The Blossoming of the Handmaids of Mary

Chotanagpur Tribals come in Contact with Christianity

Four German Gossner Evangelical Luthren missionaries were the first to come to Chotanagpur with the message of Christ. On their arrival in Calcutta in 1844, they met some adivasis working as coolies threre. From these simple workers they learnt the possibilities of entering Chotanagpur for evangelization. After after four years of toil in many places they baptised four Oraons in Ranchi. These four were the members of the revival group called Kabir Panth  . They had come to Ranchi for court cases against their landlords. The Lutherans, aware of the agrarian problems of the tribals, stood by them and advised them on court cases against the landlords. They also tried to educate and enlighten them through schools. The tribals slowly accepted the missionaries as their friends and even showed more interests in their faith, and many embraced Christianity in various places in Chotanagpur. They had also penetrated Gangpur and made some converts.


The impact of the missionaries’ presence in Chotanagpur threatened the landlords. They began to create hurdles for them. Another adverse event took place around that time. In 1857 there was a rebellion against the British called the Sepoy Mutiny. This forced the missionaries to flee to Calcutta. The  mission work got a serious setback among the tribals, so also the attempts for agrarian reforms.

The arrival of Jesuits in Chotanagpur

The Belgium Jesuits had taken a charge of the Bengal mission in 1859. It was spread over southern Bihar, northern Orissa and eastern Madhya Pradesh beside Bengal. The first missionary from Bengal descended among the tribals of Chotanagpur in 1869. He was Fr. P.A. Stockman SJ. He started his mission of winning souls for Christ in Chaibasa in the district of Singhbhum. But even after four years of his work there, he could not make any converts among the Ho tribe, his first converts were a few Munda families living there. Later more Jesuit priests came to other parts of Chotanagpur. The older priests among them considered it out of the scope of their apostolate to fight against the agrarian problems of the people. As a result they made very little impact on the people, nor could they get them to accept the faith. But the younger men thought differently, they studied the problems and worked for their redressal. Leading among them was Fr. Constant Livens SJ, who, during his reconnaissance of the area got acquinted with a good Hindu friend, a police officer of Torpa. This officer not only gave him the key of a room to live in but also to his future success. ‘ If  you  want to  make  Christians  then  take  upon   yourself  the  defence  of  Mundasn , chiefly  in questions  of  land , rent  and forced  labour’ (beth begari). He took the cue, met people, studied their problems and successfully defended not only the Mundas, but also the other tribes in their land disputes and own them over in thousands for Christ. This was in the later part of the 19th century. This mass movement towards Christianity had no parallel in the history of India for centuries.


Socio – Political Situation Gangpur


Conditions of the tribals in Gangpur were not dissimilar from those of the tribals in Chotanagpur. They too were under the oppressive yoke of the unscrupulous rulers and their henchmen, even in the first half of the 20th century. Beth begari  was imposed on the subjects by the Raja. Besides, the rapacious Zamindars, backed by some unworthy policemen, were out to deprive these miserable people of their fields and preferred to see them run away to the tea plantations in Bengal and Assam. Beth begari  at every level was demanded of them, at the top level by the Raja and at lower level by the service chiefs (landlords, ganjus, etc.). Besides begari  by which the ganjus  got their fields cultivated, they had employed unjust ways to get a share of the produce from the ryots and even snatching their fields by getting rid of them from the place through persistent harassment, the people in frustration left the village to save their lives.

Impact of the Chotanagpur Mass Movement on Gangpur

In course of time the tribals of Chotanagpur heard about the land settlements and other movements taking palce in Chotanagpur through the intervention of the Jesuits missionaries and how their kinsmen there were embracing Christianity en masse. They, too, wished to set themselves free from the oppression of the landlords, by becoming Christians. So they sent deputations to the missionaries to neighbouring mission centres in Bihar often requesting tyhem to accept them into the Catholic Church , in 1898 July form Gangpur, in 1902 from Kesramal, in 1906 from Gaibira, in 1907 from Hamirpur. The Chotanagpur mission was then under the care of Msgr. Goethals, the Archbishop of Calcutta. He was unwilling to start a mission in Gangpur because he neither had the personnel nor the means to take due care, even of the already existing mission centre. His order not to enter Gangpur remained in force till his death in 1901.

There was an another obstacle. The Catholic mission at that time had received orders from the British Government in India not to begin missionary activities in the native states without previous leave. When deputations from Gangpur became more frequent, missionaries from the Southern part of Chotanagpur – Rengari, Samtoli and Kurdeg – bordering Gangpur, visited them and enrolled them as Christians. The converts and the catechumens numbered 4,660. During these occasional visits the Fathers taught them about Jesus’ values or administered sacraments to them. But this was very inadequate considering the religious, social, education and economic background and need of Gangpur then. People needed through religious instruction and education to strengthen them and to remove superstition and other social evils from their midst. Hence it was imperative that there be mission centres in Gangpur. It was very difficult for priests to reach Gangpur, often due to problems like lack of good communication system (the only means available then being the bicycle, the horse or on foot), lack of personnel (the few priests who were in the field were overworked already), unfavourable climatic conditions (malaria and heat had been claiming the life of many priests in their prime), impassable hills and rivers, especially during the monsoon.

The first Mission Station in Gangpur

Monsignor Meuleman who succeded  Archbishop Goethals in Calcutta was keen to extend missionary activity in Gangpur. Fr. Grosjean, the rector of Mannresa House in Ranchi and Superior of Chotanagpur mission territory also was eager to lead support to this endeavour. Hence negotiations to start a mission centre was in progress from 1903 but the Raja of Gangpur was not in a mood to oblige, as he was already sore with the Lutheran missionaries to whom he had granted a similar permission in 1900. His complaint was that the missionaries had interfered in the internal administration of his Raj, by inciting the people not to pay tax, free labour (begari ), etc. The after effects of the Birsa Movement also threatened him. His negative attitude was expressed in his reply to Fr. John Baptist Hoffman SJ, who had approached him with the request. “ So much trouble with one mission. If I get a second one they will drive me out of my Raj.” However he had relented when another request came from Archbishop Meuleman of Calcutta in 1906 with a recommendation of Lt. Governor of Bengal with a threat of force. Thus in the beginning of 1907 Fr. Cardon SJ, acquired 7.50 acres of land at Kesramal,, 11 kms. North of Rajgangpur on the Bengal Nagpur Railway.

The first mission of Gangpur started functioning from Kesramal on 13th May 1908, with over 4000 baptised Christians, and nearly 11,000 expressing their desire to accept Christianity. The mass movement was set in motion in Gangpur also. It got momentum with the arrival of Fr. Alary S.J. and Fr. Sylvan Grosjean S.J. to Kesramal, and their successors kept up the trend. Both the pioneers of Gangpur laid down their lives at Kesramal – Fr. Grosjean on 6th September 1915 and Fr. Alary on 10th July 1918.

The Expansion of the Mission – New Responsibilities of the Missionaries

By 1940 there were five mission centres in Gangpur, namely Kesramal (1908), Hamirpur (1919), Gaibira (1922), Jhunmur (1924) and Kusumdegi (1936). The missionaries stuck to the evangelisation methods followed by fellow Jesuits in Chotanagpur. They toured the villages and listened to the problems which the people narrated regarding rent, land dispute, unpaid labour and oppression at the hands of the landlords, police and others. The people were advised and guided in the court cases held at Suadi (Sundargarh), the capital of Gangpur State. The missionaries also sought help from the Dewan  (Chief Minister) Mr. Craven (and Mr. Christian later) an Englishman who was sympathetic to the cause of the people as well as the missionaries. As in Chotanagpur, here too, the people own many court cases and were under the protection of the missionaries. Their understanding and encouraging attitude naturally attracted more tribals to embrace their faith and the number of Christian (catechumens included) rose to over 50,000.

A missionary’s task does not end with accepting people into the church by  baptising them, his responsibilities multiply after that. The new members need to be followed up to the strengthened in their faith. The catechumens have to know the teachings of Jesus Christ and be ready to live them in their day-to-day life. Hence they ought to be thoroughly instructed in the faith and doctrine before they are accepted into the fold of the church. In Gangpur, however, the missionaries had to relax this practice while exhorting the tribals to become Christians. If they had adhered to the usual practice, they might never had succeeded in bringing them to the church, once their agrarian troubles were over and they got relief from their oppressors. So, though they knew fully well that the motive behind the tribals for accepting Christianity was not primarily their attraction to its ideology but the settlement of their socio-economic problems and liberation from the centuries old oppression by the privileged classes, they went ahead with the mass movement in the hope that after having won their confidence, gradually they could be instructed properly in the new faith, and their motives elevated.

They continued their support for the people against their oppressors by conscientizing them about their rights and duties, and encouraging them to stand up and raise their voice against social discrimination and injustice. Their oppressors still considered them and even treated them as barbarians (uncivilized/junglees) or as animals. Beth begari  crushed them. In Bonai where some tribals were taken for work from elsewhere had no food to eat, as their supply had run out. When they asked to go home to get provisions they were told to eat mud (mutti khavo). These poor people had to be liberated from such oppression, they had to gain self-confidence and self-respect and freedom from fear and injustice. This was an uphill task but a very important one and had to be done carefully and without much delay.


The Effect of World War I on the Mission

The war had caused a serious problem in the work of the mission due to non-availibility of personnel and funds from abroad. Many Christians were falling away from their faith in some places, due to the inability of the missionaries to reach out to them to give them spiritual succour either by themselves or through others like pracharaks (catechists). Also at this time many Christians were drawn by the revival movements lie Tana Bhagatism. In some other cases there were efforts to wean people away from the Church and reconvert them to paganism. To extract benefit, the chowkidars  with their government uniform, threatened them to give up their faith, even the people of their own tribe tried to intimidate them saying that they lost their tribal status.

The Church had to pool all the scant resources to stem this erosion in its fold and work for the social, economic and spiritual welfare of the people. They had to go forward to challenge the existence dominance of the upper classes by defending the oppressed ones and upholding their human dignity. The priests travelled untiringly across the interior village on foot or on horse/mule back and at times on elephant, later when roads began to be constructed, by bicycle, braving inclement weather along the difficult terrain to reach out to the people. To all places, they went with provisions for the duration of their stay (to avoid strain on people), a cook and catechists. Even Sisters had gone visiting villages walking or on horseback crossing rivers and thick jungles. In the villages they called meetings to discuss and plan religious and socio-economic matters. Their simple ascetic life and their identification with the people had an impact on the tribals. They trusted them and readily listened to them.


Towards Socio-Economic Change

The society was still sharply divided into rich and poor and the relationship between them was one of the dominance and servitude. The tribals, both Christians and non-Christians belonged to the poor landless exploited class. Hence economic transformation had to be started to keep away from the clutches pf moneylenders and usurers. With this in mind a banking system was introduced. People were instructed and encouraged to save even a small amount and deposit it in the co-operative bank from which they could borrow money at nominal interest and, thus, prevent them from taking loans on exorbitant interest. Similarly the Dan Golas (grain banks) too would come in handy in times of need, crop failure, sowing again if no germination took place, etc. The Nisha Sangat (Temperance Society) would help people to cope up with the tendency to drunkness and destruction of family life. In due course all these led to a social, economic, cultural and attitudinal change among the tribals as a result of their acceptance of the Christian faith.

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