With panchayat elections round the corner in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress government’s decision to table a motion in the Assembly to recognise Saridharam and Sarna Dharam as tribal religions has set the stage for a political tug of war between the ruling party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition, for tribal support. Adivasis account for around 7.5 per cent of the State’s population. The influential Adivasi Socio Educational and Cultural Association (ASECA) is spearheading a movement for recognising Saridharam, while Adivasi Sengel Abhiyan (ASA), with a strong presence in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, and Assam, is leading the demand for Sarna Dharam.
West Bengal Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay said in the first week of February: “Mamata Banerjee had earlier written to the Centre saying Saridharam and Sarna Dharam are the two main religions of the Adivasis. These two religions have not been recognised. They are quite different from the Hindu religion, yet they are clubbed with it.... We want to bring this to the fore as a resolution in the Bidhan Sabha and again write to the Centre.”
The tribal vote is a dominant factor in at least 16 Assembly and two Lok Sabha constituencies. Hence, the Trinamool’s sudden decision to uphold the two demands is clearly with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Both ASECA and ASA are ready to take the fight to the Centre, which has the power to recognise the two religions.
On February 11, ASA organised a day-long ‘Railroad Chaka Jam’ (rail blockade) at 18 railway stations in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, and Assam. “This was an ultimatum to the Union government,” Salkhan Murmu, its president and former BJP Lok Sabha member from Mayurbhanj, told Frontline. “Our message is that since you are not coming forward to recognise Sarna Dharam as a tribal religion, we are going for a railroad chaka jam that will paralyse eastern India. The Centre should be blamed for that; they should have at least come forward to speak to us.”
According to him, it would be in the BJP’s best interest electorally to recognise Sarna Dharam. “We have given a rallying cry to Narendra Modi: Sarna Dharam ka code do aur sab Adivasi ka vote lo [Give us the Sarna Dharam code and take all the Adivasi votes]. If we are given the Sarna Dharam religious code, we will help Modi in the tribal-dominated districts of Odisha, Bengal, Jharkhand, and Bihar. Tribals are sentimentally attached to this issue. Hopefully, our requests and our agitation will yield results,” he said.
Subodh Hansda, general secretary, ASECA, West Bengal, said one of the reasons for the shift in the tribal vote from the BJP—in the 2018 panchayat elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha election—to the Trinamool—in the 2021 Assembly election—was the non-inclusion of Saridharam in the list of six religious communities mentioned in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. “An Assembly resolution on the issue will mean that our demand for Saridharam has the concurrence of the people of the State, and the government will not be in a position to deny it,” he said.
Interestingly, Hansda and other members of his organisation met President Draupadi Murmu on January 9, and within a month the Trinamool government announced its decision to pass a resolution on the Saridharam and Sarana Dharam issues. “This last meeting seems to have been a catalyst for the State government to act,” said Hansda.
With dwindling political influence in the State, the BJP can ill-afford to alienate tribal voters. However, with both ASECA and ASA staying staunch on their stand that their religions cannot be grouped under Hinduism, the saffron party finds itself in a bind.
Jagannath Sarkar, BJP Lok Sabha member from Ranaghat, alleged that the Trinamool’s move was divisive and aimed at gaining immediate political points. “India is a land of many religions, but one big faith. It is not possible to get out of that faith. The Trinamool is simply trying to divert people’s attention with such politics. The Modi government is working for the upliftment of tribals and other backward communities. The BJP made a tribal lady, Draupadi Murmu, the President of the country, while Trinamool leaders insulted her. The Trinamool realises that it is on the back foot with tribals, so it is trying to woo them back by such divisive means. The BJP does not indulge in such politics, we believe in one nation and one people,” Sarkar told Frontline.
The latest developments only reinforce the point that the issue of identity—ethnic or religious—continues to dominate West Bengal politics. Biswanath Chakraborty, psephologist and professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, said that Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress had time and again used identity as an election tool: in raising the demands of the Rajbangshi community in north Bengal, setting up development boards for different communities in the Darjeeling hills, wooing the support of the Matua community in south Bengal, or calling the BJP a party of “bahiragata” (outsiders).
“The BJP later seized some of the identity issues, such as those of the Rajbangshis, the Matuas and the tribals. By announcing her support for Saridharam and Sarna Dharam, Mamata hopes to make gains in the tribal belts of Purulia, Bankura, and Paschim Medinipur ahead of the panchayat elections. While the move places the BJP in an uncomfortable situation because of its broad Hindutva politics, for Mamata it is an easy card to play and score political points,” Chakraborty said.
Different from Hinduism
Hansda said there was little in the Santal society, culture, and religion that binds it to the Hindu or any other religion. “Our society is run by its own office-bearers. At the head is the Majhi; then there is the Naike, or the clergyman; the assistant to the Majhi is the Paranik; then there is Jagmajhi, who deals with youth affairs in the tribe; and, finally, there is the Godet, who communicates decisions within and outside the tribe. This is humanity’s earliest administrative system. Because of this strong, entrenched system, we are free from evils like the dowry system. Our place of worship is called Jaher. Our holy book is the Jomsim Binti, and our principal gods are Marangburu, Jaherera, and Moreyko-Turuiko. Ours is one of the most ancient religions and societies, and we are different from all other religions and societies,” said Hansda.
In Census 1991, as many as 1,63,070 people living in areas covered by five police stations in Bankura district named Saridharam as their religion, prompting the government of India to suggest a research into Saridharam under “Lesser Known Religions of India”. But no research was undertaken.
According to ASECA, more than 30 lakh people in West Bengal follow Saridharam, with the majority living in Bankura, Paschim Medinipur, Purbo Medinipur, Jhargram, Purulia, Birbhum, Bardhaman, Hooghly, Murshidabad, Malda, and Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur districts. “We support the Centre’s anti-conversion Bill. But if the tribals are forced to write their religion as Hindu, is it not forced conversion?” asked Hansda, pointing out that Santali ranks 13 in the list of most-spoken languages in India, and 94th in the world.
Similarly, the adherents of Sarna Dharam point out that in Census 2011, around 50 lakh people across the country listed Sarna Dharam as their religion in the ‘Other’ column. “But still the government of India has not recognised our religion; and without that recognition we cannot proclaim our own religion in public,” said Salkhan Murmu.
According to him, conversion by “force or enticement” is “killing” Sarna Dharam. “We are nature worshippers. We do not believe in heaven or hell; nor in rebirth. There is no caste distinction in our religion. All our festivals are linked to nature. Once our people convert, they lose their roots and their traditional mindset,” said Murmu.
Not united in cause
Although both ASECA and ASA see their respective movements as an assertion of Adivasi identity and a struggle to preserve their culture and heritage in the face of the influence of other religions, the two organisations are far from united in their efforts. Representatives of ASECA feel that their religion is very different from Sarna Dharam, and that the Sarna movement in Bengal is trying to ride piggyback on the Saridharam movement. ASA leaders, on the other hand, feel that ASECA’s idea of a separate religion only for the Santals is dividing the Adivasi community.
“Those who are demanding Sarna Dharam will be satisfied with either Saridharam or Sarna Dharam, as long as it is a uniform separate religion code for Adivasis. But a section of the Santal population wants only Saridharam for the Santals.... They are trying to create division among Adivasis, whereas there is hardly any difference between Saridharam and Sarna Dharam. The followers of both are nature worshippers and neither considers it as either Hindu, Muslim or Christian,” said Ganesh Chandra Murmu, ASA’s zonal head in Purulia district. He said that while the Saridharam movement may have some following in West Bengal, in Jharkhand many of the Santals follow Sarna Dharam.
Hansda offered an explanation for that: “Santals are 34 per cent of the tribal population in Jharkhand, and it is true that many of them claim Sarna Dharam as their religion. The massive mining projects led to much displacement, and in the rehabilitation programmes all tribal communities were compelled to stay together. This mingling caused a dilution. And that is all the more reason why Saridharam should be recognised by the Union government in order to safeguard the Santal heritage.”
Although the two movements may be at odds with each other, the State government is clearly not taking any chances by choosing one over the other ahead of the rural elections. Government sources believe that though there may be short-term gains, the issue can backfire in the long run. “This may lead to complications later for both the State and the Central governments, as it may encourage a spurt of similar demands from other smaller ethnic groups as well,” said a government source.
- The Adivasi Socio Educational and Cultural Association (ASECA) is spearheading a movement for recognising Saridharam as a tribal religion and the is leading the demand to recognise Sarna Dharam.
- The Trinamool Congress government has decided to table a motion in the Assembly to recognise Saridharam and Sarna Dharam as tribal religions.
- Adivasis account for around 7.5 per cent of the State’s population. With the upcoming panchayat elections, the government’s decision becomes crucial.
- The tribal vote is a dominant factor in at least 16 Assembly and two Lok Sabha constituencies. The opposition says the Trinamool’s sudden decision to uphold the two demands is with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
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