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Awaiting a religious decision

Is a village council qualified to deal with religious beliefs? The answer lies in a recent order by the Supreme Court in the Vedanta case. Gram sabhas (village councils consisting of all voters in a village) in Odisha’s Rayagada and Kalahandi districts will decide whether the industrial activities of Vedanta violate the constitutional right of tribal communities to worship. Translated into practice, the order means voters in a few villages will decide the fate of the multi-billion-rupee project based on their religious beliefs. Though parroted often that religious belief is a private concern, the apex court’s order is exceptional in making religious decision a community one. Those who understand tribal ways of life will vote for this order.

In the past, many orders of the apex court – several of them highly controversial – dealt with religion-related issues, including defining Hinduism. In many cases related to religion the judiciary has been cautious and has limited verdicts to ensure the constitutional rights to practice any religion.

Though the Vedanta order cannot be clubbed with such cases in a clinical fashion, it is definitely a case related to religion and associated beliefs. There are a few reasons that makes this case interesting.

First, it is a perfect case where the government’s power to acquire land for public purpose and having right over minerals are in direct conflict with religious rights of local communities. Secondly, the religious belief in question is that of tribal communities. Unlike many religions, tribal religious beliefs are manifested in tangible living forms like forest, land and water.

In this case, the direct conflict between religious belief and public purpose becomes intense as the public purpose acquisitions are the gods and goddesses of the tribals.

For the Dongria Kondhs in Odisha, the Niyamgiri hill is the Niyam Raja or god. Thirdly, tribals do not have any supreme religious head or bodies to protect and interpret beliefs. Tribal beliefs are pure functional codes for maintaining the fragile ecology-economy equation that sustains them. This is where the court’s order to assign the village council, that enjoys constitutional powers, to take a call on the religious rights comes as an acknowledgement of the fact that the standard law and religion approach to tribal areas will not work.  In the next one fortnight, the tribal communities of the two districts will vote not just on their right but also on a mini but crucial plebiscite on the government’s will to implement the court order.

On arrangement with Down to Earth magazine.
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