Ranchi — Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren has penned a heartfelt letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appealing for the long-awaited recognition of the Sarna religious code. In his impassioned plea, Soren emphasized the urgent need to safeguard the religious existence of tribal communities and include nature-worshipping Sarna religion followers in the national census code. He shared a copy of the letter on his X handle and expressed hope that the Centre would respond positively to the long standing demand of the indigenous communities across the nation.
Soren's letter highlights the deeply rooted connection between tribal communities and their ancestral traditions, rooted in nature worship, and the pressing need to acknowledge and protect these unique cultural and religious practices. He draws attention to the fact that approximately 12 crore tribals reside in India, with a significant population concentrated in Jharkhand, where the Sarna religion holds a prominent place.
The Sarna religion, rooted in reverence for nature, stands apart from other prevalent religions in India, encompassing a distinct set of cultural practices, worship methods, ideals, and beliefs. Soren underscores that the demand for a Tribal/Sarna Dharma Code arises from a desire to affirm the identity of this nature-worshipping tribal community in the face of challenges.
The Chief Minister highlights the concerning trend of declining tribal populations, particularly in Jharkhand, where the percentage of tribals has dwindled from 38% to 26% over the last eight decades. He argues that this decline poses a threat to the policies of tribal development outlined in the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution.
Soren insists that the creation of a separate tribal/Sarna code is essential to distinguish Sarna or nature-worshipping tribals from followers of other religions, such as Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, and Jainism. Such a code, he believes, would enable accurate population estimates and the preservation and promotion of tribal language, culture, and history, along with the protection of their constitutional rights.
The Chief Minister recalls that there was a provision for a separate code for tribals in the 1951 census column, but it was discontinued in subsequent decades. He points out that a proposal regarding the Tribal/Sarna Code has been passed in the Jharkhand Assembly and is now pending at the Central Government level.
" In view of the above circumstances, a separate tribal / Sarna code is necessary to identify the Sarna or nature worshiping tribals as different from Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain religion followers and for the protection of their constitutional rights. If this code is granted, then their population can be clearly estimated and then the language, culture, history of us tribals can be protected and promoted and our constitutional rights can be protected. It is noteworthy here that there was a provision of a separate code for the tribes in the census column of the year 1951, but due to certain reasons, this arrangement was abolished in the subsequent decades. Therefore, Tribal/Sarna Code is very important for the proper development of the tribal community and in view of this, a proposal in this regard has also been passed in the Jharkhand Assembly, which is currently pending for decision at the Central Government level," the letter read.
The Sarna religion is embraced by its followers as a distinct religious group, primarily composed of nature worshippers. The core principles of the Sarna faith revolve around "Jal (water), Jungle (forest), Zameen (land)," with adherents offering prayers to trees and hills while emphasizing the preservation of forested areas. Unlike traditional practices, Sarna believers do not engage in idol worship and do not adhere to concepts such as the Varna system or notions of heaven and hell. The majority of Sarna followers are concentrated in tribal belt states like Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam.
Advocates for the Sarna faith have been calling for the establishment of a distinct religious code for tribals, expressing their views in letters addressed to President Droupadi Murmu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and others. They assert that indigenous people are nature worshippers and should be recognized as a separate religious community, as indicated by surveys and reports showing that over 50 lakh tribal individuals identified their religion as "Sarna" in the 2011 census, despite the absence of a designated code.
Recognition as a separate religious community would provide enhanced protection for their language and history. Without such recognition, some community members have recently converted to Christianity to avail themselves of the benefits of minority status and reservations.
Experts argue that with the global focus on addressing pollution and conserving forests, native communities should be placed at the forefront. Recognizing Sarnaism as a religious code becomes all the more crucial as the essence of this religion lies in the protection of nature and the environment.
In November 2020, the Jharkhand government held a special Assembly session to pass a resolution for recognizing Sarna religion and incorporating it as a separate code in the 2021 Census. However, the central government is yet to respond and take action on this resolution. The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) has also recommended Sarna religion as an independent category within the religion code for the Census of India.
In a persistent display of determination, the Adivasi Senegal Abhiyan [ ASA] has been for many years rallying for the long-awaited recognition of the Sarna Dharma Code. Salkhan Murmu, the National President of the ASA, raises poignant questions about the tribals' subjugation within a free India. Despite constitutional provisions guaranteeing rights, he laments the continued absence of social, religious, and political freedom for the tribal populace.
Murmu states, " A bewildering discrepancy arises from the 2011 census, wherein approximately 50 lakh devotees of nature-oriented Sarna Dharma declared their faith, surpassing the Jains' count of a mere 44 lakh, who have already been recognized as a distinct religious community." Perplexingly, the Sarna Dharma Code awaits official acknowledgment. To recap recent events, the tribal Sengel campaign, along with numerous tribal organizations, staged a sit-in at Jantar Mantar last November. Kolkata and Ranchi have also witnessed a series of demonstrations in past few months, all advocating for the recognition of the Sarna Dharma Code.