Why are the tribal regions of Central India being Rapidly Christianized?

Why are the tribal regions of Central India being Rapidly Christianized?

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In the first part of the article on Christianisation of tribal India, we investigated the rising Christian numbers in the tribal heartlands of India and quantified the change since 1951.  We showed the alarming fall of Hindus in several districts that were almost totally Hindu even 50 years ago and predicted the number of Christians in the affected districts in 2061 using three different techniques.  In this article, we shall investigate the reasons for and the history of the Christianization of the tribals in Northern, Central And Eastern India, namely in the states of Odissa, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand (Christianization has been low in the tribal belt of adjoining West Bengal and Telangana). This is the  belt extending from the rapidly Christianising Nepal to the rapidly Christianising South India.   We shall investigate the various causes, changes and the effects of this Christianisation of a hitherto completely Indic region.  

For reasons of historical consistency, since we consider districts as they existed in 1951, we have grouped the following districts together.  When we speak of Ranchi, it comprises the present districts of Ranchi, Khunti, Gumla, Lohardaga, and Simdega.  When we speak of Santhal Paraganas, it includes the present Deoghar, Dumka, Godda, Sahebganj, Pakaur and Jamtara.  The district of Phulbani comprises the current districts of Baudh and Kandhamal.  The district of Ganjam comprises the current Gajapati and Ganjam districts.  Finally, the district of Raigarh comprises the current districts of Raigarh and Jashpur.  The old district of Sundargarh is the same as the present district of Sundargarh.  The districts have all also been considered individually in places where the difference between the districts matters.

We have observed that the Christian population in the tribal heartland has been increasing in leaps and bounds since 1991. Summarizing, between 1991 and 2011, the Christian population of Jharkhand rose from 3.72% in 1991 to 4.06% in 2001 and 4.3% in 2011.  From 1951 to 1991, the Christian population of Jharkhand had fallen from 4.12% to 3.72% (mainly due to immigrations).  However, the trend has been reversed since 1991 and Christian population has been rising again.  In Odisha, Christian population grew from 2.1% in 1991 to 2.77% in 2011.  In contrast, Christian population grew from 0.98% to 2.1% between 1951 and 1991. The nature of the rise becomes clear when we focus on specific districts within the states. In old Santhal Paraganas of Jharkhand the Christian population grew from 1.68% to 4.3%, and in Singhbhum,  the Christian population grew from 2.18% in 1991, to 2.59% in 2011, despite huge immigration into Singhbhum area.  We now compare the percentage increase in Christian population, and percentage growth of the population, between 1991 and 2011 in various districts of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chattisgarh.

District State District Pop. Growth rate (1991-2011) Christian pop. Growth rate (1991-2011)
Ganjam Odisha 29.64% 85.49%
Phulbani Odisha 35.49% 97.37%
Sundargarh Odisha 34.15% 48.08%
Raigarh Chhattisgarh 33.15% 39.18%
Ranchi Jharkhand 50.73% 49.13%
Santhal Paraganas Jharkhand 35.21% 280.52%
Table 1: Table comparing the growth of Christian population and total population between 1991 and 2011 in the various districts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha.

From the above table, it is clear that the Christian population growth has substantially outpaced the population growth of the district, except in Ranchi.   In the case of Ranchi, the disproportionate growth of the district is due to large scale of immigration due to industrialisation and these new immigrants are rarely tribals.

Further, we show the average annual rate of conversions has increased in three of the six districts that have been covered in the above table, and has remained more or less constant in the others.  We also show that the overall rate of Christianisation of Odisha, and Jharkhand has greatly increased since 1991.  Firstly, from the baseline year, we measure conversions.

Number of conversions = actual number of Christians in year X – expected Christian population due to natural growth in year X starting at base year Y.   For natural growth, we use the district growth rate.

The average number of conversions = Number of conversions in Year X/(Average number of people in the district between years X and base year Y).

The average annual rate of conversions = average number of conversions/ number of years between X and Y.

Using these definitions, we show the average annual growth of Christians in Jharkhand, Odisha and Chattisgarh and also the six affected districts.  Ratio of conversion rate is given by (b-a)/|a|, where b is the annual conversion rate from 1991 to 2011, and a is the annual conversion rate from 1951-1991.

District State Ratio of conversion rate increase in %
Santhal Paraganas Jharkhand 200%
Ranchi Jharkhand 75%
Sundargarh Odisha -9%
Phulbani Odisha 20%
Ganjam Odisha -10%
Raigarh Chhattisgarh -33%
Table 2: The ratio of the annual conversion rates of the various districts, of 1991-2011 compared to 1951-1991.  The positive gives indicates that the conversion in 1991-2011 is faster compared to the 1951-1991 period and the negative rates indicate that the conversions are slower.

From the above table, the annual conversion rates in Raigarh, Sundargarh & Ganjam have remained similar (though in Ganjam and Sundargarh, they have been high since 1951) since 1991.  In Raigarh, most of the vulnerable tribals (especially Oraons) have already been converted, so there are not many left to convert.  Consequently, the rate of conversion is fairly low after 1991.  In the other three, one can easily see the sharp rise in the conversion rates.  In Ranchi, the Christianisation of the population is once more beginning to pick up despite the huge immigration since 1991 (since 1991, Ranchi has grown by over 50% in 2 decades).  In (old) Phulbani, Christianisation since 1991 is 20% higher than previously and in Santhal Paraganas, Christianisation is 200% higher than previously.

It is therefore clear that the tribals of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chattisgarh are being converted large scale in the last 20 years.  In contrast, we present the data for the tribal districts of West Bengal – Purulia and Birbhum, which are either adjacent to or very close to Santhal Paraganas – as a comparison.  As the numbers are extremely small, we present the absolute numbers rather than the conversion rates.

District 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 2001 2011
Birbhum 0.64/1067 1.84/1446 3.26/1776 5.01/2096 4.26/2556 7.3/3015 10.9/3502
Purulia 6.43/1169 4.33/1360 5.02/1603 5.52/1854 4.51/2225 7.00/2537 8.64/2930
Table 3: The Christian population of the districts in thousands is shown on top and the total population of the district is shown below it.  As may be seen, the Christian population of the districts has remained very small.

In sum, less than ten thousand people have converted in both districts (Birbhum and Purulia) despite the existence of a strong conversion machinery in Bhimpur from the days of the British empire p. 58, [11].

However, there are two points we need to make in our narrative.  First, we have focussed on the tribal areas of West Bengal that are adjacent to Jharkhand and have a similar population profile. In Darjiling district in West Bengal, there are significantly more conversions in recent years (after 1971).  This is part of a different process and we will analyse the phenomenon in our article on the North Eastern India, which is where the analysis belongs.

To explain the phenomenon we start with by ruling out a common hypothesis, that proselytizing is happening because these states have voted for specific political parties that facilitate the missionaries.

Political Parties and their Effect on Christianisation:

We first examine which political parties have ruled the states between 1991 and 2011. In Jharkhand, the RJD (earlier called JD) was in power from 1990 to 2000, the BJP was in power between 2000 and 2006, and again between 2010 and 2011 (when the last census was conducted) and Madhu Koda (a Congress supported independent) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha were in power for the remaining time. Thus, it may be seen that the rise of Christianity change in the last two decades (from 3.72% to 4.06% in 1991-2001 and from 4.06% to 4.30% between 2001 and 2011) has occurred under all the different dispensations, at nearly similar rates. In Odisha, the JD (under Biju Patnaik) was in power between 1990 and 1995, the Congress in power between 1995 and 2000, the BJD-BJP alliance between 2000 and 2009, and the BJD ever since. The Christian population rose from 2.1% in 1991 to 2.44% in 2001 and from 2.44% to 2.77% between 2001 and 2011. Thus, the rise of the Christian population has been nearly uniform, under all dispensations. Only in Chhattisgarh has the Christian population remained more or less constant, during both the rule of the Congress (from 1993 to 2003) and BJP (1991-1993 and 2003-2011). Thus, the Christianisation of the tribal areas seems independent of the ruling political parties. More simply, even when the BJP is in power, conversions happen, often more rapidly than when it is not in power.

On the other hand, and curiously enough, the conversions are often fewer in Leftist ruled states like West Bengal, and Tripura. The tribal population of West Bengal has remained more or less Hindu pp. 57-58, [11] with only 2% of the tribals converting to Christianity. Even in Leftist Kerala, conversions have slowed down from the heydays of the early 1900s, when most conversions occurred under the aegis of the kings of Travancore and Cochin. We will explain this apparent anomaly.

First, observe that 1991 was also the start of the period, when the economy was liberalised. Does proselytization in the tribal lands have a deeper connection to liberalization, or is the temporal convergence of the two phenomena a mere coincidence? We go back to history, several hundred years back, to understand when, how, and why Christianization started in these regions. Surprisingly enough, or perhaps expectedly, the root causes that facilitated proselytization centuries ago has been exacerbated since 1991, due to liberalization, and the Christian numbers have multiplied since then.


The tribal heartlands of India, till 1600, were almost totally Indic. There were almost no Christians or Muslims of any significance in these areas, precisely because they were far removed from Islamic centres of India and the topography and terrain of these regions offered a significant challenge to the invaders. However, after 1600, the first real immigrations began in significant numbers into the tribal heartlands. Incidentally, the tribal regions of coastal Andhra and adjoining areas of south Odisha, also had a very small Muslim population due to remarkable resistance from the Hindu rulers of the region. Consequently, until 1700, it may be assumed that the entire region had almost no Christians and very few Muslims.

We focus on Santhal Parganas, Ranchi, Sundargarh, and Raigarh. During the Mughal era, a significant number of Hindi speaking people from what is today Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh migrated to the tribal heartlands of central India, under the patronage of the tribal Rajas, especially in the Ranchi-Santhal Paragana areas. Indeed, the first Raja of the Oraons claimed a lineage from Pundarika Nag, the great snake God, and a Benarasi Brahmin p. 24, [1].  The Mughal Empire levied a tribute on the local rajas, but mostly left them alone as they had not the resources to conquer and absorb the region. However, significant numbers of Muslims also arrived in the region. The Sanskritisation of these tribal heartlands began then and continued to grow in the British times. However, the arrival of significant number of immigrants also caused local frictions between the new arrivals and the local tribals, which has been documented in [9].

A major Kol revolt occurred in 1831-32. It started due to the abduction of the sisters of a manki (tribal village designation) by a Sikh landlord, to whom the land had been leased. Muslim landlords of the region were accused of major sexual offences. While the greater hatred was directed at the Sikhs and the Muslims, the Hindu `dikus’ (immigrants, usually reference to moneylenders) were also killed often, since they were involved in land stealing. The other complaint of the tribals was that the Hindus and Muslims used unscrupulous methods to exploit the Kols and the Mundas and forced them to become indentured servants to the land thieving folks. p. 29-36, [9]. These land theft techniques seem endemic to all the tribal heartlands, which caused significant resentment against the newcomers. The tribal resentment against the land theft gave missionaries an opening that they exploited ruthlessly to obtain conversions.

There were a few thousand converts in Ranchi and adjoining areas, by the 1857 Mutiny, but they multiplied after the Mutiny. To quote [9]-

“An impression rapidly gained ground that the best way of shaking off the oppression of the landlord. `The result of this’, says Colonel Dalton, `has been a great accession of strength to the ranks of the nominal Christians. A reasonable desire to be reinstated in bhuinhari lands actuated some, a dishonest idea to become one of this favoured family of bhuinhars seized others. The next step was to profess Christianity, and coming to the mission in Ranchi, they returned with their hair, puritanically, cropped and ready to assert their rights and defy their landlords. Conflicts between the Christian aboriginals and their landlords were of frequent occurrence; the Christians sought to take forcible possession of the lands, of which they considered themselves to have been dispossessed, while the latter retaliated by bringing false charges of dakaiti and robbery against the tenants and subjecting them to illegal confinement and duress.’’ p. 44, [9].

The number of Christians can be estimated from the following events. In 1867, a petition against land theft and seeking redress was presented to the Local Government, purporting to be signed by 14,000 Christians. p. 45, [9]. In villages where the majority of the inhabitants were Christian, begari (or praedial service) was not rendered and in some cases, the landlords were forcibly deprived of their khas lands. p. 46, [9].

The effects of Christians fomenting trouble between the tribals and the landlords can be seen in the following passage-

“In the year 1889, a number of landlords sent up a petition to the commissioner, alleging that the Roman Catholic missionaries were unsettling the minds of their raiyats and converting them by the thousands to Christianity. They complained that the Jesuits held out hopes to the aboriginals which were incapable of fulfilment and thereby induced them to join the church; though this complaint was exaggerated, there is no doubt that the sympathy with which the missionaries listened to the complaints of the aboriginals about the burden of their praedial services, encouraged them to believe that the only way of escaping the oppression was to become a convert. The claim of the landlords to extract unlimited services from the raiyats was preposterous, and the missionaries very properly advised the raiyats only to render those services which had rendered sanction of custom. The immediate result of such advice was that a spirit of resistance filled both the Christians and the non-Christians.’’ p. 48, [9].

Were the Christian Missionaries motivated by the egalitarian principles in inciting the tribals against the landlords? Or were they simply seeking to increase their tribe through exploitation of the existing social fault-lines? The first possibility can easily be negated through their long-standing record. Towards that end, we quote Nehru, who surely no one would accuse of being a Hindu fundamentalist:

It is well known that the Christian Church in the early days did not help the slaves to improve their social status. The slaves became the feudal serfs of the Middle Ages of Europe because of economic conditions. The attitude of the Church, as late as two hundred years ago (in 1727), was well exemplified in a letter written by the Bishop of London to the slave-owners of the southern colonies of America. ‘’Christianity’’, wrote the Bishop, “and the embracing of the gospel does not make the least alteration in Civil property or in any of the duties which belong to civil relations ; but in all these respects it continues Persons just in the same State as it found them. The Freedom which Christianity gives is Freedom from the bondage of Sin and Satan and from the Dominion of Men’s Lusts and Passions and inordinate Desires ; but as to their outward condition, whatever that was before, whether bond or free, their becoming baptised and becoming Christians makes no manner of change in them.’’ pp. 377-378, [16]

As Christianisation proceeded, coercion became a tool. It is recorded that –

“The Christians in some villages tried to coerce their unconverted brethren into accepting the new religion and forcibly cut off their top knots; in other villages, they forcibly cut and carried off the crops from the manjhihas lands.’’ p. 48, [9].

This has very likely happened under the likely encouragement of the Christian missionaries,

We observe that the British authorities came down hard on the rebels, who sought to revert to their pagan roots. In the last days of the 19th century, Birsa Munda, a tribal leader from Singhbhum, set himself up as a prophet, absorbed many principles from Hinduism, (wearing the sacred thread, abjuring cattle slaughter, etc.), and fought the influence of the church and the control of the British. However, in the revolt against the British authorities and the church, he was defeated and captured and died of cholera in prison (this is the official version, at least). Christianity spread rapidly after his death, since the major resistance to Christianity was gone pp. 49-50, [9], pp. 280-282, [8], though interspersed with rebellions in adjoining regions. The Birbhum district left front chairman, Arun Chowdhury has described one such rebellion in the Sulunga village of Birbhum, WB, then inhabited by the Santhal tribe:

the zamindari of this area was given away to one Kerap saheb from Bihar, who resorted to violence to collect taxes from poor peasants”. “Those who failed to pay the tax on time were forcibly sent to Assam, where they had to work as coolies (porters). However, Kerap saheb had once announced that if the defaulters convert to Christianity they would be exempted from paying taxes. While a few chose to do so, most revolted against the landlord under the leadership of Brojo Murmu (who belonged to Sulunga). It was Brojo Murmu who introduced this Durga Puja. The puja has been performed every year since then “[30].

Brojo Murmu, worshipped `Mahishasuramardini` – “the warrior form of the goddess – some 100 years ago. It was intended to unite Santhals living in the bordering areas of Birbhum and in the Jharkhand region against oppressive British rule. Priest Robin Tudu, who has been overseeing the puja here for over two decades now, said: “An animal sacrifice is made on Ashtami, usually a white goat, as according to local belief a white goat symbolises `gora sahib` (the whiteman)”.’’ [30]

Tapan Murmu, a descendant of Brojo Murmu’s family said: “Many years ago, our ancestors Brojo Murmu and Durga Murmu were inspired to overpower the British rulers by uniting our people by initiating the worship of Durga as the goddess of Shakti.” [30].

An important point that comes across from the history of both Birsa Munda and Brojo and Durga Murmu is that Indic religion played an important role in their rebellion against an invader, similarly, the Church and the British State had allied in suppressing them. We would later observe how the converted tribals of Nagaland sided with the British during their conflict with the INA. Thus, religion and nationalism are often intricately related for tribals (as for large parts of the overall populace), they should remain in the Indic fold where they naturally belong.  
The collusion between the Church and the British Indian State, as seen in the persecution of Birsa Munda and the Murmus, was a norm rather than exception. The Church often acted as an instrument of the British state. We again substantiate our point using Nehru here, since his British sympathies and aversion to Hinduism are both well-known:

The Church of England is perhaps the most obvious example of a religion which is not a religion in any real sense of the word. Partly that applies to all organised Protestantism, but the Church of England has probably gone further because it has long been a State political department. In India the Church of England has been almost indistinguishable from the Government. The officially paid (out of Indian revenues) priests and chaplains are the symbols of the imperial power just as the higher services are. The Church has been, on the whole, a conservative and reactionary force In Indian politics and generally opposed to reform or advance. The average missionary is usually wholly ignorant of India’s past history and culture and does not take the slightest trouble to find out what it was or is. He is more interested in pointing out the sins and failings of the heathen…….The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking in the house of Lords on December 12, 1934, referred to the preamble of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 and said that “he sometimes thought the great declaration had been somewhat hastily made, and supposed that it was one of the hasty, generous gestures after the War, but the goal set could not be withdrawn.’’ …A step, which was considered, wholly insufficient by Indian opinion and which, because of this, led to non-cooperation and all its consequences, is considered by the Archbishop as “hasty and generous.’’ It is a comforting doctrine from the point of view of the English ruling classes, and, no doubt, this conviction of their own generosity, even to the point of rashness, must produce a righteous glow of satisfaction… is remarkable how that Church has served the purposes of British imperialism and given both capitalism and imperialism a moral and Christian covering. It has sought to justify, from the highest ethical standards, British predatory policy in Asia and Africa, and given that extraordinary and enviable feeling of being always in the right to the English. ’’ pp. 375-376, [16]

Then again, at a Provincial conference of the U.P. Indian Christians held at Kanpur on 7th November, 1934, the Chairman of the Reception Committee, Mr. E. V. David, said: “As Christians we are bound by our religion to loyalty to the King, who is the Defender of our Faith.’’ p. 376, [16]

The same dynamics that held true for Ranchi also hold true for the erstwhile state of Jashpur (in today’s Raigarh, in Chhattisgarh) and in Sundargarh. Many of the Christian converts were found in the state of Jashpur, as early as 1901. We reproduce the following snippet-

“The most numerous castes and tribes are Oraons (47,000), Rautias (12,000), Korwas (10,000), Ahirs or Goalas, and Nagsias (9,000) and Chiks and Kaurs (7000 each). The Oraons have within the last few years come under the influence of the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Missionaries, whose base of operations is in the Ranchi. Some twenty thousand of them, according to the District Chief’s estimate, have signified their abandonment of their old beliefs by allowing the missionaries to cut off their top-knots; but the Missionaries themselves claim a larger number of adherents. The Roman Catholics have secured about twice as many top-knots as the Lutherans. Possibly, the fact that they [Roman Catholics] do not absolutely forbid indulgence in alcohol, while the Lutherans taboo it altogether, has something to do with their greater success. Both Missions are proceeding cautiously in the matter of baptism.’’ p. 281, [8] Giving an estimate of the various religions, p.282, [8] states, “As regards religion, 60 per cent, of the population are classed as Hindus, 20 per cent as Animists and 16 per cent as Christians.’’

In Sundargarh, most of the Christians lived on the border of Jharkhand, in the Panposh and Sundargarh districts. The erstwhile native state of Bonai also has a rapidly Christianising population [14]. Even in Sundargarh, most of the converts are Oraons. [14]. On the other hand, Santhal Paraganas had historically low Christian population. Despite the widespread presence of the Christian missionaries, the Christian population of Santhal Paraganas was <1% in 1951.

Yet, despite all the above, the Christian population was low in all these regions as stated before. Starting from 1991, the Christian population has been rapidly rising everywhere. The organisation of the Jharkhand movement under the auspices of the Christian students and Christian missionaries has greatly aided the conversion of the tribals of Jharkhand. But the phenomenon is not limited to Jharkhand either. We seek to understand the cause of this rapid proselytizing since 1991.

Liberalisation Aiding Missionaries?

Liberalization has indeed facilitated proselytizing. It has forced the tribals to relinquish their ancestral land. Thus, the principal cause of their conversion starting late nineteenth century has been exacerbated.  Quoting from [7],

``Since the opening up of the mining sector to FDI, thousands of acres of forest land have been diverted for non-forest use. Such diversion shot up from 789 hectares in 1993-94 to 28,769 hectares a decade later, an average annual increase of 43%. A third of this diversion was for mining. Much of the mineral rich land in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha is tribal land, land guaranteed to them under the fifth schedule of the Constitution.’’ Loc. 529, [7].

The historic Samata judgement in 1997 upheld this principle. But nevertheless, the tribal land is being acquired by various companies, including Essar, Tata, etc. According to [7], ``Economist CP Chandrashekhar uses the term `carpetbagger capitalism’ to describe the neo-liberal economic reforms that are devastating tribal areas. Outsiders are coming to tribal areas and reaping profits of mining activity, even as the area’s indigenous inhabitants are bearing the enormous environmental, social and human costs’’, Loc. 539, [7].

Liberalization has resulted in a double whammy against Hinduism and other Indic religions. First, the mercantile interests that come to tribal areas are often hand in glove with global (often heavily Christianised) interests. This is because they are typically multinationals, which have large bases in Western countries, wherein Missionary lobbies are powerful, and Missionaries in India are often part of Churches with Headquarters in Western countries. Thus, multinationals would typically not want Indian Governments to antagonize the Missionary lobbies by clamping down on the humongous amount of funding sent to India for proselytizing. Highly visible entrepreneurs are often seen to shower accolades on missionaries like (the recently canonized) Teresa, who had sought to proselytize on a large scale, and had been associated with several questionable dealings and exploitation of poverty [22], [23], [24]. So all governments allow the inflow of funds to enable the conversion of the underprivileged, unabated. For example, as Suhag Shukla has shown, using the data collected by India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, “in 2007, the top two non-governmental donors to India were U.S.-based missionary organizations, World Vision International at ~$155 million and Gospel for Asia ~$99.5 million — together that’s $255 million into India in just one year. Overall, an astonishing 18,996 organizations in India, a disproportionate number linked to Christian missionaries, received donations totaling $2.4 billion in 2007 alone. And the inflow has been growing rapidly. 2007 showed contributions more than double of 2002’’ [31]. Thus, under mercantile influence, and under direct pressure from Christian Lobbies in the West, who wield substantial influence on the Indian and international media discourse, all Indian governments connive with the Church in their conversion attempts. The amount of funding brought by evangelist organisations into India and the means employed to obtain conversions have been documented extensively on [32].

Much of the funds obtained for proselytizing is used to run essential facilities, like schools, hospitals, etc., where the Christian tribals are provided preferential access. Note that most of the tribal areas remain underdeveloped and state does not run such basic facilities there. In addition, once the oppressed and hapless tribals and marginal communities are robbed of their ancestral lands, they essentially have to forego their traditional ways of living, and turn to the church for financial assistance. Many such families succumb to vices like substance abuse and become easy prey for predatory proselytizing.

The example of the Christianisation of South Korea, where global interests succeeded in converting large numbers of people to Christian faiths during the liberalisation period is pertinent. The urban underclass is very vulnerable to pressure from global missionaries (often backed by foreign corporates). The check on the pace of Christianity in left ruled states in part owes to limited liberalization there as part of the policies followed there.

Of course, it is not our case to claim that Liberalisation is the sole cause of the grievance stricken tribals.  In Gajapati district, for example, where the exploitation by landowners has always been there, and the oppressed Panas have little recourse, Christianity has been growing rapidly since the 1960s.  Similarly, large scale conversions occurred in Sundargarh and adjoining Ranchi during opposition to some of the projects that involved expropriation of tribal land.  Consequently, whenever there is tribal distress due to economic activities for which they are expected to sacrifice, there is often conversion to Christianity, especially when the church champions their grievances.

Church and the Left

There have been instances in which the Church and the left have collaborated. For example, while the Naxals railed against the Indian state, they have been generally very careful about the sentiments of the church. Next, the formation of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, which absorbed some far Leftist ideas (they often forcibly harvested the lands of big landlords and assaulted moneylenders – however, their tactics were far less violent than those of the far Left), was under missionary influence, especially Lutheran. During this time, especially since the 1990s, the north eastern region of Jharkhand (old Santhal Paraganas) began to show a sharp rise in Christian population. Further, the Christians are not united either. Catholics have always preferred order to chaos, opposed the Communists (and been opposed in turn), and lent indirect support to national parties (especially the Indian National Congress). Lutherans and Anglicans have been more supportive (on the ground) of the Leftist movements. But, by and large, rather than facilitating each other, the Church and the Left have excluded each other from their respective strongholds.

Examining the historical relations between the Church and the Leftists in the Christian heartlands of Jharkhand, one finds an uneasy co-existence between them p. 11, [11] from the time the Left parties started organising the tribes of Jharkhand and Odisha in 1967. In the late 1960s, the Birsa Seva Dal, established by the Christianised urban youth and extremist Leftists was very problematic, since the inclusion of the Leftist programmes in the group caused the Christian missionaries deep discomfort. The two tried working together for some time, but there was a split in the organisation. p. 11, [11]. This uneasy coexistence has also been the case in Europe. For example, when Nehru wrote his autobiography [16], he was closely allied with the founders and theoreticians of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), like Rajani Palme Dutt and Ben Bradley. He was therefore essentially reiterating the CPGB line on Church in the excerpts we have provided above.

The following data points will show that the mutually exclusive nature of the Church and the Left continues even today:

  1. In West Bengal, where Leftist (of all hues) dominance of the polity and ground level organisations has been total, until lately, the Christianisation of the population has been very low. This is despite the large scale publicity accorded to “Mother Theresa of Calcutta’’, worldwide [4]. In West Bengal, only 2% of the total tribal population had been converted to Christianity. Christianisation in Tripura, which has seen an uninterrupted left rule for 23 years now has been low too (compared to all other NE states). Even in Leftist Kerala, conversions have slowed down from the heydays of the early 1900s, when most conversions occurred under the aegis of the kings of Travancore. In contrast, neighbouring South Tamil Nadu, namely Kanyakumari, is being rapidly Christianized [11].
  2. Next, the majority of the districts affected by the Naxals (as shown by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) [10]), do not have any significant Christian minorities (recorded across various census). Specifically, none of the Naxal hit districts of Bihar, West Bengal (eg, Purulia), Telangana (Adilabad, Bhadrachalam), Seemandhra (Eg. Srikakulam, Vizianagaram, and rural Vishakhapatnam) have any appreciable Christian minorities. Though, anecdotal evidence claims that there are between 5 and 10% Christians in Srikakulam and Vishakhapatnam; in the absence of any comprehensive surveys, we cannot validate this claim. None of the census show high Christian population in this region. Similarly, the Santhals who were originally organised under the far Left parties under people like Jangal Santhal, etc., had retained their Hindu character. In Chhattisgarh, the worst hit districts of (erstwhile) Bastar, Surguja, and Rajnandgaon (formerly, part of Durg) have never had any Christian minorities. In Odisha, the Naxalite violence along the western edge of the state does not overlap with the Christian heartlands of the south (Gajapati) district. Again, anecdotal evidence from people who have worked in the districts of Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj suggests that there are Christian minorities between 5% and 15% in both districts. However, this is not reflected in any census. There has been significant Naxal activity in Rayagada, Kandhamal and Sundargarh in Odisha, and the Christian regions of Jharkhand (Simdega, Gumla, Khunti, etc). But it is also true that, in these cases, the Christian population often precedes the rise of Naxalism. Naxalism established itself starting late 1960s or early 1970s in these areas, but the significant Christianisation of (old) Ranchi and (old) Sundargarh had occurred prior to 1951 itself. Note that Chatra and Palamau of Jharkhand show significant Naxalism, but very little Christianisation.  Kandhamal and Rayagada of Odissa are the only districts, which have witnessed simultaneous rise of Naxalism and Christianisation.

This mutually exclusive nature owes to a competition between two organizations with similar objectives and similar modus operandi, rather than due to any sentiment of affection for Hinduism:

  1. Both the Leftist organizations and the Church seek to establish a complete hegemony where all social, cultural and administrative affairs are conducted through the respective organizations. The missionaries intercede not only between a man and his God, but also in all worldly affairs, Eg. administrative, judicial, police, seeking to further the interests of their parishioners. Similarly, in regions that have seen long left rules, or infested with Naxals, the local party offices or Naxal units play similar roles.
  2. Both the church and the left have grown by championing popular grievances in the various districts or lending support to them. The Church has rapidly converted the tribals by supporting the Jharkhand agitation, movements against land theft and for granting them the right to access the forest resources in Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Similarly, both the political and militant lefts (Naxals) grow and thrive by organizing the oppressed and the marginalised under Left Wing ideals.

It is therefore inevitable that the duo would compete to exclusively usurp the leadership of the tribals in their grievances against the state, and control their day-to-day affairs. This explains the limited conversions in most of the areas dominated by the left.  Yet, the organisation of the tribals by the Leftists is wholly undesirable, and even counter-productive to Hindus in the long run, because of the following:

  1. Whenever popular Leftist revolts have burnt out (as they inevitably will), Christianisation has been rampant, especially if the Church can champion the cause that led to the revolt. This can be seen in the aftermath of major riots. In the aftermath of the Kol revolt in 1831-32, the first Christian missions were established and started making headway in Ranchi pp. 39-40, [9]. In the aftermath of the 1857 revolt, the Christianisation process speeded up, because the Church was seen as the saviour of the tribals of Ranchi and adjoining areas. To quote [9], ``Captain Davies, the Senior Assistant Commissioner, writing in 1859, says, `With Christianity has naturally come an appreciation of their rights as original clearers of the soil, which rights in many places they have asserted and established; this, independent of the other causes that cause the higher castes of natives to view the spread of Christianity with displeasure, caused great alarm among the landholders.’’’ pp. 39-40, [9]. In other words, the church had usurped the leadership of the tribals in their grievances against land theft.     The same was true, as seen earlier in the aftermath of the Birsa Munda revolt, not only in erstwhile Ranchi, but also in Bonai and Jashpur. It remains to be seen if and how proselytizing would progress in the tribal regions of West Bengal after the fall of the left regime there.
  2. Various Leftist organisations show extreme barbarity towards the state, non-tribals and even suspected tribals themselves (recorded at length in Loc. 1090-1095, [7]).

The solution instead is to try and provide redress to the marginalized and the under-privileged within a Hindu framework. There is absolutely no reason to equate Hinduism to Capitalism, as has been the recent trend owing to dominance of economic right wing in organizations that appear to own Hindu causes in public perception. A case can be made for more equitable distribution of resources of the state, and granting rights to the under-privileged over resources that they had subsisted on, generation after generation, while remaining within the Indic fold.

More specifically, to contain predatory proselytizing, it is necessary to have a host of grassroot-level Hindu organizations, who would champion the justified grievances of the tribals in the instances of land theft by mercantile sharks, and bring them necessary redress. This would prevent the church from converting the tribals under the guise of providing them the redress they desperately need, note that the pressure on their resources has multiplied in the last 25 years due to liberalization. Such rights-based organizations ought not to come under one overarching control to prevent the creation of a single point of failure possibly due to mercantile compromise. Organizations remain vulnerable to such compromise because in the last 25 years liberalisation has simultaneously enhanced the money-power of large mercantiles.

There is one major point we must make in all this analysis – they hold true only for India.  We have not analysed Nepal, where conversions are skyrocketing in recent years, despite the powerful Left holding sway in the country.

The Backlash that is expected – Swami Lakshmanananda Murder

Inevitably, if and when attempted, the organizations that seek to accommodate the welfare and rights of the tribals within a Hindu framework will have to face substantial backlash from the vested interests they seek to supplant. The recent murder of Swami Lakshmananda is a case in point.

Swami Lakshmanananda was born in 1926 in Odisha’s Angul district and in 1951, became a sanyasi at the age of 25. He meditated in the Himalayas for a few years and returned in 1968 to Odisha to take part in anti-cow slaughter and anti-conversion movements. He decided to stay back in Orissa, at the request of social activists like Bhupendra Kumar Basu, and continued social works among the tribals and Dalits of Phulbani district (now Kandhmal) [17]. In 1969, he set up his first ashram at Chakapada, which soon became the centre of his social service activities. He renovated the Birupaksya, Anandeswar and Jogeswar temples with the help of locals, established a Sanskrit school on gurukul pattern (later upgraded to a college), a residential school in Jalespatta for underprivileged girls, founded Seva schools at Tulsipur and Banki in Cuttack district, started night schools for adults and working children, spearheaded anti-liquor movements through his Satsangs, as a result of which many villages (like Katingia in Udaygiri tehsil) gave up liquor completely. He also persuaded tribals and other non-farming communities to take up modern agriculture and grow hybrid crops, and formed the Vegetable Cooperative Society for farmers at Katingia village [17]. In short, he was a man who aided the poor and the marginalized people of the region. On 23/08/2008, he was murdered – by whom has been a subject of controversy.

There have been claims that Swami Lakshmanananda was murdered by the Far Leftist cadres in collaboration with the church. Sabyasachi Panda, a far Leftist leader from Odisha, has admitted his role in killing the Hindu saint p. 145, [15]. However, many Naxals were also horrified by the assassination of the 84 year old Hindu sant. Bidyut Chakraborti and Rajat Kumar Kujur note in [15] that, “This particular incident totally shook up the total set up of the Maoist organisations in Odisha. The killing of a Hindu leader and his associates that triggered attacks on Christians in Orissa have split the CPI (Maoist) on religious lines for the first time, with many Hindu members breaking away to form a rival group. Announcing the expulsion of Sabyasachi Panda, one press release of the CPI (Maoist) claimed that Panda has purchased over hundred acres of land in and around Nayagarh with the help of the party fund.’’ p. 143, [15].

This was confirmed by media reports that pointed out that the new group with breakaway Hindu members is called, IDGA (Idealist Democratic Guerrilla Army of CPI (Maowadi)). p. 13, [15].

``According to police sources, this group, also known as the M2, is made up of Hindu Maoists, who were appalled by the murder of the 84-year-old Saraswati. … M2 criticises conversions and quotes Lord Krishna’s sermons in the Bhagawad Gita.’’ p. 13, [15].

However, it is important to underline that Lakshmanananda had earned the ire of the self-styled secularists and Liberals, and also the evangelists. In [18], KP Sasi connects Saraswati in one sweeping tirade to the `sangh parivar’, `hindutva politics’, `BJP’, `Godhra’, `Gujarat riots’, `globalisation’, `exploitation in the name of development’, `industry versus agriculture’, `land rights’ and so forth.

Note Sasi, however, carefully avoids mentioning all the `developmental’ and economic, social and educational activities of Saraswati. In the same breath Sasi remains completely silent on the use of superstition by Christian missionaries to convert tribals, and Christian exploitation of the very same lack of development. [20] Both the `Left/lib’ or self-styled seculars clutch on to the `Maoist’ angle in the murder of Saraswati to free missionaries from blame. However, the following report indicates a different and more complex reality where superficial Christianisation could possibly be sitting comfortably in individuals with either underlying criminal tendencies or Maoist ideological pretensions. For example, Ashok Sahu, IPS (Retd.) Former Inspector General of Police explores the role of Christian NGO’s in [19], where he writes-

Chief of such NGOs is ‘World Vision’ patronized by one Radhakanta Nayak, a local of Darsingbadi village from ‘Pana’ community who later got converted to Christianity. He happens to be an employee of the State Government promoted to the IAS and retired, and now a Member in the Rajya Sabha. His henchmen were the assailants who attacked Swamiji on December 24. Meanwhile, Nayak has incited Kui tribals among the Kandhs to agitate for getting his ‘Pana’ community, who are scheduled castes, relisted as scheduled tribe along with the Kui on the ground that the former also speak the Kui dialect.’’ Further, he explores the power of church money in inciting violence in various tribal areas, writing, “From the 47 Maoists arrested in connection with recent burning of villages inhabited by Hindus (Brahmanigaon, Jhinjiriguda, Katingia, and Godapur) as a counter to attacks by tribals on the churches, 20 guns have been recovered by the security forces. It is evident that the Maoists and the Church are hands in glove to spread fratricidal killings and clashes among the tribals which is evident also from incidents in Karbi-Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts in Assam. Conversions of poor tribal villagers are being conducted at gun point and by spreading terrorism. While in active government service Radhakanta Nayak and John Nayak IPS (Retd.), both converted Christians, were instruments of the Church to proselytize the poor and illiterate ‘Pana’ and tribal communities. Under guise of NGOs thousands of dollars are pumped into the country for conversion of tribals in Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and the North-East.’’ [19].

Indeed, recall that the data reproduced in [31] showing how millions of dollars are being pumped into India to facilitate proselytizing. On ground, the claim that Swami Lakshmananda was murdered at the behest of the Christian missionaries has always existed. It was recorded in the Indian Express that-

“Brahmachari Shankar Chaitanya, who is now in charge of the ashram and is always escorted by police constables and CRPF personnel, seethes with anger against both Christians and the state government. `We had written 30 times to the state government that Swamiji’s and our lives were at stake, that we were being threatened by Christian leaders. Before the incident, we got a letter threatening to kill Swamiji. We formally complained to the police and district authorities. They sent only four baton-wielding constables,’ said Shankar Chaitanya. `Not a single minister visited us after the incident, not even of our BJP. The Collector comes sometimes. He gave us rice, dal and sugar for the children. … Chaitanya alleged that it was Christians, not Maoists, who were responsible for the incident. The Maoists can never do this. It is Christians who threaten us every day and they did this,’’’ [21].

Whether the Evangelical organisations were actually guilty of murdering Swami Lakshmanananda or not, it is clear that they viewed him as an undesirable element, a thorn in their flesh, since he was opposing conversions. The region where Swami Lakshmanananda was working is one of the fastest Christianising areas in India, with Hindus losing 6% in the census records between 2001 and 2011 in Tamudibandha tehsil (where Swami Lakshmananda was murdered). Swami Lakshmanananda may well have paid the price for being a Hindu developmental worker in an area where he was deeply unwanted by both the Maoists and the Missionaries.

Future grass-root Hindu organizations will no doubt have to face physical violence and also the media vilification owing to close links between the Church and the Media. Recall that unlike the murder of Graham Staines [28], the murder of Hindu missionary Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati (which instigated the Kandhamal riots) [26-27], likely committed by Christian militant groups, never made it to the front pages of newspapers. It is perhaps not a coincidence then that the Archbishop of Delhi has described media as an indispensable component in the evangelizing mission of the church – the event was attended by dignitaries, such as former election commissioner Naveen Chawla, journalists Anna Vetticad and Josy Joseph Rev Anil Couto [29].


Indian state owes it to its citizens to protect the Hindu organizations at least as much at the level that is accorded to the proselytizing Missionaries. Given the bias against Hindus in India’s public discourse, it is incumbent upon all conscientious citizens to remain vigilant of the activities of the central and state level governments in this regard, and regardless of their political colours. This is the only way that the tribals will remain in the Indic fold. For those who believe that the tribals are expendable, as they were never “enough Hindu’’ or never followed a certain set of rituals and practices that characterize Hinduism (it is actually questionable that such a uniform identifiers exists for Hinduism) need to be reminded of the observations of Mohammad Zaman Kiani, Commander of the INA as to the behaviour of the Christian tribals, when INA reached Nagaland: “ the border area, where fighting took place, was inhabited by and large by the Naga and Chin Tribes who were Christian by faith and had more in common with the British than with the Japanese or the INA. To cite an example; just as fighting stalemated on the Palel front, an English-speaking young Naga woman came over to the 2nd Regimental HQs, ostensibly to work as an informer but actually to spy for the British. After staying for a few days she slipped back into the jungle, as soon as she got the opportunity !’’ p. 124 [25] (Kiani was a Muslim by faith, and had written his memoirs several years after he had moved to Pakistan, so surely he cannot be accused of Hindu fundamentalism).

Specifically, Kiani stated that the Christian tribals felt closer to the British than the INA and cooperated with the former in their battle against the INA. In contrast, Indic tribals Birsa Munda, Brojo and Durga Murmu had rebelled against the British.


[1] Shanmukh, Dikgaj and Saswati Sarkar, “Western Uttar Pradesh and Southern Uttarakhand: Muslim Majority by 2061?”

[2] Shanmukh, Dikgaj and Saswati Sarkar, “A Demographic Warning for West Bengal”,

[3] Shanmukh, Saswati Sarkar, Dikgaj and Aparna, “Will Assam be Muslim Majority in the next 40 years?”

[4] Shanmukh, Saswati Sarkar, Dikgaj, and Aparna, “Kerala and South Tamil Nadu – A Case of Hindu Fade out”

[5] Shanmukh, Vikram, Aparna, Saswati Sarkar, and Dikgaj, “The Demographic expansion of Kashmir and the shrinking of Jammu and Ladakh”

[6] Shanmukh, Aparna, Vikram, Arihant, Saswati Sarkar and Dikgaj, “Hotspots in the Hindi Belt – the Northern Arc’’, p1. p2. p3.

[7] Edited by Raghavan, “Naxal Threat: Causes, State Responses and Consequences’’

[8] EA de Brett, “Central Provinces District Gazetteers, Chhattisgarh Feudatory States’’, 1909.

[9] TS Macpherson, and MG Hallett, “District Gazetteer of Ranchi’’


[11] KS Singh, “Tribal Movements in India: Volume 2’’

[12] “District Gazetteer of Sundargarh’’

[13] John Dayal, “From St. Thomas Christians to Crypto-Christians’’,

[14] “Why do Naxals Never Attack Churches’’,

[15] Bidyut Chakrabarty and Rajat Kumar Kujur, “Maoism in India: Reincarnation of the Ultra Left Wing Violence in the Twenty First Century’’, Routledge Publications.

[16] Jawaharlal Nehru, “An Autobiography”

[17] “Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati’’,

[18] KP Sasi, “Scorched Visions in Kandhamal’’,

[19] “Facts on Christian Tribal clashes in Odisha’’,

[20] Leah Marieann Klett, “Hundreds of Hindus Who Persecuted Christians Embracing Jesus Christ After Witnessing Miracles, Healing”

[21] Trauma in Ashram, Schoolgirls witnessed Swami’s murder,

[22] Adam Taylor, “Why Mother Teresa is still no saint to many of her critics’’

[23] Aroup Chatterjee, “ MOTHER TERESA: The Untold Story’’

[24] Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Mallon, “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice’’

[25] Mohammad Zaman Kiani, “India’s Freedom Struggle and the Great I.N.A.’’




[29] between media and church

[30] Santhal Durga Puja symbolises revolt against British

[31] Suhag A. Shukla, The Question Of Evangelism In India


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