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Indian tribal people push for separate religious code

Change would allow tribal communities to identify as Sarna instead of Hindu, Christian or others

Indian tribal people push for separate religious code

Indian tribal people at a protest meeting demanding a separate religious code ahead of the upcoming national census in New Delhi on April 25. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)

Published: April 26, 2022 05:24 AM GMT

Updated: April 26, 2022 10:34 AM GMT

Tribal people from nine Indian states have reiterated their decade-old demand to be identified as Sarna, a distinct religious category from options like Hindu, Christian or others, in the national census.

Around 500 protesters including tribal Christians in their traditional attire assembled at the Jantar Mantar venue in the national capital Delhi on April 25 to press for the provision to mark their Sarna religion during enumeration in the upcoming census.

The protesters, who came from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam and Mizoram, presented a memorandum to Home Minister Amit Shah, Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda, and the census commissioner.

The decennial census was due to be held in 2021 but due to the coronavirus pandemic, it may now be conducted by the end of 2022. If the Sarna religious code is approved by the federal government before the census exercise begins, members of tribal communities will be able to identify themselves in a separate column classifying them as a distinct religion.

“It will help preserve our age-old languages, traditions, customs and identity,” said Prem Shahi Munda, national secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Dharma Parishad, a national council of Indian tribal people belonging to various religions.

Tribal leaders say that between 1872 and 1941 the census had a column called “Adivasi [tribal] religion” and tribal people were recorded as the third-largest population of the country. But during the 1951 census, it was removed and tribal people were enumerated as Hindu, Christian or others.

“Tribal people are nature worshipers who treat the forests, mountains, rivers, etc, as their deities. They do not belong to any religious group”

The state government in tribal-dominated Jharkhand passed a resolution on Nov. 11, 2020, urging the federal government to introduce a separate column for followers of the Sarna religion in the upcoming census.

Mukti Prakash Tirkey, president of the Akhil Bhartiya Vikas Parishad, said Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh states had been demanding the federal approval of Sarna code ever since these states were created in 2000, purportedly to protect tribal interests.

Tirkey, a Catholic tribal leader, said tribal civilization, culture and languages were distinct from other Indian groups. Representatives of tribal communities from 19 states had in 2019 protested in New Delhi demanding the right to choose the tribal or aboriginal religion as an option in the census or any other government application forms.

Currently, all non-Christian tribal people, who form the majority of some 9 million tribal people in India, are forced to record their religion as Hindu.  

“Tribal people are nature worshipers who treat the forests, mountains, rivers, etc, as their deities. They do not belong to any religious group other than Sarna,” Tirkey said. 

But there are some activists who have raised concerns about the nomenclature.

Some experts doubt if members of tribal communities across different regions identifying themselves with different names can be brought under a single code or category

Sanjay Basu Mallik of Jangal Bachao Andolan (movement to save forests) was quoted by Down to Earth magazine as saying that the term Sarna was not common to all the adherers of a naturalistic religion based on the worship of forests, rivers and mountains.

He was also against the idea of equating the Sarna with tribal people only and felt it should be open to all who worship nature.

Some experts doubt if members of tribal communities across different regions identifying themselves with different names can be brought under a single code or category. Others believe this is hardly an issue on the grassroots level.

Hindu groups often pitch tribal people against Christians by saying the tribal people are part of Sanatan Dharma or the eternal Hindu religion.  

However, in the run-up to the 2019 parliamentary elections, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party had promised that if voted to power it would implement the long-pending demand of the tribal people for a separate Sarna code.

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