Faith in Numbers

The history behind Adivasi demands for a “Tribal Religion” category in the next census

The National Adivasi-Indigenous Religion Coordination Committee held a protest in Delhi to demand greater recognition of Adivasi faiths. Through modern Indian history, Adivasis have not had a say in how their beliefs are officially categorised and counted. UTKARSH FOR THE CARAVAN
01 April, 2020

ARUN KUMAR, the head of public relations for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, reportedly told a meeting in Bhopal in early February that the share of Hindus in the Indian population had shrunk from 84 percent in the 1991 census to 69 percent in 2011. This, he said, was because many Adivasis—especially from the Bhil and Koitur tribes—had identified themselves as followers of “other” religions, rather than as Hindus, in the 2011 census. Kumar’s numbers were exaggerated—in fact, the 2011 census recorded just under eighty percent of the population as Hindus—but his point was clear. Mohan Bhagwat, the organisation’s supreme leader, urged the RSS cadre at the same meeting to encourage Adivasis to declare Hinduism as their religion.

India is due an updated census next year. The monumental work of gathering data for it was due to begin this month, though it may be rescheduled in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among headcounts and other details, enumerators are to note the religious affiliations of each Indian. As things stood in 2011, a person can be slotted into one of six pre-set categories—Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain—or be recorded as a member of miscellaneous “other religions.” For the RSS, dedicated to expanding Hindu domination, that list is already uncomfortably long. For a growing number of Adivasis, it is not long enough.

The 2011 census counted 104 million Adivasis, making up 8.6 percent of the national population. A sizeable minority of them were registered as Christians, Muslims or Buddhists, and the large majority as Hindus. Roughly 8 million Adivasis were registered as “other,” according to the National Adivasi-Indigenous Religion Coordination Committee, a coalition of Adivasi rights groups. Soon after the RSS meeting, the committee held a protest in Delhi to demand greater recognition of the real variety of Adivasi faiths in the 2021 census. The 8 million or so Adivasis registered as “other” represented over eighty different tribal belief systems, a press note released at the event said. Rajkumar Kunjam, a member of the committee from the Koitur tribe—often, interchangeably, called the Gond tribe—told me that this erasure is part of “an ongoing conspiracy to take away our real identities.”

It was not just the “other” tag that the protesters objected to. The Hindu category also sweeps together many distinct tribal belief systems. Adivasis “are not Hindus, we are not idol worshipers,” Rajmani Oraon, from Jharkhand, said. “We are nature worshippers. Our social and cultural systems are based on nature. When we are not Hindus, why have we been categorised as Hindus?”