In a divisive and polarising turn of events, the Janjati Suraksha Manch (JSM), closely aligned with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), launched a targeted campaign against Christian tribal communities, strategically timed during the Christmas season. This calculated move unfolded through precisely timed rallies in Jharkhand and Tripura on December 24 and 26, shedding light on the JSM's underlying agenda. Notably, a substantial segment of the tribal population in both states adheres to Christianity.
The core objective of the JSM is the exclusion of Christian tribals from the Scheduled Tribes list. As the JSM harbours ambitions to propel this demand to a national scale, the repercussions extend beyond the borders of these immediate states, triggering concerns regarding constitutional rights, religious freedom, and the overall security of Christian tribal communities.
JSM’s delisting rally in Jharkhand on Christmas eve
The JSM orchestrated a controversial rally on Christmas Eve at the Morabadi Ground in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, with nearly 50,000 attendees and focused its demand on delisting tribal individuals who have converted to religions such as Christianity or Islam. Dubbed the “Ulgulan de-Listing maha rally,” the event spotlighted the exclusion of converted individuals from reservation facilities designated for Scheduled Tribes.
Participants, clothed in traditional attire and wielding weapons like bows, arrows, swords and sickles, hailed from various parts of the state. Several Hindu right-wing public figures were present in the rally including the Padma Vibhushan awardee and former Union Minister Kariya Munda, BJP's Lok Sabha MP Sudarshan Bhagat and Rajya Sabha member Samir Oraon, along with JSM national convener and ex-Chhattisgarh minister Ganesh Ram Bhagat.
The speakers fervently called for a cessation of conversions and advocated for stringent laws, coupled with the denial of reservation benefits to those altering their religious affiliations. As per Bhagat’s statement to the media, their objective was to advocate for the exclusion of converted tribals from reservation benefits meant for Scheduled Tribes. Bhagat argued that these individuals should not be entitled to benefits designed for “real tribals.” Similarly, Samir Oraon expressed concern that those who have embraced Christianity or Islam, constituting a minority of the population, are allegedly availing a disproportionate share of benefits intended for the “original tribals.” Oraon emphasised the cultural and religious identity of tribals as worshipers of nature and suggested that benefits should not be extended to those practising different religions.
However, viewed from the perspective of the minority Christian community, this rally raises great concern. Staged on a day of religious significance to the Christian community, it appears to be a deliberate attempt to create polarisation and specifically target the community in Jharkhand. The explicit demand to delist tribal Christians raises alarms regarding potential threats to their security and fundamental rights.
Targeting of Christian tribals and political machinations in Tripura
In Tripura, tensions escalated as the JSM went ahead with the rally on December 26, at Astabal Ground, Agartala. The rally was originally scheduled for December 25, but was postponed a day.
Political analysts contend that the rise of the JSM is widely interpreted as a strategic response aimed at curtailing the escalating influence of the Tipra Motha. Led by Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, the head of the former ruling dynasty of Tripura, this tribal-centric party has been steadily gaining ground in the political arena.
According to a report by Scroll.in, the primary focus of Tipra Motha on “thansa,” emphasising unity among the state’s tribal communities, has proven pivotal in consolidating tribal voters across religious lines in recent state elections. This unifying plank has strategically positioned the party as a formidable force, transcending religious divisions within Tripura's diverse tribal populace.
The JSM's demand is seen as a calculated move to disrupt the tribal vote bank of Tipra Motha, which secured an impressive 20 MLA seats in the last election. Scroll quoted a Agartala-based political scientist who opted for anonymity, “They want to divide the vote bank of Tipra Motha in the tribal areas, where there are 20 MLA seats and where Motha did exceptionally well in the last election.”
In Tripura, where approximately one in three individuals belongs to communities officially recognized as Scheduled Tribes, the clash of ideologies and political manoeuvring has become a focal point of concern. The tribal communities in Tripura refer to themselves as Tipra or Tiprasa.
Kartik Tripura, the convenor of JSM in the state, argues that the culture and indigenous practices of Tripura's tribal people are under threat due to Christianity. In a conversation with Scroll.in, he emphasised that converted tribals no longer follow age-old traditions and indigenous beliefs, amplifying the urgency of their removal from the Scheduled Tribes list.
“Once they convert to other religions, they don’t follow our age-old tradition and indigenous belief anymore. These people should be removed from the ST benefits and status as they don’t practise tribal culture anymore.” He spoke.
Christianity in Tripura has a centuries-old history, with roots tracing back to Fr. Ignatius Gomes' mention of Christians in Mariam Nagar in 1683. By 1937, priests established permanent residence, marking a pivotal era. Simultaneously, the Tripura Baptist Christian Union and the Baptist Mission Compound at Arundhuti Nagar were founded in 1938 by the New Zealand Baptist Mission with the support of Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya. Missionaries worked sacrificially among Tripura's tribal communities, constructing over 100 primary schools by 1967.
The JSM's rally faced rebuke from multiple sources, with the Joint Action Committee of Civil Society branding it as “serious propaganda to divide the indigenous people of Tipra through religion.” Pradyot Kishore, the founder of Tipra Motha, condemned the rally, labelling it an “attempt” and a “conspiracy to break the unity” of tribal people. In an audio message to his followers, Kishore expressed concern about religion being wielded as a divisive tool, stating, “People are trying to make Tiprasas fight each other in the name of religion.”
Nationwide campaign and RSS' strategic agenda
The rallies at Jharkhand and Tripura are merely a chapter in a broader nationwide anti-minority campaign, fervently supported by the RSS and other Hindu right-wing groups. The JSM alleges that converted tribals exploit foreign funds, reservation perks, and government resources, thereby creating disparities within the tribal community. This demand for delisting has gained substantial momentum, with similar rallies being held previously in Jharkhand, Assam and in other parts of the country.
The JSM's campaign also sheds light on the overarching agenda of the RSS, which has been pushing aggressively for the delisting of converted tribals from the Scheduled Tribes list. Established in 2006, the JSM, under the leadership of national convenor Ganesh Ram Bhagat, echoes the RSS's standpoint with slogans like "converted tribals are outcasts."
Opposition regional considerations and political moderation
Opposition to these rallies emanated from various quarters. In Tripura, the Joint Action Committee of Civil Society expressed concerns about religious divisions, while in Jharkhand, the Isai Adivasi Mahasabha, a Christian body, penned a letter demanding a ban on the rally. The letter, citing Christmas preparations and constitutional rights, underscored the right to fully profess, practice, and propagate one's religion, as enshrined in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.
The RSS on the other hand has demonstrated regional moderation, recognizing the complexity of the delisting issue. In states of the Northeast, where Christian tribals constitute a majority, the RSS has adopted a nuanced stance, aligning with the BJP's strategy and do not raise the demand for the delisting of Christian Tribals. Similar considerations exist in Kerala, where the BJP seeks electoral gains by forging a Hindu-Christian coalition.
As the JSM prepares for a massive gathering in Delhi sometime in February 2024, the coming weeks are poised to witness further developments in this polarising and complex issue. The demand of Hindu bodies for delisting Christian tribals from the Scheduled Tribes list raises many questions about the constitutional framework, reservation benefits, and the broader implications for India's diverse tribal communities in the face of growing majoritarianism.