Understanding the challenges faced by Adivasi Society: “We will follow our beliefs, customs, deities, rituals, culture, in our own way”

As demands for a Sarna religious code in Census 2021 grow in Jharkhand, RSS-backed outfits are busy trying to convince the tribal people that they are Hindus. Abhinay Lakshman reports on the efforts of Sarna outfits to resist Hindu organisations and Christian missionaries alike, and define their identity through their religion. […]

“Christian missionaries first started converting poor tribal communities with the promise of an English education, jobs and hospitals. Now, Hindu groups are using the same methods to do something more malicious: changing the very nature of what tribal people believe Sarnaism to be and how it should be practised,” said Handu Bhagat, a KSS activist in Gumla district, which has the highest proportion of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population in the State. […]

The “indoctrination” begins with the promise of elementary schools, pucca homes for villagers, and roads and electricity for the village, he said.

“The more time they spend with the villagers, the more they try to convince them that the basic principles of Sarnaism and Hinduism are the same even though our practices are distinctively different from any other religion,” said Bandhan Tigga, who is known as a Sarna “Dharmguru” among the tribal people, at his ashram in Murma.

Tigga, who was among the pioneers of the movement for the Constitutional recognition of the Sarna religion in Jharkhand, explained that while Hindus worship different gods believing them to be a manifestation of nature, tribal people worship nature or what they call ‘Maa Sarna’.

We do not have any concept of idol worship; our practices follow natural laws and are not codified ones that you see in other religions. Most importantly, we have always resisted the onslaught of any other religion. So, how is it that someone can come and claim Sarnaism as a part of Hinduism,” Tigga asked.

And once this “ideological encroachment” takes hold, he said, the physical encroachment begins, starting with establishing Hindu temples at Sarna places of worship and culminating in the erasure of traditional tribal rituals and practices. […]

The concept of “beautifying” Sarna places of worship by building templelike structures goes against the basic tenets of Sarnaism, Tigga said. “We worship the land of the Sarna sthal where our sacred trees grow. These attempts to “beautify” places are corrupting the nature of how we worship and what we consider sacred.” […]

Those leading the movement for a separate Sarna code have maintained that their tribal identity is being threatened by all religions looking to either convert them or subsume them under their own religious identity. […]

With the Supreme Court finally ruling this year that there needs to be a “foolproof” mechanism to determine what constitutes tribal identity and who can be called a tribal, the Sarna code movement in Jharkhand is now moving towards positioning itself as an answer to the question: Who is an Adivasi? The criteria prescribed by the Union Government to identify a person as a member of aN ST are: indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness. But as High Courts and the Supreme Court have observed in the last few years, these may not be the most appropriate or sufficient conditions to identify a person of tribal origin.

Jaleshwar Bhagat, a tribal activist, associated with Tigga’s Chhatriya Sarna Samiti, explained, “It is no longer necessary for tribal people to have primitive traits, or be geographically isolated or shy of contact with the community at large. These aspects are changing rapidly and the only thing we can tether our identity to seems to be our distinctive practices of Sarnaism.” […]

There are 32 notified STs in Jharkhand but only five of the most populous tribes (Santhal, Oraon, Munda, Ho and Kharia) officially identify as Sarna believers. The others mark their religion as ‘Adivasi’, enter their tribe name, or other names for their traditional practices such as ‘Addi Bassi’, ‘Sarvdharm’ and ‘Adi’. Apart from them, there are large groups of the tribal population that have converted to Christianity or other religions generations ago.

Source: “”Being Sarna: a fight to define tribal identity  in Jharkhand” by Abhinay Lakshman, The Hindu, 23 July 2022
URL: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/being-sarna-a-fight-to-define-tribal-identity-in-jharkhand/article65670776.ece
Date Visited: 25 July 2022

“[T]he Constitution gives equal respect to all communities, sects, lingual and ethnic groups, etc. The Constitution guarantees to all citizens freedom of speech (Article 19), freedom of religion (Article 25), equality (Articles 14 to 17), liberty (Article 21), etc.” – Supreme Court judgment quoted by The Hindu in “India, largely a country of immigrants” >>

In Marginalised but not Defeated, Tarun Kanti Bose (a seasoned public interest journalist) “documents the hard and difficult struggle to implement the Forest Rights Act, how the oppressed adivasis have united into forest unions, how they are now entering into new thresholds of protracted struggles and victories in a non-violent manner. […] A must for all young journalists, social science students, editors, civil society groups and the academia.” | Read the full book review here:
https://countercurrents.org/2023/05/book-review-marginalised-but-not-defeated >>

Learn more about “The world’s largest democracy“, its Constitution and Supreme Court and linguistic heritage, and why Democracy depends on Accountability in the face of Modernity and Globalization >>

All the tribals in the country have been following many different religions like Gondi, Koya Punem, Adi, Sarna, etc. However, none of them have been recognised. The government should provide a separate code for tribal religion so that their identity can be preserved.  […] No matter which community we belong to, we will follow our beliefs, customs, deities, rituals, culture, in our own way.

Bandhu Tirkey, a tribal lawmaker of the ruling JMM-Congress-RJD alliance has spoken out against the government’s move to introduce a “Sarna/Adivasi” code, as opposed to only a “Sarna” code, in the special Assembly session on November 11, stating that any such move. […]

Adivasi concerns caste while Sarna is about religious affinity. Tribals across the country for decades have been fighting for religious identity in the form of a separate code in the census. […]

However, a large section of different tribal bodies off late have also started demanding for an Adivasi code. Claiming that all tribals can’t be forced to accept their identities as nature worshippers, they have announced to launch a protest. This in turn has forced the state government to take a middle path by naming the draft as Sarna/Adivasi code. […]

Source: “It’s Sarna, not adivasi, code for tribals” (Telegraph Ranchi, 8 November 2020)
URL: https://www.telegraphindia.com/jharkhand/its-sarna-not-adivasi-code-for-tribals-bandhu-tirkey/cid/1796860
Date visited: 2 May 2021

Tribal rights in land and forest should be respected
Jawaharlal Nehru on five principles for the policy to be pursued vis-a-vis the tribals >>
Photo © Indian Express

Satyanarayan Singh, Tribal activist from Bihar, quoted by Santoshi Markam in TheWire.in (2 April 2019)

Whether it is Koya Punem, Adi, Sarna, or any other, they all believe in aboriginal philosophy.

Aakash Poyam, Researcher and founder editor of Adivasi Resurgence, quoted by Santoshi Markam in TheWire.in (2 April 2019)

Source: TheWire.in (2 April 2019)
URL: https://thewire.in/rights/adivasi-religion-recognition-census
Date visited: 29 July 2020

There is no idol worship.

Source: Poovadevi quoted in “Toda community forays into reviving traditional art” (Deccan Herald, 15 July 2011)
URL: https://www.deccanherald.com/content/176591/toda-community-forays-reviving-traditional.html
Date visited: 29 July 2020

When I first became interested in adivasis and adivasi religions several years ago, I started looking around for scholars of religious studies who were interested in the same subject. It’s been hard to find them. As a former student of mine – now a Ph.D. in religious studies (but not a specialist in South Asia) – told me, he wasn’t even aware that there were indigenous people in South Asia. […]

Adivasi religions, cultures, and societies are certainly as worthy of study in their own right as any other religions, cultures, and societies, but it cannot escape anyone’s notice that by economic, political, and social measures most adivasis belong to the most disadvantaged strata of South Asian society. Perhaps by making adivasis and their rich cultures and societies better known, the ARS Network will also help contribute to adivasis acquiring a more powerful voice in the future than they have had in the recent past, and so also contribute to overcoming the disadvantages that adivasis face. […]

Source: Gregory Alles, October 11, 2011, ARS Network: Announcements: Reflections
Address : http://www.arsnetwork.org/reflections.php
Date Visited: Mon Apr 08 2013 11:57:05 GMT+0200 (CEST)

The Adivasi Religion and Society Network—ARS for short—is a collection of scholars, adivasi and non-adivasi, desi (South Asian) and videsi (foreign), devoted to descriptive, comparative, and analytical-critical studies centered on religion among adivasis, the so-called indigenous peoples of the South Asian subcontinent.  It was founded as a result of discussions between Lidia Guzy (University College Cork), Uwe Skoda (University of Aarhus), Ülo Valk (University of Tartu), and Greg Alles (McDaniel College) at the 4th Conference of the South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture and Religion (SSEASR) at the Royal University of Bhutan in Thimphu June 30–July 3, 2011. […]

As an academic network, ARS is not a body for celebrating, intellectually developing, practicing, or promoting adivasi religions, although all of these activities are potential objects of analysis by Network members, and members may choose to engage in these activities on their own. […]

Source: Adivasi Religion and Society Network
Address : http://www.arsnetwork.org/
Date Visited: Mon Apr 08 2013 11:49:27 GMT+0200 (CEST)

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See also

Adverse inclusion | Casteism | Rural poverty


Crafts and visual arts

Demographic Status of Scheduled Tribe Population of India (Census figures 2011)

Denotified Tribes, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes – Report and Recommendations (Technical Advisory Group)

Fact checking | Figures, census and other statistics

Human Rights Commission (posts) | www.nhrc.nic.in (Government of India)

Imprisonment & rehabilitation

Search tips | Names of tribal communities, regions and states of India

State wise population of Scheduled Tribes (ST) and their percentage to the total population in the respective states and to the total STs population

“What are the Rights of Scheduled Tribes? – Government of India (National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, NCST)

“What is the Forest Rights Act about?” – Campaign for Survival and Dignity

“Who are Scheduled Tribes?” – Government of India (National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, NCST)

“India, also known as Bharat, is a Union of States. It is a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic with a parliamentary system of government.” – Constitution of India

Source: National Portal of India
Learn more about the Indian Constitution and decisions by India’s Supreme Court >>