How anti-cow slaughter laws deny Santhals their cultural rights

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On 25 May, Adivasi activist and professor Jeetrai Hansda was arrested on grounds of hurting religious sentiments. Fourteen days after his arrest he was released on bail. The charges levelled against him were for a 2017 Facebook post which criticized anti-beef eating and cow slaughter laws. The post also mentioned the culture of eating the national bird the peacock.

Similarly on the 3rd of July, Adivasi villagers resisted the entry of police personnel into the Jaher (sacred grove) near Dhanbad, Jharkhand. The police were informed about a potential cow sacrifice ceremony to be conducted in the Jaher. Both events involved people from the Santhal community. As cow vigilantism increases and the State seems to be more vested in protecting cows at the expense of its citizens it becomes pertinent to understand the perspective of Santhals resisting these laws.

Policies which homogenize the Indian population through culture and religion are a threat to the secularism and the minority indigenous population of India.

The Santhal tribe resides in eastern India in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, and Assam. It is one of the largest Adivasi communities in India with an approximate population of 70 lakhs. Traditionally the Santhals are settled agriculturists and have maintained a peaceful existence with other communities. The tribe holds the honor of waging one of the foremost revolts against the British invasion of India – Santhal Hul (1855-1856). Historically, the Santhals have dwelled near forests, hills, and rivers in harmony with nature. Every Santhal village has a common place called the Jaher Than—where they worship nature through the Jaher Ayo (a deity who is the mother of the Jaher Than) and Marang Buru (a deity who is the father of forests). All the major festivals like Baha, Sohrai, and Jaher Dangri are celebrated by villagers in the Jaher. The collective belief is that for the well-being of the villagers to be maintained, all ceremonies have to be performed in the traditional manner without fail. Some of these ceremonies like Jaher Dangri involve cow sacrifice where beef is eaten by the tribe. Historically, it is evident from such practices that Santhal beliefs and customs are not a part of or related to Hinduism in any way. Rather, they have been passed down through generations over millennia and are unique and intrinsic to Santhal culture. Thus, the community has retained its unique belief systems, language, and culture.

When the Indian Constitution was drafted the special needs of areas with a preponderance of tribal and Adivasi populations were recognized leading to the creation of “Fifth Schedule Areas”. This provision mandated the delegation of a Tribes Advisory Council (TAC) which would advise the Governor of the particular state on matters pertaining to the welfare and advancement of the Scheduled Tribes in that state. The Governor was also vested with the power to repeal or amend any Act of Parliament or Legislature of the said state or any other existing law in consultation with the TAC. Under the fifth schedule, the Governor is given special responsibilities in ensuring “<ahref=””>peace and good government” in schedule areas, a provision in practice since the Government of India Act, 1935. However, Governors so far have been ineffective in ensuring the implementation of Fifth Schedule provisions. Even when the Fifth Schedule has been implemented, the TAC’s powers have been rendered nominal at best. Moreover, the Council is chaired by the Chief Minister of the state which often presents a conflict of interests.

Anti-cow slaughter laws have been passed by various Indian states over the years. The Jharkhand Bovine Animal Prohibition of Slaughter Act was passed in the year 2005. However, the implementation began to be strictly enforced only by 2015. Since then communities like the Santhals have found it difficult to execute their religious ceremonies. States which have been able to avoid anti-cow slaughter laws are Kerala, West-Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, and Nagaland. For most north-eastern states, the majority of the population being tribal has aided in preventing the enactment of anti-cow slaughter legislation. In contrast in eastern and central India, tribes like the Santhals have been unable to consolidate political power due to systemic oppression. Moreover, as Santhals are scattered in various states, despite their huge population, a collective mobilization against cow slaughter legislation has not yet become a reality.

Hansda argues that if indigenous people lose their distinct culture and practices, in times to come they will also lose their claim to indigenous identity.

While doing research for this article, I spoke to Jeetrai Hansda. Disturbed by news reports of mob lynching because of beef eating, Hansda has been critically vocal of anti-cow slaughter laws. He brings up the United Nation’s perspective on recognising indigenous peoples. The UN does not have a strict definition for who exactly can be considered an indigenous people; however, it defines indigenous people as those who “have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.” Hansda argues that if indigenous people lose their distinct culture and practices, in times to come they will also lose their claim to indigenous identity.

Laws which push one community to adopt the beliefs of another (dominant) community and leave their own practices behind are stripping Adivasi people of their roots and identity. Hansda further added that not using the word “indigenous people” in place of “Schedule Tribe” has kept Adivasi communities away from the rights enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). If India were to recognize Adivasi peoples as indigenous it would enable Adivasi communities to assert their social and cultural rights and help them consolidate political and legal power more effectively. Hansda added that any religion or its beliefs should not imposed on communities, like Adivasis, who have their distinct belief systems. He stressed that if Santhals are equal citizens of India, then they should not be forced to adopt Hindu beliefs and customs.

The problem hence lies in the denial of the cultural rights of tribal populations which are present in pockets across various states and are unable to influence the legislative process through their votes. If the Fifth Schedule provisions were implemented in a proper way, it could have provided state governments a directive to implement laws that protect the constitutional and cultural rights of Adivasis. It would then be the duty of the Tribal Advisory Council and the Governor of the respective states to recognize the specific needs of indigenous people and take proper actions to save the cultural diversity and integrity of the region. Policies which homogenize the Indian population through culture and religion are a threat to the secularism and the minority indigenous population of India. The commonly given example of Kerala, that does not impose anti-cow slaughter laws, is a good one to create a progressive society which is considerate of all traditions, and not just dominant ones.

Image courtesy: World Folklore Photographers Association

Kisan Kumar Soren

Kishan Kumar Soren is a native of East Singhbhum, Jharkhand. He is currently a PGP student at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. He has previously done B.E. (Mechanical Engineering) from BIT Mesra.

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