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Christianity among the Santals
The study of the Santals’ Traditions and Institutions would be incomplete without taking into account the influence of Christian missionaries. The history of the origin of the Catholic Church in Bangladesh goes back to the second half of the 16th century. There were Catholics in Hoshenpur of Mymensingh district and Sripur near Sonargaon, the old capital city of Eastern Bengal. In 1606, Mylapore (near present-day Madras in India) was erected as a diocese and the mission stations of Bengal were placed under its jurisdiction. At that time the Augustinians, the first missionaries in Bangladesh, established two mission stations at Nagori (1664) and Tejgaon (1677). In 1834, a Vicariate Apostolic of Bengal was created under the jurisdiction of the Propagation of Faith. In 1850, it was divided into two: Vicariate Apostolic of Eastern Bengal and Vicariate Apostolic of Western Bengal. The Vicariate Apostolic of Eastern Bengal with headquarters at Dhaka was entrusted to the newly-founded Congregation of the Holy Cross in 1852. On September 1, 1886 Dhaka was canonically erected as the Diocese of Dhaka.
The territory comprising the Dioceses of Dinajpur and Rajshahi in North Bengal, was first evangelized by the Spanish Carmelite Missionaries in the 17th century. This territory became part of the Mission of Krishnagar (now the Diocese of Krishnagar in West Bengal, India) since the middle of the 19th century. The members of the Congregation of Pontificio Istituto Missioni Estere, popularly known as PIME Missionaries first came to work in this territory in 1855 and have been working there ever since. The presence of Roman Catholics in North Bengal can be traced back to the end of 19th century. The first conversion among the Santals took place in 1909. As Fr. Pinos mentioned:
… during one of his travels by train, Railway Chaplain Fr. Rocca was approached by a Santal who was on his way to court for a long drawn case. He was Fagu Mistri Soren, the village chief of Dhanjuri. … So he said, ‘Saheb, I am from Dhanjuri. Why don’t you come to visit us ?’ Fr. Rocca accepted the invitation and one day in 1906 he arrived in Dhanjuri. Phudhon Mardi took the arrival of the father…. He was exultant in seeing the priest and gave him hospitality. Fr. Rocca, who was a very engaging personality, was invited to come again. He obliged, and on February 21, 1909 baptised Phudhon and his eldest son Pitor.
Fr. Francesco Rocca can be called the pioneer and apostle of the Santals in Bengal. At the very beginning of the 20th century, this very engaging person, Fr. Rocca had been residing at Pakuri, south of Ganges (Diocese of Krishnagar). January 29, 1902 is the memorable day on which for the first time, a visit was paid by Fr. Rocca to the village of Bagunbari in North Bengal (two miles south of the present Beneedwar Parish). Gabriel Topno (a native of Chotonagpur in India), a Munda tribal and a staunch Roman Catholic migrated to Begunbari. Fr. Rocca remained a few days with Gabriel and there he celebrated mass for him, baptised his children and looked around the area. This first visit was just the beginning for Fr. Rocca.
As mentioned above, Fr. Rocca again visited Dhanjuri in 1906 at the request of Fagu Mistri Soren and paid a second visit in February 1909 when he baptised Phudon Mardi and his eldest son Pitor.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a Baptist Foreign Missionary took residence at a place called after him Sahebganj (southernmost corner of the Rangpur district) and began evangelizing the Santals of the area. But he departed for home for his sudden sickness.
In 1911-1912, Fr. Rocca and newly arrived Fr. E. Ferrario started touring the villages of the Santals in the area of Sahebganj and baptised many Santals. Thus from 1910 onward, it was really a time of harvest for the PIME Missionaries. As a result, in 1927, the Diocese of Dinajpur was canonically erected comprising the entire North Bengal (Rajshahi Division) and was entrusted to the PIME Missionaries under the Rt. Rev. Santino Taveggia, the first PIME bishop of Dinajpur.
The Christian missionary activity began to flourish slowly among the Santals. In 1927, there were 12,503 Christians in Dinajpur Diocese with mission centres at Saidpur, Dhanjuri, and Beneedwar. The same year, the first book on Christian literature was printed in the Santali language; two new mission centres were established at Andharkota and Mariampur. Also a Catechetical formation centre and a Minor Seminary were constructed at Dinajpur. In 1928, Fr. G. Obert (third bishop of Dinajpur) published the first Santali Bulletin which stimulated many Santals to embrace Christianity. Fr. Lambert Mardi was the first Santal diocesan priest in the history of Bangladesh.
During World War II, missionary activity was almost entirely interrupted because of the banishment of the Missionaries; though some converts reverted to their traditional religion, the majority remained faithful like sheep without shepherd. Again, the great famine in 1942-1943 increased the crisis among the Santals. The relief programme of the Missionaries saved many Santals during this famine, and this encouraged a large number of Santals to embrace Christianity.
The evangelizing activity among the Santals grew remarkably in North Bengal after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. The present records of the two dioceses, Dinajpur and Rajshahi, in North Bengal show that 27,769 Santals (which forms 42.18% of the total 65,824 Catholics) have already embraced Christianity and there is a clear possibility of mass conversion among the Santals. The Catholic Church in Bangladesh is aware of the possibility and is engaged directly and indirectly in proclaiming the gospel among the Santals. There are a good number of reasons which can help to explain the conversion of the Santals to Christianity. The most influential among these are educational and philanthropic activities, medical care, a feeling of security in the midst of oppression and massive injustice, social and economic welfare, political security, fraternal love and care, good will, respect, etc..
Unfortunately, the history of the Santals can be described as a history of exploitation and oppression. Throughout their life, the Santals have experienced continuous harassment, oppression and exploitation by the landlords and money-lenders. Thus one of the fundamental reasons behind the conversion of the Santals is the desire to gain freedom from oppression and harassment. L. Knockaert is right in his statement: “Show the Santal an interest in his land and you have found a way to his heart”. In fact, many Santals have embraced Christianity as a defence against the extortion of the landlords and money-lenders. Despite the unceasing work of the Church, one may ask why Christianity has not made greater headway ? The best answer to this question is already given by J. Troisi:
The most deep-rooted objection is the fact that the Christian method of evangelization often tended to draw the Santals out of their own milieu, consequently posing a serious problem of tribal solidarity and making the converts feel insecure.
 While discussing Christianity, we shall limit our attention to the Roman Catholic Christians only because the great majority of the Santals belong to the Roman Catholic Church.
 Cf. CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE OF BANGLADESH, The Catholic Directory of Bangladesh 1995, Dhaka 1995, pp. 46-47.
 L. PINOS, Catholic Beginnings in North Bengal, Dhaka 1994, p. 10 (hereafter cited as Catholic Beginnings …).
 Cf. L. PINOS, Catholic Beginnings … , pp. 2-62.
 Cf. L. SCUCCATO, I Santal, Dhanjuri 1983 (A Paper presented at a meeting).
 Cf. J. TROISI, Tribal Religion … , p. 226.