During the one-day special session on 11 November, Jharkhand Assembly passed a resolution for the provision of a separate ‘Sarna Code’ for tribals. Chief Minister Hemant Soren tabled the proposal, which was passed unanimously with a voice vote, thus officially severing the ties of a tribal group from the larger Hindu community.
The resolution will seek a special column for followers of the Sarna ‘religion’ in Census 2021. Sarna followers are nature worshippers — just as Hindus — but the Hemant Soren government holds that they do not consider themselves Hindus and that they have been fighting for a separate religious identity for decades. At present, they are not classified as a separate religious entity.
The state government claims that tribal leaders across the state had been demanding the implementation of the Sarna Code in census surveys. This, the Jharkhand government says, would allow these tribal people to be identified as followers of the Sarna faith during Census 2021, which is around the corner. Tribal outfits were exerting pressure on the government to bring the legislation, the Soren government said. So far, the census surveys have included them as “others” in the religion column.
During the discussion in the Jharkhand Assembly, Soren said that there had been attempts to make tribals “extinct” as no government showed any seriousness on the issue. The most prominent reason for the drop in the numbers of tribal population is their mental immaturity, he said.
The chief minister said he wanted “no politics” on Sarna Code and expected all support from the Opposition parties on the issue. “Sarna Code is important for the tribals and government is committed towards it,” said Soren. It will give a good message in the Country, he said.
The opposition leaders, on the other hand, alleged the Soren government of doing politics on the issue. “I wanted to raise some technical issues related to the proposal, but I was not given time to speak in the House,” said BJP legislative party leader Babulal Marandi.
Tribal leaders alleged that there was a separate Sarna Code from 1871 to 1951, but it was removed in 1961 under a conspiracy. They claim that in 2011 the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had recommended to the Centre to add Sarna code in the Census, but was not implemented.
However, the issue turned more complex when many among Sarnas converted to Christianity while many remained Hindu. Jharkhand has a unusually high percentage (4%) of Christians in its demography for any mainland state. The only considerably high population of Christians is observed in Kerala, Goa and northeastern states barring Assam and Tripura. Christian missionaries in Jharkhand are particularly notorious for converting Hindus through inducements, exploiting mostly the tribal people who are by and large poor.
While the principal secretary’s letter to the chief minister says the population of tribals in the state declined from the 38.3% in 1931 to 26.02% in 2011, it does not explain how converting to a different religion reduces the number of tribal people or affect their percentage in the state population.