Sunday, March 3, 2024

Religion and indigenous identity

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By Bhogtoram Mawroh

Recently, the former Lok Sabha Speaker, Kariya Munda asserted that “those tribals who convert to Islam or Christianity must not get any benefits of reservation meant for the tribals.” What was interesting about this speech was the fact that he conveniently left out Hinduism from the exclusionary criteria, thus giving the impression that tribal religions are nothing but a sub-set of Hinduism. This is quite extraordinary considering that, like Islam and Christianity, the roots of Hinduism also lay outside the subcontinent. In fact, it is a recent religion compared to the tribal religions that are still being practiced by the different indigenous tribal groups. As such, if tribals who converted to Islam and Christianity should lose their benefits, so should those who identify themselves as Hindus. The foreign origin of Hinduism was always a well-known fact. This conclusion has, in fact, become more emphatic in recent years as our understanding of the genetic history of the sub-continent has become clearer.
The 2019 paper, ‘The story of the lost twins: decoding the genetic identities of the Kumhar and Kurcha populations from the Indian subcontinent’ by Ranjit Das and colleagues states that the extant Indian gene pool is composed of largely four ancestral genetic components, namely Ancestral North Indian (ANI), Ancestral South Indian (ASI), Ancestral Tibeto-Burman (ATB), and Ancestral Austro-Asiatic (AAA). The Khasi-Jaintia belongs to the last group, i.e., Ancestral Austro-Asiatic (AAA). Between 4700 and 3000 B.C.E., according to Priya Moorjani (as reported in the 2018 article ‘South Asians are descended from a mix of farmers, herders, and hunter-gatherers, ancient DNA reveals’ by Lizzie Wade), geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, a South Asia Hunter Gatherer lineage with close proximity to the present-day Andamanese (Ancient Ancestral South Indians or AASI) admixed with Iranian agriculturists, giving rise to what is known as the ‘Indus Periphery’. It is this group that is believed to be the founder of the Indus Valley civilization. Then, around 1300 BCE, as the Indus Valley Civilization declined, some of the Indus periphery individuals moved south to mix with indigenous populations there, forming the Ancestral South Indian population. Today, this group is identified with the population that speaks Dravidian languages such as Tamil and Kannada and with those belonging to lower castes. Soon thereafter, herders from the Eurasian steppe moved into the northern part of the subcontinent and mixed with Indus periphery people still there, forming the Ancestral North Indian population. These are the people who speak Indo-European languages like Hindi, Urdu, and related languages. Based on the chronology of the events described here, the claim that it was the Dravidians who gave birth to the Indus Valley Civilization becomes very strong. A look at the earliest beliefs of the Ancestral North Indian population further confirms that claim.
Among the many gods, the Ancestral North Indian had a chief god named Indra, who is the king of gods and is associated with the sky, lightning, weather, thunder, storms, rains, river flows, and war. He is the most-referred-to god in the Rig Veda, oldest of the Vedas which are sacred Hindu canonical texts. A god of war, Indra was also known as Purandhar and is credited with destroying the forts of Dasyus, most probably the Ancestral South Indian (ASI) or the Dravidians, and his weapon of choice was the thunder bolt. This is similar to the power of Zeus, the Greek chief god, another Indo-European deity. In fact, Zeus and Indra are very similar to other Indo-European deities such as Jupiter, Perun, Perkūnas, Taranis, and Thor.
Again very similar are also the powers of Surya, who is often depicted riding a chariot with seven horses across the celestial sky, and Helios, who also drives a horse-drawn chariot through the sky. Both are sun gods. All of this hints at a Proto-Indo-European mythology that must have developed in the Steppes and carried along as herders migrated south and east. This clearly shows that the origin of Hinduism lies outside the subcontinent, and it is as alien to the indigenous tribals as Christianity and Islam. But what about the religions that must have existed before the coming of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – what did they look like? This is where the story of the Khasi-Jaintia becomes important. Now, according to the 2015 paper ‘A late Neolithic expansion of Y chromosomal haplogroup O2a1-M95 from east to west’ by Arun Kumar and his colleagues, people carrying the Y-chromosomal haplogroup O2a1-M95 spread to the sub-continent from the East, most probably from Laos, arriving in the North East (i.e., most probably with the Khasi-Jaintia now mostly found in present-day Meghalaya) in the late Neolithic period, i.e., around 4000 BCE and 2000 BCE. This means that the proto-Khasi-Jaintia, some of whom later became the Munda, were present during the period of the Indus Valley Civilization. There is, in fact, DNA evidence that hints at such a possibility. In 2019, the first genome sequence of a woman from Rakhigarhi, the largest town in the Indus Valley Civilization, was completed. Her ancestry was revealed to be ancient Iranian and Southeast Asian hunter-gatherers. Could the Southeast Asian hunter-gatherers be the earliest Khasi-Jaintia who were already present in the Sub-Continent at that time?
The 2013 paper ‘Two thousand years of iron smelting in the Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, North East India’ by Pawel Prokop and Ireneusz Suliga does mention that the Khasi-Jaintia people had spread up to the lower Ganges around 3000 BCE. While there are still a lot of studies to be done, it is certainly exciting to imagine that our ancestors may have been one of the populations that made up the Indus Valley Civilization. In fact, after the Dravidians, the Khasi-Munda are probably the oldest population in the sub-continent, making them indigenous.
It is certain that the earliest Khasi-Jaintia people who arrived at the sub-continent must have had some kind of religious belief. The question is whether those beliefs have been passed down in an unadulterated form, which is now still being practiced by the adherents of Niam Khasi and Niamtre. It is very difficult to know since this will require knowledge of the practices from more than 6,000 years ago and comparing them with the present.
In the original homeland, i.e., the area around the Mekong (Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), there are still indigenous groups that are also matrilineal and still practicing their traditional faiths. I am not aware of any comparative work that has already looked into this. If not, this could be an important area for future researchers so that we can learn more about our past. Such work will also allow us to see which elements have entered the traditional faith that may have been imported from outside the community. This is very important because there is an ongoing attempt to co-opt the tribal faiths into the umbrella of Hinduism, thus obliterating the identity and claim of the indigenous peoples.
Tribals in India are known as Adivasi, which roughly means native people. However, there is an attempt by Sangh Parivar and its affiliates like the RSS to bring them into the Hindu fold by changing their term of identification to Vanvasi, which roughly translates to ‘forest dwellers’ thus taking away their indigenous status. Tribals henceforth are no longer distinct people with their own history but simply Hindus who chose to leave civilization and live in the forests. An example of this is the Hinduization of tribals in Gujarat, of which I was personally made aware during a workshop in Surat. The process of Hinduization operates with the volunteers going to tribal villages and convincing people that there is no difference between their native religion and Hinduism. The images of tribal gods and Hindu gods are then kept together for worship. After some time, the images of the tribal gods recede to the background, with the Hindu gods are brought to the foreground. Hindu rituals are systematically incorporated, and slowly, the tribal people are declared Hindus. Most probably, this is how Hinduism also attained its present form: the millions of gods in Hinduism might very well be the millions of gods that it absorbed as it came into contact with different communities that had inhabited the sub-continent, i.e., the present day tribals.
It is very important to make sure that this does not happen to the Khasi-Jaintia as well; otherwise, we will lose our culture and our history. A new faith (i.e., Hinduism) brought by recent people will have devoured an older faith (Niam Khasi and Niamtre) of a more ancient people. Personally, I will prefer the Khasi-Jaintia becoming Christians to being identified as Hindus (this is not the same as a Khasi accepting Hinduism as a personal choice). This is because with the former, one still knows what has been lost (which could be recovered in the future), but with the latter, since it has been mixed so thoroughly with another faith, it is lost forever. So, if, “those tribals who convert to Islam or Christianity must not get any benefits of reservation meant for the tribals,” so should the tribals who identify themselves as Hindus. In the meantime, followers of traditional faiths like the Niam Khasi and Niamtre (Songsarek among the Garos, Sarna among the tribals of Jharkhand) must be given minority status and the tribal religions recognized as separate religions, something that the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) has also recommended. As a matter of fact, the former is very much possible since Dr. Najma A. Heptulla, the former Minister of Minority Affairs in a written reply to Rajya Sabha stated that granting of minority status to followers of Niam Khasi and Niamtre is a state subject. If anything, this is the most ‘jaidbynriew’ issue that should concern the Khasi-Jaintia political leadership.
If the followers of Niam Khasi and Niamtre are gone or are assimilated by larger religions like Hinduism, our very own indigenous identity will be under threat. The statement by Kariya Munda, who is actually a brethren of the Khasi-Jaintia, is an indication that the danger will only grow with time. So what will it be? Will we survive or will we lose our identity? The decision is ours to make.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organization or institution)

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