Are Indian Tribals Hindus: Part I

The previous piece on the subject had offered a curtain raiser to this very crucial topic affecting the integrity and even the sovereignty of Bharata as a nation. Beginning with the British anthropological studies of Indian society as both a whole and up to its minute constituents, the academic and popular discourse on tribals has proceeded on racist and separatist lines. The Nehruvian academia which continues to exert inordinate influence on public discourse has further heightened and deepened this same colonial discourse to great detriment to the health and well-being of Indian society. It is therefore time to tell the truth about Indian tribals. Beginning with this essay, IndiaFacts will carry a series that examines in depth the question of whether Indian tribals are Hindus, authored by a scholar of high standing, Shrikant Talageri.

Are the tribals of India “Hindus”? The legal position on this question is very clear. According to the Constitution of India, laws framed for Hindus apply to the following three categories of people:

(a) to any person who is a Hindu by religion in any of its forms and developments, including a Virashaiva, a Lingayat or a follower of the Brahmo, Prarthana or Arya Samaj,

(b) to any person who is a Buddhist, Jain or Sikh by religion, and

(c) to any other person domiciled in the territories to which this Act extends who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion.

caThus, according to the constitution, every citizen of India, except a Muslim, a Christian, a Parsi or a Jew, is legally a Hindu. The constitution draws a distinction between three categories of legal Hindus:

(a) Hindus Category One (consisting of all those who can still be categorised as full-fledged Hindus within the Hindu religious fold, including members of sects having antecedents traceable to mainline Hindu religious texts or individuals),

(b) Hindus Category Two (consisting of members of the three sects, namely Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, founded by Hindu individuals, which originated as sects within the Hindu religious fold, but, in the course of history, came to acquire a more distinctive religious identity), and

(c) Hindus Category Three (consisting of members of indigenous religious groups native to India, not founded by any particular individual, following ancestral forms of belief or worship not specifically having antecedents traceable to mainline Hindu religious texts or sects).

The people who are outside this purview themselves belong to two categories:

(a) ex-Hindus, i.e. Muslims and Christians, who, by and large, are converts from the Hindu fold, and

(b) non-Hindus, i.e. Jews and Parsis, who, in spite of different degrees of intermingling with local people, are by and large historical descendants of non-Hindu refugees or migrants from outside India.

The basic criterion on which the constitution divides the Indian population into legal Hindus and legal non-Hindus is clear:

(a) members of all religions which originated within India are legally Hindus, and

(b) members of all religions which originated outside India are legally non-Hindus.

When the legal definition of who is a Hindu is so loud and clear, why should it became necessary at all to discuss the question of whether or not tribals are Hindus? Obviously, all tribals who have not actually converted to Christianity or Islam are Hindus.

But, in India, things are not so simple. It becomes necessary to thrash out the question of whether or not tribals are Hindus, because Christian missionary organisations and their open or covert spokesmen, the leftist and secularist politicians, academicians and media persons, have made it a question which must be answered in detail.

According to the missionaries and their spokesmen, Indian tribals are not Hindus, and they are an open field for the missionaries to “harvest their souls”. Some of the spokesmen are kind enough to suggest that Hindus are also free to convert the tribals to Hinduism if they so wish. Tahir Mehmood, writing in the Hindustan Times of 28/1/1999, after arguing that tribals are not Hindus, concludes with this generous offer: “Hindu religious preachers can, thus, lawfully offer their religion to the tribals. So can the Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and followers of all other major religions. This can be done, by all communities, only peacefully and strictly within the legal parameters.”

As if Hindus desirous of converting anyone to Hinduism would be any match for the powerful and organised Christian missionary network in India, funded by powerful multi-billion dollar churches, foundations and evangelical groups in the U.S.A., Europe and Australia, and backed by western politicians, media and governments and the international organisations controlled by them (operating in the name of religious rights, human rights, civil rights, etc.) and with the overt and covert backing within India of the secularist establishment, the leftist academia and the American-funded media, not to mention the convent-educated middle-classes!

Of course, when Hindu organisations actually do make their piddling efforts to stem the evangelistic steam-rollers by spreading awareness among the tribals of their Hindu identity, they face a political and media blitzkrieg, and stand accused of “communalism” or “minority-bashing”.

Supporting Christian missionaries is an article of faith for secularism in India. When the secularist-leftist magazine Tehelka, in one of its early issues, carried detailed reports about the heavily funded and militarily organized subversive activities of foreign missionaries in India, there was a sharp reaction from prominent leftist and secularist personalities who wrote floods of letters to the magazine expressing shock at the publication of such reports in a secularist-leftist magazine, and accusing it of having betrayed secularism. Ever since, Tehelka is in the forefront of “reports” indicting “communal” Hindu organisations for harassing Christian missionaries and neo-Christian converts.

crossThe following is the most classic example of the nature of secularism in India, the status of Hinduism in India, and the power of the evangelists: the Times of India, on 3/1/1987, carried an article, entitled “RSS baits Church in Bihar tribal belt”, about tensions and rioting incidents in South Bihar (now Jharkhand) between Christian tribals and non-Christian tribals, highlighting a report by the PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) on the matter: “The report said that the missionaries had revolutionized the lives of poor tribals in the interior villages and have turned them into proud men and women… ‘RSS and other diehard communal Hindu organisations’ had entered the arena… They were trying to appeal to non-Christian tribals in the name of ‘Hinduism’ and organising various Hindu festivals, it said. This, the report said, ‘has given rise to the tension and conflict between the Christians and non-Christians, which suited the interest of the RSS’… The report said the missionaries have also reacted to the RSS challenge in a spirit of retaliation”.

In short, if powerful and super rich foreign missionaries enter into the interior heartland of India, and mass-convert large sections of tribals to their foreign religion by telling them that the religions, gods, beliefs and practices of their ancestors are “satanic” and will take them to hell, and that the only way to escape hell and attain heaven is to accept Christ and convert to their alien religion, this does not amount to “baiting” or provoking anyone, such as the tribals in particular or Hindus in general, or violating their civil rights. In fact, it amounts to turning the tribals “into proud men and women”! But if Hindu organisations (automatically “diehard communal”, since Hindu, in opposition to the presumably “tolerant and secular”, since Christian, missionaries!) enter these areas within their own country, and appeal to the local people in the name of their ancestral religions, and actually have the gall to “organize Hindu festivals”, it naturally amounts to gross “baiting” and provocation of the foreign missionaries and violation of their civil rights. And if there is any “retaliation” by the missionaries to this “baiting”, it is of course excusable as a perfectly natural and justifiable “reaction” to these gross provocations by the communalists. And of course civil rights organisations have to rush to the protection and defence of these poor, helpless and oppressed missionaries, and the hapless plight to which they have been reduced by “RSS baiters” has to be propagated in our secular press!

Another example from a second leading national newspaper: “In the last two decades, religious organisations claiming monopoly over spiritual knowledge have moved into these parts and started branding the age-old ways that enabled people of different communities to live in harmony as ‘corrupt’, ‘evil’, or simply ‘wrong’. The uniqueness of the local culture is being obliterated by these outfits, which are painting religion in one uniform shade, advocating a way of life they claim represents true faith. In doing so, they are sowing the seeds of fundamentalism, and seem to be quite happy doing it”. Doesn’t this sound like a description of Christian missionaries, who claim to have a “monopoly over spiritual knowledge” since their religion and God are the only true ones (all others being false religions and Gods who can only lead to hell), who “move into” different areas of the world to spread this message, who compel people to leave their “age-old ways” of worship and religion because these are “‘corrupt’, ‘evil’, or simply ‘wrong’”, and seek to obliterate everywhere “the uniqueness of the local culture” by trying to paint the whole world in one international imperialistic “fundamentalist” colour?

Wrong! This is a description (in an Indian Express article, 11/10/98, “Converting History”, by Rajesh Sinha, describing the situation in certain parts of Rajasthan) condemning the VHP and other Hindu organisations for having “started competing with Christian missionaries in establishing schools [etc.]”, thereby leading to “most Christian converts now returning to the Hindu fold”. The writer, with a straight face, tells us: “In the process, the saffron hawks are changing the face of Rajasthan, where once communal identity was a matter of little importance”. Is this some kind of incurably perverted mental sickness, or is it the power of the dollar?

It must be noted that the question of whether tribals are Hindus or not is, strictly speaking, not material to the larger question of conversions as such, since it is not a Christian claim that they intend to convert only non-Hindus to Christianity. Conversion of every living non-Christian human being to Christianity is the central dogma of evangelical Christianity. In rural and urban areas alike, large numbers of people belonging to every caste and community, not excepting brahmins, are being converted day and night by these all powerful evangelists. Recently, the Mufti of Kashmir passed a fatwa against Kashmiri Muslims being converted to Christianity: the Indian Express, already in 6/4/2003, had carried a detailed news report about the large-scale conversions of Muslim youths to Christianity by American evangelists in Kashmir.

popeIn fact, different Christian sects all over the world are even engaged in feverish conversion of each other’s “flock”: Pope John Paul II, while addressing the Fourth General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Santo Domingo, 1992, exhorted the bishops to protect their “flock” from “rapacious wolves” (i.e. from the cash-rich American fundamentalist churches and sects engaged in large-scale conversions of Latin American Catholics) [The same Pope, in November 1999, in his public meeting in Delhi, exhorted the Indian Catholics to continue their evangelistic efforts to make India a (Catholic) Christian land!].

Therefore, it would appear that the question of whether Indian tribals are Hindus or not is only an academic question since the evangelist Christians want to convert them anyway, whether or not they are Hindus. But, nevertheless it is still a very important question from the point of view of missionary propaganda:

  1. a) to tell the tribals that they are not Hindus and have no connections with the larger Hindu society around them,
  1. b) to tell the world, as in the above case (of the RSS “baiting” the Church in Bihar’s tribal belt), that the converted tribals were not Hindus in the first place, and so it is no business of the Hindus to interfere if the tribals are converted to Christianity, and
  1. c) to tell posterity that Hinduism is as foreign a religion to India as Christianity, in the name of the Aryan invasion theory, as the tribals, mischievously named “adivasis” (a word coined by British administrators in the 1930s to suggest that the tribals are the “aborigines” or “original inhabitants” of India and that other Indians are not), represent “pre-Aryan” religions while Hinduism is an “Aryan” religion brought by “Aryan invaders” from outside. [Note that anyone who rejects the idea that India’s non-tribals are outsiders in India, and calls the tribals “vanavasis” instead of “adivasis”, is automatically branded as “communal”!]

Therefore, it is imperative to examine whether or not Indian tribals are Hindus, and this is what we will be doing in this article.

Again, it must be noted that the question is two-fold. As we saw, there are three categories of legal Hindus in India. In this first part of the article, we will only examine the following question: to what extent can India’s tribals be said to belong to “Hindu Category Three” rather than to “Hindu Category One”? In the second part of this article, we will examine the following question: To what extent can Indian tribals belonging to “Hindu Category Three” be considered to be distinct enough from “Hindu Category One” as to justify the three above points of missionary propaganda? The question we are examining in this first part of the article is vital to the whole discussion because it tells us what the tribals themselves have to say about whether or not they belong to “Hindu Category One”:

It must be remembered that the final conclusive evidence about a person’s religious identity is what that person himself/herself declares it to be. The figures we are presenting here are the figures for the religious composition of the different scheduled tribes (listed in the official lists of scheduled tribes for each state) in the different parts of India, as declared by the tribals themselves in the official census, as reported and documented in detail by a well-funded international missionary project called the Joshua Project (its site informs us that its figures for the different “ethnic people groups” of the world are “accurate, regularly updated”, to “encourage pioneer church-planting movements among every ethnic group and to facilitate effective coordination of mission agency efforts”). They are not figures presented by any “diehard communal Hindu organisations. On the contrary, they are a telling pointer to the malignantly motivated nature of the people (politicians, ideologues, “scholars”) who claim that India’s tribals are not Hindus but “animists”.

The figures must, further, be seen in the following three contexts:

1) In every other religion of the world, we find all the different sects of that religion claiming to be the truest, or only true, representative of that religion. Thus, Shias and Sunnis each claim to represent the truest form of Islam and accuse the other of being heretics or imperfect Muslims. Now, within Sunnis, the Wahhabis (Deobandis in India), AhleHadees and common Sunnis (Barelvis in India) each make the same claims. Likewise, in Christianity, every sect or Church – whether Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or pertaining to some new fundamentalist group – claims to represent the truest form of Christianity. It is only in the case of Hinduism that we see the opposite phenomenon of sects or erstwhile sects striving to prove that they are not Hindus. This is due to a combination of three factors: British machinations to this effect during the days of British rule, post-Independence laws (such as Article 30 of the constitution, among many others) which discriminate against Hindu sects and make it profitable for these sects to declare themselves non-Hindu, and the general Secularist paradigm in India which makes “Hindu” a word of abuse. All this led even an organisation like the Ramakrishna Mission (founded by Swami Vivekananda, best known for his representation of Hinduism in the World Congress of Religions) to approach the Indian judicial system to get itself declared as a non-Hindu minority group.

rkmAdd to this, the well-sustained campaigns by the missionaries and their entrenched spokesmen to brand the tribals as non-Hindus.

In the face of all this, if the Indian tribals declare themselves to be Hindu in the proportions indicated by the figures, what greater proof is required for the fact that they are indeed “Hindu Category One”?

2) In the case of the scheduled castes, the persons belonging to these castes lose the benefits of reservations on conversion to Christianity or Islam. Hence, we find many crypto-Christians (i.e. people who are converted Christians, but pretend to be, or even declare themselves to be, Hindu) among Christian converts from the scheduled castes. However, converts from the scheduled tribes do not lose the benefits of reservations on conversion to Christianity (or Islam); hence there is no practical compulsion for converts from the scheduled tribes to hide their new religious status.

Furthermore, it is also a fact that Christian converts from the tribals manage to corner most of the seats reserved for the tribals to the disadvantage of non-Christian tribals: there is a detailed report on this, with facts and figures, by S K Kaul, former Deputy Commissioner, Commission for the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, entitled “Christian converts corner the lion’s share of Reservation quota in services for Vanavasis”, in the Organiser, Republic Day Special, 1989.

Again, in the face of all this, if the Indian tribals declare themselves Hindu in the proportions indicated by the figures, what greater proof is required for the fact that they are indeed “Hindu Category One”?

3) In most of the states, the percentage of tribals who declare themselves to be Hindu is overwhelmingly higher than the percentage of the total populations, of the states concerned, who declare themselves Hindu. This makes the tribals even more emphatically “Hindu Category One” than the non-tribals!

Let us go on to the figures in the next part of this series.