[ Bengia Ajum ]
On 1 December, as the whole state was celebrating the Indigenous Faith Day, pictures of people holding placards, seeking cancellation of the scheduled tribe (ST) certificates issued to those who converted to other religions started making the rounds on social media. By afternoon, the media byte of a district unit of the Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh, seeking cancellation of the ST certificates of religious converts made it to social media forums. The main target seems to be the tribal people who have embraced Christianity. Many Arunachalees were shocked by the demand, but for those who closely follow the politics of the right-wing Hindutva groups, the demand was not shocking at all. It was expected that, after relentlessly targeting Muslims for the last many years, the next obvious target of the right-wing groups would be Christians.
After that, the target will be tribals who do not subscribe to the right-wing ideology. For long, Sangh Parivar members like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), etc, have sought the cancellation of ST rights of tribals who have chosen religions like Christianity and Islam. They use the ST status as a bogey to try to humiliate those who abandoned Hinduism and converted to Christianity and Islam. It is a known fact that the majority of the people who have embraced Christianity and Islam in India were once lower caste Hindus. The right-wing groups try to harass tribals who have embraced Christianity and Islam either by demanding cancellation of their ST status or by trying to humiliate them by mocking them as being followers of foreign religions. Truly speaking, they are wrong on both counts. The Supreme Court of India in 2004 ruled that a tribal, even after converting to another religion, would not lose the ST status, unless it is shown that he/she has given up his/her tribal customs and is observing only the customs practiced in the adopted religion. “A member of a tribe despite the change in religion may remain a member of the tribe if a person continues to follow the tribal traits and customs,” a bench comprising Chief Justice VN Khare, Justice SB Sinha, and Justice SH Kapadia had said in the judgment.
In Arunachal, the tribal citizens who have embraced Christianity still continue to maintain the tribal customs and culture and the tribal way of life. The clan system is strictly maintained. People identify themselves by clans and tribes, not by religions. Tribal tradition is mostly followed, even if they embrace different religions. In fact, the tribal people of the state, even though they may follow different religions, are very proud of their clan and tribe identity. Therefore, seeking cancellation of their ST right is an insult to the tribal Christians. There is growing anger brewing against such demand. The repeated attempts to humiliate tribal Christians might one day backfire.
This attempt to try to portray those who follow Christianity as followers of a foreign religion is absurd. There is a general scholarly consensus in India that Christian communities were firmly established off the coast of Kerala by the 6th century AD. Also, claiming that being a Christian follower, a person loses their exclusiveness as a tribal is another absurd argument. The form of Buddhism which is followed in Tawang and West Kameng is quite similar to that followed by the Tibetans. The form of Buddhism that is followed in Namsai and Changlang districts is quite similar to the one that is followed in countries like Thailand, Myanmar, etc. Can we accuse them of being followers of foreign religions? In fact, the indigenous faith itself has changed a lot and is quite different from how it was years ago.
It is a known fact that the majority of the tribal communities of Arunachal were animists and without any religion. For the tribals of the state, the very concept of religion is new. Religious segregation was first started by Christian missionaries, followed by Hindu missionaries. Frankly, there are very few who are still following the indigenous rituals in their purest form. So, no one can really take the high moral ground over ‘indigenousness’.
People have embraced various religions as per their choice, and the Constitution also guarantees freedom to choose any religion. Unlike in mainland India, where people are used to religious politics, the situation is quite different here in the state. The religious tension has the potential to create social unrest in Arunachal Pradesh, and it will be catastrophic for the nation. In Arunachal, within a family, there are members who are Christians, indigenous faith followers, Hindu believers, and even atheists. In many houses, both the star (symbolizing Christianity) and the Donyi Polo flag are hung together. This is one place where the local tribal people celebrate Diwali and Durga Puja as their own festivals. This unique secular identity should be maintained.