The need of indigenous/Adivasi code in religion column of Census 2021

[ Dr Joram Yalam Nabam ]

The indigenous people around the world have been the most oppressed and suppressed people during the various phases of human civilization on this earth. This continues till date. The indigenous people are easily manipulated by others for their socio-religious and economic expansion. The indigenous way of life and belief system is in consonance with nature. They live with nature. They have their own cultures, religions and ways of life, which are being heavily eroded with the passage of time and the under influence of other religious and spiritual philosophies.

What is indigenous philosophy?

The indigenous people see spirit/soul in all living and non-living things in nature. They coexist and associate with nature as a family. For example, the Tani tribe in Arunachal Pradesh accepts the sun as mother, the moon as father, the Earth also as mother. Likewise, the stone is our elder brother, and the animals and birds are also relatives. These are our past, present and future ancestors. There cannot be a statue or a concrete house of worship as we are relatives of the nature.

The characteristics of nature are democratic, freedom is the scripture, diversity is its colour, and we are a part of it. We cannot go against nature. Going against nature will be like going against our very existence. This is the truth, and this is the core philosophy of the indigenous way of life.

To make things clearer, we can see these examples: In Tani philosophy, Jimi-Jama (nothingness) is the centre of the creation. Nothingness is everything. We cannot choose a single entity and worship it. For example, if we choose to worship only the river, then we are denying the other entities in nature; if we worship only the mountain/paddy, etc, then we are denying the others. In Tani philosophy, nature is one. We can see, feel and touch everything, but we cannot hold on to any single entity and begin to worship it by saying that this is the god.

There have been numerous studies/researches on indigenous people, but the indigenous philosophy was never correctly understood by the world; rather, words like Adivasi/tribal or junglee are used to abuse the indigenous people. The people of other religions and cultures have entered from the backdoor and convinced many indigenous to have inferior feelings about their own philosophy and existence, saying that your language/dialect is poor, you don’t have a religion, you don’t have a god, you are backward, you are uncivilized, we are here to civilize you, to help you. And they gave their god to the indigenous people. They gave their religions and cultures. Slowly, we started cultural suicide; unknowingly, we started forgetting our own ancestors. We lost ourselves. They have taught us to see nature in their way. We started losing the indigenous religion of conversation and coexistence with nature. Now we are standing on a crossroads with a confused mind.

There can be a religion without any written scriptures like the Bible, the Gita, the Quran, etc. You can be religious without following any organized religion. Nature cannot be organized by human beings; rather, it organizes us. The knowledge of tuning with nature is our religion. We have many rituals to converse with nature. Nature is our scripture, our law. We are directly disciplined by it. We have many means and ways to listen, read and understand nature’s known/unknown/silent languages. Nature is mysterious in character, so many rituals have been created to connect with the various forms of nature.

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar said, “Those who do not know their own history can never create history.” The people who are devoid of their root, own language, festivals, ancestral memories – such people can never save their own culture. The indigenous philosophy is hidden in culture. The mere wearing of traditional dress/ornaments/ singing/dancing will not save our culture. We have to understand the core philosophy of indigenousizm, which is even beyond rituals, because rituals are the outer circle/layer of the core philosophy. It is born out of it. If we don’t know our history/philosophy, then someone else will write about us in their own way and for their benefits. Slowly our civilization is being destroyed in this way. The chain of mental imprisonment is created. When we realize it is too late, our roots are already forgotten. We start to fight back, trying to break the chain of this imprisonment. And then another history begins, but the new generation suffers and struggles to rewrite the history. So, we cannot commit the crime of dispelling the cultural and ancestral memories of our tribe.

For example, we all know how Arunachalees had to struggle for deletion of words like ‘Abor’ and ‘Dafla’ (which means uncivilized/criminal) from the constitution of India. These names were given to us by some outsiders, although we are Adi and Nyishi since time immemorial. Now we are fighting for the word ‘indigenous/Adivasi’. This is why we need to know and be aware of our own history, cultural heritage and traditions, which have to be protected and written by ourselves.

The conversion to any religion means conversion to another culture, as slowly we have to leave our culture in the influence of that adopted religion. The Adivasi/indigenous is not a religion; it’s a civilization, and it’s a culture which is totally based on nature. One cannot say that people who do not follow any organized religion do not know anything about spirituality. In Tani language, the seen and unseen force/spirit/soul of nature is called ‘Wyu’. This wyu is the source of life – like the paddy gives life, water gives life, sun rays give life, the mountains, the trees, all give life.

Whatever we see and eat are wyus. We accept the priest/nyubu as the link/bridge between nature and human beings, as they understand the silent language of nature. We cannot worship any single thing in nature and cannot make any statue. How can we make a statue of rivers, paddy, mountain, clouds, etc? The statues are made out of mud but how can we make a statue of the mud itself? How can we bind the boundless by creating a statue? These are the various form of wyu or Jimi-Jama. In Nyishi tribe, we call this oneness out of nothingness ‘Nyokum’. This is our festival, given by our ancestors. We celebrate the diversity/freedom/democracy in our own way. We are existing in a big temple. We don’t have the concept of god, we don’t accept spirit as god either. This is why we don’t create temples, statues. This is our own way of understanding the spirituality taught by our ancestors.

Likewise, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, etc, also are not only religion. It’s a civilization. They have their own cultural and traditional systems. Hinduism is a vast civilization and way of life. They have their own great philosophy and a social segregation of human population into caste system – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Any individual accepting Hindu religion has to come under one of the castes as mentioned herein. And we will start the other way of worshiping. Then our own indigenous philosophy and indigenous way of life will be forgotten, our way of protecting nature will be forgotten, our way of conversation or connecting with nature will be forgotten. When we convert to Christianity, we even change our names, which means that we are leaving our own language also. The church never talks about our ancestors, our culture, traditions and social systems. We start denying our own festivals… and many more. Spirituality has nothing to do with all these changes.

Why we need ‘indigenous/Adivasi’ word in census of India under ‘religion’ column

As explained above, the word ‘indigenous’ itself is not only a symbol of religion but it also identifies culture, traditional and social system which is distinct and different from any other religion and culture.

Indigenousizm is a civilization and way of life. In India, every state has some indigenous population, and more than 750 different and distinct tribes are there.

As per the 2011 census, Hindus comprise 79.80 percent of the population, Muslims 14.23 percent, tribals 8.6 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, Sikhism 1.72 percent, Buddhism 0.7 percent, and Jainism 0.37 percent. The total tribal population is 104 million. This shows that tribals are the third largest group of people in India.

Indigenous being a distinct group, we have no indigenous religion column in the form of census of India since 1951, whereas the tribal/aboriginal/animist words were mentioned in the census form from 1871 to 1941. As per available records, the indigenous people were recorded in the census as Aborigines (1871), Aborigional (1881), Abaoriginal (1891), Animist (1901), Animist (1911), Animist (1921), Tribal religion (1931). This was given by Mr JH Hattan, a British officer. Then came the words Tribes in 1941 and Others in 1951.

The mention of tribal/aboriginal/animist word was removed after independence and we were just known as scheduled tribes (ST) for official purposes. The indigenous people are the aboriginals who were dwelling in their respective places since time immemorial. As we can see, the word ‘aboriginal’ was removed from the census form from the year 1951 under the then Congress government in independent India. Now the word ‘indigenous’ itself is in danger and on the verge of being erased from the history of civilization. The indigenous word is not just a word, but it is our philosophy, culture, religion, tradition, language, literature and symbol of a democratic ancestral system.

The provision under ST is reviewed and extended every 10 years and this can be abolished/scrapped any time. The ST status does not comply with our tribal philosophy, culture, tradition and tribal way of life. We are just indigenous, whether scheduled or non-scheduled. The ST status symbolizes the backwardness of a certain group of people in the modern governance system, like the SCs/OBCs are Hindus but underprivileged at a point of time, whereas we indigenous people are a democratic and independent group of people living in our own way since time immemorial. And we do not have any caste system among the tribes. Whenever we accept Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, etc, we are no more indigenous.

Religion should not be a component in census calculation; rather, the community of an individual could be taken. But if at all religion has to be included in the census, then the indigenous people also should get this right. Exclusion of the indigenous people from the census seems to be unconstitutional and a systematic design to assimilate the indigenous into larger religious groups. This goes against the United Nation’s declaration on the rights of indigenous people. The UN declaration clearly recognizes the indigenous peoples right not be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of culture. By not allowing the indigenous to identify with their religious beliefs, the state violated both the commitments – to secularism enshrined in the constitution and equality proclaimed in the United Nation’s declaration on indigenous rights.

The constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion under Article 25 to 28, but the census does not allow many Adivasi/indigenous groups the freedom to identify themselves with their own religious practice and beliefs. Exclusion of indigenous in the religion column of the census form has created confusion and forced many indigenous groups to opt for one of the organized religions. This demand is for recognition and inclusion of that ‘indigenous/Adivasi code’ practiced by millions in the official government documents in future.

The Adivasi/indigenous are the aboriginals of this country, so we have the same right to protect our identity, culture, language and oral values with the word Adivasi/indigenous, like any other community/religious group in the country. The word religion is not only a matter of spirituality but the whole system like culture, tradition, language is engulfed in it.

Therefore, we demand that the word ‘indigenous/Adivasi’ should be mentioned in the religion column of the form in census 2021, just like there is mention of Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Farsi, etc. We request the state government to implore upon the census of India to accept our demand. (The contributor is Associate Professor, Rajiv Gandhi University, Rono Hills)