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/ Minorities / Identity and Culture /

Are All Tribals Hindus?

Are all the tribals of India Hindu by birth? It is a presumption to this effect that underlies all that is being said and done in respect of the alleged conversions of the tribals to Christianity and the resulting wrath of Hindu militants against the Christians. If one has to rely on the constitutional laws and the modern Hindu code, I am afraid the whole premise will be considered incorrect.

The Constitution includes some special provisions for the Scheduled Tribes, as it does for the Scheduled Castes. These two classes of Indian citizens cannot be clubbed together or treated alike in the matter of their religion. The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 said in so many words that a non-Hindu could never be a Scheduled Caste (even if belonging to a particular caste included in the official list of Scheduled Castes). By an amendment introduced in 1956, it was provided that only a Hindu or Sikh could be a Scheduled Caste. The Scheduled Caste law is, thus, clearly religion-based and its religious basis has generated abundant case law. The Supreme Court has held that a Scheduled Caste Hindu on ceasing to be a Hindu also ceases to be a Scheduled Caste and, should he ever reconvert to Hinduism, he will also regain forthwith the Scheduled Caste status. This law has been clearly designed with the object of preventing low caste Hindus, even if disgruntled with religion-based social inequalities, from converting to Christianity or Islam.

The law on Scheduled Tribes is, on the contrary, wholly free from religious shackles. The No-non-Hindu please clause of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 has no parallel in the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order 1950. Nor is there any judicial decision saying that all Scheduled Tribes are born Hindus. Any change of religion on the part of a member of a Scheduled Tribe does not legally alter his or her Scheduled Tribe status.

The modern Hindu code of 1955-56 does not apply to Scheduled Tribes. Had the Scheduled Tribes been born Hindu, framers of the Hindu code who extended it also to Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs could never have agreed to their exclusion from its purview. The Hindu Marriage Act 1955, the Hindu Succession Act 1956, the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act 1956 and the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act 1956, all have an identical declaration to make: nothing contained in this Act shall apply to the Scheduled Tribes. The rider in this declaration enabling the Central Government to extend the code to any of the Scheduled Tribes is merely cosmetic. In respect of several tribal communities there have been judicial decisions specifically affirming that the four Hindu law enactments of 1955-56 do not extend to the Scheduled Tribes.

The census reports of India do not treat the tribal communities as born Hindu. Appendix C to the census report of 1991 gives details of Sects/Beliefs/Religions clubbed with another religion. According to this annexure, no tribal community has been clubbed with the followers of the Hindu religion in the report. The main part of the report shows the population, in various States and Union Territories, under eight different heads (i) Hindus, (ii) Muslims, (iii) Christians, (iv) Sikhs, (v) Buddhists, (vi) Jains, (vii) Other Religions and Persuasions and (viii) Religion not stated. The head of Other Religions and Persuasions is detailed in appendix A to the report. In this appendix about 60 tribal religions are separately specified.

In addition to these specified Religions and Persuasions of the various tribal communities, this appendix also includes a residuary head of Tribal Religion and, then, an additional head of Unclassified religions and persuasions, which also must be inclusive of many smaller tribes. There must have been a sound and legally tenable basis for the specification of almost all the tribal religions separately from Hinduism in the successive census reports prepared over the years on the basis of pre-enumeration empirical work and individual contacts. Indian law thus does not recognise the claim that all tribals are born Hindus. They are born into their own peculiar religions. Article 25 of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience does not exclude the tribals from its purview, and like all other Indians they have a right to embrace any other religion of their choice. At the same time, the right to propagate religion under Article 25 equally belongs to the followers of all religions.

Hindu religious preachers can, thus, lawfully offer their religion to the tribals. So can the Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and followers of all other major religions. This can be done, by all communities, only peacefully and strictly within the legal parameters.

(Source: The Hindustan Times, January 28, 1999)