The Adivasis of Assam’s tea-labour communities are among the oldest of the state’s migrants. They were recruited by British tea planters from present-day Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal between 1861 and the early 20th century. Belonging to numerous Adivasi groups – including the Santhal, Munda, Oraon, Kharia, Gond, Khond, Kisang and Nagesia – they settled down in Assam after their contracts ended. These groups now form a significant percent of the state’s population.
However, despite their long history in the state, the ex-tea-labour communities remain ‘outsiders’ in Assam – lacking the Scheduled Tribe status accorded to the same groups in their original homelands, and deprived of benefits available to other ‘backward castes’. Local resentment also has a long history. Although Adivasi tea labourers were brought to the Assamese plantations under slave-like conditions, at a time when the British were forcibly taking over lands belonging to the indigenous Ahom, Boro, Mishing and Koch communities for plantations, locals who had lost their land viewed them as encroachers. Throughout the Northeast but particularly in Assam, there followed a fierce competition for scarce resources, particularly land and forests, with the tea-labour communities pitted against the locals, causing the low-burn conflict that continues to date.
The future of the Adivasis in Assam needs to be seen in the context of the growing sub-nationalism in the Northeast generally, in which each group is increasingly asserting its own identity and turning against ‘outsiders’. The Adivasis, as their name indicates, may well be indigenous elsewhere, but are not considered so in Assam.
Dalits and Adivasis throughout India are targets of particular attention by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindu organisations. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has a blueprint for an Adivasi ‘emancipation’ through activities covering their economic, social and cultural existence. The Ekal Vidyalaya foundation, an outfit under RSS control, likewise has a chain of single-teacher schools in the Adivasi villages of the Northeast.
Such instances are part of a larger programme to incorporate those who are traditionally outside the Hindu social order into Hinduism. The creation of a new religious identity is central to this project, which is effected through the transformation of daily life practices. A change in the pattern of worship in these groups is gradually being brought about, whereby the places of worship of Adivasis and Dalits are being transformed into Hindu temples, with Brahmanical deities replacing local gods and goddesses.
Not all Hindu influences on Adivasi life are recent, however. As Adivasis started interacting with plains people, they also started inculcating Brahmanical traits. But in recent years, the RSS and its affiliates are systematically promoting Hindu rituals and pujas to obliterate tribal identity. Despite recently emerged differences in their customs and beliefs, over the decades the different Adivasi groups have broadly retained their core identity, marked by kinship and clan affiliation.
The aggressive Hindutva-isation is now eroding these core features, re-interpreting the commonality between Hinduism and animism in an attempt to accelerate the already existing process of Sanskritisation. The zealous intervention of the Sangh Parivar in the Northeast, including Assam, has at least three immediate implications. First, it is likely to entail the loss of the traditional culture of these groups. Second, conflicts could be sparked off with Christians groups active in these areas. Third, conflict could spike between the Hinduised and organised Adivasis and the traditional local communities.
Christians are meanwhile being portrayed as being more loyal to a foreign land than their own motherland, and thus not able to be part of the Indian nation in its Hinduised polity. The fact that Christianity was becoming an attractive option to many Adivasi communities has undoubtedly posed a threat to the forces of Hindu nationalism. In this coupling, religio-cultural differences were reinforced by ethno-social differences. Variation threatens to become potently dangerous: Adivasis must in no way reassert their difference from Hinduism by embracing Christianity. Thus, those who subscribed to the Hindu homogenisation project disseminated the view that embracing Christianity was both an anti-national and anti-cultural act.
Meanwhile, from slanderous whispers to blasphemous literature, the Sangh is currently reeling out spools of half-truths and blatant lies, with an eye to expanding its network and influence among the largely non-literate rural public. In the Northeast, there are pamphlets, leaflets, calendars and magazines to imprint the Hindutva version of truth. Indeed, the steady inroads being made into poor communities throughout the Northeast by Hindutva is nothing less than alarming.
~ Tom Mangattuthazhe Thomas is a Catholic priest in Diphu, Assam.