Playing with fire

Monday Musing

[ Taba Ajum ]

“We will present a demand before the central government that converted Christians and Muslims should not get the benefits reserved for the SC, ST communities. This will amount to violation of the rights exclusively meant for the SC, ST community,” said Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) spokesman Vinod Bansal. Source: The Print, 7 October, 2020.

This statement is very significant, considering the fact that in the last one month suddenly groups supporting the right wing ideology have written several letters to the prime minister’s office, duly forwarded by various deputy commissioners, seeking cancellation of ST rights of those who have embraced Christianity and Islam in Arunachal.

While the population of tribal people embracing Islam is still very low, the main target seems to be the Christians, who now form the major chunk of the population, especially among the tribal people in the state.

It is no secret that Arunachal for long has been the battleground between Hindu and Christian missionaries. Both have used education by starting various schools as tools to convert or brainwash people. Also, organizations like the RSS and affiliated groups of the greater Sangh Parivar, along with various Christian NGOs are active in the state for the last many years. In the clash between two major religions, the tribal people have often been caught in between.

The recent Tawang church issue once again flared up religious tension. Social media is further aiding the tension. However, despite a few such scattered incidents, Arunachal for long has been peaceful. Unlike the rest of the Northeast region, the state has remained remarkably peaceful. Many attribute this to the strong tribal identity. The situation here is quite different from the tribal belts of mainland India. Religious identity hardly matters. First of all, tribes identify themselves based on their tribe, followed by their clan, and lastly their district. People here wear the clan and tribe identity as a badge of honour, and if anyone tries to take away these identities, it may cause mayhem in Arunachal society.

Also, Arunachal is a unique place where in a single family you will find family members following different religions. One should not be surprised if within one family there are Christians, indigenous faith followers, Buddhists and Hindus. Among the younger generation, there are large numbers who adhere to atheism and agnostic thoughts and do not identify themselves with any religion. Therefore, seeking cancellation of ST rights for those who have embraced a religion other than the indigenous faith is highly provocative. It is like putting brothers against brothers and sisters against sisters, and in some cases, children against their parents. This is the worst form of divide and rule policy.

Religious conversion and abandoning of the tribal faith is a matter of concern. In the state, organizations like the IFCSAP have been doing an admirable job in highlighting this issue. However, it is also a fact that religion is a personal choice and the constitution has guaranteed rights to the citizens to follow the religion of their choice. No one can be forced to follow any particular religion. So, seeking cancellation of ST rights of fellow tribal Arunachalees is very offensive and can have serious repercussions in a highly emotive tribal society.

Also, the Supreme Court of India in a landmark judgment in 2004 ruled that a tribal, even after converting into another religion, would not lose their scheduled tribe status unless it is shown that they have given up their tribal customs and are observing only those customs practised in the adopted religion. Though the tribals of Arunachal have embraced various religions which are non-native, they have largely retained the tribal customs and cultures, even though it may be with certain modifications.

Further, religious politics, which is a central theme in mainland India, is still an alien concept in the state. So, any attempt to try and ignite religious tension using the ST status is fraught with danger, and it is like playing with fire.

The state administration, politicians and right-wing extremist groups should be careful not to stoke this fire.