In a continuing series of articles on Christianity in India, this week the focus is on ‘tribal Christians’
The Christian population in India totals 2.4% of its population totalling around 28 million people; making it the second largest minority religious group in the country, as well as the second largest Christian minority in the world after China.
Tribal Christians make up around 20% of India’s Christian population. Despite making up only a relatively small portion of the population they are present in widespread areas of the country in the central tribal belt states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and the north- east where Christians form the largest religious population in four states – Nagaland (88%), Mizoram (87%), Meghalaya (74%), and Arunachal Pradesh (30.26%). Manipur also has a significant Christian population of 41 per cent where it is on par with the Hindu population.
An interesting aspect of the Christian population in India is that close to 70 percent live in the margins (to borrow a phrase from Rowena Robinson and Jospeh Kujur) of Hinduism: namely Dalits and tribals. Laura Dudley Jenkins suggests that the problems for minorities in India stems from the creation of “macro-majorities” and “micro-minorities” where you lump many communities under one large community to enjoy the political and social benefits of living as a majority.
However, this “macro-majority” is subdivided into micro- minorities where minority identities are heightened and differences emphasized as a tool of suppression. Dalits and the Tribal population since they are technically not in the caste system form these “micro-minorities” within the “macro-majority”
Since a majority of Christians in India come from these “micro-minorities”, missionary activities are viewed as a threat by Hindu nationalists. Sebastian Kim’s landmark book, In Search of Identity: Debates on Religious Conversion in India, provides three reasons for this. Firstly, it shakes up communal boundaries blurring the lines of other religions and cultures. Secondly, it contests the homogenization of a Hindu identity. Finally, the conflict between the socio-political perspectives of Hindus and the theological ones of Christians. Following this argument, missionary activities cause a social disruption and liberation which is not detrimental to “Hindu identity” and majority.
To counter missionary activities in the tribal areas, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) has launched campaigns particularly around the issue of Shuddhi (reconversion to Hinduism) and Parivarthan ceremonies which are more of a renunciation of wrong doing more than a homecoming to Hinduism. Chetan Bhatt, in his book Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths, attributes this to the rise of violence against Christians in India in the late nineties. Indeed, it is this tension that has led to the two incidents of mass violence against Christians in the Dang region of Gujarat in 1999 and Kandhamaal, region of Orissa in 2007 and 08.
Dalit Christians still struggle to receive positive discrimination from the State because as far as the state is concerned Dalits lose their rights to receive positive discrimination when they convert to Islam or Christianity. This is not the case for tribal Christians. However, for them the question is not about access to positive discrimination but the quality and availability of government educational facilities and jobs. This is catalogued in a 2014 report titled, ‘Report of the High-Level Committee on Social-economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities in India’ prepared by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
Additionally, Joseph Marianus Kujur based on his ethnographical study suggests that they face “double discrimination”. The first is from within the tribal population because of the new cultural practices adopted by tribal Christians. The second is from the church orthodoxy who are angered by the innovations and experiments in terms of tribal ecclesiology, liturgy and practices which vary from orthodox practices.
In understanding the diversity of Christianity in India, one must recognize the added layers of identities among the Indian Christian population and how this is viewed by the macro-majority in the country. It is essential to view the intersectionality of Christianity as a religion of the margins to further understand the violence against Christians in India.