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Members of a Hindu group are up in arms over a statue of a German Jesuit priest outside an Indian Catholic church, claiming that the missionary worked against local people and honoring him insults tribal sentiments.
The tribal cell of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Feb. 13 petitioned police to remove the bust of Father John Baptist Hoffmann from the compound of Sarwada parish in Khunti district, about 55 kilometers from Ranchi, the state capital of Jharkhand state.
The petition called on police to remove the statue as it insults local tribal leaders like Birsa Munda, who fought foreigners for tribal rights, tribal cell leader Ram Kumar Pahan told media.
The group claims that in the 19th century Father Hoffmann and the British attacked the civilization and culture of tribals. Having his bust on tribal soil is unacceptable, Pahan said.
They have been protesting the statue intermittently since its installation in December but intensified their action in the second week of February as the country moves closer to a national election before May. Elections in the BJP-ruled state are due in December.
Church leaders say the BJP has deliberately made unfair claims against the missionary to create a controversy to divide tribal people, a major voting bloc in Jharkhand. Dividing tribal votes on religious lines could help the BJP garner non-Christian tribal votes, they say.
“The controversy is a ploy of the ruling BJP to divide tribal people,” said Father Masih Prakash Soy, secretary to Bishop Binay Kandulna of Khunti.
The BJP has “miserably failed to fulfil its promises and meet the aspirations of the people” and has “embarked on a divisive agenda” ahead of both state and national elections, the priest said.
Hindus are angry that a plaque near the statue claims that Father Hoffmann was the main architect of the 1908 Chotanagpur Tenancy Act that the British enacted to restrict the transfer of tribal land to non-tribal people. They claim Birsa Munda’s struggle led to the law.
Father Hoffmann (1857-1928) came to India as a Jesuit novice at the age of 20. As a priest, he worked mostly among the Munda tribal people in the present Jharkhand area and established several measures for their rights including a cooperative society and a bank.
Besides helping to enact laws to protect tribal people, he also contributed to their language and culture by providing a grammar book and a 15-volume encyclopedia on Munda culture and civilization, said Father Xavier Sorang, a Jesuit social worker based in state capital Ranchi.
Most tribal people understand the contributions of the missioner, said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
The bishop said the protest comes from “a small group which is trying to disturb the peace. But people are not foolish … they know who had done what for whom.”
He said the Church should ignore such protests because the intention of these groups is to divide and break society for political gains.
Jharkhand’s tribal population, who form 26 percent of 33 million people in the state, is politically decisive, as are its one million Christians, almost all of them tribal people.
The Christian population is even stronger in Khunti district, where 25 percent of the 532,000 people are estimated to be Christians.