Census Dilemma

Are Adivasis Hindus?

Ram Puniyani

Currently massive protests are going on against NPR, NCR and CAA. At the same the government is going to begin the process of decadal census in 2021. Already Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is active in promoting NPR, NCR and CAA. At the same time RSS wants that Adivasis should register themselves as Hindus rather than ticking the column of 'Others'. As per their spokesperson in the 2011 census many Adivasis groups ticked that column because of which the population of Hindus came down to by 0.7 percent point to come down to 79.8 %. This has sent signals to this Hindu nationalist organisation and is planning to ensures that Adivasis tick the column of Hindus in this census.

As such RSS has a very clever attitude in defining the term Hindu. The first formulation was by Savarkar who said that all those who regard the land east of Indus as their Holy land and Father land are Hindus. This left out Muslims and Christians, and brought all others in the ambit of Hindu fold. From the decade of 1980s due to electoral compulsions they have been trying to articulate that all those who are living in India are Hindus. Murli Manohar Joshi stated that Muslims are Ahmadiya Hindus and Christians are Christi Hindus. Recently there was a controversy when they restated that Sikhs are not a separate religion but are a sect of Hinduism. Many Sikh organisations stood up to say that Sikhism is a religion by itself and recalled the book of Kahan Singh Nabha, "Hum Hindu Nahin".

As far as Adivasis are concerned in contrast to what is being planned by Hindu nationalist RSS, many Adivasis groups have been meeting from last couple of years to demand just the contrary. As per them there should be a column where they can tick their identity of Adivasis. There are active campaigns among Adivasis groups to uphold their Adivasi identity in Census. As per them in the first census which was conducted in Independent India, the column, Aborigines, was there, which was later removed forcing them to club themselves with other religions.

After 1951 in addition to Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain and Buddha, the column 'others ' was also there which was removed in 2011. Even during British period if one looks at the censuses of the British era (from 1871 to 1931); there was provision for tribes to choose Aborigine as an option. There are nearly 83 religious practices being followed by Adivasis. Few major of these are Sarna, Gondi, Punem, Adi, and Koya. What they share in common is that they are animists, worship nature and spirit of ancestors; do not have priestly class or Holy Scriptures and Gods and Goddesses characteristic of the broad Hindu pantheon.

RSS as per its political agenda of Hindu Nation regards them as Vanvasi. They pontificate that they have been part of Hindu society who were driven away to forests to escape the forcible conversion being done by the Muslim invaders. This concoction is contrary to the interpretations based on the studies from population genetics. The Hindu nationalist argues that Aryans have been the original inhabitants of the country from where they spread to other parts of the World. The book by Tony Joseph. 'Early Indians' narrates that away from the race theory people here are all mixed up. The first inhabitants in the land were the ones who emigrated from South Asia over Sixty thousand years ago.

The Indo-Aryans came here nearly three thousand years ago and they pushed the aborigines to the forests and hills and that's what constitutes the Adivasi community of India.

Hindu Nationalists like all the nationalists who construct their nationalism around their religion claim to be the most original inhabitants of the land, and their interpretations of past are moulded according to that. RSS right from beginning has not been using the word Adivasi, it calls them Vanvasi. As per its agenda it wants them to be part of Hindu fold, despite Adivasis themselves saying that they are not Hindus, they have beliefs and practices which are far away from Hinduism in whatever form.

To enhance its political reach from the decades of 1980s in particular its work in Adivasis areas has been intensified. While 'Vanvasis Kalyan Ashram', part of RSS combine which was formed much earlier, it was in the decades of 1980s that their work was jacked up by sending more Pracharaks in Adivasi areas. In Gujarat Dangs and nearby area, Swami Aseemanand, in MP, centred around Jhabua-the followers of Asaram Bapu and in Orissa Swami Laxmananad stationed them. They saw Christian missionaries working in the field of education and health as an obstacle to Hinduisation of Adivasis. Their propaganda against Christian missionaries led to the ghastly murder of Pastor Graham Stains. It was this propaganda which led to anti Christian violence in various forms, the most horrific being the Kandhamal violence of 2008.

In order to culturally co-opt them into the fold of Hinduism they began series of religious congregations, Kumbhs. Shabri Kumbh in Dangs and many other Adivasis predominant areas created an atmosphere of fear, Adivasis were asked to be part of it, saffron flags were distributed freely and they were made to put it in their houses. Two religious icons were popularised in these areas, one was Shabri and other was Hanuman. To cap it all, Ekal Vidyalavas. started spreading RSS's interpretation of history in these areas. The other angle of the whole thing is that Adivasis are living in the areas rich in minerals, which the BJP supporter Corporate World wants to take over.

World over aborigines have similar pattern. They are animists and what they practise is a culture as such. Many have converted to other religions out of their choice for sure, but finally in these matters what is important is the self perception. Hemant Soren, the Chief Minister of Jharkhand pointed out that "Adivasis are not Hindus. "Keeping that in mind; the column of Aborigines needs to find its proper place in the census forms.

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Vol. 52, No. 41, April 12 - 18, 2020