A silent movement, which one may term as the ‘Tribal Renaissance’, has begun in India. The rallying point of this movement is a demand for delisting of those tribals from the list of Scheduled Tribes who have converted to Christianity and Islam. Primarily, Scheduled Tribes in India have converted to Christianity in India, courtesy of a sustained operation of missionaries in India that had started during the colonial era and still continues with global support.
The tribal leaders of India and the community itself have now started resisting not only these conversions but there is a massive pushback from the grassroots level from the tribal community which is demanding that the tribals converted to Islam and Christianity should be delisted from the reservation list.
Let us take a look at some numbers which reflect the popular mood among scheduled tribes of the country. An organisation, named Janjati Suraksha Manch (JSM) was set up in 2006 to take up the cause of welfare of tribals, especially the issue of conversions and delisting of converted tribals.
Over the last few months, around 124 public rallies have been held across the country in the areas where the tribals reside. Organised by the JSM with help of local support, these rallies have witnessed an average attendance ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 people. The attendees predominantly belonged to the tribals who follow Sanatan Dharma and have been feeling cheated that the tribals converted to Christianity have left the faith and the religious and cultural practices of the tribes and are cornering the fruits of reservation also. Many of them walk for hours to attend these public meetings to express their anger and frustration seeking delisting of converted tribals from the list of Scheduled Tribes.
The leaders of JSM, a completely apolitical and organic outfit of tribals, were able to meet 445 Members of Parliament (337 from Lok Sabha and 108 from Rajya Sabha) in March 2022 to press for their demand of ‘delisting’ of converted tribals. More than 100 more rallies are going to be organised by tribals in the next few months across the country to press for their demand.
Why should it be seen as a ‘Tribal Renaissance’ movement? The reason is that never before in the recent history of India including the British Colonial era of 200 years, a tribal movement has emerged that panned in every tribal district of the country with impromptu participation.
Present provisions for STs
For the purpose of reservation two different categories, i.e. Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), were made in our Constitution. The people who were discriminated against on the basis of the practice of untouchability in India were categorised as Scheduled Castes. The Scheduled Tribes were given reservations to preserve their traditional belief system and cultural practices. These communities have remained neglected historically as a result of discriminatory social practices, due to which they are much backward from other communities in the society in terms of education, health, and other indicators of development. The provision of reservation was essentially formulated in the Constitution to improve their representation in different positions in the political and administrative spheres so that they could contribute to policy making and its implementation.
Besides the reservation, some other provisions were also made to safeguard the interests of the tribes. The Fifth and the Sixth Schedules, in this context, were specially provisioned for the protection of their customs and livelihood. Later, as per the needs, the Constitution was amended and Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) was enacted in 1996 and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act was enacted in 2006.
Legal and constitutional position
Efforts were made by Kartik Oraon, a stalwart of the tribal community, way back in the 1960s to get the converted tribals delisted from the list of STs; these efforts continued in the 1970s but of no avail.
It is noticeable here that in a case related to Kerala, the Supreme Court of India had asked: “Does such a person, even after his conversion, remain socially weak and backward and does he still follow his age-old original tribal culture and tradition?” (Kerala State & Others v/s Chandramohan)
In another case, one of the government orders of the state of Meghalaya was justified and validated by the High Court of Guwahati and later by the Supreme Court of India as well with the argument that a (tribal) village head has to perform both the traditional rituals and administrative duties of the village together and a tribe converted to Christianity can’t do both of them together. (Ewanlangki-E-Rymbai vs Jaintia Hills District Council and Others-2006).
As per the data presented by Kartik Oraon in Parliament, many of the tribal beneficiaries of the constitutional rights were the converted tribes. Theoretically, once someone converts to the Christian faith, the concerned individual has to take an oath of being monotheistic and not to indulge in the worshipping of other Gods and Goddesses. This implies that the converted individuals from scheduled tribe communities stop worshipping their traditional Gods and Goddesses and they also give up their customary traditions and way of life.
In the given scenario, the question arises how can he or she be called tribal? If someone has converted to Christianity, why should he or she get the rights and benefits that are meant for the tribal people? Therefore, converted individuals must be removed from the constitutional safeguards provided for tribal communities that are essentially meant for the protection of their traditional ethos, culture, identity, and livelihood.
The same point was raised in the Parliament by Kartik Oraon with great emphasis. Owing to his efforts, a joint parliamentary committee was formed in the year 1968, which consisted of 22 MPs from the Lok Sabha and 11 MPs from the Rajya Sabha. Kartik Oraon himself was one of the members of the committee. The committee had 22 meetings and on 17th November 1969, it presented a report to Parliament. In this report, besides other things, one important recommendation was made — “As per 2A of Clause 2, if any person leaves the tradition, culture behind and converts to Islam or Christianity, he will not be considered as a part of the Scheduled tribe” (page 29, line no 38, schedule 2, clause 2A).
However, this report was never implemented.
A study conducted by the Centre for Policy Studies has also established that the tribals who got converted especially to Christianity are taking away the major benefits of the reservations meant for the Scheduled Tribes. This, despite the fact that they have accepted another faith and religious practices shunning their real tribal identity.
It is time to take a look at almost 100 million tribals of India and address their genuine grievance which has been pending for the last several decades by bringing an amendment to Article 342 that governs various provisions for benefits for Scheduled Tribes.
One thing has to be noted that according to Article 341, it is clearly mentioned that persons who have converted from Hindu to other religions will not be treated as Schedule Caste members, but Article 342 does not include any such restriction while describing Schedule Tribes. Because of this clarification, members of the Scheduled Castes who convert into the Muslim or the Christian faiths are not entitled to get the benefits of reservation and other facilities provided by the constitution. The definition of the Scheduled Tribe provisioned in Article 342 of the Constitution lacks this clarity due to which converted tribes have continued to take away the constitutional benefits of reservation provided for the scheduled tribes.
It is high time to apply the same provision for the Scheduled Tribes that applies to Scheduled Castes in India as far as delisting of the converted is concerned. This would help undo a historical wrong.
The writer, an author and columnist, has authored several books. Views expressed are personal.