ucanews.com reporter, New DelhiUpdated: April 20, 2016 06:22 AM GMT
Indian Lambadi tribal women dance during a performance in Hyderabad on the eve of International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 8. Official figures say that from 2001 to 2011 there has been a 63 percent growth in the number of tribal people in India who identify as Christians. (Photo by AFP)
A growing trend in India shows tribal people embracing either Christianity or Islam over Hinduism, said the latest government statistics. However some see divisive political fodder in the data.
Government figures released in mid-April said the number of Christian tribal people has increased from 6.3 million in 2001 to 10.03 million in 2011, recording a 63 percent growth.
The number of tribal people who profess Islam has grown 51 percent from 1.2 million to 1.8 million during the period when the national census was last conducted.
While the number of tribal people following the Hindu faith is much larger, their percentage growth has been comparatively less at 39 percent. The 60 million Hindu tribal people in 2001 grew to 84 million in 2011.
In contrast, total tribal population growth was only 23 percent from 84 million to 104 million for the period. The number of tribal people who do not belong to any religion or follow animism decreased from 16.4 million to 7.8 million, indicating increased religious conversions.
"There is nothing wrong" if the data is interpreted to show tribal people have been converting to Christianity, said Father Ranjit Tigga, head of the department of tribal studies at New Delhi's Indian Social Institute.
He said the Indian constitution gives all citizens the freedom to profess and propagate a religion of their choice.
"If the data is correct, it is good news" for the tribal-based church in the north and northeastern parts of India, said Father Tigga.
Bishop Vincent Barwa of Simdega said that if the data is to be believed, then it is positive.
"It will give us a morale boost to work hard for evangelization and also it gives us the satisfaction that we are heading in the right direction," said Bishop Barwa who is the convener of the national bishops' office for tribal affairs.
Father Tigga said that there are elections going on in many states and releasing the census data now can also be viewed as polarizing.
"Political parties have their own agenda. Some political parties are trying to divide people in the name of caste and creed," the priest said without naming any particular party or group.
Religious conversion has been a sensitive issue in Indian politics for several decades but assumed special significance after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power two years ago. The party opposes religious conversion saying it destabilizes the nation and its dominant Hindu culture.
Muslim leader Arif Khan said he does not believe the government statistics, which he says has a political agenda behind it.
It is part of the political strategy of the BJP and its affiliated groups, said Khan.
These Hindu groups are "there to divide people in the name of religion," he said.
Khan added that all Indians should be on guard to protect the secular nature of their country "otherwise religious minorities will become second class citizens."