activities.
Bishop Emmanuel Kerketta, of Jashpur Diocese in neighboring Chhattisgarh state, told ucanews.com that the church had nothing to do with the Pathhalgari land rights issue.
Father Vincent Ekka, who heads the department of tribal studies at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, welcomed the new tribal bank as a way to save money and use it sensibly while enhancing indigenous rights.
Indigenous people constitute some 16 percent of the 32 million people in Jharkhand. The state has about one million Christians, or 4.3 per cent of the population, almost all of them tribal, which is almost double the national percentage.
Of the 532,000 people in Khunti district, 25 percent are estimated to be Christians.
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