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The storm over Virgin Mary statue

Icon in local woman's attire revives debate over religious conversions in eastern India amid calls for its removal.

Last Modified: 17 Oct 2013 12:14
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Some 10,000 tribals marched few weeks ago demanding the statue's removal [Somnath Sen/ Al Jazeera]

A statue of the Virgin Mary dressed as a local tribal woman is in the eye of the storm in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.

When leaders of a local church installed the statue in Singhpur village, 15km outside the provincial capital of Ranchi in May, they thought they were paying tribute to local traditions.

But the statue - which depicts the Virgin Mary in a red-bordered white sari and red blouse, sporting a necklace, bangles and earrings, and holding baby Jesus in a cloth sling tied around her shoulder - has become a lightning rod of controversy.

It has infuriated a nature-worshipping, non-Christian group who identify themselves as followers of the tribal Sarna religion.

Several Sarna groups have held protest rallies and demanded that the statue be removed.

'Tool to convert'

In one such protest weeks ago, more than 10,000 protesters from local tribes marched down the streets of Singhpur. The agitated protesters are now threatening more aggressive action.

"We are urging the Christian authorities to remove the statue. If our pleas are ignored, we will be forced to launch surprise attacks on this church to pull down the statue soon," Bandhan Tigga, the head priest of Sarna Society, which represents Sarna tribal population of Jharkhand, was quoted as saying to the local media.

"The statue is a tool to convert more tribals to Christianity."

The mineral-rich but dirt-poor state of Jharkhand has been a battleground for conversions and re-conversions between religious zealots.

Hindus have accused Christian missionaries of carrying out proselytisation under the garb of social work - a charge denied by the church. Hindu groups have also attempted to reconvert some who they allege were improperly lured into embracing Christianity.

The statue of Virgin Mary has further fuelled the ongoing tug-of-war over faith.

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Tigga, for one, alleges the statue is meant to attract local tribespeople to Christianity "by confusing them into believing that she was a tribal woman" from the region.

"Apart from she is wearing traditional Sarna dress of red-bordered sari, Mother Mary's complexion is also dark in the statue. She has been made to look like our goddess of Sarna Ma [Mother Nature]. If the statue remains in place, after some decades our future generations will get confused between our Sarna Ma and Mother Mary," Tigga told Al Jazeera.

Prem Shahi Munda, another Sarna leader, said their protest against the new statue should be seen as their struggle to protect the belief and culture of the nature-worshipping people.

The statue of the Virgin Mary which was installed inside the campus of a Marianist church in Singhpur, Jharkhand [Somnath Sen/ Al Jazeera]

"The Christian priests consider our Sarna belief system inferior and uncivilised. We have begun our protest against the sari-clad Mother Mary statue to send out strong messages that we love our religion and culture, and we shall launch a more aggressive movement against their agenda of conversion."

But Christians in Jharkhand say the Sarna protest against the statue is unjustified. They constitute 4.1 percent of the state's population, where 68 percent are Hindus.
 
Sarnas - animists who Hindu conservatives claim as their own - account for 13 percent of the local population.

"As Christians we view Mother Mary as our mother, and as tribals if we see our mothers wearing a red-bordered sari we feel nice. So in that statue we got her draped in our local tribal attire, to which we are emotionally attached," Jesuit priest and social activist Fr Alex Ekka, a member of local Oraon tribe, told Al Jazeera.

"It happens everywhere as part of enculturation of the local tradition. In Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Manipur and other states, Mother Mary is clad in local attire. In Africa her complexion is black."

No removal

Christian leaders are also against the removal of the statue.

"Following their demand, if we remove the statue today then tomorrow they will ask us to stop playing tribal musical instruments, or performing tribal dances, or for that matter speaking tribal languages. We are not going to give in to any of their unjustified demands," Ekka said.

With both sides refusing to yield ground, the standoff is sowing further distrust and disharmony in the region. The local authorities have attempted to broker a truce, but the efforts have so far failed.

“We imposed restrictions as one party was trying to pull down the statue. Then we made two parties hold peace meetings. If needed, we shall push for more peace meetings in future,” Sub-divisional officer of Ranchi, Ameet Kumar, told Al Jazeera.

 "Ghar Wapsi" Hindu re-conversion ceremony [Shaikh Azizur Rahman/ Al Jazeera]

Amid deepening distrust, the Christian leaders are alleging that right-wing Hindu groups have orchestrated the protests over the statue.

"Tribal people began embracing Christianity in the region more than 150 years ago. But it was not until the Hindu right-wing organisations began their campaign against the Christian missionaries in recent years that the Sarna leaders have started viewing the Christians as their enemy," John Dayal, general secretary of All India Christian Council, told Al Jazeera.

"The hands of … Hindu fundamentalist organisations are clearly visible behind this Sarna protest."

Hindu leaders, however, insist they are right in opposing conversions to Christianity.

The Jharkhand state secretary of right-wing Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Gangaprasad Yadav, argued that tribal people were too naive and that they did not have any idea of their own religion.

"So most often against such conversions by the church they cannot defend themselves on their own. So our [Hindu] organisations often need to step in to thwart the moves related to conversions by the church and save the tribals," Yadav said.

"All tribal people in India are originally Hindu. So by resisting their conversion to Christianity, we are only protecting our Hindu interest."

Hindu groups have set a deadline of December 24 for the church for removing the statue. As the tussle over the statue rages, the Virgin Mary is left to look on rather helplessly.

This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.

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Al Jazeera
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