The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be on the horns of a dilemma over passing of a resolution in the Jharkhand state assembly on the Sarna Code, which allows members of the different tribes to identify with a separate religious entity.
Having won Bihar, the BJP has formulated ambitious plans to take on the Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Bannerjee and spread its footprints in West Bengal, where assembly elections are due next year. The BJP has already launched an aggressive campaign in the neighbouring West Bengal having a substantial population of tribes along the Jharkhand and Odisha border.
However, the move by the Hemant Soren government to adopt a resolution on Sarna Code has put the saffron outfit in a quandary as the issue has been snatched by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM). It is going to directly affect the tribal population of West Bengal in the areas bordering Jharkhand.
Before the Jharkhand Assembly elections last year, the BJP had promised that it would implement the demand for a separate Sarna Code in 2021 when a fresh Census begins. But the BJP and allies lost due to the perception that the then chief minister Raghuvar Das, a non-tribal, played into the hands of the non-tribal population much to the discomfiture of the tribal gentry.
The resolution tabled by Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren was adopted by voice vote in the state assembly on November 12. If it gets a sanction by the NDA government at the Centre, there will be a separate column for Sarna as a distinct religion in the Census index in 2021.
At present, Sarna is not included in the list of religions. Despite this, over 40 lakh tribal population from Jharkhand and nearly 6 crore people from across the country enlisted their religion as ‘Sarna’ in the 2011 census even though it was not mentioned in the Census columns. The Gonds and Bheels follow a separate region.
The members of the different tribes inhabiting Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh have been demanding introduction of the Sarna Code for the past several decades. Anthropological and demographic records suggest that there used to be a column for ‘Adivasi religion’ between 1872 and 1951. But it was changed later and members of tribes had the option to identify either with Hindu, Christian or other religions.
The rationale behind the Sarna Code resolution is to fulfill the purpose for which Jharkhand was created in 2000. The champions of a separate Sarna Code feel that it would have a long standing impact on the socio-cultural integration of the tribal gentry of Jharkhand and other states.
Last year, 32 tribal groups of Jharkhand had given a call to boycott the Census exercise in 2021 if Sarna column is not introduced. Tribal leaders drawn from 19 states had also staged protests in New Delhi seeking the right to choose their independent religion.
There is unanimity on choosing a separate religious identity but doubts have been raised on the use of ‘Sarna’ as a common religion because different tribes have different nomenclature for their nature worship. The basic philosophy behind naturalistic religion is to worship ‘Jal, Jungle and Jameen’ – often explained by anthropologists in terms of animism and animatism.
While safeguarding tribal identity and religion may be the guiding principle behind it, politics on communal lines for gathering votes seems to be the main agenda for pursuing the Sarna Code. For the JMM, it is aimed at creating a solid vote bank of tribal population under one religious identity. It will not only liberate the tribes from Sanatan Dharma (Hindu) and Christianity but also stop the proselytisation process in the dense jungles of the tribal regions cutting across state boundaries. Several Christian and Hindu outfits are working in remote areas to convert the tribal population into their fold.
The BJP, which has a chain of Saraswati Shishu Vidyalayas in the tribal region, has been contending that the tribal communities are part of the Sanatan Dharma. The Christians, on the other hand, have tried to lure them since British period in the name of education, jobs and a dignified life.
In fact, the Christian dominance is so widespread that the Jharkhand state has the highest seat of Church and nearly 4 percent population comprising mostly tribal communities are Christians. They enjoy the government benefits as Christian minorities and also as Scheduled Tribes.
It is a major worry for the BJP to regain its stronghold in the tribal region of Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh. The BJP used to win maximum number of assembly and parliament seats in the Jharkhand region, which used to be part of Bihar before 2000. After the creation of the state, the BJP’s legislative performance started sliding due to the tribal versus non-tribal policies pursued by the JMM-led alliance.
In West Bengal, Scheduled Tribes constituted nearly 6 per cent of the total population. Of them, Santhals constitute 51.8 percent of the total ST population followed by Oraons, Mundas, Bhumij, Kodas with sizeable populations.
A little more than half of the total tribal population of West Bengal is concentrated in Jalpaiguri, North and South Dinajpur, Bardhaman, Purulia, Malda, Bankura, Medinipur and Jhargram regions, known as Jungle Mahal close to Bihar and Jharkhand.
In most of the areas adjacent to Bihar and Jharkhand, the tribal population by and large used to be under the influence of the Maoists. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee had tried to influence these tribal communities by promising to withdraw cases against them for their alleged association with Maoists.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Mamata Bannerjee’s Trinamool Congress had bagged all the five seats in the Jungle Mahal comprising Purulia, Bankura, Bishnupur, Medininagar and Jhargram. However, in the 2018 panchayat election, the Trinamool bagged nearly 46 per cent seats in Jhargram and Purulia while the BJP influence grew in the tribal areas due to sustained work of the Sangh Parivar’s activities over the years.
Taking lessons from the Jharkhand poll outcome, the BJP will have to secure an edge over Mamata Banerjee among the tribal population. The political success in West Bengal largely hinges on support from the Scheduled Tribe voters.
It will have to carefully strike a balance between tribal and non-tribal votes and ensure that the socio-political template of the tribal region is not disturbed much so that the language, culture and history of the different tribes is protected.