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TRIBAL COMMUNITIES IN THE FACE OF COERCED RELIGIOUS CONVERSION

Abstract

Tribal communities around the world have faced various forms of coercion and pressure to convert to dominant religions throughout history. This is a serious human rights issue that has significant negative impacts on the cultural, social, and economic well-being of these communities. Coerced religious conversion involves the use of force, intimidation, or deception to make individuals or groups renounce their traditional beliefs and adopt a new religion. This practice is often carried out by missionaries or religious organizations that see indigenous beliefs as inferior or primitive and seek to impose their own religious and cultural values on these communities.The impacts of coerced religious conversion on tribal communities can be devastating. It often leads to the loss of cultural identity, language, and traditional practices that have been passed down from generation to generation. It can also result in the erosion of social structures and the breakdown of community cohesion, as well as economic marginalization due to the loss of traditional livelihoods.

In response to this issue, many international organizations and human rights advocates have called for the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples to practice their traditional beliefs without coercion or interference. This includes the right to freely practice their religion, the right to participate in cultural activities, and the right to maintain and protect their cultural heritage. Efforts to protect the rights of tribal communities include legal measures such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization's Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, as well as advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns to raise awareness of the issue and promote respect for diversity and cultural rights.


Introduction

Religious conversion means when a person converts himself into another religion and follows rules and customs of that religion for the rest of his life. Those who follow the rules of other religions are called converts. This process is known as vatal. To live in a religious country like India, each individual should have their own religious identity. Following religious tradition has been happening in India for a long time. For them religion is equal to their identity. People can’t live without having a religious identity in India as religion teaches many things like truth, justice, kindness, love, faith and so many other things. People follow their own religion and live according to that like they read their own scriptures like geeta, kuran, bible, etc which makes them a better version of themselves.

The conversion of tribals in India is a very big social problem. Tribal communities are a very important part of India but they are changing their religion one by one either forcefully or for some reason. This is a very big problem for tribal communities because by coerced religious conversion they are losing their identity and this is happening in so many states.


Concept of Religion

The first advocate, as power of the arguments that religion may not be universal, was the first classical evolutionist who believes that both magic and religion are the characteristics of the simple society. According to E.B. Tylor classic evolution beliefs are three systems, that is magic, religion and science are systems of knowledge. All three terms used from contemporary courses, cognitive system of knowledge. Simply a matter of belief and hence they would not be able to stand with scientific scrutiny. It will exploit the myth once the myth is exploited, it will never regain it back.


Tribal community religions

Tribal religion is devoid of religious text. There is no written tradition but religious traditions are passed down generations whether they are complex religious treatise, mythical stories, magic spells, symbols, or elaborate ritual enactment. In fact, the significance of oral tradition maintains the unique identity of tribal religions. Contrary to their popular belief on spirits, tribal religions do not devoid the presence of a powerful creator. The belief in almighty god is common among many tribes: for instance, the Konyak Naga call the almighty god as Gawang, the nuer call it as Kwothnhial, among the tribes of chotanagpur the creature of god is known as by names like Dharmesh and Sing bonga, etc.

Most of the tribal peoples are neither Hindu nor Muslims. Those are animists, who believe in spirits. Tribal people of India have their own religion. Some of their religions are Gond religion, Bhil religion, Abor folk religion, Toda religion, Santal religion, etc. 4.19% follow their original religion in India and more than 89% of tribal people follow Hindu religion. Many tribal people are converting themselves into Hindu religion and many 5.53% tribal have converted into Christianity.[1] They became Christian tribe. These conversions are becoming a huge social problem. Some people believe that some tribal Hindus migrated to Lakshadweep and they became Muslim there. Some tribes of the north- western Himalayan area were converted to Buddhists. So conversion was not a big problem till the tribal were converting themselves into Hindu or Muslims but when the tribal started to convert themselves into Christian that became a huge problem because that conversion had a bad impact on tribal community.

The Musallis Bhangi had the title of Musallis who are the sweepers in Punjab. This is endogamy caste unit which was prior existence to conversion. The gradual process of changing to Hindu is by the creation mission of Hindus called the “Shuddhi Karan” which means purification rituals of conversion ceremony.

There are several studies which say the tribe has converted to other religions in the need of better life and good economic status. For instance the bhumiji of MP have been influenced by the kshatriya caste of Hindu and they became kshatriyas.


Coerced religious conversion

The conversion has basically started because of the poor miserable condition of the tribes. They were very low and backward economically and they were exploited by the zamindars and upper caste. Upper caste people don’t allow them to touch the water well and don't allow them to go inside the temple. Untouchability was so much that time.

Urbanization and Industrialization had also an impact to convert them into another religion because industries were exploiting the natural resources, forested area and hilly areas of tribal areas. Population was growing near the industrial area. Number of the city and urban area are increasing in numbers as well. This led to changes in tribal culture patterns.

As per some research workers, Christian missionaries converted families in a village. Also the conversion of tribes happened because of political drama. They started to invest in free education, free medicines and free food. This shows tribes also required money.

Tribal religious conversion had begun after the entry of Christianity missionaries in the hilly areas such as north east. Missionary came with the western education and Christianity and thus led to sudden exposures to the outside of the world. The missionary made changes in tribal people's life, living standard and the people to complete abundance of their religion. Because of this entire people started to convert into other religions which gave them peace and new hope but on the other side this conversion was ending their cultures.

Many tribal people change their religion because they are under the constant pressure from religions that are majorly organized. All these things are done intentionally by outside missionaries who convert them into their religion. These pressures are because of the political and economic system. Only those tribal people are able to save their tradition, religion and customs longer who live in desert, hill and foreign region. Tribals have been having conversion problems for a long time.

There was a case in Jharkhand about sixteen Christians arrested for forced conversion. They held villagers hostage for two days. They also insulted the place of tribal worship. This forced conversion has been going on for many days. This conversion attempt violates the Jharkhand freedom of Religion Act.

The religion of the tribal people of India has faced many ups and downs to get a better lifestyle and better economic condition. The tribal community has their own traditional, ancestral religion. It was the worship of supernatural powers. The religion is animism that worshiped the spirit and believes spirit existence but now tribal people are living in a converted religion. Those are Christian religion, Hindu religion, Buddhism religion, etc. So conversion to another religion is in the entire part of India among the tribal communities. At many places these convert peoples also have the temple priest. They have given up the eating of beef and drinking of alcohol. The aim of the Sanskritization movement was to purify the religious and social life and higher form of Hinduism. Some of them utilize the service of Brahmin like Naikas, Dablu.

In different tribal areas, Christian missionaries do many things to convert them in their own religion like they provide social service to tribal people like medical help and education facilities. In most of the tribal areas, Christian missionaries are behaving like greed as they are giving poor people facilities and trying to convert them to their religion.

Other religious people are trying to get tribal people converted into their religion so that they can be a majority religious group. They give many things and facilities to tribal people so that they will convert themselves into their religion. They are providing services like health facilities, activities to improve their economic condition, activities to uplift them, education facilities and many others. Tribals are a weaker section of society and earlier their condition was not good. Now it’s improving but still they feel helpless because of poverty, illiteracy and they have a desire to uplift their community and because of these efforts of missionaries, because of all these reasons they convert themselves into other religions.

Most of the tribal people convert themselves into Hindu because Hindus are in majority in India, that’s why they converted themselves into Hindu religion so that they can’t feel discriminated against. Tribal people are not getting their rights that is also the reason they are converting themselves into other religions and other tribes are converting themselves because they are getting facilities from that religion.


Effect of modern factors

Since British rule Christianity has played an important role for cultural changes among the tribes. The proselytization system was seen first in Khasis tribes. Then it’s also observed in MP bill tribe and in Chotanagpur tribes. Missionaries along with the cooperation of the British government started to convert people into Christianity. Firstly conversion was individually started on mass level. In Bihar total 1/9th of population is Christian. The impact of Christianity has less converted in the part of western India Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra and major conversion was seen and reported from south India. It was reported that Torah tribes have converted about half of the population. The reason for conversion in the North east was the traditional practices of sacrificing the animals during rituals and ceremonies. By the twenty century there were many devotional cults developed. Cults were god centered rather than man centered. So, it led to the departure of their own religion to the god cult. The ritual of the sacrifice was left and worship devoted to the icons of the temple.


Legal limits on Religious Conversion in India

To change one’s religion becomes hazier now and especially if the convert is vulnerable. People see them as objects, not subjects of conversion. There are many laws made to stop forced conversion.

The Indian government has enacted many laws to help tribal people from coerced religious conversion. This targets particularly all those conversions which happen forcefully or by allurement. In contemporary India, the legitimate conversion by government assessments gives two assumptions: conversion has not been freely chosen and second some groups are vulnerable which led to change of their religion. These assumptions pervade lower caste as they assume that they get manipulated by upper caste people or politicians. Those who were found to convert tribal members by taking advantage of their vulnerability face longer prison terms or higher fines in some states.


Coerced Conversion, Religion and Law

There are many laws to stop forced conversion. They are state level statutes that are made to regulate religious conversions. The laws to stop coerced conversion is almost same in every state, they are very similar in their content and structure and also these laws are applicable in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Odessa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand .

That who violates the law has to face punishment according to their state rule. After independence, Parliament made many laws to stop coerced religion but they did not come into force. The first bill introduced in parliament was Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) was introduced in 1954[2]. This bill was not supported by the lower house of parliament, so it got rejected. Such law started in 1960 for union level.


State Anti-conversion Laws in India

Below written laws are the first anti conversion laws of their respective states. It got replaced by new laws also.

Odessa was the first state to make an anti conversion law “Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967”.[3] Sec 3 of the act says about coerced conversion ; Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978; Freedom of Religion Act, 1968; Gujarat Freedom Of Religion Act, 2003; Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006; Rajasthan state government also passed anti conversion bill; Tamil Nadu Prohibition of forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance 2002; Jharkhand freedom of Religion Act, 2017.

One of the recent anti conversion law is of Madhya Pradesh - Madhya Pradesh freedom of Religion Bill 2020

This bill was made to stop forced religious conversion. Earlier there was another but it got replaced by this bill. A similar law, MP Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam, 1968[4] , to curb religious conversion was there earlier. This was replaced because it was argued that the old law is ineffective in the present circumstances, and that its definitions are insufficient to stop forced conversions. The new bill has been formulated with more stringent punishment and increased penalties for those who break it.

This bill also includes tribal people. They can convert to another religion voluntarily. But before conversion by their own free will, that person has to give notice to the district office at least 60 days before the intended date of conversion. There is a punishment of 3-5 years and a penalty of Rs 50,000 if the priest fails to inform the district official.

In case those being converted are minors, women, or members of a ST, the minimum punishment is a jail term of 2 years, which can go up to 10 years and penalty of Rs 50,000. If any tribal people gets converted forcefully then the person who has been converted, their parents and siblings, can report the alleged crime at the nearest police station. Guardian and custodian can also complain and subsequently get an order for an offense to be registered with the police. The sessions court is empowered to hear matters related to this bill.


My Opinion

Tribals should not be converted forcefully into other religions because at the end they are losing their identity as tribal. There is belief that some tribal communities are Hindu but were forced to become refuge in forests during the period of Islamic invasions. These are done on the basis of these communities are located[5]. But this is a wrong perspective to allot them religion on the beliefs of people. People can convert themselves into any religion of their choice by following legal methods and it should not be coerced. It is a very wrong way of converting them into another religion by giving them facilities and taking advantage of their vulnerability.


Conclusion

This is necessary not just to fight conversions of tribal but also to proudly establish the fact that Tribal are an integral part of our society and their reservation benefits are a byproduct of having their identity. After reading this article, it can be clearly seen that Christian missionaries have been very active in tribal areas. Tribal people have constantly faced trauma and exploitation from the upper caste. To be a part of society and grow up socially and economically backward, this was one of the main reasons for them to get converted into other religions. So that people don’t treat them as untouchables and they can be a part of society. They started the Bhakti movement to move upward in the caste system. Education awareness helps the tribes to take action for them. The modernization process is slowly killing the tribal life and it’s also disintegrating the cultural resource of tribal community.


-- [1] Census of India Report, 2001, Ministry of Home Affairs. [2] Dr Iqtidar Karamat Cheema, U.S. Commission on International Religious freedom, constitutional and legal challenges faced by Religious minorities in India. [3] Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, No. 2 of 1968. [4] Act No. 27 of 1968. [5] INDIA CONST. art. 342.



This article is written by Saumya Raj of Ramaiah College of Law, Bengaluru.


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