Interreligious Marriage in Nicobar Islands
The debate on religious conversion among intellectuals, religious leaders, academicians and political leaders in India has been raging for the last few months. The Upper House of Parliament was disrupted for more than a week in December 2014 by the opposition parties over the issue, and they demanded a clarification from Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding the government’s stand on religious conversion. But why has the matter become so serious in recent times when religious conversion among Adivasis and Dalits dates back to the Muslim and British rule?
An Age Old Practice
The Indian Constitution gives every citizen the right to practise any religion and propagate the same. Religious conversion among lower-caste Hindus and tribal societies is an old practice. Discrimination by Higher-caste Hindus and extreme poverty faced by the landless was mainly responsible for their conversion from Hinduism to Christianity. During the British rule, the Christian missionaries were assigned the job of converting the tribals of Chotanagpur and North East in the name of education and development. Hence, when missionaries took the responsibility to educate them and provide them with welfare services, the tribals readily converted to Christianity. Before their conversion, they worshipped nature or followed Hindu culture and religion.
My colleague Easter Samuel from the Nicobari tribal community, an indigenous tribe in Nicobar group of islands, revealed that her grandmother was a Muslim who married her grandfather, a Christian by faith. Both belonged to the Nicobari community. After their marriage, her grandmother did not change her religion and used to observe all religious customs and rituals of Islam, including Ramzan.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to four primitive Negrito and two Mongoloid tribes, who have been living there since time immemorial. The Negritos live in Andaman Archipelago and Mongoloids in Nicobar Archipelago. The Great Andamanese, Onges, Jarawas and Sentinalese have been living in Andaman chain of islands.
Before the advent of Britishers in Nicobar Islands, the Dutch and French had occupied these islands with a mission to establish contact and interact with the isolated tribes residing there. But they could not succeed due to adverse circumstances. The Britishers permanently occupied both Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 1858 with the plan to start a penal settlement to imprison Indian prisoners who revolted against them in 1857. Unlike the Dutch and the French, the British were soon successful in establishing contact with the tribes. As the British administration extended its authority, the British missionaries started educating the Nicobarese with the sole purpose of converting them to Christianity.
Vedappan Solomon, a Tamil person from India, was employed for the British to convert Nicobaris in Car Nicobar. It was he and his students like John Richardson, hailed as the father of modern Nicobar, who played a pioneering role in converting Nicobari tribes to Christianity.
Conversion to Islam
However, long before the advent of British government in Nicobar Islands, the Minicoyans from Laccadive Islands in Arabian Sea had settled down in Car Nicobar. The Minicoyans, who were Muslims, were reported to be the first to establish their business in Car Nicobar, while the Burmese were the first to introduce inter-caste marriage. Later, Muslim traders from Gujarat and Surat came into contact with Nicobari tribes. It is stated that Nicobari Muslims are the descendents of the Muslim traders who married girls belonging to indigenous tribes of the islands.
In the early 20th century, the Britishers allowed Yusuf Md Jadwet, a Gujarati Muslim trader to start business in Car Nicobar. His company brought labourers and officials from Gujarat to run his establishment in Nicobar. As they were separated from their families for long periods of time, these young Muslim males entered into marital relations with native girls. Most of these eligible bachelors, or even married males, who left their families in Gujarat, started maintaining a family in Nicobar.
There is strong evidence that for a long time foreign nationals from Malaysia and Indonesia, who arrived on these tiny islands like Pilo-Milo, Kundul, Dering, Trinket in Nancowry group of Islands, were welcomed by local Nicobari families without the local authority’s knowledge. Their frequent visits resulted in the establishment of intimate relations with local families as well as religious conversions. The Nicobaris being liberal, did not mind their daughters marrying non-Christians and converting to Islam.
In Car Nicobar Island, the cases of religious conversion were more in number, mainly in Chukchucha, Kinnyuka, Sawai and Tee-Top villages. The maximum cases of conversion to Islam were found near harbours and business areas of Jadwet Company. In the Nancowry group of Islands in Nicobar District, the followers of Islam are very few.
The Situation Today
A large number of Nicobari boys and girls go to Port Blair and the mainland to obtain education and employment. Marriages between them and non-Nicobari communities are on the rise. Presently, marriage with people belonging to local Muslim, Bengali Hindu, Burmese and other communities (families of old settlers in Port Blair) are taking place, leading to religious conversion among Nicobari tribes. Some cases of religious conversion also have been found among primitive tribes of Onges and Great Andamanese also. Very recently a Bengali Hindu boy married a Great Andamanese girl after obtaining permission from the administration.
The Nicobari Muslim families, who have come in contact with Muslims of other linguistic communities have started adopting their way of dressing and religious customs. Generally, in the Nicobari society, the change of religion after marriage is not a serious issue as it happens in other non-tribal societies. They easily accept the converted people and social boycott is not practised. Family members with different religious backgrounds coexist without any serious problem. There are many cases where members of the same family practising different religions participate in festivals of all religions enthusiastically.
The conversion of Indian tribes to other religions (other than Hinduism) is a serious concern for some Hindu organisations. A few of them believe that tribes in India were Hindus and were the original inhabitants of India—Bhumi Putra or son of the soil. Hindu organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashsram have been set up with a mission to stop conversion of tribals to Christianity and to return them to the Hindu fold.
In case of Nicobaris and other tiny tribal groups in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the question of religious conversion in terms of numbers is not the main focus of this discussion. The attempt is to highlight the fact that many tribal families do not have any feeling of hatred toward any religion, and they take conversions very casually. No force/agency, so far, has succeeded in instigating them in the name of religion. These islands comprise people of different religions and faith who live cordially and peacefully.
But recently, in Nancowry group of Islands in the Nicobar District, the captains of both Muslim and Christian groups have shown unhappiness over the issue of religious conversion, as many of the tribals are getting married to non-tribals and are converting to different religions. But one has to factor in the fact that around 20% of Nicobarese venture out of Nicobar to find employment, to get education, and for other reasons. The possibility of inter-religious marriages increase when people of other communities and religions interact in educational institutions and workplaces. The captain of Nancowry has given strict instruction to the parents not to allow/encourage their wards to get married to non-Nicobaris.
According to some scholars, who are observing the dynamics of this community closely, the Muslim captains of Nancowry group of Islands belong to a wealthy and economically influential class. Hence, they dominate over these islands’ economy and political affairs and get due importance from local administration. But the Christian captains are not ready to accept the growing importance and domination of the other group. This is the root cause of conflict between the captains of the two groups.
Some scholars attribute the unease among Muslim and Christian captains regarding marriages to non-tribals to the fact that when tribal girls marry non-tribals they tend to lose the tribal benefits which they would otherwise get in employment and other fields. However, when tribal boys enter into a marital relation with non-tribals, the bride gets all tribal benefits as received by her husband’s family.
Whatever conclusion we might draw from the above analysis, one can sense discomfort in a section of the Nicobari society over the issue of marriage of their children with outsiders or people belonging to other religions.
Justine, Anstice (1990): The Nicobarese (ed) K S Singh, Calcutta: Seagull Books, p 17.
Verma, R C (1990): Indian Tribes through the Ages, Publications Division, pp 58–59.
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