Struggle of the Chotanagpur Adivasis continues

By Leonard Fernando, SJ

Chotanagpur literally means ‘the little Nagpur’. It is the name given by the British for the areas in central and western India, where the tribals were the majority. Earlier Chotanagpur covered not only the present Jharkhand State but also some parts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar. It was the home of the Adivasis – Mundas, Kharias, Oraons, Hos and Santhals. 

Socio-economic and Religious Change

The tribals of Chotanagpur have been losing their land for centuries. Because of the appointment of outsiders as jagirdars and zamindars by Durjan Sal, the raja of Chotanagpur in the 17th century, to collect taxes and the introduction of the new revenue system by the British in the 18th century, many Adivasis lost their lands and their traditional rights. Adivasis felt helpless, thinking that the spirits they worshipped were powerless to prevent the loss of their lands.

At this time of socio-economic change religious change too happened. The tribals came into contact with Christianity – with the Lutherans first, followed by the Anglican and Catholic missionaries.

Fr Constant Lievens, SJ (1856-93)

The Adivasi Christian mass movement began when Fr Constant Lievens, SJ, known as the Apostle of Chotanagpur, came to Chotanagpur in 1885. When he came the Adivasis were poor, illiterate and had lost most of their lands to the outsiders. Fr Lievens studied the situation of the tribals and understood the root cause of their oppression. An officer-in-charge of the local police station at Torpa advised Fr Lievens, “If you want to make Christians, then take upon yourself the defence of the Mundas, chiefly in questions of land-rent and forced labour. If you do this, you will have as many Christians as you wish.” Fr Lievens followed that advice.

The study made it clear to him that the tribals were deprived of their traditional rights to land by deceit in the courts of law.

He studied the existing law of the land. The study made it clear to him that the tribals were deprived of their traditional rights to land by deceit in the courts of law. He put them in contact with trustworthy pleaders in the court. Following his guidance and encouragement, the Adivasis began to win their cases and get back their lands. That boosted their confidence in themselves, in their rights, in God. They realized that Fr Lievens and people like him had become one with them and had taken up their cause for justice. Moreover, the Adivasis readily listened to Fr Lievens when he shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ and presented Jesus as one who could liberate, transform and empower them. Thousands of people came forward to become members of the Catholic Church. When Fr Lievens arrived, there were only 56 Catholics in Chotanagpur. Within seven years of his arrival there were at least 80,000 baptized Catholics and more than 20,000 catechumens.

His activity was opposed by moneylenders and government officials. Even Archbishop Paul Goethals, SJ of Calcutta considered his work as “an imprudent, dangerous and money-wasting business.” On 26 August 1892, Fr. Constant Lievens, afflicted by tuberculosis, left for Belgium, and died at the age of 37 in Louvain on 7 November 1893.

But that was not the end of his story. The people whom he served still revere him and he continues to inspire them. The effort for beatification of the Servant of God Fr Constant Lievens began in 1993 in the Diocese of Bruges, Belgium. His mortal remains were brought to Chotanagpur on 31 October 1993. Before enshrining them at the Immaculate Conception of Mary Cathedral, Ranchi on 7 November, solemn processions were held at various locations where he had worked. Since then his tomb at the shrine continues to draw numerous devotees. On 13 July 2014, the dossier on the ‘Blessedness’ of Father Lievens was submitted to the Holy See for scrutiny.

Fr John Baptist Hoffmann (1857-1928)

The other Jesuit Fathers in the Chotanagpur mission, with the help of catechists and other local assistants, consolidated this group conversion movement known as the “miracle of Chotanagpur”. Fr John Baptist Hoffmann (1857-1928) made significant contributions to the welfare of the Adivasis. Hoffmann, who came to India in 1878 started in 1909 the Catholic Cooperative Credit Society, popularly known as ‘The Catholic Bank’. It was a savings bank where individual tribals deposited whatever savings they had, receiving a moderate rate of interest. From the Cooperative, the tribals could make small borrowings for their urgent needs at moderate rates of interest. This innovative organisation gave the people financial security. The Cooperative was run by the Adivasis themselves and it functioned as a parallel organization to the parish and used the parish infrastructure to ensure smooth administration. It was a great success.

Hoffmann made a thorough study of ancestral land rights of Adivasis and with the help of Mr. Lister, the settlement officer, drafted the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act in 1908. This Act prevented the lands of the Adivasis from passing on to the hands of non-tribals. He is best known for his Munda dictionary, entitled Encyclopaedia Mundarica. It has 15 volumes that contain 5000 pages on the culture and civilization of the Munda tribe.

An important factor in the growth of this Christian movement was that the laity soon organized themselves for social and political action. In 1898 there was a Christian Association for the promotion of education. The Chotanagpur Unnati Samaj was started in 1916 and became a feeder to different organizations, culminating in the Adivasi Mahasabha of 1938. Today Chotanagpur mission has developed and grown into a flourishing Chotanagpur Church.

With the passage of time other tribals living in Chotanagpur area became Catholics. Beyond Chotanagpur similar movements towards Christianity started in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Odisha.

Fr Stan Swamy, SJ (1937-2021)

Fr Stan Swamy, SJ

For more than 40 years Fr Stan Swamy, SJ, lived and worked among the Adivasis in Jharkhand and Odisha. His lifetime mission was to conscientize the Adivasis on their basic rights to water, forest, and land. According to the Annual report of the Ministry of Rural Development 2004-2005, Jharkhand is the state where most of the tribal land alienation has happened. Over 26 lakh people have lost their land, all in the name of development and housing projects since Independence.

Fr Stan was a frontline activist for the cause of the Adivasis. He forcibly voiced his opposition to an amendment in the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, which he said would lead to the decimation of the Adivasis in Jharkhand. Fr Stan meticulously documented all the violations committed, and profits gained by mining companies. He had even calculated how much natural wealth the Adivasis had lost when their natural habitat was taken over by government-corporate alliances.

Fr Stan was arrested on 8 October 2020 on charges of having links with the outlawed Maoist organizations. He was accused along with 15 other rights activists of planning and inciting the violence in the Bhima Koregaon case of 1 January 2018. Defending himself against the charges levelled by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), Fr Stan said that a possible reason for his arrest were the dozens of cases he had filed against the State government for arresting many innocent Adivasi youth on flimsy charges, and dumping them into jails without any trial. In 2014-15, he had formed the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee (PPSC), following the indiscriminate arrest of hundreds of Adivasi and Dalit youths. The group’s main purpose was to intervene on behalf of hundreds of undertrials seeking immediate bail and a speedy trial. Fr Stan asked, “When has it become unconstitutional in India to help and speak for the undertrials? Undertrials are citizens, not criminals before the law.”

Fr. Stan was sent to the Taloja Jail as soon as he was arrested. Through videoconferencing, he told the court, “Taloja jail brought me to a situation where I can neither write nor go for a walk by myself or eat. I am not able to meet this demand. Eating is also in difficulty. Someone has to feed me with a spoon.” Fr Stan was shifted from the jail to Holy Family Hospital, Bandra, Mumbai on 29 May 2021 after being directed by the High Court. He suffered from a cardiac arrest on 4 July  and was put on a ventilator, and he never regained consciousness. On 5 July 2021 Fr Stan died. Stan who said “A caged bird can sing” and continued to share his thoughts boldly while kept in jail, still after his death continues to be a prophetic voice for justice. The cremated remains of this martyr were taken to Jharkhand, Jamshedpur, Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu a 13-day “Pilgrimage for Justice” brought together people of different Christian Churches, other religious traditions, social activists and people from different political parties. The struggle of the Adivasis of Chotanagpur for justice still continues and there are people who continue to walk in the footsteps of Lievens, Hoffmann and Stan.

Leonard Fernando, SJ was the Principal of Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi for ten years. A Professor of Church History and Systematic Theology, he was the editor of Indian Church History Review, Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection, and since 2012 General Editor of History of Christianity in India, a series published by the Church History Association of India. Now he is the Rector of St Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli, India.