How Hinduism is Used to Erase Tribal Identities in India

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Why You Should Read This
  • We talk about colonialism like it’s something that happened to India in the past but to the indigenous peoples of India, colonialism is ongoing. Except that Indian society are the colonizers – usurping their land, erasing their culture, and denying them autonomy.
  • In this paper, Virginius Xaxa who is from the Oraon tribe lays out how academics and state officials have debated the language, religion and identity of indigenous communities in India over the last two hundred years. And how little that has involved actual indigenous people.
  • We have condensed the original 10,000-word paper into a 1,300-word summary. You can read it in fullClick on each point to dig deeper and get the complete picture. in 6 minutes or skim itRead only the numbered points. in 2 minutes.
  1. Over the course of Indian history, indigenous groups have been given many names by non-indigenous people. In various old Hindu or Sanskrit texts, they are referred to as rakshasas and nishadas – words meant to insult and dehumanize them.
    • Historically, “Jana” was the word used for communities who weren’t part of any of the numerous “jatis” that constituted the caste order.
    • The usage of terms like dasyus, daityas, rakshasas, and nishadas reveals how dominant communities tended to view these groups as monsters.
  2. In the colonial era, the British grouped them all together under the generic category of “tribes” – a term that erases the huge diversity of communities that fall under it. So the British continued the historical trend of ignoring how tribal groups saw themselves and instead defined and categorised them based on how they differed from the rest of society.
    • For the British, religion and caste were fundamental identities. So taking religion as fundamental, the British classified tribes as everyone who followed ‘animist’ or tribal religions. They didn’t care that there was huge variation among tribal religious practices as much as they cared whether it lay outside Hinduism or not.
      • This is a historical pattern. Many Hindu texts clearly identify tribes as people who live in “primitive and barbarous conditions” as compared to people who live in so-called civilization.
    • But India’s various tribal communities are extremely different from each other. They look different, they speak different languages, they live in different places, they have different cultural practices and traditions. And they organize themselves in completely different ways.
      • The question of how tribes categorized themselves was basically ignored.
  3. In modern India, sociologists also understood tribes as people outside so-called “civilization” and thus, outside of Indian society. But they were not isolated. They were constantly interacting with the broader society and were sometimes “absorbed” into it.
    • Tribes were understood by sociologists as people who were outside so-called civilization. But they were constantly interacting with this civilization and being changed in the process.
    • This change was seen as one-way. Slowly, tribes became like civilized societies and were absorbed into them because they were safer or richer. N.K. Bose referred to this as “the Hindu method of absorption”.
      • Other sociologists have compared this to the process by which castes lower down the caste system copy the practices of castes that are higher. This “sanskritization” process offered some sub-castes the chance to climb higher in the caste system.
  4. In the 1960s, G.S. Ghurye proposed that tribes are actually “backward Hindus”. He argued that the less a tribe was like caste Hindus, the more “backward” it was. The Sangh Parivar adopted this idea and weaponized it against Christian tribes. They argued that if they weren’t Hindu, then they weren’t tribes at all. Despite all the stark differences between Hinduism and tribal beliefs, despite the fact that the Indian constitution does not define tribes on the basis of religion, Ghurye’s view has become the dominant pattern of thinking about tribes in India.
    • Ghurye classified tribes based on how integrated they were into Hinduism.
    • This whole theory was based on just interpreting the research of colonial census officials. Ghurye did not base any of it on actual conversations or observations of tribes.
    • In the 1950s, a Christian Missionary Activies Enquiry Committee was set up by the Madhya Pradesh government to look into the conversion of tribes to Christianity in the state. This report acknowledged and legitimised Ghurye’s view and since then, this way of looking at tribes has become popular with Hindu right-wing groups.
      • Since then there have been numerous attacks by these groups on tribal Christians in India. These attacks reveals the Sangh Parivar belief that tribals “cease to be tribes when they become Christian”.
  5. While there has been interaction and exchange between Hinduism and the various tribal religions, this doesn’t mean that tribes can be called Hindus.
    • As a natural religion, tribal religion shares many attributes in common with religious practices of tribes in Americas or Africa as well, but nobody would argue that those religions are connected to Hinduism.
    • This isn’t to deny that there is an active process of “Hinduisation” where tribes become more and more like Hindu society. But in this process, tribes have to lose their tribal status and become a part of the Hindu caste system because Hinduism is so intricately linked to caste structure.
  6. The Indian Constitution seeks to integrate tribals into broader society without erasing their cultures. But there’s a huge gap between the intent and the actual implementation on the ground. For example, even though all citizens of India are guaranteed the right to education in their mother tongue, children from tribes are almost always forced to study in the language of their dominant regional community.
    • There is no formal statement or document regarding the government’s policy on tribes in independent India but reading the Constitution can tell us a lot. There are provisions that give them statutory recognition, the right to use their own language in education and elsewhere and the right to practice their religion.
      • There are also reservations in legislatures as well as in government jobs to improve the representation of the tribes.
      • There are also directive principles that talk about the need to uplift disadvantaged groups like the tribes.
    • Taking all this into account, the Constitution’s approach is understood to be one of “integration”. They aim to bring tribes closer to larger Indian society but instead of trying to “assimilate” them, there are safeguards and protection for their language and culture. So rather than trying to erase diversity, the Constitution wants to promote it.
    • But these provisions are rarely implemented effectively. Protection of tribal lands has been extremely inconsistent. Their right to practice the religion of their choice is under threat. Whether in politics or education or employment, tribals are often excluded on the basis of their ethnicity.
  7. Apart from the negligence at the federal level, the census also reflects a change in thinking about tribes. In independent India, tribes began to be classified as Hindu if they didn’t belong to another non-tribal religion. This is a new twist on the old method of absorption and shows how tribal erasure is still going strong.
    • Since the formation of the first religious electorates, there has been a trend of maximising the number of people classified as “Hindu”. During the colonial censuses, tribes were asked by Hindu organisations to identify themselves as Hindus rather than as animists or followers of tribal religions.
    • In independent India, this became official federal policy in a way. While their status as “Scheduled Tribe” was still recorded, tribes began to be classified as Hindus when it came to religion. This was if they weren’t already a member of some other dominant religion like Christianity.
    • This can be called “the post-independence method of tribal absorption”. The ability of tribes to define themselves is reduced even further than before.
    • In the earlier method of absorption, it was at least partly voluntary. Because it was about economic security, there was some choice on the part of the tribes whether they would be absorbed into larger Indian society. Here, it is all done at the administrative level and they are given no choice at all. 
    • This goes against all the progressive language of the Constitution.

Source text: Politics of Language, Religion and Identity: Tribes in India
Publication: Economic and Political Weekly (2005)
Author: Virginius Xaxa

Note: This is a summary of a one paper. It reflects one argument that we think would be interesting or useful to discuss. It may not offer the full picture or represent consensus on this topic, both of which are always evolving. If you would like to know how other scholars have built on or critiqued the arguments presented in this summary, click here to see some of the works that cite it.