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The First of His Kind December 01, 2003

The Catholic Church in India received a pleasant surprise when Archbishop Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi was named among 31 new prelates who were elevated in October to the College of Cardinals. But if the announcement was greeted with pleasure throughout India, it was a cause of ecstasy among the Catholics of the tribal heartland of Jharkhand.

The indigenous peoples of India, collectively known as "tribals," are separated from the remainder of the population not only by their ethnic status, but by their social position as well. Historically the tribals have been remote from Indian society, neglected and underprivileged. Now this ethnic group, which has so often felt itself to be forgotten by the outside world, had a powerful reminder that the tribal people were not forgotten by the Church. Cardinal Toppo was the first tribal ever named to be a prince of the Church.

Along with the Catholics, even the non-Christian communities of the tribal region were exuberant over the appointment of Cardinal Toppo. When he returned from the October 21 consistory in Rome, wearing his new red hat, nearly 100,000 people— including Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims—joined the governor of Jharkhand (a state in eastern India) at a November 1 public meeting to congratulate their new cardinal.

A week before that formal public meeting, many residents of Jharkhand had lined up on the road leading from the airport outside Ranchi (the capital of Jharkhand) into the city, braving incessant rain in order to catch a first glimpse of the prelate in his celebrated red hat, and show their support. Local churches in the neighborhood erected a dozen arcades across the road to welcome him as he passed by; the cardinal's car was forced to stop several times along the route so that people could offer him garlands of flowers. Once again, this display of welcome and pride was an inter-faith affair; Hindus, Sikh, and Muslims joined with Protestants in greeting the Catholic leader.

"If the people don't dance today, the trees will," exclaimed Bishop Z.J. Terom of the (Protestant) Church of North India, as Cardinal Toppo drove into Ranchi on that rainy day. Caught up in the spontaneous joy of the people who were thronging the streets to greet the prelate, he compared the reception to the rejoicing of the Israelites after David's victory over Goliath. "He is our leader," Bishop Terom told CWR. "We, the tribal people, are proud of him. This is a recognition of the vibrant tribal Church here."

Another prominent Protestant leader in Ranchi, the Rev. Belas Lakra, pastor of the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church (the second-largest Christian group in Jharkhand, after the Catholic Church) was equally extravagant in his remarks, saying: "This is a great achievement for the Christians in Jharkhand."

"It's an honor for all of us, and will make us more self confident," said Lakra. The Lutheran pastor has a special tie to the history of Christian evangelization in the remote tribal region; in the compound where he lives there is a commemorative cross, set up on the spot where the first missionaries—also Lutherans—set up their tent and began preaching the Gospel to the natives in 1845.

The Rev. Manmasih Ekka, principal of the Lutheran theological college in Ranchi, admitted that he was "amazed by the joy" of the people who surrounded the archbishop's residence when a Lutheran delegation visited to offer their formal congratulations to the cardinal-elect, a few days after Pope John Paul II had listed his name among those to receive the red hat. Once again, the crowd that gathered around the residence included representatives of all the non-Christian religions of the region as well.

"It is cause for great joy for us that a religious leader here has reached such a high position," said Tralochan Singh Bagga, president of the Ranchi forum of Sikhs, as he emerged from the archbishop's office, having draped a garland around the neck of the Catholic leader. "We have come to congratulate him."

A Hindu photographer, working with a national daily from Delhi told this correspondent that even the ordinary Hindus were indicating their pride in the knowledge that Cardinal Toppo will now be eligible to participate in the election of the next Pope. The country's leading Hindu daily carried a full-page supplement on Archbishop Toppo as he left India to participate in the October 21 consistory.

Cardinal Toppo is now the third Indian member of the College of Cardinals. The others are Cardinal Ivan Dias of Bombay and Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which boasts 3.3 million faithful, mostly living in the southern Kerala state.

BEACON OF HOPE "This is certainly a moment of pride for the tribals here and will help to unite them against those who are trying to divide them," said Father Beni Ekka, the director of the Xavier Institute of Social Sciences in Ranchi. The Jesuit priest pointed out that aside from a minority of educated Christians, few people in Jharkhand "knew the meaning or implications of being a cardinal" prior to the announcement that their archbishop would receive the red hat. But the people quickly grasped the idea that a tribal priest would now be a member of the Pope's circle of advisers. More pointedly, Father Ekka observed, "they are very happy that a tribal, like them, will be participating in the election of the next Pope.

The forces of division in Jharkhand are all too obvious. Since the state was established, it has been the arena for political contests between the Hindu-nationalist BJP party (which controls the federal government's ruling coalition) and a fractious assortment of tribal groups. The BJP party was never engaged in the movement to gain statehood for Jharkhand; in fact the BJP opposed the move. Yet the Hindu nationalist party has held the leading offices since the state was formed. "They have been winning in this region by divide-and-rule," said Father Ekka. He argued that the electoral success of the BJP has come in part because the Hindu nationalists have succeeded in portraying Christians as "alien" to the Hindu tradition and tribal culture of the region.

In part, the Jesuit educator continued, the fault for this political development lies with the Christians themselves. "Although we did a lot in education, development, and health care, we failed to focus on preparing the tribals to take political control," he reflected. So when the Jharkhand state was formed and the first elections were held in 1999, Christians and tribal activists were "frustrated and disappointed." Having failed to work together, they were swept aside as the BJP rolled to an electoral victory.

But if Christians can overcome the perception that they are somehow foreign to the tribal region, and work together with other tribal groups, they can become a powerful political force in Jharkhand. In an incident that might have provided a glimpse of the future, the people of the region were angered that the state's prime minister, Arjun Mundu, failed to turn up at the public meeting in Ranchi to welcome Cardinal Toppo back from Rome. Mundu, who heads the local BJP, had promised organizers that he would be on hand for the celebration. But the BJP evidently decided to boycott the civic ceremony. One Church leader suggested that the move "shows that they are worried about the sway of the Church here."

DREAMS SHATTERED

The Jharkhand state was carved out of the eastern Bihar state after decades of tribal struggle for an autonomous state. In that campaign, the tribals had the solid support of the Christian churches. The three million Christians in the state are 100 percent tribal, and account for over 15 percent of the state's overall population of 26 million.

Official census figures put the tribal proportion of Jharkhand's population at 27 percent. But tribal activists say the real figure is much higher. The census data, they charge, have been manipulated by Hindu administrators, acting under the influence of BJP government officials, who insist on classifying tribals as Hindus, even if they adhere to the traditional animist faiths of the region.

Until a few years ago, the animist tribals of Jharkhand unquestioningly accepted the notion that they were Hindus. Hindu nationalist and BJP party activists had been successful in their efforts, fanning out across the tribal heartland to convince the natives that the Hindu culture is India's national pride, and Christians are "outsiders." To this day, Father Ekka reports, there are remote villages in Jharkhand where the propaganda has proved so successful that Christians are afraid even to visit.

However, the tribal peoples—including those who remain unacquainted with Christianity—have begun to see the less attractive side of this Hindu assimilation campaign. For example, they have noticed that indigenous groups are coming under pressure to give up distinctively ethnic surnames such as Toppo, Topno, Tirkey, Karaiah, and Ekka, and instead adopt Hindu surnames like Kumar and Devi. That pressure has provoked some stiff resistance, and raised questions about how tribal culture can be preserved in the face of the Hindu-nationalist drive.

As a result, Bishop Terom points out, tribal leaders "have now started feeling that only the Christians can preserve tribal culture and identity." Even some senior officials of the Jharkhand state, who are still classified as "Hindus" for census purposes, have begun attending catechism classes, he reports. In general, the tribal leaders recognize Christianity as an ally rather than an alien force. “They are now looking to the Church" for leadership in their own community, the Protestant leader says.

Bishop Therom—who is a tribal himself—is now hopeful that the growing unity among the tribal groups "will fulfill the dream of a true Jharkhand when the state goes to the polls next time." By that he means that the state erected to provide a tribal homeland could also have a tribal leadership. The question of tribal ethnic identity becomes more important each year, as a steady flow of non-tribal migrant laborers and business into Jharkhand threatens to reduce the voting strength of the tribals within their own homeland. So the tribal groups look to rally around some institution whose leadership can be relied upon to reflect their own concerns. And they notice that the Catholic Church, whose local leaders are all tribals, has a record of sympathy and support for the indigenous culture.

A GROWING CHURCH

The elevation of the 63-year-old Archbishop Toppo of Ranchi to the rank of cardinal has drawn attention to the steady growth of the Catholic Church in Jharkhand. The region, with its heavy proportion of tribal residents and its history of tribal culture, is a sort of "holy land" to the 70 million tribals who live across India. Now it is also known as a region with an increasing Catholic influence.

St. Mary's cathedral in Ranchi was overflowing on Sunday, October 5, as 500 children and adults received the sacrament of confirmation. "This is nothing unusual," said the cathedral rector, Father Ignace Topno. "We have this many people [receiving confirmation] every year in this parish.” In fact, he reports, "the enthusiasm of our faithful is such that the church is full" every Sunday for the 5 am Mass—even when the people have to walk through the biting cold and darkness of the early mornings during the winter months.

Although the first missionaries to set foot in Jharkhand (which, literally, means "land of forests") were Lutherans, today it is the Catholic Church that accounts for more than three-fourths of the Christian population in the region. The Church in the region has produced 23 tribal bishops, hundreds of priests, and thousands of nuns. Now the tribal Catholics of Jharkhand are serving as missionaries themselves, serving the Church and spreading the Gospel across India and beyond, especially to the growing Catholic Church of Africa.

Unlike other Indian regions with a heavy tribal population, such as Chattisgarh or northern Orissa, Jharkhand has a comparatively mature Church presence, thanks to the missionary work that began well over a century ago. The first Catholic missionary to enter the region was a Belgian Jesuit, Father Auguste Stockman, who traveled by oxcart from Bengal for a fortnight in the tribal homeland in 1868. The first sustained Catholic effort at evangelization did not begin until 1885, when another Jesuit, Father Constant Lievens, arrived to stay. Father Lievens found 65 Catholic families in the region, clinging to the faith they had received from Father Stockman. Within a few years, he had achieved an enormous success, converting 100,000 tribals to the Catholic faith. Today the Church in Jharkhand is divided into eight dioceses, with hundreds of churches, schools, hospitals, and other Christian institutions dotting the tribal region.

[AUTHOR ID] Anto Akkara, a regular contributor to CWR, is a free-lance writer based in New Delhi.

[SIDEBAR]

[HEAD] "We will not be intimidated"

[SUBHEAD] A conversation with India's first tribal cardinal.

[PULLQUOTE] The Church here is 100 percent indigenous and we do not need any inculturation. We need to only live our own culture. That is what we are doing.

Born in a remote tribal village, Telesphore Toppo began preparing for the priesthood in India, then completed his theology studies in Rome before his ordination in 1969. He was consecrated a bishop in 1978, and since 1985 has been serving as Archbishop of Ranchi. The new cardinal spoke to CWR at his office there.

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Are you surprised by your elevation to the College of Cardinals?

Cardinal Telesphore Toppo: Yes, it is surprising. I had no official inkling of this. It is overwhelming.

What are your feelings now?

Toppo: I don't consider this due to any merit of mine. But it is due to the merit of the whole (tribal) community. I only happen to be the bud that has bloomed during the natural growth of this Church.

Do you feel this is a recognition for the vibrant tribal Church you lead?

Toppo: Definitely, it is a recognition for the tribal Church here. Vibrant or not, the Church here has grown a lot. The growth of the Church, I would say, is a movement of grace that was started by the Jesuit missionaries.

It has grown and produced two million Catholics, 23 bishops, hundreds of priests, and thousands of nuns. Until some years ago, 50 percent of all the Missionaries of Charity sisters were from this region. We have now our missionaries in Africa and other places.

There has been an orchestrated campaign in recent years by Hindu fundamentalist outfits targeting the tribal Christian community. Do you believe your elevation is an act of support and encouragement from the Vatican for the tribal Christians?

Toppo: That is also there. It is definitely an encouragement and support for us. All through these years since the missionaries came, I would say, the Church here has witnessed a steady growth. I consider this (elevation as a cardinal) as God's work. God has done marvelous things here and this has been recognized.

What is the Church's response to the increasing hostility you face?

Toppo: It is part of the atmosphere in the country. With the rise of [Hindu] fundamentalism all over the country, this is expected. So, I am not at all surprised that these things are happening. They are targeting tribals because they are responding to the Gospel.

A few years ago, there were no [Hindu] temples in the villages. But, now, in every nook and corner, you fill find temples. They are working in a big way. It is for them to do what they want. But I think we should not worry too much about it, and we should go on with what we have been doing: doing good for the people.

Can you elaborate on the contribution the Church is making in this tribal region?

Toppo: We have been trying to bring about qualitative change in the life of the people here. It is clear for everyone to see what the Church has done here. You can't imagine what would have been the condition of Jharkhand without the St. Xavier's and St. Anne's [schools, colleges, and hospitals]. Had the Church not been here, perhaps Jharkhand [the state, established in 2000] would not have been there.

The Church has been accused of "denationalizing" tribal villages. How do you respond to that charge?

Toppo: This is a baseless allegation. I am a tribal, and by being a Christian, my quality as a tribal has been only enhanced. I ask myself: Have I made a mistake by becoming Christian? I think the Church has done a lot, compared with those who claim to be the messiah of tribals here.

It is true that in the beginning, the missionaries thought that everything was pagan. But today, it is the Church that is leading the movement for preserving tribal culture. A missionary coming from outside needs inculturation. But we are not foreigners. The Church here is 100 percent indigenous and we do not need any inculturation. We need only to live our own culture. That is what we are doing.

What is the challenge you see ahead?

Toppo: The Church here was isolated and insulated. We lacked nothing, in a certain sense, and we were complacent as nobody disturbed us. But now the situation is different. People from outside [non-tribals] are coming and there is rise of [Hindu] fundamentalism. We have been taken by surprise. We have to be conscious of what is happening around us. Definitely, we feel that forces are working to stop the growth of the Church. But, we are not going to be intimidated.