We, The ‘Religious’ People Of India

I work with Under the Mango Tree Society, which works on sustainable beekeeping as a measure to enhance small and marginal farmer’s income as well as conserve indigenous honey bees. I am located in the Dharampur field office, from where Gujarat operations of UTMT are managed. Two things which stand out in Dharampur are the sheer number of churches in tribal villages and a massive Shrimad Rajchandra Ashram in town. The ashram is as big as the town itself and has been made after digging up a whole hill. It’s being built upon the land which belonged to the royal family of the then, Dharampur princely state.

Dharampur of today starts its formal history with Raja Dharamdevji, who founded the empire in the 18th century. The empire grew in power after the downfall of its neighbouring empires and because of its strategic location. British, interested in its resources, controlled the area with a strong hand. The kingdom pushed ’ Institutionalized Hinduism’ during his time.

Tribal people followed their own forms of religion, which were animalist and naturist before the arrival of the ‘outsiders’, in their narrative. But even after hundreds of years of being Hindus, tribals are still treated with indifference. They are Hindu, as long as they don’t enter ‘their’ houses and ‘pollute’ them.

While on paper, Hinduism is followed by more than 90%, reality might be very different as people have not changed their religion on paper. It is difficult to distinguish between the people of different religions in the village baring their proximity to churches and temples in the villages.

Dharampur has two major tribal communities: Kukna and Varli. People from both communities have converted in large numbers. Instead of conversion based on incentives in cash and kind, people here have converted mostly for faith healing.

A Phaliya church in a village near Par river. Multiple Phaliyas together form a village.

In the very first week at the UTMT, I got to visit an interior tribal village where the organization has been working for more than six years now. It’s one of the well-performing villages where over fifty bee boxes are active. Along with the bee boxes, the organization has also distributed bee-friendly flora which provides extra income to the farmer, as well as a good source of nectar for the bees. The village has families from both the Varli and Kukna communities, with barely any difference between them. Both are culturally the same since they have been living together for long. People from both communities have converted to Christianity in large numbers.

While inquiring about the condition of flora, I met this boy of seventeen, who didn’t know anything about his house or village. Later, he told me that he wasn’t from this village and not even related to the family he is staying with. He added that he would be marrying the girl from this family he is staying with, in the near future, and hence the visit. Also, the girl’s family is converted while his family is not, yet.

Their culture allows the boy to stay with girls’ families to see if he fits in or not. If the girl or her family find him unsuited, they may reject him and can find another suitable boy. Both the boy and girl also have the freedom to interact and spend time together. In the case of pregnancy, the couple is married and given a place to start a family. Even marriages are not a big thing.

People are flexible to start staying together and marry once they have enough money. Culture is very dear to the people of this region. In spite of many intrusions, they have been able to maintain most of it.

A local musician in the region performing his art.

One of the reasons for not changing the religion on paper, as told by many, was the belief that they have changed their faith, not the identity. Over the years, they have started identifying themselves as Hindus. Their understanding of a Hindu is also simple, by which they mean native. In many parts because of political work by Bahujan Kranti Morcha, even this understanding is ebbing, and people are stating their religion as Adivasi religion instead of Hindu, which loosely translates for them as from outside.

Most people here have a quite uncomplicated understanding of religion. And so far they have not been drawn into the binaries of mainstream religions. They doubt the longevity of calm now—as they have witnessed classes in Dang district where a lot of violence has been reported related to Conversions and Ghar-wapsiIn order to escape the marginalisation of minorities and reduce polarisation, a thing or two can be learned from local tribal people.

Graffiti on a Mumbai wall. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

India is home to many major religions of the world and religion intertwines with people’s lives as well as with politics, culture, and society. People in India take their faith and identity very seriously, and yet, they have found a way to coexist with their differences and beliefs. According to Pew Research Centre Surveys, India is among the countries with very high religious commitment (above 80%).

Historically, religion and state have been very complimentary to each other. They developed a mutualistic relationship in which both benefitted and were able to control the masses. The modern secularism, as we know, started in Europe, which led to the separation of the church and the state.

The British brought this idea to India formally through Act of 1933, which was basically meant to lighten the work of the government. Post-Independence, India adopted her own version of secularism where there was no separation but equal support and status towards all. Indian secularism has a positive connotation to it, instead of distancing itself from all religions it believes in maintaining an impartial relation with all. At least this has been the story so far and hopefully will remain so.

Most of the contention between communities, especially Hindus and Muslims, are drawn from the long tail of history. A long history of invasion and conquest of India can be interpreted in numerous ways. If a community is taught of the violence perpetrated by rulers of one community over others, animosity is easy to ride upon for political gains. Similarly, if another community feels that they have been marginalized as they were the rightful heir of the post-colonial India, peace would be difficult to assuage.

An impartial and contextual study of history and its propagation will help reduce this animosity. People will have to understand the contradictions and hypocrisy of the people sowing seeds of hate. We have had people whose demands and public image was of a communalist, but in their personal life, they are different.

  • Take the example of Mohd. Iqbal, a stalwart of the Pakistan Movement and an eminent poet of Urdu and Persian. Iqbal passionately wrote ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha Hindustan Hamara’, where he expressed his love for his motherland and his people. Iqbal was a secular person himself; in fact, his father was a Kashmiri Sapru Brahmin, who converted to Islam after meeting a Faqir. His time in London made him a different person altogether, and he returned as a believer in the global Ummah.
  • Father of Pakistan, Mohd. Jinnah, who demanded a separate country solely on the basis of religion, himself married a Parsi. When his only daughter decided to marry a Parsi, he couldn’t accept it and disbanded her. Apart from political pressure, his only argument was that his Parsi wife converted after marrying him, which won’t be the case for his daughter.
  • Subramanian Swamy, a strong believer of RSS philosophy and Hindu Rashtra is as secular as it gets if we look at his personal life. Swamy married a Zorastrian, and his daughter is married to a Muslim.

Note: I wrote this blog piece before the current NRC-CAA controversy that has horrified the country and questions its identity as a democracy—in such times. I have tried to write this piece like a report of my insights here in the community I am working with and hoping that multiple narratives, especially from the grassroots will add to the larger purpose of continued pluralism.


About The Author: Anil Singh is a 2019 India Fellow, placed with Under The Mango Tree (UTMT) in Dharampur, Gujarat as a part of his fellowship. He is working with farmers to ensure effective training for them on beekeeping as a livelihood option. Anil sings well and likes to eat healthy. Application to the 12th cohort of the fellowship is now being accepted. Please visit here to apply!

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