In search of indigenous identity

There is need for tribal code in religion column of Census 2021, writes Dr Joram Yalam Nabam

The indigenous tribals in the world had been the highest oppressed and suppressed people during the various phases of human civilisation. This continues to date. The tribal are also the most innocent and gullible flock of people who are easily manipulated by others for their socio-religious and economic expansion. The tribal way of life and belief system is in consonance with nature. They live with nature. They have their own culture, religion and way of life, which is heavily eroding with the passage of time and under the influence of other religious and spiritual philosophies.

What is Tribal philosophy?


The tribal see spirit/soul in all living, non -living things in nature. The tribal co-exist and associate with nature as a family, for example; the Tani tribe in Arunachal Pradesh accepts the sun as a mother, the moon as a father, the Earth also as a mother, likewise the stone as our elder brother, the animals and birds are also relatives. These are our past, present and future ancestors. There cannot be a statue or concrete house of worship as we are relatives of nature.

The characteristics of nature are democratic, freedom is the scripture, diversity is its colour, and we are a part of it. We cannot go against nature. Going against nature will be akin to going against the very existence. This is the truth, and this is the core philosophy of the tribal way of life. To make things clearer, we can see these examples:

In Tani philosophy, Jimi Jama (nothingness) is the centre of the creation. Nothingness is everything. We cannot choose a single entity and worship it. We can see/feel and touch everything, but we cannot hold on to any single entity and begin to worship it by saying that this is God.

There have been numerous studies/researches on tribes, but the tribal philosophy was never correctly understood by the world; rather the words like Adivasi and junglee (forest-dwellers) are used to abuse the tribal.

People of other religion and culture have entered from the back door and convinced many tribals to have inferior feeling about own philosophy and existence saying that your language/dialect is poor, you don’t have religion, you don’t have God, you are backward, you are uncivilized; we are here to civilize you, to help you. And they gave their God to the tribal people. They have taught us to see nature in their way. Now we are standing at a crossroad with a confused mind.

There can be religion without any written scriptures. One can be religious without following any organised religion. Nature cannot be organised by a human being, rather it organises us. We are directly disciplined by it. We have many means and ways to listen, read and understand nature’s known/unknown/silent languages. Nature is mysterious in character, so many rituals have been created to connect with the various forms of nature.

The conversion to any religion means conversion to another culture, as slowly we have to leave our culture in the influence of that adopted religion. The Adivasi/Tribal is not a religion; it’s a civilization, and it’s a culture that is totally based on nature. One cannot say that people who do not follow any organized religion does not know anything about spirituality

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar says, “Those who do not know their own history can never create history.” People who are devoid of their roots, own language, festivals, ancestral memories, can never save their own culture. The tribal philosophy is hidden in culture. The mere wearing of traditional dress/ornaments/ singing/dancing will not save our culture. We have to understand the core philosophy of tribalism, which is even beyond rituals, which form the outer circle of the core philosophy. It is born out of it. So, we cannot commit the crime of dispelling the cultural and ancestral memories of our Tribe.

The conversion to any religion means conversion to another culture, as slowly we have to leave our culture in the influence of that adopted religion. The Adivasi/Tribal is not a religion; it’s a civilization, and it’s a culture that is totally based on nature. One cannot say that people who do not follow any organized religion does not know anything about spirituality. In Tani language, the seen and unseen force/spirit/soul of nature is called wyu. This wyu is the source of life. Whatever we see and eats are wyus. We accept the priest, or nyubu, as the link between nature and human beings. We cannot worship any single thing in nature and cannot make any statue.

Likewise, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism or Jainism is also not just a religion. It’s a civilisation. Hinduism is a vast civilisation and way of life.

As explained above, the word ‘tribal’ is not only a symbol of religion but it also means culture, traditional and social systems which are distinct and different from any other religion and culture.

Tribal being a distinct group, we have no tribal religion column in the Form of the census of India since 1951. Whereas the tribal word was mentioned in the census Form from 1851 to 1941. As per available records the Tribal were recorded in the census as

1871: Aborgines

1881: Aborigional

1891: Abaoriginal

1901: Animist

1911: Animist

1921: Animist

1931: Tribal religion (This was given by Mr. J H Hattan a British officer)

1941: Tribes

1951: Others

The mention of the tribal word was removed after independence and we were just known as Scheduled Tribe for official purpose. The tribal are the aboriginals, who were dwelling in their respective places, since time immemorial. As we can see, the word tribal was removed from the census Form from 1951 under the then Congress government. Now the word is in danger.

The provision under ST is reviewed and extended every ten years and this can be abolished/scrapped at any time. The ST status does not comply with the tribal philosophy, culture, tradition and tribal way of life. We are just tribals, whether scheduled or non-scheduled. The ST status symbolises the backwardness of certain groups of people in the modern governance system. Whereas we tribals are a democratic and independent group of people and we do not have any caste system. Whenever we accept Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Islam, we are no more tribal.

Religion should not be a component in census calculation, rather a community of an individual could be taken. But if at all religion has to be included in the census then tribal also should get this right. Exclusion of tribal from census seems to be unconstitutional and a systematic design to assimilate tribal into a larger religious group. This goes against the United Nation declaration on the rights of indigenous people. The UN declaration clearly recognises the indigenous people’s rights. By not allowing the tribal to identify with their religious beliefs, the state violated both the commitments – to secularism enshrined in the Constitution and equality proclaimed in the United Nation declaration on indigenous rights.

The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion under Article 25 to 28, but the census does not allow many Adivasi/Tribal groups the freedom to identify themselves with their own religious practice and beliefs. Exclusion of tribal in the religion column of census form has created confusion and forced many tribal groups to opt for one of the organised religions. This demand is for recognition and inclusion of that “Tribal code” practised by millions in the official government documents in future.

The Adivasi/Tribal are the aboriginal of this country, so we have the same right to protect our identity, culture, language and moral values with the word Adivasi /Tribal, like any other communities/religious groups in the country. The word religion is not only a matter of spirituality but the whole system like culture, tradition, language is engulfed in it. Therefore, we demand that the word tribal/adivasi should be mentioned in the religion column of the form in census 2021, just like there is mention of Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi etc. we request the state government to implore the census of India to accept our demand.

(Dr Joram Yalam Nabam is an assistant professor in the Department of Hindi at Rajiv Gandhi University, Arunachal Pradesh) 

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