(Author is a researcher and social activist. She is currently Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi)
The attacks on Christian Missionaries in Koenjhar, a predominantly tribal district in Orissa, by persons associated with the Bajrang Dal has sparked of a vicious debate on the nature of tribal identity. The Sangh Parivar claims that tribals have been forcibly converted to Christianity from Hinduism. In this way they justify the mass scale reconversion that have been reported from large tribal areas in Central and Eastern India. The missionaries, on the other hand, assert that the percentage of tribal population converted to Christianity is insignificant compared to the amount of tribals who avail of the basic services provided by them in remote regions. They also contend that tribal people were never Hindus and that they had their own religion, an argument that is supplemented by many anthropologists.
This essay shows that this is not the first time that these arguments have been used to attack the missionaries and extend the Hindu nationalist influence over tribal areas. A similar drama was played out in the 1940s and 50s to counter the influence of the Christian service providers. Militant and liberal Hindu nationalists and anthropologists succeeded in pressurizing the state to replace many mission institutions with ones manned by them. In this way they sought to liberate the tribals from cultural imperialism and solve their material needs by the providing the same welfare measures as the missionaries. Rather than improving the lot of the tribals, these welfare measures only worsened the situation by providing an enabling context for communal identity politics. This politics engulfed even the Congress and liberal reformists like A.V. Thakkar and Verrier Elwin who aided and abetted the entry of Hindutva forces into tribal areas. Christian missionaries were eased out of Scheduled areas in 1950s with the help of the Congress whose main base lay within the professional middle class and the landed gentry that opposed missionary activity at that time. All anti-missionary activities in the area assumed that the assimilation of the tribals into the larger reformed Hindu society was the only viable alternative for building a nationalist identity. This was because they believed that the social values promoted by the Hindu religion threatened the tribal culture less than the ones promoted by Christianity.
The attacks on current Christian institutions and tribals have to be seen in the context described above. Their reappearance in the 1990s with a greater intensity should be attributed to the worsening situation of the crisis ridden tribal economies that were integrated into the world capitalist economy in the colonial period. The continued underdevelopment and pauperization of these people in the post-independence period has been a result of the welfare politics espoused by both Christian missionaries and Hindu and Liberal nationalists since the late 1930s. Coincidentally, this period was also marked by the increasing influence of the Hindu Mahasabha and liberal social workers after the formation of the nationalist Congress Ministry in regions now known as Madhya Pradesh. Although liberal and Hindu nationalist activities did provide some competition to missionary influence in this period, but it's influence only made incremental changes in the living conditions of tribals. This competitive politics communalized the service sector often affecting even governmental institutions and without meeting the challenges of underdevelopment that engulfed tribal economy and society.
Conversions in Historical Perspective
The tribals have had contact and exchange with the Hindu caste societies since the ancient times. Yet the desire for them to become Hindus was only limited to the tribal elites. The Gond zamindars for example, came to be known as the Raj-Gond or the Gonds who wanted to get sanskritized into the Rajput society. Gond zamindars wanted to attain the status of Rajputs because the Rajputs were considered important warriors in the Mughal and Maratha regimes and this would mean that the Gond Zamindars would gain some benefits from incorporation at that level. The rest were known as the Gonds or the adivasis or simply by their community names like the Korkus or the Baigas or any others. We may ask ourselves why this was so and why tribal peasants did not attempt to convert to Hinduism in the period before the advent of the Christian missionaries. History has shown us that the tribals of Central India faced economic and social discrimination from the Hindu caste society. Most tribal peasants faced exploitation from high caste Hindus and would be forced to do their domestic work or become farm servants at nominal rates. Indebtedness to banias and sahukars was also common and the tribals found themselves at the lower rung of the society. In the context of such exploitation, the tribal cultivators and gatherers were considered outcastes. Most upper castes did not drink water or eat food with them, and they usually lived in far off villages within or on the periphery of the forest tracts. Even today a visit to any tribal area of Madhya Pradesh will reveal that the tribals are not considered part of their village by upper castes and that their hamlets are very far away from the main village, almost like the hamlets of Muslims and untouchables. Any inclusion into the caste Hindu society would only lead to their further destitution, as they would be akin to other Harijan castes. Therefore it is understandable that tribal cultivators, hunters and gatherers did not want to enter the mainstream Hindu society even before the advent of the Christian missionaries and certainly after that.
The penetration of the missionaries into the tribal areas of Eastern Madhya Pradesh began in the early nineteenth century entering its most successful phase in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their entry into the tribal areas of Bastar and other parts of Northern Madhya Pradesh was facilitated by two factors. First, the missionaries undertook famine relief and charity work to offset the detrimental consequences of natural disasters and the displacement of livelihood strategies by forest laws. This was particularly seen in Balaghat where the “Christ for Gonds” mission was relatively more successful than in other regions. Here the missionaries opened orphanages, did relief work during famines and provided mid-day meals to children and opened health camps to treat malaria which infested the Mandla-Balaghat tracts every year. Simultaneously they enrolled newly converted Christians as preachers to expand their local base and spread Christian literature.
Secondly, tribal peasants perceived the Christian missions to be a good alternative to the entry to the caste Hindu society. The operation of permanent settlements and forest laws had left the tribals very few options in terms of livelihood strategies. They would either have to work for upper caste Hindus or they would have to become part of colonial efforts to industrialize forests by providing the forest department with cheap labour. Missionary activities provided them with an escape route from these options. They felt that their social status would improve once they became educated in the missionary system and that they could then escape the caste hierarchies of Hindu society. It is for this reason that Verrier Elwin, the eminent liberal anthropologist of tribal anthropology wrote in the 1940s that,
In particular I urge all Hindu Organizations interested in this problem to pass resolutions accepting the major aboriginal communities as Kshatriyas which is what they are and what they claim to be….
The Congress, nationalist social workers and militant Hindu organizations like the Arya Dharam Sevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha supported this statement. They believed that the tribals were a part of the Hindu society and any form of secular tribal development would entail the assimilation of tribals into the Hindu society. It was another matter that Hindu society itself should be prepared and reformed to treat the tribals in a sympathetic manner.
But by the first decades of the twentieth century the Christians found that conversions amongst the tribal people were minimal as compared to the people participated in works sponsored by the Churches of various denominations. The tribal Christians constituted a bear 2 to 5 per cent of their entire population. This showed that even though the main aim of Christian activities (especially education) was to strengthen the influence of Christian values, this seldom resulted in the adoption of the Christian faith by the tribals. And even if frequent conversions and reconversion took place in some cases, they were affected more by the contingencies of survival and force of circumstances created by colonial measures rather than by missionary coercion. In this context the primordial tribal identity of the early twentieth century reflected the crisis of a pre-capitalist colonial economy that was vulnerable to all imperialism - socio-cultural, economic and political.
The Communalization of the Service Sector, 1940-1960
The drastic impact of the forest laws and the natural resource management policies of the British had economy was stagnating and their needs could not be met adequately, tribal people slowly become dependent on government and non-governmental agencies for providing some relief to them. These agencies saw their role in terms of providing health and education services, provision for employment and running practical training programmes. The nature of the services provided in turn depended on the way in which different actors and agencies perceived tribal and positioned themselves in the wider political reality. While the Christian missionaries were the earliest people to start work in the tribal areas, the 1930s and 40s also saw the increasing influence of the Hindu Organizations like the Mahasabha and the Arya Dharam Sevak Sangh. Apart from this there were the Congressmen and some liberal anthropologists like Verrier Elwin who exercised considerable influence over Nehruvian tribal policy in the post-independence period. The actions of these actors led to the consolidation of a socio-cultural tribal identity that did not necessarily reflect the fundamental problem with tribal societies - the isolation, underdevelopment and stagnation of tribal economy and society. This context formed the basis and backdrop of the communal politics between Christian missionaries and those opposed to them in the 1940s.
Congress social workers like A.V. Thakkar started running the Gond Seva Sangh in order to provide an alternative to missionary schools. The Bhumijan Seva Mandal started by Verrier Elwin in Mandla also ran orphanages and schools. Simultaneously the nationalist government of 1937 also past the Vidya Mandir Scheme that was to promote Gandhian values amongst the masses of which tribals constituted a significant part. However the content of all these programmes included some amount of literary instruction, instruction on social values, vocational training and constructive work and in this sense they were quite alike in their approaches. Each programme became a vehicle to reach out to tribal people and extend their influence amongst them without addressing the fundamental problem of the stagnation of the tribal economy. Instead they all sought to turn out citizens that would serve the capitalist economy in a more effective way or would effect their marginalization by the promotion of occupations that proved to be incapable coping with the stresses of the market economy.
The increase in the number of service providers also led to the competition amongst them for the patronage of the tribals. Congressmen, liberal scholars and social workers, and Hindu nationalists criticized the missionaries for their conversion activities in tribal areas. They said that the missionaries were using the poverty of the tribals to convert them to Christianity. Missionary activities, this broad alliance argued, were not done with the motive to serve and bring about the upliftment of the tribals, but with an aim to oppress them through the imposition of an alien culture. By the 1940s, all anti-missionary views sought to emphasize the affinity between tribals and Hindus and therefore did not object to the reconversion work that the Hindu nationalists continued to do on a large scale. Reports of activities in tribal areas in the 1940s emphasized how "nationalist schools" were opened by the Arya Dharam Sevak Sangh (an outfit run by the Hindu Mahasabha) to provide alternatives to mission schools. Mass reconversion and purification programmes by the Hindu Mahasabha received the tacit support of both the Congress and other anti-missionary liberal social workers like Thakkar and Elwin. Thus by the end of the 1940s it was seen that anti-missionary activists had started believing that assimilation into Hinduism was one of the only ways of secular tribal development. They also lobbied for the banning of missionary activities in areas dominated by the tribals especially the areas under the Fifth Schedule at this time.
At the time of Independence the nationalist alliance of liberal politicians and intellectuals on the one hand, and militant Hindu activists on the other hand, gained prominence during the framing of the Constitution. During the debate on the fifth and sixth schedules the opposition to tribal councils was expressed less in terms of the nature of the development it would promote, and more in terms of the identity politics in would encourage. Some members from the tribal state of Orissa objected to the formation of the tribal council. Many members of the Congress believed that all tribal areas would be faced with a movement for a separate state as in the case of the demand for a separate Santhal state in Bihar if the councils were constituted. They also traced the origins of separatist movements in Assam and Bihar to missionary activities in tribal districts. The anti-nationalism of the missionaries was also interpreted in terms of their opposition to government programmes in tribal areas. The opposition of the missionaries to the Backward Areas Welfare Scheme as well as the opening of government schools in their area was explained by the setback their proselytizing activities had received after independence.
A commission was set up to enquiry into the activities of Christian Missions soon after independence. A former judge, N.B. Niyogi, headed the Commission that had only one Christian representative who was a Gandhian by ideology. No other minorities were represented in the commission to which the Christian religious leadership protested. However despite their objections, the recommendations of the committee were by members not acceptable to most of the Christian missionary leadership. Chief amongst these recommendations was the banning of all foreign and mission agencies in scheduled and specified areas. Further the committee also asked the missionaries to withdraw if they proposed to attract tribals to their faith. They also recommended that the Indian Churches stop their foreign funding so that the anti-national tendencies in their activities would be minimized. On the legislative front they also recommended the medical and professional services, as a direct means of making conversions should be prohibited. As far as orphanages were concerned, they stated that these should be state-run and the same should be done for education. Armed with these recommendations, missionary activities were banned in partially excluded areas of the province and the state took over the welfare activities in these areas.
The evidence on which the Commission's recommendations were based revealed that there were varied perceptions of conversions. More often than not, these differences were dependent upon the economic and social status of the respondent. For example the tribals and poor cultivators like Gonds and Uraons conversions to both Hinduism and Christianity were a means of economic necessity as they were offered basic services that were free of cost. However the majority of the evidence produced in the volume was from the people of the professional middle class who were also the main service providers in the region and found missionary activities as directly threatening their interests. They also had linkages with the landholding class that formed the backbone of both the Congress and the Mahasabha. By accepting their demand for the ban of missionary activity in some areas and their curtailment in others the Congress became a latent party to the Hindutva agenda in the 1940s and 50s.
Contemporary Communal Politics and the Need for a Secular Agenda
After the Christians were attacked by Hindutva forces in the Dangs in December 1998, BJP government and the Prime Minister called for a debate on conversions. In response to this Dara Singh, allegedly a Bajrang Dal activist, burnt an Australian Missionary and his two sons in the tribal district of Koenjhar in Orissa. This was followed by the rape of a Christian nun in the Mayurbhanj district and the assault of two Christian youths in Orissa and in Jhabua. Significantly, these two incidents were also preceded by BJP General Secretary, Govindacharya’s, assertion that the Hindus have had a historic role in the development of the tribal people and the Hinduization of the tribes has been going on since the ancient times. Soon after this newspapers reported that 300 Baigas had reconverted to Hinduism in Dindori in Mandla District of Madhya Pradesh in February-March 1999. The communalization of the service sector has taken a new turn by some policy initiatives taken in by BJP governments in the states and the utterances of senior BJP ministers at the level of the central government. The Gujarat government has recently passed a legislation that allows bureaucrats to join the RSS. At the same time the Human Resource Development Minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, has also repeated stated that education should reflect and teach Indian social values that in BJP terms implies Hindu values. Another recent development in Uttar Pradesh has banned the construction of religious places in border areas without the permission of the Government. This act has been inspired by the belief that Mosques and Madrasas are the main hubs of the Pakistani intelligence agency’s activities.
These developments put the conversion question back into focus and raised the issues about cultural imposition and nature of tribal identity yet again. Familiar arguments were repeated calling missionaries anti-national and accusing them of giving economic inducements tribals to convert to Christianity. The circumstances of the re-emergence of these anti-missionary attacks and rhetoric are slightly different today. The emergence of the Sangh Parivar as a major political force has encouraged the militant Hindu organizations to extend their operations in all major tribal areas and espouse the cause of Hindu nationhood. They are once again supported in this by the service sector on which the tribals are very dependent because of the worsening economic crisis in the nation as a whole and the poorer regions in particular.
As late as the years 1992 and 1993 the Scheduled Areas, Baiga Chak (in Mandla district) and Abhujmarh (in Bastar) were witnessing the long-term impacts of the communalization of the services sector in 1940s and 50s. However there was a definite difference this time as majority of the professional middle class had actively started supporting the Hindutva forces. Because of the problem with the naxalites who were coming in from Andhra Pradesh, the government presence in Abhujmarh was limited. Instead the government decided to fund the Ramakrishna Mission to carry out its health and educational programmes in the area. Having worked for 10 years in the area, the Ramkrishna Mission denies any conversion of tribal people into Hinduism. However the prayer hall of the Ashram advocates the slogan: “Glory to the Vedas’ and espouses the values of an ideal Hindu life. Simultaneously the Banwasi Kalyan Parishad and the Kalyan Saraswat Ashrams, and Shishu Mandirs, all manned by VHP or RSS activists carry out educational and health programs in Southern Bastar, Mandla, Balaghat and neighboring areas. Successive BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh have also attempted to change the school curriculum to suit the Hindutva purpose. The BJP and its allied organizations have clearly benefited from the banning of missionary activities in the Scheduled Areas.
Though the Congress is compelled to oppose these forces, its successive governments have failed to prevent the expansion of Hindutva influence in tribal areas. This is mainly because the welfare model of development promoted by it has become the basis of communal politics in many tribal areas. The worsening economic crisis after liberalization has created economic and social unrest amongst tribal communities in these regions. The main problems of most tribal areas in Madhya Pradesh are a high mortality rate, negligible production and the lack of year round employment. On an average one male Baiga of the Baiga Chak in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh walks 150-200 kilometers for 4 months of employment at Rs. 25.00 per day. In addition to this, He and his wife may get an additional income of Rs. 30.00 per day from tendu patta collection for 30 days in a year. The average income of a Baiga family would be about 4000-5000 per year in 1992-1993. The situation hasn’t improved much since then and tribals continue to be a target for competitive communal politics that are practiced by service providers. The fight against communal politics must therefore include the evolution of a new strategy to develop the tribal economies – a strategy that displaces the welfare model with a creative strategy for the development of productive resources of the tribal economy.
The arguments presented above present the case for linking the fight for a secular democratic nation to the fight against integration of tribal economies into the global economy. The lack of a comprehensive progressive political force in tribal areas and the fragmented nature of radical anti-liberalization movements have prevented this from happening in the current political scenario. Therefore there is an urgent need to new alliances and make the progressive presence felt in a comprehensive way in order to combat the twin dangers of communalism and liberalization in tribal areas.
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