Tribal protesters in traditional head dress gather in New Delhi on Feb. 18 to demand recognition of their religion in the 2021 census. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)
Some 1,000 tribals from across India including Christians gathered in the national capital to demand recognition of their religion in the 2021 census.
They sang, danced and displayed placards saying they were misguided by all the parties who had used them for their political gain without fulfilling their promises.
“There is a general conception that Adivasi or tribals, whichever state they come from, are Hindus, which is not correct because tribals worship nature. They worship rivers, forests, mountains and any source through which they get life, food and air,” Arvind Oraon, president of the National Adivasi Indigenous Religion coordinating committee, told UCA News.
“Our simple demand is that when the government starts the survey in the coming few months, there should be a separate column where we can register ourselves as tribals, not as Hindus as listed in the past.”
In the 1951 census, the ninth column for religion was “tribe,” which was later removed. Due to its removal, the tribal population were obliged to embrace different religions, causing a major loss to their communities.
“Tribal communities have been demanding recognition for decades, but no party listened to our pleas, so with the upcoming census we want to register ourselves as tribals first, then we can decide which religion, either Christian or Sarna [tribal religion],” said Oraon, who organized the protest in New Delhi on Feb. 18.
Even now, the federal government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) wing want tribals to register as Hindus rather than ticking the column marked "Others," he said.
Many Adivasi groups ticked the Others column in the 2011 census, resulting in the Hindu population dropping by 0.7 percent to 79.8 percent. That served as a signal to the RSS, which is planning on ensuring that Adivasis identify as Hindu during the next survey.
RSS leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar once declared that all those who regard the land east of the Indus as their holy land and fatherland are Hindus. The definition left out Muslims and Christians, bringing all others within the ambit of the Hindu fold.
From the 1980s, due to their electoral designs, the RSS has been trying to classify all those living in India as Hindu.
There was recent controversy when the RSS restated that Sikhism is not a separate religion but a sect within Hinduism. Many Sikh organizations declared that Sikhism is a religion in itself and recalled the book of Kahan Singh Nabha titled Hum Hindu Nahi.
In opposition to what is planned by the RSS, many Adivasi groups have been meeting for the last couple of years to demand recognition of their religions. This would entail a separate column in the census by which they can identify as Adivasis.
Adivasi groups are campaigning to uphold their Adivasi identity in the census. The first census conducted in independent India had a column titled "Aborigines." This was later removed, forcing them to align themselves with other religions.
After 1951, in addition to Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain and Buddhist, there was a column titled Others.
“The Church has been supporting a separate code for Sarna, a so-called religion based on nature worship and followed by tribals in several states including Jharkhand. Tribals in Jharkhand have long been demanding a separate Sarna religious code in the census,” said Father Vincent Ekka, who heads the department of tribal studies at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi.
“We have been demanding a separate Sarna religious code. Whether we get a tribal or Sarna column will be acceptable, but nothing less than that because political parties have been misusing poor tribal people for their political purposes.”
Tarun Netam, secretary of the National Adivasi Indigenous Religion coordinating committee, said the demand for a separate Sarna religious code in the census has been pending for a long time.
"For example, Jharkhand has 32 tribal groups, of which eight are defined as particularly vulnerable tribal groups. The tribals are demanding a Sarna code as they want to preserve their religious identity,” Netam said.
Sarna Prathna Sabha in Ranchi, state capital of Jharkhand, is carrying out a population survey of Sarna tribals for its Mission 2021, said Candan Pahan, a tribal leader from Jharkhand.
It is believed that in the 2011 census 4.2 million people from Jharkhand and 60 million people from across the country stated their religion as Sarna, which was then included in the Others section.
In the 2011 census, there were six options under the religion column — Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh — which were given 1-6 code numbers. People from other religious groups were asked to state their religion but not to highlight the code numbers.