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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 10 New Delhi, February 22, 2020

Are Adivasis Hindus? Forthcoming Census and RSS campaign

Friday 28 February 2020

by Ram Puniyani

Currently massive protests are going on against the NPR, NCR and CAA. At the same time we are going to begin the process of decadal census in 2021. Already the RSS is active in promoting the NPR, NCR and CAA. At the same time the 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 by 0.7 per cent point to touch 79.8 per cent. This has sent signals to this Hindu nationalist organisation which is planning to ensure that Adivasis tick the column of Hindus in this census.

As such the 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 fatherland are Hindus. This left out Muslims and Christians, and brought all others in the ambit of the Hindu fold. From the decade of the 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 the Hindu nationalist RSS, many Adivasi groups have been meeting for the last couple of years to demand just the contrary. As per them, there should be a column where they can tick the identity of Adivasis. There are active campaigns among Adivasi groups to uphold their Adivasi identity in the 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 Buddhist, the column ‘others’ was also there which was removed in 2011. Even during the British period if you look at the censuses of the British era (from 1871 to 1931), there was a provision for tribes to choose Aborigine as an option. There are nearly 83 religious practices being followed by Adivasis. A few 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.

The RSS, as per its political agenda of Hindu nation, regards them as Vanvasi. They pontificate that they have been part of the Hindu society but 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’, tells us that away from the race theory, we are all mixed up. The first inhabitants in our 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 the past are moulded according to that. The RSS, right from the beginning, has not been using the word Adivasi, it calls them Vanvasi. As per its agenda, it wants them to be part of the 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 the 1980s in particular, its work in the Adivasi areas has been intensified. While ‘Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram’, a part of the RSS combine, was formed much earlier, it was in the decades of the 1980s that their work was jacked up by sending more Pracharaks in Adivasi areas. We see that in Gujarat, Dangs and nearby areas, Swami Aseemanand, in MP, centered 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 resulted in 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 a series of religious congregations, Kumbhs. Shabri Kumbh in Dangs and many other in Adivasi predominant areas created an atmosphere of fear, Adivasis were asked to be part of it, saffron flags were distributed and they were made to put it in their houses. Two religious icons were popularised in these areas, one was Shabri and the other was Hanuman. To cap it all, Ekal Vidyalayas, started spreading the 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 supporters in the corporate world want to take over.

The aborigines the world over have a similar pattern. They are animists and what they practice 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 place in our census forms.

The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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