Mar 2024


Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar in 2000, after a long movement for autonomy and land rights led by Adivasis (tribals) who now form 27% of Jharkhand’s population. These groups have been involved in anti-colonial land-rights agitations from the Bhumij rebellion in 1798[1] and these struggles continue well into the 21st century. Today, Jharkhand and its neighbouring states Chhattisgarh and Odisha contain India’s largest reserves of wealth in the form of minerals and other natural resources. Given these reserves, the central government has promoted large-scale mining in these states that Adivasis have staunchly resisted but have failed to contain. Since the early 1940s, Adivasis in central India have demanded the formation of a tribal state that would protect and nurture tribal identity. However, the union government has denied this demand and insisted that states be formed on a linguistic basis[2]. This response has led to the breaking up of a unified Adivasi politics by splintering them across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand to name a few. Splintered, the Adivasis are now not the numerical majority in any of these states. Even though Adivasi identity is discursively and symbolically celebrated in all these states, it is the mainstream political parties with dominant caste Hindu leaders who control politics in these states.


The historical experience of Adivasis has been that of a state that is hostile to them, intent on exploiting them. In this context, missionary activity originating from different parts of the world has had a strong influence in the central Indian region, benefiting Adivasis in terms of supporting land-rights struggles, the provision of education, healthcare and housing[3]. In cultural-political terms, the spread of Christianity has gone hand-in-hand with material development leading to a distinct Adivasi-Christian identity, a complement of past and present identities. However, missionary activity has been sporadic and uneven – both spatially and ethnically. In spatial terms, there are key centres of missionary activity around which it is possible to see the ripple effects. Simdega is one such centre with a 100-year-old English speaking school, hospital etc. However, there are large pockets of Jharkhand that are completely unfamiliar with Christianity. Ethnically too, groups like Oraon or Muria have converted to Christianity in larger numbers and are better off compared to their counterparts living in the same regions, who have converted to Christianity more recently or in smaller numbers; identified as Sarna[4] (the name for an indigenous religion, or rather faith system as demanded by several indigenous groups in Jharkhand) or identified as Hindus. This uneven-ness in material development within the Adivasis, producing a range of different identities, is a crucial component in generating violence against Christians. The following incidents from late November 2021 and early January 2022 illustrate the manifestations of such violence in the everyday life of Christians in Jharkhand.


Rajesh (name changed) is an Adivasi from Simdega the southern district of Jharkhand sharing a border with Odisha and Chhattisgarh, specifically from the Lohar tribe who converted to Pentecostalism (affiliated to Indian Pentecostal Church or IPC) in the late 1980s. He used to go regularly to a house church in a village in Simdega district, running since 2015, with a congregation of about 25 to 30 people. All the people in this village identify as Sarna Adivasi although some of them call themselves as Rautiya, considered as a scheduled caste Hindu but originally, they were also Adivasis. In January 2022, some Rautiyas and Sarna confronted Rajesh and proclaimed that he is a Hindu but he had converted to Christianity illegally. These men have been under the influence of RSS since 2005-06, and while they had kept quiet earlier, the effective enforcement of the slaughter bill (ban against beef) in 2014 and the passing of the anti-conversion law in 2017 greatly changed their thinking and behaviour. Rajesh captures this transformation as captured in daily life, “They used to keep the Sarna flag earlier, now they keep the Bajrang Bali flag”. The Bajrang Bali flag refers to the Hindu god Hanuman, the monkey, and symbol of Bajrang Dal, an aggressive right-wing organisation affiliated to the RSS. Pradeep, who coordinates relief for persecuted Christians in the region notes the presence of more than 40 different extremist Hindu organisations all affiliated to the RSS, with names such as Bajrang Dal, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, Hindu Jagran Manch, Nari Sanghatan and Durga Vahini.


The men who accosted Rajesh, along with a few others (7 perpetrators in total) eventually stopped the prayers from taking place in the church and prevented other believers from coming to the church. Representatives of the village government sided with the Hindus but thankfully the officials at higher levels opposed the Hindus. Despite higher officials opposing this, Christians in this village and nearby villages were continually tormented for the next few months. They were regularly accosted and told that they have converted to Christianity illegally, even threatened with violence. According to Rajesh, Sarna Adivasis used to come to the Church regularly even though they chose not to convert to Christianity officially. However, now after closing the church, these men imposed a social and economic boycott on Rajesh. His land was shut down since he couldn’t find workers to till his land. He had money allotted from the government’s housing scheme to build a house but that could not be constructed because he could not find people willing to work on his house. He got in touch with the local administrator at the Block level who even visited the place to undo the boycott but was unsuccessful.


Rajesh filed a police complaint about the harassment he was facing in February 2022 after which the police took him to the police station and kept him there for a whole day. In the police station, the police threatened him about following up on the complaint, they also told him to not create further tensions in the area and asked him to tell his pastor to close the church permanently. However, Rajesg was unfazed and finally without any evidence or proof against him, the police let him go. Previously Rajesh had been awarded a public works contract through a local politician. Rajesh managed to contact the local politician and along with pressure from the Superintendent of Police (SP), there was a ‘compromise’ between Rajesh and the perpetrators. This compromise was worked out through a public meeting held at the police station. The Hindus have said they will not interfere in the activities of Christians. Even though the boycott has stopped for now, for the imposition of the boycott and its consequences, the perpetrators have faced no punishment. Notably the district president of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), one of the key extreme Hindu organisations, is from the local royal family. The RSS through the local elites and with implicit support from the police can exert violence against Christians with impunity.


In late November 2021, in another village in Simdega district, 200 people gave a written signed statement to the local police station. The letter alleged that religious conversion is taking place in the village, the administration should take note and take action. The allegation was that eight families in this village were given incentives, including money to convert to Christianity. Of the 200 signatories, only 50-60 people were from the village but the others were mostly fake signatures of people whose identities could not be verified. Many signatures were of people from Simdega district headquarters which is about 40 kilometres away from the village. The letter demanded a legal investigation take place, mentioning the names of two people as the main culprits: Reverend Kumar (name changed) and his relative, a preacher Chetan (name changed). The letter was submitted to the local district administration and police. Rev. Kumar and Chetan began their Pentecostal Holy Faith church in 2002 and the church work was completed in 2005. Their congregation is about 30-35 people mostly from the local village and nearby villages. The signatories comprised of Hindus but also Majhi, Kumhar and Gongrai who belong to Sarna community. While the latter individuals cannot be called as Hindus, they identify as belonging to the ‘Samaj’ loosely translated as society. The people who are affiliated to the Samaj invoke Sarna faith and ideas as the ideal identity for Adivasis and allege that Christianity is damaging to the Adivasi identity.


Upon receipt of the letter, the police went to arrest both Rev. KB and CB. However, Rev. KB did not stay in the village and CB was out on work. The police came to their house and threatened CB’s wife threatening her and speaking to her in an extremely rude and hostile manner. They said that both of them (Kumar and Chetan) need to come to the police station with their identification documents. The police also mentioned that they were doing illegal conversion work and getting a lot of money for the same. Chetan panicked and went to Rourkela to meet Rev. Kumar. Pastor Pawan (name changed), who provides relief to persecuted Christians through a local organisation intervened in the matter and went to the police station. He spoke to both Kumar and Chetan and told them that there is no need to fear since the allegations are baseless. Pastor Pawan also spoke to the police who told him to bring the two of them to the police station so that a compromise can be worked out.


A few days later, a compromise was worked out where the eight families named in the letter gave a written statement. The statement mentioned that they converted to Christianity since 2017 of their own accord and without any inducement. Even after the compromise, there are at least two families from this village from an Evangelical Lutheran (GEL) background who are being harassed by people from the Samaj. Meetings are being organised where these families are being told continually that they are doing illegal things under inducement. Caste certificates (issued by state government, deemed to be proof of caste status) are being denied to these families which are affecting their livelihood since welfare benefits and rights are connected to their caste certificate. Rev. Kumar has still not been able to return to this village given the high pressure that he faces from the Hindus and people of the Samaj, although he is in touch with his congregation on the phone. In a sense, although the compromise has been officially worked out, for Rev. Kumar, the level of fear and insecurity is still high.


Both these incidents show the nature of structural violence against Christians in Jharkhand. Although direct physical violence was not seen in both these incidents, we can see that daily life is affected for Christians through an effective mix of intimidation and social boycott that directly affects their economic and psychological well-being. As we can see from the incidents, social boycott involves denial of access to resources that affect the livelihoods and daily sustenance – denial of labour, denial of caste certificates, denial of government benefits. Without exerting violence directly, it is clear that structural violence affects livelihood, which eventually translates to a harsh punishment and social death for their religious faith.  In both incidents, the role of the police has been partisan, creating an impression that the Christians do not have the support of the State, and that the right-wing forces have a nexus with administration.


This is a remarkable achievement given that the state government is ruled by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), a secular and progressive party that is seen as pro-Adivasi and protective of minority community rights. In fact, at least two people directly working on this issue on the ground maintained that paradoxically, the JMM government has seen higher persecution of Christians than compared to the previous right wing BJP government. The BJP has realised that the JMM won the previous state elections through an alliance between Adivasis (both Christian and non-Christians), Muslims and Dalits. Right wing groups (both political and nationalist organisations) in Jharkhand are actively trying to create a divide between Christian and other (Samaj) Adivasis to break this alliance. The strategy is that the right-wing forces are encouraging Sarna Adivasis behind the scenes, inciting them to persecute Christian Adivasis. There is already some hostility from the Sarna Adivasis, under the impression that those who convert to Christianity are losing their Adivasi identity by no longer worshipping nature and no longer following the Sarna rituals. This basic hostility is being intensified with the support of the right-wing forces who are using it to create a cleavage within minority communities, hoping that a split in the minority alliance will enable them to win the next elections. Given this broad political framework, we can expect an intensification of structural violence and persecution against Christians until the next assembly elections due in 2024. The objective will be to create a split amongst the Adivasi communities, and it seems that for the BJP, the best way to create a split is to antagonise the Sarnas against the Christian Adivasis. Clearly, there is an urgent need to have a dialogic mechanism between Sarna and Christian Adivasis to discover possibilities of syncretic co-existence and hybrid identities towards mutual cooperation and unity.

[1] Pallavi Raonka, “Munda Politics and Land: Understanding Indigeneity in Jharkhand, India”, PhD, Sociology Department, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2020. Available at: https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/111386/Raonka_P_D_2021.pdf

[2] https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/why-demand-for-gondwana-state-continues-to-be-scuttled-46694

[3] Virginius Xaxa, “Tribes and Indian national identity: Location of exclusion and marginality”, in The Brown Journal of World Affairs, 2016. Volume 23, Issue 1, pg. 223-237. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26534720; and Marine Carrin, “Jharkhand: Alternative citizenship in an ‘Adivasi state’, in The Modern Anthropology of India, 2013. Routledge, pg. 106-120.

[4] https://thewire.in/government/jharkhand-sarna-code-tribal-commumities-separate-religious-category-long-term-impact

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