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CULTURE AND RELIGION: A TRIBAL PERSPECTIVE

By Barnes Mawrie

We all know that the RSS’ slogan today is all about Hindu Rashtra or “India is a Hindu country.” One of the components of their Hindu Rashtra is the idea of one “Hindu culture” for the whole country. One problem with this ideology is a manipulated understanding of both culture and religion. Although these two are closely linked to each other, yet we cannot say that religion is to be identified with culture. Religion is a part of culture but not the whole of it. In fact, anthropologists will agree that culture has a very broad spectrum and religion is just one of that. Another question that comes up to our mind right at the start of this discussion is: Is there such a thing as “Indian or Hindu culture?” India is a land of multi-culturalism and various cultures have been co-existing here for centuries in the past. Those who propagate the idea of one “Hindu culture” are actually viciously trying to promote a religion and not a culture. All such attempts like ghar wapsi are synonymous to proselytization or forced conversion (which the Christians are selectively accused of). In a highly heterogeneous society like India, where hundreds of ethnic groups are found, it is ridiculous to even think of a single culture without hurting the cultural sentiments of each group. Gone are the days of “cultural imposition” of the era of colonization, today our constitution respects every culture and upholds its integrity. Therefore any attempt at creating a mono-culture society is a crime against humanity which no civilized nation should tolerate.

           

I am speaking on this issue in the context of the recent dangerous development in Jharkhand where the BJP Government is trying to pass a law depriving the tribal Christians of their ST status. According to this law, any tribal person who becomes a Christian has to surrender his ST status with all its privileges. This is a real discrimination against a group of citizens. If they succeed in imposing this law, there is every likeability that the BJP government will impose it on the whole country as well. As I have indicated above, this is the result of a misinterpretation of culture, namely, that culture is religion. Let us not forget that culture is linked with one’s ethnic identity and not with one’s religion. To use a paradox, a dog does not cease to be a dog even if it starts eating grass. Culture is the DNA of our identity as a member of a particular ethnic group. That is why, a Bengalee or a Bihari who acculturates himself into let’s say, a Khasi society who may have learned the language perfectly and acts like any Khasi, does not become a Khasi per se. He will still be considered a Bengalee or a Bihari by everyone. This example is to demonstrate how culture is broader than religion and its implication in the life of a person is deeper than his or her religious creed. So a Khasi person may adopt Hinduism, Islam or Christianity as his or her religion, but he or she does not cease to be Khasi by virtue of his ethnicity and culture. It would be sheer stupidity to say that an Oraon who has become a Christian has ceased to be an Oraon and has become a European,that his culture has simple banished into thin air. Culture is not something like a gown that we put on and can be taken off easily. It is therefore highly misleading and a gross fallacy to have a law that would simply take away the ST status just because a tribal person has become a Christian by faith.

Another argument that a tribal Christian has to return to the indigenous religion if he or she wants to retain the ST status, is another ridiculous idea equivalent to identifying culture and ethnicity with religious faith. In my comparative study between Christianity and tribal religions, I have discovered that there is no contradiction in the most fundamental theological belief of both Christianity and tribal indigenous religions in India. Monotheism is the common theological basis for these religions. Tribals who have been erroneously branded as animists or pantheists etc, by non-tribal scholars, are fundamentally monotheistic. They all believe in one Supreme Being called by different names: U Blei for the Khasis, Dharmes for the Oraons, Pathian for the Mizos, Sing Bonga for the Mundas etc. In fact, tribals who become Hindus are damaging their basic theological principle of monotheism because Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. Christianity in fact, corresponds more to tribal religions in many aspects both theologically and ritually. Perhaps this is the reason why tribal communities are more inclined towards Christianity than towards other religions.

Secondly Christianity like tribal society does not permit caste division and so it favours an egalitarian social system. Instead Hinduism is structured on caste system which is absolutely alien to tribal communities. All these prove that being a Christian a tribal person does not lose his traditional religious principles at all.  So the argument that Christian tribals should go back to their indigenous religions to retain their ST status does not arise at absolutely. Perhaps this law should apply to tribals who have become Hindus because by adopting Hinduism they have damaged their fundamental theological principles. The introduction of such a Bill would cause tremendous damage to tribal communities. It is going to divide communities within themselves, confuse the tribals themselves about their very own identity. It would actually bring in a sort of caste division into a tribal community because there would be ST and Non ST within the same ethnic community. Tribal communities in India should stand up against such a discriminatory law that would endanger the integrity of our communities and even threaten our survival.

(The author is an anthropologist and is editor of Anthropology Today: An International Peer Reviewed NEIRA Journal)

 

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