Code of Silence

Why the demand for the Sarna code rattles the RSS

A woman holds a placard that reads, “Victory to Sarna Dharma,” during a protest in Jharkhand's capital, Ranchi, in October 2022. Tribal groups in the region have long demanded the Sarna code, a separate religious classification in the census, recognising their status as independent religious communities. The demand poses a political problem for the RSS, which claims them to be Hindus. Altaf Qadri/AP Photo
29 December, 2022

A recent groundswell of protests to demand the Sarna code, a separate religious classification in the census for Adivasis, has the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates in a fix. In a special session held in November 2020, the Jharkhand Assembly passed a resolution asking the union government to introduce Sarna—a nature-centric form of worship shared across many tribes in Jharkhand and its neighbouring states—as an enumerated religion in the national census, due in 2021. The resolution marked a flashpoint in the long struggle by the region’s Adivasis for the recognition of their distinctive belief systems and culture.

In late 2020, Adivasi groups across Jharkhand launched protests, urging the union government to respond to the resolution immediately. Speaking at a conference organised at Harvard University, in February 2021, Jharkhand’s chief minister Hemant Soren asserted that Adivasi culture and religion was entirely different from that of Hindus. “Adivasis were never Hindus and they never will be,” Soren said. His comments received the support of academics and intellectuals in the state.

Since the 2020 resolution, Adivasi groups across several states have come together to demand a “tribal religion” or to back the demand for a Sarna Code. In 2021, sit-ins with Adivasis groups from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and nearby states, reached the national capital as well. The 2021 census did not take place as scheduled. In July 2022, the government informed Parliament that the census had been delayed “until further orders” owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At present, the census has columns for only six religious codes: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. While Adivasi Christians can pick an enumerated religion, in the absence of a separate code, non-Christian Adivasis have no option but to identify themselves as “Other Religions & Persuasions.” The inclusion of Sarna would be an important step in recognising and preserving Adivasi identity and culture.