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Is Religious Polarisation Of The Adivasi Communities A Tool To Perpetuate Neo-Liberalism?

Religious polarisation among the Adivasis have prevented unanimity of voices against neo liberalization and Jal, Jungle, Zameen rights. The author Chhotelal Kumar talks about it in the following article.


Adivasi communities have unique cultures and way of life. Just like their unique food culture, system of governance and belief systems, they also have their unique ways of worshipping. They have been nature worshippers since ages. However, with the onslaught of institutionalized religions, there has been a consistent effort to assimilate Adivasis into institutionalized religions, throughout the history of India. Their religious practices have never been acknowledged and are usually discarded as primitive. The Indian constitution does not recognize any separate Adivasi/ Tribal religion. Many Adivasis, over the course of time converted to institutionalized religions like Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, leaving behind their religious practices. While this created segregation among Adivasi communities, the polarization was not as sharp and stark, as has been observed in the past couple of years. Why is this the case? Perhaps the answer lies in the effort to increase neo liberalism in India, in the last few years.

Adivasis worshipping, during Karma festival; Source:http//www.sahapedia.org

In India, religious conversions have a long history. Conversion of Adivasis to Christianity began with the onset of colonialism. In providing social services to the people, the missionaries also propagated their faith, eventually converting many Adivasis to Christianity.

The new born postcolonial India was wary of western influence in India and its possible threat to national integration, making it very cautious of missionary activities in India. In the early 1950s, on the advice of Thakkar Bappa, well-known for his work among Adivasis, the government of Madhya Pradesh invited Balasaheb Deshpande, an RSS (Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh) volunteer, to work among the Adivasis. This eventually resulted in the establishment of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) in 1952 with the objective of tribal welfare and prevention of religious conversion. Further, the government of Madhya Pradesh appointed a Christian Missionary Activities Enquiry Committee in 1954 under the chairmanship of B.S. Niyogi, retired chief justice of High Court at Nagpur. The committee submitted its report in 1956, which concluded that the Christian missionaries were inducing low-caste Hindus and Adivasi people to convert with promises of employment, education, or health and other social services. The following statement from Chad Bauman sums up the government's motive in the 1950s:

"Resistance to conversion (to Christianity) in this context emerged not out of concern for the spiritual state of converts so much as out of anxieties, real or perceived, about the survival of the fledging Indian nation."

After this, several states introduced the anti-conversion legislation ironically known as the Freedom of Religions Act. This Freedom of Religion Act was first passed in Orissa in 1967, Madhya Pradesh in 1968, and Andhra Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh in 1978. Arunachal Pradesh is the only state in the northeast which has such a law and recently the chief minister announced it would be scraped.

Missionaries regarded Adivasis as non-Hindus. However, for Hindu nationalists, Adivasis are part of the larger ambit of Hinduism. Although the Hindu nationalists accept that there is a geographical distance between the Adivasis and the caste-Hindus as the former live in the forests (Vanvasis) and the latter live in the villages (Gaonvasis) or cities (Shahrvasis), there is no cultural distance between the two. For them, the Adivasis constitute an indispensable part of Hindu social and religious order and hence, they justify their opposition to conversion. In the post-colonial period, following the re-emergence of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the 1970s after its long exile from the Indian political scene for the killing of Gandhi, incidences of religious violence against Christians were reported to have increased. On the one hand, RSS launched suppression of missionaries and, on the other hand, reconverted the Adivasis. And at the same time, they also increased social work among Adivasis. With the arrival of the governments spearheading neo liberalism, the efforts of RSS strengthened. The state supported the RSS activities in Adivasi dominated areas through several benefits like giving local tenders, affirmative gifts and many others to people who closely align with it and discourage missionaries.

Adivasi women protesting for land and domicile rights; Source: https://indianexpress.com/

Among Adivasis, Christian Adivasis gained access to education quickly than the others due to the missionaries who tried to induct them into the mainstream, while bringing them under the fold of Christianity. Hence, these Adivasi communities (Adivasi Christians) have been at the forefront of movements for the rights of Adivasis, especially against neo liberalism. This did not go well with the various organizations and political parties that supported neo liberalism, governing Adivasi dominated states. For instance in Jharkhand, as Virginious Xaxa argues, the freedom of Religious Act, 2017 is a ploy to divide tribes along the lines of Christians and non-Christians. It is the ploy to use this already existing divide to counter the unity of Adivasis in the movement against anti-Adivasi policies ( in the case of Jharkhand during the Raghubar Das government in 2016, the government attempted to amend the CNT and SPT act to enable easy transfer of land from Adivasis to non-Adivasis including the corporate houses). Adivasis are the most displaced people in the country, primarily because of corporate interests in the name of development. Polarisation of Adivasi communities have played an important role in strengthening the new liberal agenda and serving the interests of the big corporates, at the cost of indigenous population. The polarisation has prevented efforts of consolidated movements (of Adivasis) against corporate houses and neo-liberalism. As has been stated above that the polarization has increased in the last few years and simultaneously the effort to neo liberalize Adivasi areas for the interests of the big corporates, in the name of 'development', have also increased.

Movement against amending CNT-SPT Act; Source: http://adivasiresurgence.com/

The polarization among Adivasi communities on religious lines, has facilitated the growth of anti- Adivasi policies like the move to scrap CNT Act. Such moves are ultimately for the growth of corporate houses, which are in turn an important part of neo liberalism. One of the important factors on which the growth of neo liberalism depends is 'land'. Jal Jungle Zameen (water, forests and land) have been at the heart of all Adivasi movements. The core of Adivasi movements has been to reclaim their rights over forests and lands. Adivasi communities have lived in harmony with nature, taking care of the forests, lands and water resources and at the same time depending on them for their survival. They intrinsically understand the importance of nature as their very survival depends on it. Hence, they do not harm nature. On the other hand corporate houses are driven by profit motives and hence they do not hesitate in destroying forests or capturing lands and displacing Adivasis in the name of 'development'. Therefore, there seems to be a perpetual clash between the Adivasis and corporate houses that promote neo liberalism. Neo liberalism is antithetical to the interests and lives of the Adivasis. Widening the religious gaps between Adivasi communities, seems to be a plausible tool to weaken movements against corporate houses and neo- liberalism.

Jal, Jungle, Zameen Movement in Jharkhand; Source: https://www.outlookindia.com/


Chhotelal Kumar is pursuing MA in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research interests include Adivasi Politics, Culture, and society.























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