British missionary Verrier Elwin moved away from categorising tribal religion as pre-Hindu to proto-Hindu, as for him, the Hindu nature of the tribes and pluralistic nature of Hinduness were axiomatic.
He came to the same conclusions Savarkar had articulated earlier.
‘Do not Hindu organisations convert tribal populations to Hinduism?’’
This is a question one almost always encounters whenever the questions of Christian proselytising in tribal areas and the right of indigenous spiritual traditions are raised. The last one to join this bandwagon has been Tufail Ahmed, an ex-BBC journalist who is also the author of the acclaimed work Jihadist threat to India. Recently, he tweeted that the Hindus are ‘guilty of converting’ the tribes to the ‘Hindu faith’.
This shows how the argument of tribes being non-Hindus and the symmetrical perception of Hindu activists and Christian proselytisers as doing similar conversions is becoming accepted more and more in Indian elite media and political circles. The Hindu argument is that there is no distinction between the so-called animism and Hinduism and hence tribes are as much Hindus as all Hindus are.
Both these stands hark back to the time of India’s anti-colonial movement and are extensions into the present of two competing strands of perceiving India. To understand this let us look back into colonial history when very such similar arguments were used by missionaries as well as colonialists and how diverse elements in anti-colonial national movement faced these arguments.
Central India – Colonial Period
In 1927, a young British missionary came to India. He was interested in the tribes of India as a missionary. And he emphatically spoke about keeping the tribes away from the influence of Hinduism. He wrote contemptuously of the Congress working with tribal communities as “the company of vegetarians and teetotalers forcing their own bourgeois and Puritan doctrines on the free wild people of the forests”. The young Oxford educated missionary declared categorically: “I myself consider the aboriginals to be pre-Hindu and that the adoption of Hinduism will be a major disaster for them.”
The missionary was Verrier Elwin. The British, who had already seen what a tribal uprising could do in the case of Bhagwan Birsa Munda (1875-1900), were anxious to veer away tribal communities from the Congress, which the state and the missionaries accused of ‘Hinduising’ the tribes. Elwin, who was initially suspected by the British to be pro-Congress, was now with his admission of an openly hostile attitude against the 'Hinduisation' activities of Gandhian Congress among the tribes, was made honorary magistrate in the Central Provinces. That was in 1936.
As a decade passed Verrier Elwin himself slowly evolved from a colonial missionary to a more empathetic almost post-colonial self-taught anthropologist. He confessed in his Missionaries and Aboriginals (written around 1943-44):
When I first arrived in aboriginal company thirteen years ago, I was under the impression that the Hillmen were not Hindus. Eight years of hard study and research have convinced me that I was wrong.All Elwin quotes & data : Nandini Sundar, ‘Verrier Elwin and the 1940s Missionary Debate in Central India’: See PS.
In his work on the religion of Muria tribes (The Muria and their Ghotul, 1947) he delineates the relation between Hinduism and the tribal religions:
Muria religion is undoubtedly a religion of the Hindu family with special affinities to its Shaivite interpretation, yet at the same time it is but little‘Hinduised’. It retains a special and characteristic faith, a logical entity which can be described and recognised.
Moving away from the previous missionary position (no pun intended) of categorising tribal religion as pre-Hindu, he now saw it as proto-Hindu. He wrote:
Muria religion anticipates the vast developments of Hinduism and is not unworthy of the great religious system which has grownup on the same soil and out of the same traditions.
While it is a 'simple and childlike version' it also has 'dignity, power and beauty'. He asked the 'modern Hindu' to treat it 'with the reverence that is always due to children's things'.
Veer Savarkar had already come to similar conclusions but two decades before Elwin. In his Essentials of Hindutva, Savarkar famously defined a Hindu as ‘who regards and owns this Bharat Bhumi, this land from the Indus to the Seas, as his Fatherland as well as his Holy Land;—i.e., the land of the origin of his religion, the cradle of his faith.’ Then he specifically draws the attention of the reader to the question whether the tribes of India could be classified as Hindus. He writes:
Consequently the so-called aboriginal or hill-tribes also are Hindus: because India is their Fatherland as well as their Holy Land whatever form of religion or worship they follow.Essentials of Hindutva, 1924
One should note the striking similarity between the conclusions Elwin had drawn after 13 years of his life with the tribes and the writings of Savarkar.
Mahatma Gandhi too shows a similar approach to the issue of tribal-Hindu relations. In 1939, Dr Chesterman, the Medical Secretary of the English Baptist Mission, who had come for a missionary conference at Thambaram, Madras, later had a meeting with Gandhi. He asked Gandhi if his objection to conversion also applied to 'the aboriginal races' because they were 'animists'. Gandhi replied:
I know that despite being described as animists these tribes have from time immemorial been absorbed in Hinduism. They are, like the indigenous medicine, of the soil and their roots lie deep there.The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Vol. 75 p.83
Then Gandhi made a very pertinent observation: “But you can only endorse this if you feel that Hinduism is as true as Christianity." This observation is very significant because it shows a very intuitive grasp of a very important truth about colonial (and even modern day) social sciences – their anchorage to Protestant worldview. It is a very subtle but powerful criticism of colonial anthropology that is obsessed with categorisation in pigeonholes. The statement also anticipates an Indic anthropology that is more organic and holistic.
Such an observation by Gandhi was neither an armchair speculation nor a casual remark. On the contrary, he was consistently concerned with the way services should be rendered to the tribal communities. Despite the criticism of puritanism that is often levelled against Gandhi and Gandhian activists working with tribal communities like Thakkar Bapa that they enforced vegetarianism and moral values on the tribal people, Gandhi had shown the need for a much deeper spiritual empathy in the way non-tribal activists should work with tribal people. He wrote:
What have I to take to the aborigines and the Assamese hill men except to go in my nakedness to them? Rather than ask them to join my prayer, I would join their prayer. We were strangers to this sort of classification-’animists’, ‘aborigines’, etc., but we have learnt it from the English rulers. I must have the desire to serve and it will put me right with people. Conversion and service go ill together.Young India, January 19, 1928
All the three, Gandhi, Savarkar and Elwin rejected the straightjacketing of Hinduism into a Western category of a monotheistic religion. They all saw the emergence of religion from the Indic soil as relating to its Hinduness.
One can note how strikingly similar are the concept of Hindu as being one who sees ‘the land of the origin of his religion, the cradle of his faith’ in Savarkar and the words of Elwin about the ‘great religious system which has grown up on the same soil and out of the same traditions’ and Gandhi speaks of tribal communities as Hindus because “they are, like the indigenous medicine, of the soil, and their roots lie deep there”. One can also note how Elwin talks about tribal religion as belonging to “family of Hindu religion” and Savarkar speaking about "whatever form of religion or worship they follow".
Coming Together In The Ground
Savarkar urged to use this definition and asked tribal communities to be recognised as Hindus. Elwin too made the same appeal that the tribes should be recognised as Hindus. This is an interesting factoid because the Congress had then decided to boycott 1941 census. Savarkar declared that such a boycott of census would ultimately hit the Hindus hard. Clearly Elwin did not seem to support the census boycott rather he wanted tribes to be recorded in the census as Hindus.
The head on collision between the Elwin-Savarkar understanding of Indian tribal communities and the proselytising missions came in Manda district of Central Provinces. Elwin asked Hindu missionaries to meet the Christian conversion challenge. Dutch Missionaries had set up camp in the province. With British support they established 30 centres of which 22 were primary schools. Elwin pointed out the whole operation was shrouded in official secrecy. The District Inspector of School was asked by the Catholic Fathers not to write about their work in their annual reports so that it would not create popular outrage. Elwin recorded physical and mental abuse of the tribes by the missionaries for conversion.
The missionaries told the youths that it was a government order that they should allow themselves to be baptised and it would be hopeless to resist. Elwin had recorded some of the missionary tactics which are familiar to many Hindus even today. For example, tribal youths were given jobs but were told they would lose it if they did not convert. Elwin also repudiated the usual evangelical-colonial charge (which interestingly is today part of Marxist historiography) of associating Hindus with money lenders and missionaries as saviours. He correctly pointed out that the problem was not religion based but was the larger problem of the economic system. The Catholic church always sided with feudal elements exploiting peasants, he pointed out.
Elwin joined hands with Thakkar Bapa (A K Thakkar 1869-1951) an activist chosen by Gandhi to work with tribal communities. In his campaign against the Christian missionaries, Elwin asked the Hindus to set up a central organisation, collect funds and spread information throughout the nation about the missionary activities. He wanted Hindu mission to start Hindu schools in tribal areas wherever a mission centre was opened to oppose the missionaries. That was exactly what Savarkar did. He made the government to declare no objection to Hindu schools being set up in the tribal district.
Elwin had also established the 'Bhumijan Seva Mandal'. Through this organisation he had collected 200 signatures in which the tribal community members affirmed 'their adherence to the Hindu religion' and declared that they were against the Christian mission schools in their areas. Efforts of Elwin not only succeeded in shutting down 15 mission schools but also resulted in the home coming of many converted tribals. In a striking similarity to today's Marxist-Nehruvian-old Media discourse, E S Hyde then Commissioner of Mandla lamented about the threat of 'Hindu Communal elements'. Elwin was happy to see the success of his campaign become contagious throughout India. In Dangs, missionary schools were closed. In Udaipur, missionary activities were stopped. There were mass reconversions in Orissa.
Elwin pointed out that while the conversion enterprise was pouring in ‘lakhs or rupees’ not to say the imported missionaries and colonial government support, the opposite side had only a few committed workers with no match for the money or organisational power of the forces they were fighting. Yet they have to fight this battle. Elwin warned of the dire consequences of Christian conversion for the future of Independent India thus:
At the present rate of progress within a few years the entire aboriginal population will be converted; it will be turned into a querulous anti-national, aggressive minority community with none of the old virtues and few of the new, which will be a thorn in the side of the future Government of India.
In 1952, Madhya Pradesh was ruled by Indian National Congress (INC) government. Alarmed at the way the conversions of tribes were happening, the government consulted with the veteran Gandhian social worker Thakkar Bapa. He in turn suggested the government to invite the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh volunteer and freedom fighter Ramakant Keshav Deshpande (1913-1995). Thus was born Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) in 1952.
Emergence Of Indic Anthropology
After Independence, the emergence of Indic anthropology and related social activism has been inhibited in India. The result is because of the Hindu-phobic nature inherent in most of the Marxist and pro-colonial elements in the social science establishment. Initial stalwarts of Indic renaissance school whose presence was still there during Nehru’s period, slowly faded as during the regime of Indira Gandhi, Stalinist historiography, projecting itself as Nehruvian-secularist, started capturing academic institutions. A curious mixture of Marxist reductionism when studying Indian societies and colonial ethnography when studying ancient Indian history, they worked within colonial-Marxist framework, reinforcing the colonial missionary view of tribal-Hindu divide. The works and experiences of organisations like VKA were categorised as ‘assimilationist’ and projected similar to but more sinister than Christian proselytisation.
Yet Hindu organisations have continued to work with their limited funds and committed workers carrying forward the organic worldview tribal-Hindu unity defined by Gandhi and Savarkar. Noteworthy is the 2002 work of Sandhya Jain, who under K K Birla Fellowship, did a study of ‘field investigations by anthropologists, sociologists and religious scholars’ and which came out as a book in 2004. The book revealed “an unbroken continuum between the spiritual and cultural practices of caste Hindus and groups categorized as ‘tribal’’’. In her preface, Jain made the following observation:
Yet a deeper investigation shows that not only is caste itself rooted in the tribal clan or gotra, but that the dynamic reality of tribe-caste continuum was known to the colonial state, even as it conceived of and perpetuated the tribal-Hindu divide.Sandhya Jain, Adi Deo Arya Devata, 2004
That was in 2004. In 2009 the Journal of Human Genetics published a paper: 'The Indian origin of paternal haplogroup R1a1* substantiates the autochthonous origin of Brahmins and the caste system' in which the geneticists stated as follows:
Apart from the observation of a simultaneous presence of R1a*, the ancestral haplogroup of R1a1* was also observed in this study with a highest ever known frequency in the two population groups KPs and Saharia. Incidentally, KPs are Brahmins, whereas Sahariais a tribal population group. ... The exclusive high presence of the ancestralR1a* lineage in KPs and Saharias, their level of sharing, ... suggested their deep common ancestry. ... Some of the other evidences hinting at this closeness are reflected in the cultural practices as well as folklore of these population groups.
The genetic study has reinforced the conclusions of tribal-caste continuum Jain had arrived at five years earlier, and whose work itself is based on the deeper understanding Indic socio-cultural reality. While the academic citadel of Jawaharlal Nehru University with highly subsidised quality education by the State clung to activism based on colonial ethnic models, a lone writer outside the system was able to make a statement against the collective tyranny of colonial anthropology and stood vindicated by hard science in five years.
While the academic observers of Hindutva have been struck in their own time warp of branding Hindu activists as ‘assimilationist’ the latter have moved forward in not only understanding but defending the indigenous tribal cultures while also serving the tribal communities.
In her preface to the scholarly volume, Traditional Customs and Rituals of Northeast India, Nivedita Bhide vice-president of Vivekananda Kendra, shows the spirit with which Hindu organisations approach their interaction with their tribal brethren. ‘The Feast of Merits’ is a ritual feast practised by a tribal community Aos. It starts with bill killing and culminates in the sacrifice of mithun. Apart from sacrificing of bulls the feast also involves pork and rice beer. This expensive feast ritual is usually arranged by a husband and wife for the entire village. Bhide introduces the feast to her non-tribal readers thus:
Our traditions recognize the natural inclinations of human mind and mould them towards the good of the society. It is natural for a rich man to show off his wealth but even that ‘showing – off’ were such that in the process the community also got benefited. … This is what this beautiful custom of ‘Feast of Merits’ achieved.Traditional Customs and Rituals of Northeast India, Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture, Guwahati, 2004
Elwin, whose one constant criticism of non-tribal Hindu activists among tribal communities was their ‘puritanism’, and would have been immensely happy to read this preface.
So the war continues. On the one side is the stream of anti-colonial resistant of Indic activists on the other side stands the old media and academia who derive their legacy from the colonial anthropology. The former provides a pluralistic, organic harmony oriented worldview of the realm of Indic tribal communities, continuously validated by science as well as lived-in experience. The latter propagates an artificial, racial, conflict oriented worldview backed by political as well as academic vested interests and transnational theo-colonial designs.
And it is not hard to choose on which side one needs to stand.
PS: All the data on Verrier Elwin used in this article have been taken from Nandini Sundar, ‘Verrier Elwin and the 1940s Missionary Debate in Central India’, in ‘Between Ethnography and Fiction: Verrier Elwin and the Tribal Question in India’ (Ed. Tanka Bahadur Subba & Sujit Som), 2005 Sundar herself is entangled in the colonial-Marxist framework that despite the data she ends with the typical left rhetoric: “Was Elwin unaware of the implications of his alliances particularly in the wake of the RSS shooting of Gandhi? Certainly, his writings on the missionary issue support the linkage between conversion to Christianity or Islam and being anti-national which is so much a hallmark of RSS discourse today.... there were alternative views, which were being voiced both in the Constitutional Assembly debates and in struggles on the ground, both in Jharkhand and the North-East. Why did Elwin never side with these more radical movements and lend them his powerful voice?”
The answer is however very simple. For Elwin the Hindu nature of the tribes and pluralistic nature of Hinduness were axiomatic. Hence he would naturally align himself with those voices which share his worldview and reject the so-called 'radical movements' which did not share his worldview.