BY TARUN DUTTA
IN the tribal belts where Maoists are fighting security forces, Adivasis who were animists have embraced Christianity. This trend stretches across all the states where Naxalites have established their “independent zones”.The great sociologist, Mr M N Srinivasan, had pleaded that Adivasis should be treated as equals along with other sections of the Hindu community, and a separate plan should be chalked out for the development of tribal regions of the country.
From the time missionaries first became active in the sub-continent in the mid-19th century, they have been accused of using the lure of money to bribe people into accepting Christianity. Votaries of human rights and self-styled secularists would do well to tell us how they view the ruthless missionary assault on tribal indigenous culture, centuries-old customs, and systems of belief.
No less a person than Mahatma Gandhi commented on their over-dependence on their ‘metallic talents’. In a conversation with Dr John Mott, subsequently published in The Harijan, Gandhi said, “I am convinced that the American and British money which has been voted for Missionary Societies has done more harm than good. You cannot serve God and Mammon both. And my fear is that Mammon has been sent to serve India and God has remained behind, with the result that he will one day have his vengeance.”
As it is obvious that genuine instance of conversion are few and far between and that material considerations still play that clinching role, it is not impossible to take the missionaries head-on on their favourite hunting ground. A pro-active development policy would go a long way in halting them in their tracks. After all, the missionaries have exploited the abject poverty and lack of basic amenities to make inroads into the tribal belt.
Fever-relieving medicines have been presented as miracles of Christ in malaria-prone tracts to tempt fever-ridden patients to cross over. A modern team of doctors could simply vaporise such vendors of spiritualism. But it would be incorrect to diagnose the problem as one of development alone. A far more crucial and long-term issue is the status of tribals within Hindu society.
Desire for Upward Mobility
As far back as we can go in history, tribals have been anxious for appropriate rank and status within the Hindu system. In some states, while entire tribes made the transition to caste whenever and wherever possible, but tribal leaders without exception attempted to establish a Rajput-Kshatriya identity for themselves. Towards that end, they even invited Brahmins to settle within their domains and perform ritual and related services.
The quest for honourable space within the large Hindu society led many Santhals in Bihar in the 1920s and 30s to wear the sacred thread and claim Kshatriya rank. The Mahatos of Chota-Nagpur went so far as to have themselves de-scheduled as a tribe in 1931 and attempted to establish a pan-Indian identity by claiming ties with the Kurmis in Bihar and the Kunbis in Maharashtra.
In the 1930s a Gond chief formally requested the Rajput Mahasabha to confer Kshatriya status upon him. In fact, a perusal of the records of the Rajput Mahasabha and the Chambers of Princes in the colonial period reveals the intensity of the search for Kshatriya status among tribal communities. The desire for high rank within Hindu society also prompted tribals to ‘purify’ and ‘Sanskritise’ their lifestyle.
The Bhagat movements that gained currency in the early twentieth century among Bhils, Santhalas, Gonds, Oraons, Hos and others, advocated temperance, teetotalism and devotion to a personal God a la the high Hindu pattern. The great Munda leader, Birsa, sought to banish the worship of spirits from tribal lands on grounds that it was contrary to Hindu custom. The Birsaite prayers that he helped to formulate saluted Brahma, Mother Goddess, Vishnu, Kali, Durga, Lord of Sita, Govind, Tulsidas, and ‘the One without quality (nirgun) and the One with quality’.
What is more, tribals strictly prohibited the practice of cow slaughter among their communities. The consistency and persistence with which tribals sought high varna rank for themselves was not hidden from acute observers of the Indian scene. Indeed, as long ago as the 1930s, two distinguished anthropologists strongly urged that Kshatriya status be confirmed en masse on all aboriginals. Sarat Chandra Roy and Verrier Elwin asked “all Hindu organisations interested in this problem to pass resolutions accepting the major aboriginal communities as Kshatriyas, which is what they claim to be….” An honoured place within the Hindu fold alone, the two scholars argued would prevent the degradation of tribals and their conversion by foreign missionaries.
For varied reasons the suggestion was then not taken up. Our experience of the ensuing half-century, however, indicates a need to examine it afresh.
Influence of Hinduism
Status is clearly the crux of the problem. Christianity is viewed as an alternative channel of upward mobility mainly by groups whose aspiration for absorption into the Hindu body has been thwarted or only partially fulfilled. It is not a coincidence that Christianity no longer tempts the scheduled castes now that their integration into society is a largely accomplished fact.
It is also significant that within Hinduism, all movements have been prompted not by religious disaffection, but by disaffection over social status alone. Tribal communities for instance, have had little disagreement with Hinduism on spiritual matters. Indeed, some of the greatest temples of high Hinduism have been built by tribal rulers who were also major patrons of Durga pujas, rath yatras and Dussehra festivities.
Given Hinduism’s proven record of systematically pushing up those at the lower end of the social scale, it would be fair to say that in time, it would have done its duty by its Adivasi population as well. Outside intervention, however, has delayed and disrupted the process. But the battle is by no means lost. The question of varna rank needs to be seriously considered. It would be misleading to say that no agencies exist for the conferment of such rank. This is a matter that can be easily resolved by a dharma sabha. India’s holy men, it bears pointing out, have always aided and abetted societal reconstruction. Though ‘ritually removed’ from worldly affairs, they have never remained aloof from society’s temporal concerns. The religious space they have occupied has served as the basis for initiating change within Indian society. The time has come for them to step into the arena again.
Critics may regard this as an attempt to revive and strengthen the caste system. But contrary to the modern-day perception, this much-maligned institution has ever been a powerful engine of social change. Given the chance, it will deliver once again.–INAV