Holding a packet of tubes containing blood samples, newly-elected Member of Parliament from Banswara in southern Rajasthan, Rajkumar Roat, marched to the home of the state education minister in Jaipur on June 29 to protest the Hindutva claim that Adivasis are Hindus.

On June 21, Rajasthan education minister and Bharatiya Janata Party member Madan Dilawar, when asked about Roat’s long-held assertion that Adivasis are not Hindu, told reporters that “a DNA test should be done to verify whether he [Roat] is the son of a Hindu”.

In response, Roat and his supporters protested by attempting to deliver their blood samples to Dilawar at his home. Roat, the co-founder of the Bharat Adivasi Party, was accompanied by party colleague and legislator Umesh Meena, and Congress legislators Ramkesh Meena and Ghanshyam Mahar.

Stopped by the police, the Adivasi MLAs went to the Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial to protest, demanding that Dilawar apologise to the community and resign from his post. “The time is over when people could say whatever they want about Adivasis, and they would remain quiet,” Roat told a reporter of Bharat Raftar who was on the spot. “Adivasis have now awoken.”

Speaking to Scroll on the phone, Roat said: “I understand that a blood test can’t determine a person’s religion.” But Dilawar had insulted the Adivasis of the country, he said, and the protest was a response to that.

Adivasis and religion

Roat’s protest in Rajasthan is part of a long history of assertion by Adivasi communities across India on the question of religion. Arguing that they have their own distinct religious beliefs and practices that are different from Hinduism, several Adivasi leaders have maintained that their communities do not fall within the Hindu fold, as claimed by the Sangh Parivar, which the BJP is a part of.

Jharkhand’s Adivasis call their traditional faith Sarna. For years, they have demanded a distinct code for the identification of their religion. In August 2021, in an online conversation that was part of a conference at Harvard university, former Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren said that “Adivasis were never Hindus and they never will be”.

In November 2020, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-led government passed a resolution demanding the recognition of the Sarna Adivasi Dharma as a separate code. It is yet to be approved by the Centre.

Similarly, in Chhattisgarh, the Gond or Koitur Adivasis have demanded the recognition of their faith Koya Punem since the 1950s. In 2023, Kawasi Lakhma, who was then a state minister, asserted that Adivasis are not Hindus and that there should be a special religious code for them.

A member of the Congress, Lakhma met with opposition from the BJP, but was supported by the Sarva Adivasi Samaj, the umbrella Adivasi organisation in the state.

There exists historical precedence for the claim that Adivasis are not Hindus.

Kantilal Roat, co-founder of the Bharat Adivasi Party, pointed out that before independence, census columns did not record Adivasis as Hindus. Instead, they were recorded as animists or were listed under tribal religion or aboriginal religion.

Even after independence, until the 2011 census, besides the six religions of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, there existed a seventh column for “Others” with different religious beliefs. However, in 2011, this option was removed and many Adivasis complained that they were forced to record themselves as Hindus, against their wishes.

“Historically, Adivasis have predated Hinduism and hence have never been Hindus,” said Dr Aashish Xaxa, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Gandhinagar who specialises in Adivasi and Development studies.

During the colonial British rule, Christian missions from the West established a presence in Adivasi regions and many Adivasis chose to convert to Christianity. This provoked a backlash from Hindu conservatives. Asserting that Adivasis were Hindus, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh set up an organisation called the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in the 1950s, which built a network in Adivasi areas to propagate the Sangh view.

Xaxa explained that the Sangh Parivar’s attempt to co-opt Adivasis into the Hindu faith has created a pressing need for a census category that recognises the distinct faiths of Adivasis.

Kantilal Roat concurred. “We are nature worshippers, who have our own distinct religion,” he said. “We demand a distinct religious code for Adivasis of the entire country.”

Adivasi communities in India are formally recognised under the Indian Constitution as Scheduled Tribes, one of the two constitutionally-protected social categories, the other being Scheduled Castes. Although the Constitution only recognises those professing Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism to be members of Scheduled Castes, there has never been any similar condition for members of Scheduled Tribes to belong to a specific religion.

A separate religious code in the Census would allow Adivasis to identify with the religion of their preference.

Identity and politics

The contestation over the religious identity of Adivasis has direct electoral implications, as the rise of the Bharat Adivasi Party in Rajasthan shows.

The Bharat Adivasi Party’s current leaders first gained prominence through the Adivasi Parivar, an unregistered socio-cultural movement that originated in the Dungarpur and Banswara districts of southern Rajasthan in the early 2000s. It advocated for a distinct Adivasi identity and a separate Bhil Pradesh, or a contiguous homeland for the Bhil Adivasis of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra, said Manish Meena, a doctoral student at Rajasthan university who is conducting research on the movement.

In 2017, the movement gave birth to the Bharat Tribal Party in Gujarat. Contesting as candidates of the Bharat Tribal Party, the current leaders of the Bharat Adivasi Party made their debut in Rajasthan’s Assembly in 2018, winning from the constituencies of Sagwara and Chorasi, both in Dungarpur district.

However, the party split in 2023 and Roat and others formed the Bharat Adivasi Party in September that year. Three months later, Bharat Adivasi Party candidates won three seats in the Rajasthan Assembly and one seat in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh.

In the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, Roat defeated a veteran politician Mahendrajeet Singh Malviya, who had defected from the Congress to the BJP, by a margin of 2,47,054 votes in the Banswara constituency. This is the same constituency where during election campaigning in April 2024, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made false claims that the Congress would give away people’s hard-earned money to “infiltrators” if it came to power.

The Bharat Adivasi Party’s electoral success in southern Rajasthan has created a stir since power in the state has alternated between the Congress and the BJP. “For long, politics in Rajasthan has been bipolar in nature,” said Congress legislator Meena. “But the BAP is steadily presenting a strong third front.”

Deep Mukherjee, a journalist based in Jaipur, explained that previously, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar had a strong grasp in the Adivasi belt of southern Rajasthan. In 2013, the BJP had won all four assembly constituencies in Dungarpur district and four of five constituencies in Banswara district.

For the BJP, the rise of an independent Adivasi party is a setback to its decade-old efforts to build a strong base in southern Rajasthan.

“The BAP is totally against the BJP’s narrative that tribals come within the Hindu fold,” said Mukherjee. Referring to Rajasthan’s education minister, Mukherjee said, “Dilawar is known for taking a rabid Hindutva stance and so his remarks about Roat can be tied to this loss in the elections.”