Counting the Faith: Why tribals want a separate religious identity.

The Adivasi communities in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana want a separate column to be introduced for tribal religion in the upcoming 2021 census

The Adivasi communities in the Telugu states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have joined the chorus of demand for a separate religious identity. They want a separate column to be introduced for tribal religion in the upcoming 2021 census.

“Our distinct identity is being lost and our constitutional safeguards are being undermined. The Centre should include the option of tribal religion in the Census forms,” said Ramarao Dora, a member of the National Adivasi-Indigenous Religion Coordination Committee (NAIRCC), a coalition of Adivasi rights groups.

According to a tribal researcher and activist P Trinadha Rao, the tribal communities in the country were officially categorised as ‘aboriginals’ from 1871 to 1892 and as ‘Animists’ between 1901 and 1942. However, after independence, Hindu religious identity was attributed to the scheduled tribes and no option was given to them.

The 2011 census counted 104 million Adivasis, accounting for nearly 8.6 percent of the total population. They are scattered across the country and represent heterogeneous practices and traditions.

As per the present practice, a citizen can be slotted into one of the six pre-set religious categories—Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jain—or be categorised as a member of miscellaneous “other religions.”

“A vast majority of them are registered in the census as Hindus. Nearly 8 million Adivasis are registered under “Other” category. Now, the problem is two-fold. They object to being tagged as “Other” religion and also to being bracketed under Hindu religion because it amounts to undermining the distinct tribal belief systems,” said a research scholar from Osmania University S Ramakrishna.

“We are not idol worshipers. We are nature worshippers. Our social and cultural systems are based on nature,” says Arvind Oraon, a member of the NAIRCC.

Jharkhand shows the way

The growing demand for separate religious identity comes close on the heels of the Jharkhand Assembly passing a government-backed resolution early this month, allowing tribals in the state to identify themselves with a distinct religion. If the Centre approves the new Sarna code, the Census 2021 will have to make space for a new religion.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, while addressing the special session of the assembly, had said the ‘Sarna Dharam’ of tribals worshipped nature, forests, mountains, and could teach a lot to a world facing problems such as pollution and environmental degradation.

“In the last eight decades, the population of tribals in the state has come down from 38 percent to 26 per cent. This was because the tribals were not added to the census during surveys as they would migrate to other states for non-agricultural employment in February, when the surveys are generally carried out,” Soren said.

A decline in the population of tribals has an impact on the constitutional provisions and policies framed to benefit the tribal communities. The basis for identifying a particular area as Schedule V under the Constitution is dependent on the tribal population. In 2019, there were demands of denotifying Schedule V areas where the tribal population has come down. The recognition of Adivasi Sarna code is expected to address this problem.

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