Indian Christian leaders and secular parties have opposed a protest rally planned on Christmas Day by a hardline supremacist Hindutva organization, which is demanding an end welfare benefits for tribal people who have embraced Christianity or Islam. The proposed protest is scheduled, deliberately, for Christmas day 2023.
The organisation, whose name means forum to protect tribal people’s religion and culture — Janajati Dharma Sanskriti Suraksha Manch (JSM) — announced last week of November that it will hold the rally on Dec. 25 at Agartala, the state capital of Tripura in northeast India reported UCA News.
An associate of pro-Hindutva, supremacist, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the JSM says Christianity and Islam are “foreign-origin religions”, and hence indigenous tribal people converted to these faiths should be removed from the official Scheduled Tribes (STs) list to deny them education and job quotas, besides other welfare benefits, under India’s affirmative action programs.
Father Ivan D’Silva, secretary for social communication at Agartala diocese, which covers the entire Tripura state, said he was not aware of “the motive behind the planned rally on Christmas Day, the holiest and most sacred festival for Christians across the world.”
“It looks like it is being done deliberately. We called a meeting of all Church denominations in the state and have decided to oppose the rally” on Christmas day, he told UCA News on November 29.
The priest also said they have also launched a campaign to make tribal people in the state aware of their constitutional rights. More than 50 percent of Tripura’s population belongs to various indigenous tribes.
Father Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’s Office for Tribal Affairs, said the planned rally appeared to be part of “a political program ahead of the national elections to be held next year.” “The demand for de-listing tribal Christians from the beneficiaries list for STs is being raised in various states and provinces of India with sizeable tribal populations,” he told UCA News.
Barla called it “a conspiracy to divide tribal people in the name of religion” for the electoral benefit of pro-Hindu parties.
“According to our constitution people are free to practice and profess any faith according to their choice and free will,” he reminded.
Tripura is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the parliamentary wing of the RSS, which is wedded to the idea of India becoming a majoritarian, theocratic state. Opposition parties including the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and regional secular outfits have opposed the rally as “unconstitutional” and “a conspiracy” to foment sectarian divide in the state. Congress leader Sudip Roy Barman is reported to have said the demand to de-list tribal Christians from the ST list “was floated to disturb the peace and foment ethnic discord and tension in the state.”
He warned that these supremacist political parties and their affiliate organization were “risking mutual co-existence on the lines of Manipur,” where over 170 people have been killed and several hundred injured since ethnic violence first broke out on May 3.
Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, chief of the regional outfit Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance, also “suspected a conspiracy to use religion to divide the Tiprasa [tribal people of Tripura].” Christians make up 4.35 percent of Tripura’s 3.7 million people. Most of them belong to indigenous tribal communities such as the Tripuri, Lushai, Kuki, Darlong and Halam.
A sizable number of Tripura Christians are Baptists, Presbyterians and Catholics while there are also those belonging to Assemblies of God, Evangelical Church, and other neo-Christian groups.