Bhopal: Tribal groups in Madhya Pradesh have demanded that the Union Government add ‘tribal’ as a religion code in the upcoming 2021 census for people from the community.
The groups have written to President Ram Nath Kovind and the Census Commission of India saying that tribals have a different identity and that they are not part of the Hindu religion. Several memorandums have also been given to district collectors in the state by local leaders.
“From 1871 to 1951 there used to be separate code for the followers of tribals (sarna) religion, but, it was removed in the first census of Independence India in 1951 and great injustice was done with followers of the religion,” the letter said.
According to the 2011 census, the state has a sizeable population of about 7.2 crore people, 21% out of which are accounted for by the tribal community.
“As far as the religion of tribals is concerned, more than 6 lakh tribals (Gond and Bhil) opted for ‘other’ in the category marked religion because there wasn’t a separate option for us,” said Gulzar Singh Markam of the Gondwana Samagra Kranti Andolan.
“Tribals do not pay much heed to religion, and due to illiteracy, many marked themselves Hindu in previous censuses. However, the 2011 Census saw some change,” he added.
The 2011 census had six options under the religion column — Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh — which were given code numbers from one to six. People from other religious groups were asked to state their religion but not to highlight the code numbers.
It is believed that in the 2011 census, 42 lakh people from Jharkhand and 6 crore people from across the country said their religion was ‘Sarna’, which was then included in the Others section. Owing to this, the Hindu population dropped by 0.7% to 79.8%.
In the 1951 census, the ninth column for religion was labelled “tribe”, which was removed in the next Census. Due to its removal, tribal populations were obliged to embrace different religions, thereby reducing their strength in numbers on paper.
Phul Singh Simariya of the Sahariya Adivasi Mahasabha told NewsClick that their communities have been demanding recognition for decades but that since no party listened to them, “so, with the upcoming census we want to register ourselves as tribals first, then decide which religion, either Christian or Sarna.”
A separate religion category for tribals is a long-standing demand of ethnic groups. So, when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat asked his cadre to persuade tribals to mark themselves Hindus in religious category in Bhopal last week, it kicked up a controversy. M.P. Chief Minister Kamal Nath warned the RSS and asked officials to keep a tab on the 89 tribal blocks in the state.
On February 18, various tribal groups held a protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to raise the issue. They sang, danced and displayed placards saying they were misguided by all the parties who used them for political gains without fulfilling their promises.
“There is a general conception that Adivasi or tribals, whichever state they come from, are Hindus, which is not correct because tribals worship nature. They worship rivers, forests, mountains and any source through which they get life, food and air,” said the President of the National Adivasi Indigenous Religion coordinating committee to media persons here.
“Our simple demand is that when the government starts the survey in the coming few months, there should be a separate column where we can register ourselves as tribals, not as Hindus as listed in the past,” he added.
Since last week, a protest is also going on in Ranchi for the addition of ‘Sarna’ code as tribal religion. Tribal rights activist called the RSS chief’s statement disgraceful, saying that it is “a clear violation of Articles 14, 16 and 235 of the Constitution.”
“The Indian Constitution says ‘tribals governed by their customary laws’. Section 2 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, says ‘the marriage act does not apply to tribals.’ Even the reservation laws are different for SCs and STs. All this proves that we have a separate identity and are not part of any religion. It is why he (Bhagwat) is pushing us to mark ourselves as Hindus,” Nagwanshi said.
When asked why they are opposing the religious imposition, the President of Koitur Gondwana Mahasabha, Shuklu Singh Ahkey, said that they have been given special rights by the Constitution of India. “We have a different culture and heritage and don’t worship idols. Why do we leave all this? And, what benefit will we get for marking ourselves as Hindus in the Census?” he asked.