In the last decade, attacks on Christians have increased exponentially across India and more so in Central India. In December 2022, a fact-finding committee visited Chhattisgarh upon reports of violence, they noted that between 9th and 18th December, 18 villages in Narayanpur and 15 villages in Kondagaon were attacked, which displaced around 1000 Christian Adivasis. They also traced the systematic disenfranchisement and cultural subjugation of Adivasi converts in the area (Chattisgarh Bacaho Andolan, 2022). The organisations linked to the Sangh Parivar that carry out these attacks gain certain legitimacy through the proliferation of the discourse of ‘de-nationalisation’ (Jaffrelot, 2011). This discourse considers Christianity and Islam to be foreign religions which have been spread either by the fear of force or incitement of greed. To shed light on the history of the proliferation of this discourse, specifically in Central India, this article will investigate the role that anthropologist Verrier Elwin, nationalists, and Hindu revivalists played in solidifying this discourse. To do so, this article will reflect upon the socio-political conditions, the debates in anthropology, and how they were complimenting each other during the decades leading to and following Indian independence.
Harry Verrier Elwin (1902-1964) was a British-born anthropologist and ethnologist. Even though he was not trained in the discipline formally, “the overwhelming influence that Elwin’s writings had on the bureaucracy in India was nowhere to be matched by the influence of any other anthropologist in India” (Danda 2005, 41). He came to India in 1927 as a Christian missionary but was soon heavily influenced by M.K. Gandhi and his philosophy and converted to Hinduism in 1935. He is most significantly known for his writings on tribals and has numerous books, pamphlets, and articles published under his name since the 1930s. He was closely involved with both the pre-independence and post-independence Indian governments and had close associations with both Gandhi and Nehru; he served in government positions as an official ethnographer under the colonial government, deputy director of the Anthropological Survey of India, and anthropological advisor for NEFA (North East Frontier Agency). He went on to play a crucial role in the formulation of the tribal policy by the Indian state. Till mid-1940, he spent a lot of time with the regions of Central Province and neighbouring states of Bihar and Orissa, documenting the lives and culture of tribals, making repositories of their oral narratives, and starting fronts for social work. Historian Ranajit Guha has extensively worked on the figure of Verrier Elwin and his influence on the tribal approach of India, Guha argues that Elwin’s position as an anthropologist and his close ties with the administration made him consider “himself as a spokesman not merely of the Gonds of Mandla (among whom he worked), but of the 20 million tribals of central India” (Guha 1996, 2376).
He came to India in 1927 as a Christian missionary but was soon heavily influenced by M.K. Gandhi and his philosophy and converted to Hinduism in 1935. He is most significantly known for his writings on tribals and has numerous books, pamphlets, and articles published under his name since the 1930s
This article dwells on the following questions: What happens when a dikku (outsider) becomes the representative of Adivasi communities? How have these networks of authority (both representational and legal) contributed to and/or influenced the contemporary socio-political conditions for the Adivasi communities in India? While in the present scenario, the hardline and aggressive Hindutva political organisations are responsible for the intensified attacks on religious minorities, how have other political and ideological factions claiming to be ‘secular’ contributed to the issue of communalism, specifically anti-Chistian sentiment in Central India? By reflecting on these questions, this article aims at historicizing the proliferation of the discourse of ‘de-nationalisation’ in relation to the Adivasis of central India and reflecting upon the Indian State’s bureaucratic, legislative, and infrastructural approach to the tribal question.
Since the 1930’s Elwin spent a lot of time in central India studying the Adivasi communities and documenting their life and culture. However, he did not limit himself to this as he also initiated avenues dedicated to social work among the communities. He was impressed and influenced by the Gandhian model of social work; Bhil Seva Mandal established by A.V. Thakkar in 1923 was a prominent example of this model. In sort of replicating this model, which focused on providing education and healthcare, and promoting khadi and temperance, Elwin established the Gond Seva Mandal. It is important to note that by the time these activities took shape, the Christian missionary efforts at education, healthcare, and proselytising had already reached the Adivasi communities of Central India. Elwin held strong reservations against the Christian conversions of Adivasis, as he was of the view that such conversions were illegitimate and led to the alienation of tribal culture. (Prasad 2003, 89) Here the Gandhians, Elwin, and other Hindu organisations found common ground in the perceived threat of Christian conversions. Further in the article, the conditions and contexts that materialised this threat for the nationalists will be investigated, and it will become evident that even with differences of opinions they accommodated into a position that became the foundation for the proliferation of the discourse of ‘de-nationalisation’. Let us first try to understand how their positions differed in the early 1930s.
Elwin soon became wary of the agenda of Hinduising the tribal communities carried out by Gandhians and other Hindu revivalists. Thakkar advocated that the ‘aborigines’ should be assimilated into the larger Hindu society, which would inspire them to give up their ‘backward’ practices. Elwin developed an approach of protectionism against the approach of intervention. The difference between them can be observed in their contrary views on the agricultural practices of tribal communities, A. V. Thakkar held an orthodox view which associated tribals with laziness: Elwin wished for protection to be given to shifting cultivation, Thakkar prescribed that the plough everywhere replace swidden, which he condemned as a ‘wasteful’ form of cultivation which only encouraged the tribal’s ‘proverbial’ laziness (Guha 1996, 2380).
This protectionist stance was also criticised by many Indian Anthropologists of that time. Most prominent among them was G.S. Ghurye, who belonged to a Saraswat Brahmin family and adhered to the Hindu revivalist agenda. He was trained in both Sanskrit and Anthropology and headed the sociology department at the University of Bombay. He was of the view that Hinduism represented the national culture and the tribes needed to be assimilated within the ambit of national culture. To do so would, according to him, enable the tribes out of their ‘animist’ and ‘primitive’ practices.
Ghurye believed that the process of assimilation of tribes into the Hindu identity was disturbed by colonialism, “the old process of assimilation was upset. New problem arose. The sections, till then not properly assimilated, appeared as if they were different from the rest” (Ghurye 1943, xv). Elwin proposed the concept of a National Park for the Baigas, in order to isolate tribal life from exploitative cultural contact of Christian missionaries, but he was also of the view that the landowners, moneylenders majorly from the Hindu upper caste community not only exploited the tribals economically but also held a sort of cultural hegemony over the tribals. Ghurye on the other hand, considered tribals to be “the imperfectly integrated classes of Hindu society”, and hence for him, the idea of ‘isolation’ was a roadblock in the path of assimilating the tribes. Though these contentions and differences in approach seem major they still would not stop a later alliance of these factions. In a drastic change of stance, Elwin will go on to do an ugly course correction, arguing that Hinduism, in fact, was a ‘natural’ religion for tribals and that he was mistaken earlier. (Elwin 1944, cited in Sundar 2005, 94). To better understand what is behind this change of stance, it will be important to delve further into the socio-political scenarios of that period.
Elwin proposed the concept of a National Park for the Baigas, in order to isolate tribal life from exploitative cultural contact of Christian missionaries, but he was also of the view that the landowners, moneylenders majorly from the Hindu upper caste community not only exploited the tribals economically but also held a sort of cultural hegemony over the tribals
Laying the Groundwork for Hindu Revivalism
At the beginning of the twentieth century, efforts to consolidate the Hindu identity were taking pace. It has been illustrated that one of the factors responsible for this move was the introduction of a separate electorate for Muslims in 1909 by the colonial administration and the institution of census, which marked the relevance of the demographic weight of a community for grabbing political power (Jaffrelot 2011, 197). Hence, integrating Adivasis and Dalits into Hinduism became essential from the political angle of claiming majority status. While efforts of Hindu reformers and leaders beyond the RSS and Mahasabha lineage are often seen in the light of social and religious reform, critical analysis of their works reveals the tendency to use reform as a façade for political gains (Ambedkar 1991, 311-17). As part of the response to the conditions brought forth by the colonial administration, they escalated their resistance to the proselytising activities carried forward by Christian missionaries, argued that Chistian conversions led to de-nationalising people, and devised ritual ceremonies to convert or reconvert and integrate Adivasis and Dalits into Hinduism (Bauman 2013, 636-41). Gandhi also pushed his reservations against the activities of Christian missionaries in public after the Yeola Conference (1935), which declared religious conversion as a path for socio-political emancipation (Ambedkar 1989, 447).
Moving on, the discourse of ‘de-nationalisation’ in relation to Christian and Islamic conversion became central to the strategy of factions adhering to Hindu revivalism and consolidation. The Gandhians also followed suit to this trend, Elwin too, gave up his early contentions with the Hindu revivalist tendencies of A.V. Thakkar’s tribal approach. As he held strong reservations against Christian conversions of tribals in the past too, it is not surprising that he got actively involved in the anti-missionary activities that emerged as an urgent task for the Hindu revivalists. He altered his earlier stance of tribals being culturally distinct from the Hindus, he made these ideological compromises to suit the dominant discourse. By the end of the nineteenth century movements for ‘re-conversion’ of Adivasis and Dalits were already active, the Shuddhi movement initiated by Arya Samaj in Punjab (Vandevelde 2011, 34). It had its difficulties to formulate the idea of conversion into Hinduism. For instance, where would the new convert be placed in the Varna-Jati hierarchy? The Hindu revivalists unconvincingly deal with these questions, invoking symbolic gestures of solidarity without challenging the core of Varna-Jati hierarchy. At present, the cases of organised campaigns to convert Christian Adivasis to Hinduism are carried out by the Sangh Parivar network and have been accelerating since the 1990s (Bauman 2013, 635-41). But the framework for this agenda was being consolidated in the decades leading to independence, the alliance between reformist Hindu groups, Gandhians, and Elwin went on to drastically affect Adivasi communities as they advocated “assimilation into Hinduism” as the sole path for “tribal development” (Prasad 2003, 92).
As he held strong reservations against Christian conversions of tribals in the past too, it is not surprising that he got actively involved in the anti-missionary activities that emerged as an urgent task for the Hindu revivalists. He altered his earlier stance of tribals being culturally distinct from the Hindus, he made these ideological compromises to suit the dominant discourse
The vile language and the aggressive nature of articulation against Christian conversions that has become prevalent today in the public sphere can also be traced to activities carried forward by Elwin and Thakkar. Take for instance, Elwin’s own words describing the anti-missionary campaign that was handled by both:
So far as I know hardly any converts have been made since our campaign started and many others have returned to their own faith. National schools run by Arya Dharm Seva Sangh and the Gond Sevak Sangh have been opened and boys are attending these instead of the mission schools. Our campaign has had repercussions all over India… In Orissa where the situation has been deplorable some hundreds of rice converts have been reconverted and even the missionaries have been persuaded to give up proselytization and be content with serving people (Elwin 1946, cited in Prasad 2003, 91).
This note helps us historicise the current patronising and dismissing perception of Christian conversions. The phrase “rice convert” denies any intellectual and spiritual agency to the people converting. Such a derogatory view seems to be based on the casteist pretext, which considers people from certain groups incompatible to make intelligent or informed choices. Gandhi also believed that Christian missionaries converting tribals and ‘untouchables’ was not a spiritual conversion, as he believed they were not in a state of intelligence to make such a choice (Ambedkar 1989, 446). The task of integrating the Adivasi communities into the larger national identity marked the political scenarios of the decades leading to the independence. Evidently, the integration process leaned heavily towards Hinduising the Adivasi communities and furthered the discourse of ‘de-nationalisation’. Religious conversion was one of the fronts at which the nationalist and Hindu revivalist forces deployed efforts, the other fronts being education and legislature. Let us now examine how the alliance of Elwin, nationalists, and Hindu revivalists influenced the tribal approach on the other fronts.
The phrase “rice convert” denies any intellectual and spiritual agency to the people converting. Such a derogatory view seems to be based on the casteist pretext, which considers people from certain groups incompatible to make intelligent or informed choices
The Continuing Problem of the Ashram Model
In the 1930s, Elwin’s Gond Seva Mandal and other Gandhian Ashrams were actively working with Adivasi communities, roughly following the Christian missionaries’ model, investing in education and basic healthcare programs. It will be fruitful to highlight two aspects of this Ashram model, which remain relevant in the present scenario for Adivasi communities. Firstly, the idea of education was drawn from Gandhi’s concept of ‘nai-talim’ adhering to the principle of “unity of hand, head, and heart” (Gupta and Padel 2019, 76). While parting basic education and language proficiency, this scheme predominantly focused on promoting occupations based on hand skills like the production of handicrafts. Secondly, the idea of trusteeship that Gandhi promoted, the industrialist belonging to the ultra-rich class, could act in benevolence to contribute towards the causes of the poor. Both the persistence of a skill-based economy for the Adivasi communities and the cosmetic sense of justice evoked by the idea of trusteeship could be understood as the adherence to the ‘Jati-feudal’ philosophy. The ones who have generationally done jobs with their hands and bodies (workers and artisans) shall continue to do so. Those who have generationally possessed material and social capital could do their penance by shedding regular donations for the poor.
While parting basic education and language proficiency, this scheme predominantly focused on promoting occupations based on hand skills like the production of handicrafts. Secondly, the idea of trusteeship that Gandhi promoted, the industrialist belonging to the ultra-rich class, could act in benevolence to contribute towards the causes of the poor
The trusteeship network enabled institutions’ growth based on the ashram model. The trustees’ religious and ideological leanings made them natural allies to the Hindu revivalist agenda. The note that Elwin wrote describing the anti-missionary activity, which is cited in the previous section, was subjected to a Bombay industrialist Pushottamdas Thakurdas who was funding their activities. The Wardha Conference convened by Gandhi in 1937 passed a resolution on education in 1938, laying a framework for education focused on skill-based manual work. Following the course, ‘Vidya Mandir’, an education scheme for the rural and tribal areas of Central Province was launched, which focused on local knowledge and crafts education. It faced criticism from the Muslim league on the grounds of neglecting Urdu and choosing the name for the scheme (Oesterheld 2006). These frameworks of education that were proposed and brought into action by institutions functioning on the ashram model were inherently leaning towards imparting a generic Hinduised identity. For instance, Gandhi’s idea of spinning Charkha to build solidarity across the Hindu society was taken up at face value by Elwin, arguing that given the religious and spiritual importance of Charkha, it was deployed as a symbol to unite the Hindu identity in a romantic and patronising manner (Elwin 1964, 20). These spaces became avenues that familiarised Hindu Gods, legends, and narratives to the masses. At present, Hindutva groups have fabricated stories depicting Hindu deities’ connection with Adivasi communities and simultaneously suggesting a position of spiritual subjugation for them (Jaffrelot 2011, 207).
The idea of skill-based education for Adivasi communities became a precedent for national-level policies. The Kothari Report (1966) which followed the Dhebar Commission (1960) and the Elwin Committee (1959), in suggesting the introduction of technical and skill-based professions among tribals as it suits their lineage of work (Gupta and Padel 2019, 76). At present too, national schemes like ‘Skill-India’, markets and institutions around handicrafts, and institutions like I.T.I (Industrial Training Institutes) are far more accessible to the Adivasi communities than institutes for higher studies and Engineering. Also, there is a systemic push to encourage philanthropic initiatives and private-public partnership projects among the Adivasi communities, which are majorly focused on the skill economy. The Xaxa committee report submitted in 2014 raised the concern against “ashramisation” of schemes pertaining to the education of tribals (Gupta and Padel 2019, 81). Another aspect of the model is the youth hostels which have been accused of distancing the younger generation of Adivasis from their community, alienating them from their culture, imparting a sense of individual subjecthood to persuade them out of the ongoing identity and political struggles (George 2020).
At present too, national schemes like ‘Skill-India’, markets and institutions around handicrafts, and institutions like I.T.I (Industrial Training Institutes) are far more accessible to the Adivasi communities than institutes for higher studies and Engineering. Also, there is a systemic push to encourage philanthropic initiatives and private-public partnership projects among the Adivasi communities, which are majorly focused on the skill economy
Containing Adivasi Identity Assertion through Legislature
The anti-missionary alliance was successful in the proliferation of the discourse of ‘de-nationalisation’ and prioritising efforts to check Christian conversions. This pre-independence alliance heavily influenced the tribal approach of the Indian nation that was coming to be. The concern for Hindu consolidation, which often masquerades as the reservation against conversion to Christianity, was very well reflected while discussing the tribal question in the Constituent Assembly Debate (CAD). Even though the Indian Constitution provides varying safeguards and special provisions for communities marked under the Schedule Tribe list, it leaves many loose ends concerning identity. In the CAD, the Hindu revivalists and the nationalists opposed the proposed term Adivasi by the tribal representative Jaipal Singh Munda. Instead, some of them proposed the term “Vanjati” which was laden with connotations of being un- ‘civilised’ (Kujur 2012, 177). This term derives its lineage from the characterisation of tribals and forest dwellers as backward, naive, hostile, and someone who ought to be subjugated in the Vedic and Brahminical scriptures and narratives. In the Constituent Assembly, debates concerning tribals were invested in tackling the question of identity, focusing on integrating tribal identity into the national identity. It is important to understand the terms used to define these highly diverse communities and their varying significance. ‘Tribe’ was the term that the Constitution adapted from the colonial regime, which also used the terms ‘primitive’ and ‘Aborigines’ to identify them. Adivasi is a term suggested as a part of the organic assertion strategy, which roughly translates as early natives of the land. The groups associated with the Sangh Parivar use the term Vanvasi to deny them an autonomous identity and project these communities as Hindus (Vandevelde 2011, 48).
‘Tribe’ was the term that the Constitution adapted from the colonial regime, which also used the terms ‘primitive’ and ‘Aborigines’ to identify them. Adivasi is a term suggested as a part of the organic assertion strategy, which roughly translates as early natives of the land.
Even though the policy of integration adopted by the State differed from the position of assimilation advocated by many, their vision had convergences, as they both understood national culture as more or less Hindu or Vedic. In the Constituent Assembly, the Nehruvian liberals dominated the debate and argued against the vulgar imposition of the majority culture onto the tribals, still, their ultimate motive was assimilation though proposed to be carried out gradually and peacefully. This was reflected in the adoption of the Fifth Schedule and Sixth Schedule with differential autonomy in the constitution, keeping in mind the principle of steady assimilation. The fifth schedule included areas close to the Hindi belt. Even though they had some namesake protections, they were left very cleverly open to cultural and economic assimilation development agendas. The sixth schedule got, in contrast to the cosmetic Tribal Advisory Councils of the fifth schedule, Tribal Autonomous Councils, which established a sort of self-rule, as the Indian nation, in these areas, wanted to cautiously proceed with their assimilation project, considering the threat of separatist tendencies (Sonntag 1999, 418-22).
The emerging political identities among marginalised classes, who were doubly oppressed due to their exploitative social and cultural relations with the colonial and Hindu gentry, became a significant concern for the political ambitions of the Hindu political class across the ideological spectrum. They feared that the claim of separate identities could weaken the Hindu majority claim. This fear appears clearly in the Constituent Assembly debates around the proposed tribal councils, where it was opposed “less in terms of the nature of the development it would promote, more in terms of the identity politics it would encourage” (Prasad 2003, 93). This fear of contesting political identities played out in terms of government intervention in the setting up the ‘Christian Missionaries Activity Enquiry Committee, Madhya Pradesh’ in 1956. The committee produced its report, disregarding the Christian missionaries protesting their unfair approach, recommending harsh restrictions on Missionary activities. The report scrutinised the role of Christian missionaries in converting people, spreading discontent against the “majority” religion, and getting involved in political matters like inciting people to claim autonomous identities. The report alleged that the alliance of the tribal movement led by Jaipal Singh Munda in Jharkhand, other political activities in the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, and the Christian missionaries were responsible for evoking separatist emotions among the tribals (Government of Madhya Pradesh 1956, 9).
The committee produced its report, disregarding the Christian missionaries protesting their unfair approach, recommending harsh restrictions on Missionary activities. The report scrutinised the role of Christian missionaries in converting people, spreading discontent against the “majority” religion, and getting involved in political matters like inciting people to claim autonomous identities.
The report uses Elwin’s words against the missionaries as evidence and replicates him in the scrutiny approach. (Government of Madhya Pradesh 1956, 131-32) The central concern remained the alienation of tribals from their culture and segregation of tribal society under the threat of an ‘alien’ Christian religion; their analysis was openly biased as they overlooked the similar threat that organisations with Hinduising agenda posed in those areas. Also, the underlying assumption at play here that conversion to ‘foreign’ religions results in total loss of tribal culture, appears to be questionable in the documentation of the report itself (Prasad 2003, 98). The template that was laid against the Christian missionaries resonates in the contemporary arguments of the Hindu-Right against religious minorities. Phrases like “anti-national” and allegations like “trying to divide the nation”, “material allurement”, and “forcible conversions” have travelled to the present.
The template that was laid against the Christian missionaries resonates in the contemporary arguments of the Hindu-Right against religious minorities. Phrases like “anti-national” and allegations like “trying to divide the nation”, “material allurement”, and “forcible conversions” have travelled to the present.
The idea that Hinduism is the natural religion for the tribal communities has contributed to the growing intolerance towards Christian and Islamic conversions. Moreover, the policy framework remains biased towards imparting a Hinduised identity. The provision of Reservation in the case of STs does not encompass any religious bar, unlike Dalits who are denied this provision upon conversion to Islam and Christianity. Though this is not without complications, the legal discourse burdens individuals to prove their ‘tribalness’ in a way that confirms the stereotypical depictions, and even though there is acceptance of religious diversity among tribes it is at the cost of naturalization of the notion of “alienness” attached to Christianity and Islam (Kujur 2012, 168-71). The tribal communities who do not identify as Muslim or Christian have been officially registered as Hindus, leaving no space to recognise autonomous tribal religious identity (Xaxa 2015, 1366-68). The Constitution also indirectly favours the discourse of ‘national’ religions, Article 25 uses Hindu as a blanket category to mark Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, implying a natural status of these identities. Even though the article provides freedom to practice and propagate one’s religion, it is limited in nature as the State reserves the right to regulate and restrict “any economic, financial, political, or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice”. (Bakshi 2015, 75) Also, the Supreme Court has upheld the laws regulating conversions, and judges have noted that “proselyte activities are not as legitimate as they used to be” (Jaffrelot 2011, 213).
The need to look at the figure of Elwin is not just to complicate the past but to understand the present. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have been subjected to Hindutva politics for long and continue to be under the grab of it. This has led to much communal violence against religious minorities; such incidents and the accompanying discourse still echo the pre-independence anti-missionary alliance. In ways, the politics of Hindutva in the region has gained legitimacy from the pre-independence political movement; wherein Elwin softened his previous stance and allied with the Hindu revivalists. This article does not suggest that Elwin’s works are not necessary, as it goes without doubt that his detailed ethnographic works are of value. The article, however, argues that a figure like him, who influenced policy matters and became a representational authority, cannot be understood by analysing his writings in isolation. His choice to be aggressively biased against the Christian missionaries remains unjustified. One of the speculations about Elwin’s compromise with the Hindu revivalist agenda is that “by allying with the nationalist, he thought he might more effectively protect his tribes (from Christianising)” (Guha 1996, 2387). But this speculation ceases to be convincing if one was to consider the kind of apprehensions Elwin himself had against the Hinduisation of the tribes, “I myself consider the aboriginals to be pre-Hindu and that the adoption of Hinduism will be a major disaster for them” (Elwin 1936, cited in Sundar 2005, 92).
At present, the issue of communalism and religious intolerance is often seen as a problem of the growing influence of the Hindu Right. This article highlights the limitations of such a view and argues that other seemingly ‘secular’ outfits have contributed equally towards complicating the issue. By highlighting the Hindu bias in Indian nationalism and secularism, and the role played by various actors in solidifying that bias this article attempts to reflect broadly on the present scenario where non-Hindu is pushed to be perceived as non-Indian. Elwin, who became the self-proclaimed representative of the tribals, enabled this peculiar nature of politics through his initiatives among them. The Nationalists and Hindu revivalists maintained a distance from voices articulating distinct political and cultural identities for Dalits and Adivasis. Given Elwin’s claim to be dedicated to the cause of tribals, it seems unpragmatic that he did not work on the possibility of a separate religious & political tribal identity and maintained a distance from such movements as that of Adivasi leader Jaipal Singh Munda. His description of the Round Table Conference is also quite telling in this respect, where he advocates the unquestionable right of Gandhi and Congress to represent marginalized communities and dismisses the legitimacy of representatives who proposed separate electors for marginalized minorities, describing them as “indigestible assortment of unrepresentative nominees” (Elwin 2017, 98). In dealing with the crisis that Adivasi identity faces, it is vital to critically re-examine the nature of Indian secularism and the inherent communal biases in the legislature rather than limiting the scope of scrutiny to the Hindu Right.
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Pranoy Saha is a Research Intern at CSPS