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Being Sarna: A fight to define tribal identity in Jharkhand

Published: 28th Jul, 2022


Tension among the tribal-dominated villages in Jharkhand for inclusion of the ‘Sarna dharma code’ in the religion column in the next census of 2021.


  • Recently an agitation too pledges to intensify their struggle to get the government recognition to the ‘Sarna dharma code’ and held a mass prayer at Jantar Mantar (New Delhi) seeking blessings of their deities and revered leaders.
  • The members, the majority of whom belonged to the Santhal tribe, raised their demands under the aegis of the Adivasi Sengel Abhiyan (tribal empowerment campaign). It consists of more than 250 scheduled tribes-dominated blocks from 50 districts of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, and Assam.
  • They have been demanding recognition of it as a distinct religion for decades. At present, under the census, there are codes for only six religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. While filling in these columns, a tribal resident has to identify himself or herself as one of these or as ‘others’, but cannot specify his / her religion as a different one.


What is the Sarna religion?

  • The followers of Sarna are nature worshippers who believe in protecting the forest areas. The holy grail of the faith is “Jal, Jungle, Zameen”.
  • They worship nature and do not practice idolatry.
  • There is neither Varna system in their society or any sort of inequality.
  • There practice follows natural laws and are not codified ones.


  • It is believed that 50 lakh tribal people in the entire country put their religion as ‘Sarna’ in the 2011 census, although it was not a recognized code.
  • For the Census 2011, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes did recommend the addition of this code.

 Threats to Sarnas:

  • Distortion of Identity:
  • The community members have highlighted the fear of subsuming their distinctive culture and identity under the umbrella of Hinduism and Christianity by “brainwashing” the poorest tribal people.
  • Indoctrination: It is alleged that on the lines of Christian missionaries, now the Hindu groups have started converting poor tribal communities in malicious ways, which is challenging the very nature of what tribal people believe Sarnaism to be and how it should be practiced.
  • It begins with the promise of elementary schools, pucca homes for villagers, and roads and electricity for the village.
  • The danger of Homogenization: Hindus worship different gods and believe that they are the manifestation of nature, which tribal people worship. This endangers the belief of Sarna's existence as an indigenous faith.
  • Ideological encroachment: The physical encroachment begins, starting with establishing Hindu temples at Sarna places of worship and culminating in the erasure of traditional tribal rituals and practices.
  • Maheshpur village in district Gumla which is inhabited by Kharia people, a hunter-gatherer tribe who had been praying (Sarna sthal) at a two-acre patch of land has been reduced to a 200 sq ft plot of land. The majority of the plot has been taken over by a Hindu temple.

Who is an Adivasi?

  • The criteria prescribed by the Union Government to identify a person as a member of a Schedule Tribe are:
    • indications of primitive traits,
    • distinctive culture,
    • geographical isolation,
    • the shyness of contact with the community at large, and
    • backwardness
  • But the High Courts and the Supreme Court have observed, that these may not be the most appropriate or sufficient conditions to identify a person of tribal origin.

Need for separate code make:

  • The protection of their language and history is an important aspect of tribals.
  • Between 1871 and 1951, the tribals had a different code. However, it was changed around 1961-62.
  • Experts say that when today the entire world is focusing on reducing pollution and protecting the environment, it is prudent that Sarna becomes a religious code as the soul of this religion is to protect nature and the environment.

Problems/Threats to the Tribal Community:

  • Loss of cultural practices/ritual
  • Impoverishment and unemployment
  • No constitutional recognition for some tribes
  • Land Alienation
  • Poverty and Indebtedness
  • Health and Nutrition
  • Eviction in the name of conservation

Government efforts since independence:

  • Since independence, the government has initiated several Five-Year Plans, programmes, policies, and laws and has made efforts for gradual socio-economic development of Scheduled Tribes, but they remain the weakest sections of the society.
  • During these various Five-Year Plans, there has been a considerable increase in the fund allocation for the tribal areas. But most of the tribals were not able to draw benefits from the facilities provided by the government because of large-scale corruption among officials and improper implementation of tribal development schemes.
  • The majority of the tribal people are not even aware of the development schemes implemented by government agencies. Without creating awareness among the tribal people, it is difficult to achieve better results.


These Adivasis are neither Hindus nor Christians. They have our way of life, religious practices, customs, culture, and religious thoughts, different from any other religion. The Sarna code movement is positioning itself as an answer to the question raised by the Supreme court: Who is Adivasi and what are the elements of tribal identity to be considered as Tribal.

It is high time the respective governments began duly acknowledging the critical role tribal people play in the conservation, preservation, and safeguarding of the richness of local biodiversity. The role of ecology/nature in building nationalism or regional pride through ‘nature-based’ symbols cannot be sidelined. The passing of the Sarna code is a form of ‘eco-nationalism’.


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