How can people portray revered figures, like the icon of Mary and Jesus above from Ethiopia? News reports from Jharkhand in eastern India have described a conflict over a statue of the Virgin Mary. (View an image of the statue here.) Some leaders of the Sarna community, what is often labeled a “tribal” community in India, have complained that the statue depicts her in the traditional dress of the Sarna and with a dark complexion. Some have speculated that the image is designed to confuse the local population into associating the statue with the local goddess Sarna Ma, thus encouraging conversion to Christianity. Sarna who identified as Christians assert their right to present Mary in dress that they associate with their heritage. Subsuming local divine figures into a different configuration to facilitate conversion is often described as a common practice in different historical and regional contexts.
The accusations, though, are not merely descriptive accounts. They also construct strategic images of Sarna Ma, who looks like the local population, and of the Virgin Mary, who does not, thus making the image deceptive. Moreover, the assertions of some protestors that the Sarna are a community of Hindus who “cannot defend themselves,” thus needing other Hindus to protect them from the manipulation of Christian missionaries not only constructs a pejorative image of the Sarna but also associates them with the larger Hindu community despite the tenuous relationships between the label Hindu and tribal practices. The assertion that the local goddess is “Hindu” is also a strategic assertion that probably was not always accepted among her devotees. Certainly, the nineteenth century struggles of census takers to determine who should be recorded as Hindu and who should not, especially in tribal areas, focused on the division between what was considered obviously Hindu and local practices that had less connection to the Vedas and brahmanical authority.
This analysis, of course, can be extended further. The construction of the Sarna as a distinct community relies on its own strategic image, both for the local population and the outsiders who also apply that label to them. Extending this analysis to the nation of India is also feasible, as portions of contemporary India have not always identified with the rest of the subcontinent as a nation. In these ways, identifications that are useful today are treated as “strategic anachronisms,” read back into history as if they have always existed. Recognizing the strategic nature of identifications facilitates the analysis of the different interests that acts of identification promote.
[Photo credit: By A. Davey from Where I Live Now: Pacific Northwest [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]