Everywhere I went in Jharkhand, I was greeted with ‘Johar!’ an expression specific to Adivasi identity that means ‘Respect’ or ‘Salutation’ and is part of their religion. In 1956, when the State Reorganisation Commission (SRC) denied the claims of a separate state of Jharkhand, they cited lack of lingual unity. Adivasis were yet to consider religion as a point of convergence.
To search for a new point of unity that might facilitate the claims of a separate state, Nirmal Minz, then the Principal of Ranchi’s Gossner College, had said in 1983, in a historic conference entitled ‘The Search for Unity in Diversity: The Crisis of Identity in Chhota Nagpur,’ that the ‘predominant religion of this region, ‘Sarna’ could be the centre of unification. In reference to the struggles of fierce Adivasi fighters Birsa Munda and Jatra Bhagat, he said that Sarna could be a force in the ‘struggle of Adivasi people’. On the other hand, Van Exern of the Catholic Cooperative Society believed that embracing of such dharma would amount to mere ‘appeasement’ of some spirits and would weaken the ‘struggle’.
Whatever connotation Sarna dharma might have prior to the formation of Jharkhand state, post-2000, it became a struggle against ‘identity crisis,’ as referred to by Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) leader and Bishunpur MLA, Chamra Linda. Sarna dharma or, more precisely, ‘Adi Dharam’, as noted by the Dr Ram Dayal Munda, was embedded in Adivasi culture since the earliest records. But, since Independence, despite several attempts, they have not been given a separate column in the Census.
The British, in the 1901 and 1911 censuses, identified the Adivasis as ‘animists’ and, in 1921, recorded their presence as a separate ‘tribal religion’. However, it was soon discontinued and as political scientist, Sujit Kumar, in his recent paper in The Economic and Political Weekly, titled “Coding the Indigenous: Jharkhand’s Sarna Code Bill and the Possible Fallout,” points out, “Since 1967, there have been multiple attempts to politicise the issue of religion among the tribes by projecting the narrative of unlawful conversion into Christianity.” How is Sarna Dharma philosophically different from the major religious institutions? What are the movements that led to the passing of Sarna Code Bill by the Jharkhand assembly on November 11, 2020? Is Sarna Code a universal panacea for the long-term struggles of Adivasis or is it just a symbolic step in the right direction?
Sarna Dharma: A Distinct Philosophy
While all of the recognised institutionalised religions centre their thoughts on humans, Ranendra Kumar, a serving IAS officer and author of several books on Adivasis, Adi Darshan or Adi Dharma, maintains that the adivasi cosmology does not believe in the “superiority of humans”. Speaking to Outlook, Kumar says, “The moment you make someone superior, you create hierarchy. Racism, casteism, gender divisions all are by-products of such presumptive superiority. So, Adi Dharma, in contrast to all other religions, negates the supremacy of humans.” According to their cosmologies, God is not ‘omnipotent’ and soil, water, fire, space and air—broadly all natural entities—have been in the world since eternity. Here, the God created the world with the help of tortoise, crab and earthworms. Humans are made as equal as the others. “From an ant to dinosaur, a fungus to the largest tree, all have same values in the egalitarian world of Adivasis. There is no caste, no division,” Kumar notes. The first principle of the equality of all the beings separates Sarna from the major human-centric religions. The rejection of the Cartesian idea that only humans are thoughtful beings adds to it an essence of universality.
“We have the world wide web or ‘www’ but the natural forests do have a ‘wood wide web’ that connects all the trees and fungi. They even communicate and send nutrients to dried and weak trees, chemicals to pest-infected parts. But we, the ‘thoughtful beings’ still are far from finding such unique mechanisms,” says Kumar.
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, a chief scientist with the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the second wave of Covid 19, said that unless we start staying symbiotically with the other beings of the world, such parasite transmissions will not stop. Referring to Swaminathan’s words, the author of the novel Lords of the Global Village, Ranendra, says, “Among Adivasis, you can’t find any imaginary gotra or totem. Their totem is derived from Nature. A person belonging to Lakra totem may believe that his ancestors had been saved by a tiger and hence prefer to be identified by that surname.” Similarly, Xaxa refers to crow whereas Kujur is a forest flower. Adivasis connect to the forest, reflected in their festivals as well. Sohrai, a festival of thanksgiving, shows their gratitude to nature for feeding them. Another major difference between Adi Dharma and other organised religion is its concepts of life and death. “There is no idea of hell or heaven in Sarna Dharma,” says former MP and the founder of Jharkhand Desom Party, Salkhan Murmu. In an interview with Outlook, Murmu notes, “After death, we call the departed soul to stay with us.”
This process to call the spirit to stay with the family is called ‘Ombul Ader’. The people who know that even after death, they will have to stay here will take much more care of the world than those making their ways to hell or heaven, Ranendra adds. Emphasizing the significance of ecology, the former MP says that Adivasis don’t destroy nature and sell the timber for profit. “We are people who are content with meagre resources,” says Murmu.
Struggle for Recognition
Philosophical and ritual differences notwithstanding, since independence, Sarna Dharma never got a separate column in consecutive censuses. From 1793, when the Britishers imposed the Permanent Settlement Act, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MLA, Chamra Linda, avers that the culture and practices of Adivasis have been sidelined. “Our population in every state is decreasing gradually. Our cultures are being undermined and not given recognition. If we get the tag of minority religion, we can develop our schools and will be able to save decaying cultural authenticity,” says Linda.
One of the major leaders of Sarna movement, Linda tells Outlook, “In 2001, we started our fight. We told the government that if we are not given our own religious identity, our people will embrace other religions like Hinduism, Christianity or Islam. Consequently, we will be eradicated from the Indian body politic.” In two-three districts, they boycotted the 2001 Census, following which the Registrar General of India came to meet them and allowed them to write Sarna in the seventh column of ‘Others’. That year, as Linda points out, at least 50,000 people filled the seventh column stating Sarna as their religion. In 2009, prior to the next Census of 2011, they again met the Registrar General who promised them that if their numbers crossed those of the Jains and Buddhists, he would facilitate their claim for a separate column. Consequently, after long campaign, Adivasis of Orissa, West Bengal, Jharkhand. Chhattisgarh and Bihar noted their identity and the number touched 50 lakh. “We also met the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, in 2013 but nothing much transpired. In 2021, we faced an unprecedented crisis. This time they have proposed to remove the seventh column. We thought we will cross 1 crore and will have sufficient numbers to claim the separate religion. Now, we are compelled to put ourselves in the six existing columns only,” adds Linda. Adivasis will boycott the census on a large scale if the column is not included. Linda also expressed his concerns over the impact of such denial: “The delimitation of seats in 2004 reduced three ST assembly seats. We, on behalf of the Adivasi Chhatra Sangh, protested and it was put on hold for 20 years. Now, we don’t know what will happen in 2026 as the numbers of Adivasis in the state is continuously decreasing with the parallel soaring of non-Adivasi populations. Now if we won’t be given the identity of religious minority, our traces will be removed.”
The movement and struggle for Sarna is far from over. Murmu, currently in Delhi to meet Home Minister, Amit Shah, told Outlook, “We have given an ultimatum to the Government. By November 20, they have to take a decision over the Sarna Code. If not, on November 30 Jharkhand, Orissa, Assam and West Bengal will see severe rail roko abhiyans.”
The BJP, however, continues to stick to its old position that Adivasis are Hindus. Talking to Outlook, senior BJP leader and MLA of Bishrampur, Ramachandra Chandravanshi, says, “Adivasis are Hindus. Let them organise their movement the way they want. Nothing is going to happen now. If it materialises, we will see what to do.” Notably, the connection of the Sarna rituals with Hindu practices had been mentioned by anthropologist Alpa Shah in her book In the Shadows of the State. Expanding on what retired Adivasi sociologist, Professor Virginus Xaxa, terms ‘Hinduisation’, Shah writes that the activists identify Sarhul and Phagul celebrations by Hindu term puja and “and, in an effort to domesticate what they consider the jangli practices of their rural counterparts, they offer coconuts, flowers, and water in the urban festivals, instead of the villagers’ offerings of alcohol and animal sacrifices”. Shah notes that though these efforts may be directed at keeping Hindus “at bay”, ironically they feed Hindu nationalist forces who think that, “Jharkhand’s tribals are merely fallen high castes whose proper status should be restored by converting them into real Hindus through Sanskritization.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "An Ecological Religion")