Religious leaders of the Sarna tribe have announced an agitation this December demanding that a statue of Virgin Mary be removed from a Catholic parish church in Singpur.

The religious leaders described the statue — Virgin Mary, hair tied in a bun, dressed as a tribal woman in a traditional red and white sari, wearing bangles and depicted holding an infant in a sling — as a proselytising ploy. Sarna religious leaders announced the agitation after the police imposed IPC Section 144 and stopped them from marching to the church in question on Sunday.

“We met the church representatives in May and had offered them three months to remove the statue. But the talks broke down because they ignored our request. They have dressed the statue in our traditional clothes so that over time the nature-worshipping tribals here start associating Mother with a tribal woman. This is a strategy for conversion and to attack our distinct culture,” said Sarna dharamguru Bandhan Tigga.

“We have announced our agitation to oppose not just this but other attacks on our faith in Bible Society publications which give false accounts of our religious practices describing them as uncivilised,” he alleged.

More than 27 Sarna religious groups have publicly demanded the removal of the statue, unveiled by the Archbishop of Ranchi Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, since May.Earlier in July, in villages near Ormanjhi, 20 km from Ranchi, members of the Protestant Assembly of God church had reported that some Sarna Adivasi leaders had threatened them with violence if their families did not convert back to the Sarna faith — a threat they said had occurred a few days after the statue controversy erupted.

“Three days after the statue was unveiled by Catholic priests, the Sarna society leaders called some families who had converted to Christianity several years ago in Ormanjhi and gave them a week to convert back to the Sarna faith. A week later, some men from the same group arrived in the village and broke the gate of one of our community member’s house,” said the pastor of a church in Ormanjhi who did not wish to be identified. A First Information Report was registered in the Ormanjhi police station.

The Catholic church has so far refrained from commenting on the controversy. “We wish to remain silent and have had no discussions amongst ourselves on this subject,” said Father Theodore Toppo.

“This is not a constructive approach by leaders of the Sarna faith and takes the focus away from more serious issues that affect tribals of all faiths, such as tribals’ rights to resources and land and their other constitutional rights. At the same time, the church representatives should come out of their shell, be gracious and offer to remove the statue and make a clear statement that we do not wish to offend anyone’s sentiments,” said Father Stan Swamy, a social activist.