Jakarta. For children of one minority community in West Java, attending public elementary school is an existential affair that brings into question their belief system and sense of identity.
Iwan Mulyana, 12, like his parents and grandparents before him, embraces the beliefs of Sunda Wiwitan, a traditional Sundanese religion that reveres the power of nature and the spirit of ancestors. While attending state elementary school in Cigugur, Iwan was often bullied by his peers, who called him kafir, or infidel. The travesties culminated when his teacher asked him to remove his pants to see if he was circumcised — a sign of faith for Muslim males.
Iwan left school after that incident.
Indonesia’s constitution guarantees the freedom of worship. But this protection has often been undermined by a long history of convoluted laws and regulations. In fact, Indonesia only officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
Stemming from the country’s presidential regulation outlining the legal ramifications of blasphemy, which turned into law in 1969, any religion outside of the aforementioned six are considered “blasphemous” and do not carry with them constitutional rights to freedom of worship.
Recently, Iwan’s former school needed to send principal education data digitally to the national network system. Registering a student’s data with a blank space in the section marked “religion” would render that student’s data invalid.
Schools that register students without one of the official six religions face a cut in federal funding. Therefore, many Sunda Wiwitan students are forced to choose an officially recognized religion so as not to lose out on scholarships or the opportunity to pursue higher education.
For Sunda Wiwitan adults, life can be even harder.
Based on Indonesia’s marriage law, marriage is only lawful if it is registered according to the law of the bride and groom’s religion. If either of the two parties practice an “unofficial” religion, their marriage is not legally recognized by the government.
Burdens from this stipulation extend to married Sunda Wiwitan civil servants, who receive no family allowances, smaller pensions and smaller tax benefits, because they are still considered single.
Article 61 in the 2013 Law on Civil Administration requires the religious column in the national electronic ID cards to be filled with one of the six official religions, or for followers of other religions, left empty.
Since ID cards are the basic requirement for other civil business, this complicates administrative processes to register properties and open businesses.
“For a public service there must not be any distinction between the majority and the minority. Justice must be fulfilled in public service,” said Dewi Kanthi, a Sunda Wiwitan believer and civil rights activist.
Sunda Wiwitan’s unrecognized religious status is also a handicap in national court proceedings and greatly undermines community efforts to defend ancestral lands from being built on.
Testimony from Sunda Wiwitan followers is considered irrelevant because of their dubious religious status.
“Living space, cultural space and spiritual rights are limited to how we can maintain material assets,” said Dewi Kanthi.
Long History of Prosecution
Sunda Wiwitan have faced prosecution since Pangeran Sadewa Alibasa Kusuma Wijayaningrat, or Kyai Madrais, arrived in Cigugur in 1921 to teach the religion to local residents.
One of Kyai Madrais’s teachings says that people should drink their own sweat, a figure of speech for self-sufficiency. “The Dutch turned that into propaganda. Drinking sweat is interpreted literally and is considered as kafir. The propaganda still continues now,” said Okki Satria Jati, the traditional leader of Sunda Wiwitan.
Soeharto’s New Order regime prohibited the celebration of Seren Taun, a rice harvest festival and ceremony to honor rice goddess Sanghyang Sri, from 1981 to 1999. For 18 years, Sunda Wiwitan believers replaced Nutu, a distinct rice pounding ritual of 2,200 kilograms of unhusked rice, with rice peeling in their houses.
President Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur, allowed Seren Taun ceremony to be held in the open again.
But today, repression remains in the absence of government recognition of the Sunda Wiwitan belief.