Adivasis are not Hindus. Lazy colonial census gave them the label

Adivasis are not Hindus. Lazy colonial census gave them the label

There is a reason Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren’s statement at Harvard’s India Conference that Adivasis were never Hindus rattled the BJP and RSS.

Representational image | Ministry of Tribal Affairs

Recently, the chief minister of Jharkhand and leader of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Hemant Soren admitted that Adivasis were never Hindus and neither are they now. This was in response to his attempt to get Sarna Code approved by the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. The Sarna Code establishes a distinct, honourable identity for the Adivasis away from the Hindu identity — which is usually assumed as such for the Tribals. The dominant caste savarna Hindus have taken for granted the status of Adivasi and Dalits as being Hindu. It is used to construct a false notion of Hindu majority and thereby establish Bharat nation as Hindus’ land – Hindustan.

After Soren’s statement, the entire Hindu consensus, and especially the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), got rattled. They were shaken to the core. The mouthpiece of the RSS, Organiser, immediately released a statement accusing Soren of “parroting evangelical propaganda”. The RSS’ political offshoot, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), followed with accusations at Soren that he was benefiting from Christian missionaries.

A sitting, democratically elected chief minister and arguably the tallest leader of Adivasis in the country was put to test by caste denialists. The Constitution of India gives the responsibility to the State and society to protect and preserve Adivasi tradition as unique to India’s history. But the savarna advocates of the Hindu mission insist on Hinduising the Adivasis.

The idea of Hindustan is enveloped as majoritarian nationalism. It is used by liberals, radicals, nationalists alike. When one declares the national Indian identity as one tied to the Hindu past, it brushes aside the glorious histories of independent, autonomous, anti-Brahminical legacy of the native people. The natives of India can be broadly classified into Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), and Other Backward Class (OBC) in constitutional terms. These natives were relegated to the lower status by the advent of Brahminism. Pushyamitra Shunga was one of the important Brahmin actors to have ironed the definition of political varna, which gave rise to the clean distinction of varna-based political economy. This meant extermination of Sramana traditions — those that gave rise to Jainism and Buddhism.

Almost everyone in the country falsely promotes the idea of Hindu majoritarianism. The defender and opponents alike use this historically incorrect and sociologically impossible definition of Hindu majoritarianism. The liberals get a piece of cake for framing the recent identity of Hindu-Muslim binarism. I have repeatedly opposed such limiting binaries. These binaries obviate Adivasis and Dalits as non-existing, useless, and irrelevant categories of people without any history of their own. Turns out, these binaries are the relic of the census data that have classified majority (Hindu) and minority (Muslim). Thus, the majoritarian consensus doesn’t need rationalisation. It can be qualified based on assumptions and beliefs — it becomes a matter of faith.

Fraudulent Census of India

Hindu majority is a faulty idea on many counts. It is a fraud committed by census takers from the time of British colonialism. The construction of Hindu is ahistorical. There is no prevalence of Hindu or Hinduism before the British census started putting Hindu as an identity in its census in 1881. Although the census was to take off in 1861 but the 1857 rebellion quashed those efforts. In 1872, it finally started to take shape but did not cover all of India.

Though British census was faulty, it gave the administration enough to regulate laws and decide for the ruled mass. Better governance was the primary objective of the State and knowing more about this extremely diverse nation was pursued by curious anthropologists. As census started to formalise over the years, Hindu began to become a more known identity. The Brahmins, as usual, jumped on this proposition to claim ownership over recently manufactured pan-India Hindu identity. Initially, the census covered disparate provinces.

The census chart of religion later classified into groups such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Parsi, Jewish, and Animist. Animist meant the aboriginal tribes who had not yet come under the influence of Hinduism, argues census scholar Bhagat. When Hindu was introduced in the census, there arose enormous problems. How to define a Hindu? There were two broad classifications of Shaivites and Vaishanvities, who were bitterly divided over the common belief. Then there are those who classify as Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj. Add to it the enormous divisions of caste and independent religious practices. Nevertheless, it had to be defined.

Hindu is anyone who is not “European, Armenian, Moghul, Persian or other foreign descent, who is a member of a recognised caste, who acknowledges the spiritual authority of Brahmans (priestly caste), who venerates or at least refuses to kill or harm kine, and does not profess any creed or religion which the Brahman forbids him to profess” [sic].

This gave a push for Brahmin interpreters like Arya Samaj, who merrily accepted this adjustment and promoted a common Indian identity as being Hindu. Social reformers at the time and the Congress party embraced this fallacious identity by setting a political agenda of mythical Hindu supremacist past. This worked in two ways. The first was to establish a historical sense of sovereignty in the past, and the second was to counter the European colonisers as ahistorical barbarous.

In 1911 census, Hindus were separated as genuine and non-genuine. The latter were those who denied Vedas, authority of Brahmins, did not have Brahmins into the fold, ate beef and did not revere cows.

This intervention by the British officials led many in the postcolonial scholarship to believe that caste was highlighted and incoherently promoted by the British. Thus, the controversial argument of caste becoming sharper during British period prevailed in the thesis of Bernard Cohn and Nicholas Dirks. Many in the Right-wing interpreted this to say that the British imported caste from Europe by giving it an anglicised taste.

Census of 21st Century

The 2001 census found 1,700 religious categories apart from the dominant ones. They were clubbed into the ‘Other’ column. Adivasis are also clubbed into this. However, it is now being taken out in 2021 census, which indirectly puts them in the column of Hindu or other religious groups, Hemant Soren gestured.

The Indian State has issued the Socio-Economic Caste Census separate from the rest of the nation. The report is disturbing because it shows the marginalisation of Dalits and Adivasis on each level. The purpose of post-independence Indian census was to record the lives and stories of those on the margins in order to protect them.

Thus, the celebration of postcolonial nationalism does not only mean changing of colonial-era names and laws but getting rid of colonial-era laws and ignorant identities. India is an extremely complicated country. Each region, caste, sect, religion has its own history, and they are a nation in themselves. We cannot afford to combine them under a pretence of British-given identity. To rescue Adivasis from the stranglehold of Hindu is the real work of Birsa Munda, Sidhu, Kanhu Murmu, and Narayan Singh among scores of heroes and heroines.

The Brahmin and other Savarna castes only seem to care about Adivasis when the Christian missionaries are taking the word of equality propounded in their religion. Tribals like Dalits on the coastal regions and in Southern India immediately converted to Christianity in the colonial era as they did during the colonial Mughals to Islam. Brahmins, through organisations like the RSS, have started to convert Tribals to the Hindu fold. This is not very different from what Christian missions do.

Everyone who is indigenous to the land and worship their ancestral gods should be allowed to register as a non-Hindu with separate identity. As the Census of India 2001 report on religion stated, India is host to “indigenous faiths tribal religions which have survived the influence of major religions for centuries and are holding the ground firmly”. The Census of India is an ideal way to establish yourself without relying on the patronage of the oppressive majority. By forcing Dalits, Adivasis and many backward classes into the Hindu fold, the savarnas assume an undemocratic, unelected majority. The Adivasis and Dalits should be allowed to have a separate column in the religious census. This will be a tribute to their contribution to India’s freedom struggle and the nation as a whole.

Dr Suraj Yengde is Senior Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of Caste MattersHe hosted Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren at the 18th edition of India Conference at Harvard. Views are personal.

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