Saffronising the tribal heartland

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

The Sangh Parivar's strategy to establish Hindutva in the tribal belt across central India is apparently succeeding, and the political beneficiary of this will be the Bharatiya Janata Party. Here, status reports from three important States.

The Sangh Parivar's strategy to establish Hindutva in the tribal belt across central India is apparently succeeding, and the political beneficiary of this will be the Bharatiya Janata Party. Here, status reports from three important States.

Overrunning a Congress(I) stronghold

"I knew we had definitely lost the elections when the Jhabua results came in," confessed Congress(I) leader Digvijay Singh, after the recent Assembly elections. Jhabua is a predominantly tribal district in the Narmada Valley, bordering Gujarat. It used to be a shoo-in for the Congress(I), but the Bharatiya Janata Party swept all five seats from the district in the State elections and, going by local opinion, is all set to storm the upcoming parliamentary elections as well.

The dramatic turnaround in the party's prospects is attributed solely to the dedicated efforts of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in the area. In order to co-opt the tribal people in the region, the Sangh uses a range of cultural connects ranging from religious solidarity and strong local pride to a keenly felt disenchantment with the administration.

Adivasis - members of indigenous tribes such as Bhil, Bhilala and Patiliya - form the bulk of Jhabuas's 14-lakh-strong population. The RSS draws them into its pan-Hindu worldview by pitching this as a capacious, welcoming faith. Says RSS spokesman Ram Madhav: "Vanvasis (forest dwellers) are very much part of our wide cultural canopy." The vanvasis are positioned as true bearers of the Hindu essence, who preserved and practised Hindu traditions in the forest. In contrast, sociologist Amita Baviskar in her book In the Belly of the River, says that Adivasi religious life is built around animism and ancestor worship and evolved quite distinctly from the Hindu tradition. Their myths and rituals are located in their closeness to and reverence for nature, although they continue to negotiate with dominant Hinduism. The Bhagat Movement, started in Alirajpur in the 1950s, is an attempt at Hinduisation by imitating the practices of the ritually purer castes and repudiating Bhil/Bhilala identity and community, writes Baviskar.

However, what was a small emergent strain of Hindu culture in 1995 when she published her study has now become a full-blown social phenomenon, thanks to the RSS. Today, Jhabua bristles with Hindu symbols. Small shrines and saffron banners are visible everywhere and the RSS version of Hindu culture has seeped into the very spirit of tribal life. Even a community festival like the pre-Holi bhagoria, where Adivasis choose their mates, is now becoming an RSS-run affair. "We do not seek to change their culture but rid it of the perversions that have crept in," said RSS organiser Mahesh G. Sharma at a celebration in Para. "For example, this very bhagoria festival is projected by the media as a pranayaparva (a festival of love) to defame these people. We will teach such media a lesson soon enough," he added pointedly.

Sharma traces the tipping point back to the mid-1990s when the RSS launched a focussed campaign in Jhabua. "Door-to-door, man-to-man, heart-to-heart," is how Milind Dandekar, who coordinates the Indore base of the RSS, sums up the organisation's approach. "We had 4,000 activists who lived with every tribal family for about seven days. We arranged for a picture of a Hindu god in every home and got Hanuman-lockets for every individual," explains Sharma.

When the campaign reached fever-pitch, the Sangh organised a massive Hindu Mahasangam in January 2002, where Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders such as Pravin Togadia and Sadhvi Ritambara were star guests. Despite all the attempts of the Digvijay Singh government, more than 2.5 lakh people attended the rally. The steady influence of activists and preachers from Gujarat has also affected mindscapes in Jhabua.

The spread of the organisation and the commitment it commands is formidable. Its comprehensive network follows a five-tiered structure of villages, mandals, khands, sankuls and jilas, parallel to the two-tiered government model. Through institutions such as the Sewa Bharati and the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, the RSS runs schools, medical centres and self-help groups in the region. "Mother Teresa's organisation runs 400 projects and reaches one lakh people by the most generous estimate. In comparison, we run 24,600 such projects and yet we don't publicise our impact," says Dandekar. The most integral part of RSS activity is dharma jagaran, the awakening of faith, says Naval Kishore, a member of the RSS shakha (branch unit) in Dhar. "They tell us about the Ramayana and the story of Shabari and remind us we are all Hindus," says Bhumsingh Pachaya, a shy young man from the Bhil community who studied at a Sewa Bharati school and now teaches small children at a Saraswati Shishu Kendra.

Clearly, the RSS has tapped into the deep wells of alienation and insecurity among Adivasis. To counter the exploitative and insensitive state, it offers a sense of organic connection and Hindu pride. "Swaabhiman ki baat hai (it is a matter of self-respect), why should we let the bureaucrats, the kachra (trash) with no links to the earth, lord over us?" asks Sharma to an appreciative circle of Bhils. This new chest-thumping, assertive ethos, is directly linked to their new-found identity as Hindus and their place in the social order.

THE gritty reality of RSS work is couched in the language of collective action and utopia. "We teach them that they are the real masters and should not supplicate the officials who are answerable to them," says Sharma. By harping on the rift between the people and the small governing elite, the RSS uses an assortment of training schemes based on age and literacy to impart skills and `values'. Through focussed pedagogical effort, these people are prepared for a future where Hindus would claim true control of their destiny and country. If the Sangh is to be believed, the Jhabua experiment is a preview of the shape of things to come. "Whether they are in the media, the administration or education, it is the beginning of the end for those who oppose Hindutva. We will teach them a lesson in the next two or three years," proclaims Sharma.

While the RSS seeks a core cultural transformation and grandly dismisses electoral politics, it acknowledges that the BJP's ride to power was propelled by Sangh activity. "Seven years back, if you mentioned the phoolwali party (the BJP, whose symbol is the lotus flower), you would get beaten up. Today, our work has been recognised and when the Congress(I) linked the BJP with us, people responded by bringing the BJP back to power with a resounding majority," says an RSS activist in Jhabua.

This carefully planned and executed campaign was definitely not a smooth ride for the Sangh. Indeed, Jhabua has witnessed the dark side of religious fervour, as tensions erupted between the RSS and the Christian missionaries who have a century-old presence in the area. Recently, this was played out in the gruesome rape of a nine-year-old inside a mission school, which provoked "a flurry of abuse and a `Missionary Hatao Andolan'," says Father Thomas of the Catholic diocese. While hate mail has become a routine affair, Fr. Thomas quotes Digvijay Singh, who visited the church and reminded the Christian community "this is not a war between Hinduism and Christianity but between tolerance and fundamentalism".

Interestingly, "Jhabua district has the highest conviction rate in the world, because Adivasis confess their crimes right after committing them. It is a simple system of honour," says District Collector Arun Kumar Bhatt. However, Dandekar has a different spin on the matter. "Introspection and conscience are natural for Hindus, but when these tribal people convert to Christianity they lose these - after confessing into a box in a church they think they have absolved themselves of all sins and now have the licence to loot and kill."

Says Sharma: "These missionaries disguise their malicious intent by coming as Father and Brother, like Puthana came as a well-meaning aunt to harm Krishna, and Ravana came as a sadhu to spirit Sita away". He compares their action to changing the SIM card on a cellular phone - "phir to Jesus ki hi aawaaz aati hai (now only Jesus' voice comes)." In contrast, the RSS only seeks to remind these people of their rightful faith, argues Naval Kishore.

Significantly, the efforts of the RSS and the missionaries have centred around education and health and testify to the inadequacy of the state as a credible provider of social services. The stunning success of the RSS points to the failure of the dominant `development' discourse and the more progressive political fronts to establish a meaningful bond with Adivasis.

Whether it is because of its organisational skill or ideological persuasiveness, the RSS is now way ahead in Operation Hearts and Minds.

Amulya Gopalakrishnan'Homecoming' and other political projects

On February 29, in Baghpura gram panchayat of Richaawar village in Jhadol block of Udaipur district, a ghar vapsi or homecoming ceremony was organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), in which 650 Christian tribal people were brought back into the Hindu fold. They were sprinkled with Ganga water, given an "OM"-inscribed locket and calendars and made to take a pledge in the name of Maharana Pratap. They were asked to remain cautious about the activities of Christians and their institutions. District-level functionaries of the Bajrang Dal were present at the meeting.

The Baghpura ceremony is significant for several reasons. One, it has few precedents, at least in Rajasthan - such incidents have occurred more prominently in Chhattisgarh. Two, it is the concrete manifestation of a steady campaign that has been unleashed against the minorities in the tribal areas of Rajasthan. Three, it is symbolic of the new-found confidence of the Sangh Parivar in the wake of the formation of a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in the State. Activities to "counter" the spread of Christianity are conducted at various levels by the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad (VKP) and the many Hindu seers who preach from the platforms of these organisations. Ram katha, pravachan and jagaran, which used to be common features of the campaign in cities and small towns, have penetrated the tribal areas.

The several fronts of the parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), operate with missionary zeal. Their objectives include bringing the tribal people back into the Hindu fold, thus negating the distinct ethnic and cultural identity they have had; campaigning aggressively against the minorities (the specific kind of minority group targeted varies according to the group's presence in that particular region); and thus create a permanent political constituency, the results of which were borne out in the December 2003 polls. These fronts of the RSS are able to operate successfully as there is little organised opposition.

Udaipur is a predominantly tribal district, inhabited by the Garasias, the Gametis, the Bhils and the Meenas. It is gradually coming under the saffron spell, and the tribal people face the prospect of losing their distinct identity. An area that has been largely neglected by successive governments for decades, an area that saw the exploitation of the tribal people in every conceivable manner, an area which has now yielded to the politics of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar - that is tribal Udaipur. After keeping it as its stronghold for long, the Congress(I), in December 2003, won only two of the 10 Assembly segments in the district, losing the rest to the BJP.

Tribal Rajasthan has been neglected for decades and Udaipur, one of the largest pockets of tribal concentration, has been no exception. Economic neglect, combined with the steady, organised entry of the various offshoots of the Sangh Parivar, ensured the BJP's success in the December 2003 Assembly elections. It was Hindutva and the Hindutva model of development that helped the BJP win, for the first time, more than 100 seats in the Assembly.

Has anything changed in Udaipur now? The smooth tarred road leading to Kotara block, some 120 kilometres from Udaipur, is the same. So is the wretched, poverty-stricken existence of the tribal people. What is new is the emergence of scores of flags with "OM" inscribed on them atop tribal dwellings. Also new are the pictures of Hindu deities inside the homes of the Garasias and the Meenas. And "Jai Shri Ram" is scrolled on their mud walls, and there are temples - Hanuman temples, Bhairon (Siva) temples and the various mata (female deity) temples.

Two years ago, when Frontline visited Kotara in order to assess the drought situation there, nothing of the kind was visible. The work of the VKP is now visible everywhere. And the tribal people, who had their native deities and distinct forms of ancestor and nature worship, are being Hinduised. What is questionable is not the spread of a religion but the political motives behind the "Hinduisation" drive. The modus operandi of the service, the RSS claim, is very much the same as that of Christian missions. But while the missions did not attempt to change the nomenclature and status of the tribal people, the VKP does not recognise them as Adivasis.

Malwa Chauraha is a village en route to Kotara. The children of the Garasias go to a school run by the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA). Says Bhanwar Lal Banjara, a resident: "They say we are all Hindus. In the new year, the VKP people gave us flags, two lockets containing images of Hanuman and a poster of Durga." His neighbour, Tamparam Garasia, does not talk much when asked about his form of worship. He walks away, but not before reluctantly posing with a poster given to him by the VKA. "They did not charge us any money," he says. There is nothing of material value in Tamparam's mud dwelling; the walls are filled with posters of several Hindu gods and goddesses. His wife Manu Garasia murmurs: "These are not our devi-devtas." The VKP people, she says, took Rs.5 from each family for the lockets, calendar and the flag. The Garasia family, like most others in the community, has no land.

Two RSS workers, Dittaram Garasia and Ratnaram Garasia, who are also the leaders of Malwa Chauraha village, arrive on the scene. Dittaram says he is the district dharma jagaran pramukh. Both of them are associated with the VKP. The VKA, they inform, is celebrating its golden jubilee. "In our meetings, organised to celebrate the golden jubilee, we tell the vanvasis that they are Hindus and that they should not accept any other religion," the RSS workers say. The Christians, they say, are up to something in Jhadol and Phalasia. "In Kotara, Muslims used to do mischief openly. But after we made our presence felt, they are okay," says Dittaram. He informs that on auspicious occasions, such as Ganesh Chaturthi, idols are sent to every village and a festival is held, attended by more than one lakh persons. Dittaram and Ratnaram say that before the golden jubilee celebrations were launched, they distributed blankets to poor families and during the drought months, they distributed corn. "The people here understand the Parishad very well. Even if you give them lakhs of rupees they will still pray to Chamundi (Kali), Bhairon and Hanuman," adds Millaram Garasia, a teacher and a VKP member. He suggests that there is a Chamundi mata temple a little ahead and recommends a visit. When asked if they campaigned during the recent Assembly elections, they answer in the affirmative. "We campaigned for the BJP. But you know, in covert form," says Dittaram.

The first non-tribal people to set foot on Kotara were Muslim traders, who married local women and settled down there. The Hindu traders came in much later. B.L. Singhvi, district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), says that earlier the level of exploitation was such that the tribal people were never allowed to wear white clothes, were proscribed from eating wheat, and women could not cover their torsos. Punishment for violating the norms was severe. "Thakurs and Brahmins never treated the tribal person as an equal. They would shoo him away and treat him worse than an animal. Why did the tribal people decide to go to the Christians, it should be asked," he said. Even today, there are sections of tribal people who, out of fear of the caste Hindu, do not sit on a cot.

In Kotara town, nothing seems to have changed - the congested roads, the open sewers or the garbage heaps. The regional branch of the VKP is located on a sprawling campus, which houses the Vidya Apte Middle School, an ashram or a hostel and a primary health centre. A graffiti mentions a or a religious convention on the occasion of the VKA's golden jubilee celebrations. The principal of the middle school, Narendra Singh Rathore, after some initial reluctance, says that they are associated with the RSS. Fifty-five per cent of the students are from the tribal community. "Our main target is tribal students. We waive all fees for them," he said. Explaining the network of the VKP, he said that there were 10-member committees in every village. There are some 304 villages in Kotara block and the VKP claims to have covered all of them. In at least five of the 36 gram panchayats, VKP health workers - a man and a woman each - are stationed. "We hold a medical camp every 15 days and charge Rs.2 a coupon. Doctors come from Gujarat, from Palanpur and Khed Brahma," he said. The VKP also runs ekal vidyalayas, or schools headed by a pupil who has passed Class VIII. "The teacher is selected from among the bright pupils and his main job is to teach Hindu samskara," said Rathore. The committees identify the brightest children in the village, particularly those who have studied in a VKP-run school, to head such schools. In Udaipur division, there are 100 ekal vidyalayas.

Mohan Lal, a teacher and an RSS workers, tells Frontline that all the teachers in the VKP-run schools have to be committed to the RSS ideology. "We go for the RSS shakha meetings regularly. The teachers are selected only if they subscribe to the RSS way of thought. Our main tasks are to teach the Hindu samskara to the tribal people and make them shed their vices," he says. He adds that he along with others had distributed lockets, calendars, stickers and books in the interiors of Kotara block.

It is clear that the method of reaching out to the tribal people through education, healthcare and Hindu religious symbols has proved successful. During the chief ministership of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, a special category of teachers called shiksha karmis was created to serve in the interiors of the State. The task of these teachers, who were mostly Class X or Class XII students and were RSS and VKP recruits, was propaganda. "Education came only later. People respected them as gurujis but were not aware of their agenda," said a member of a non-governmental organisation.

The VKP in Rajasthan came into existence in 1978 and operates in the 11 districts that have a tribal presence - Banswara, Udaipur, Dungarpur, Pali, Baran, Kota, Sirohi, Jhalawar, Rajsamand, Chittor and Pratapgarh. It claims to be present in at least 3,000 of the 5,096 tribal villages in the State where it runs hostels, schools, health centres and faith centres. Said one VKP member: "We do not support any political party directly. Yes, we belong to the RSS and whichever party supports the Hindu cause gets our support." Amit Sharma, a Bajrang Dal functionary in Udaipur, says that its mission is to put up Hindu organisations wherever minorities are seen to function.

T.K. RajalakshmiAnother Hindutva laboratory?

"Hang those who are trying to convert people from Hinduism."

"Awakening of Hinduism is the awakening of the country."

"Beware! Conversion will not be tolerated in the land of Jagannath."

"Beware! Those who are converting are anti-nationals."

"Stop conversion. Our sacred duty is to preserve Hinduism."

THE writing is on the wall for Orissa, a State that has had a history relatively free of communal discord. With the Bharatiya Janata Party in alliance with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) firmly in power in the State, Communist Party of India general secretary A.B. Bardhan was not far from the truth when he commented: "Orissa is Hindutva's next laboratory."

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its various affiliates not only have been quietly consolidating their position and increasing their activities in rural Orissa, but also have slithered their way into the urban areas. With a cadre-strength of over one lakh, the RSS runs 2,500 shakhas (local units) in the State and has 30 organisations working under it. While the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has more than 60,000 members in the State, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) controls 171 trade unions with a total membership of 1.82 lakhs. The Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) has 1,534 projects in 21 districts with a tribal presence and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student body of the RSS, is active in 299 colleges in the State.

Under the VHP itself, there are 30 organisations, such as the Bajrang Dal, which runs 200 training camps in the State and has a membership of about 20,000; the ekal vidyalaya, which runs 730 schools in 10 districts; and the Satsang Kendras, which are active in nearly 2,000 places. With such a formidable machinery in operation, VHP international general secretary Pravin Togadia, during his visit to Orissa in February, could proudly come out with a slogan, "Feel-Hindu Great Factor".

Such sentiments are on the rise in the State. Prasanna Kumar Senapati, an employee of the East Coast Railways, is an active worker of the Dharma Raksha Samiti, an RSS-affiliated organisation. According to him, any one born in India is a Hindu. "Those belonging to other religions have, at some point of time, been converted from Hinduism," he told Frontline. He said: "Wherever there is conversion from Hindutva, that community and region gets further alienated from the rest of the country and the nation breaks. To stop this from happening, people need to be awakened to the cause of Hindutva." This awakening to the "cause of Hindutva" takes place, among other ways, through regular dharmajagaran (religious awakening) programmes. In these, activists go from door to door, spreading the word of Hindutva and "making people aware of the dangers of religious conversion".

MARGINALISED and impoverished tribal and Dalit communities are the main targets of the Hindu fundamentalist forces in the State. By forming various organisations, ostensibly for charitable and social causes, the Sangh Parivar has managed to extend its reach to almost every nook and cranny of rural Orissa. While organisations such as the Seva Dhanyantari Shasthya Prastisthan organise medical camps in the villages, Satsang Kendras conduct Hindu scripture reading programmes aimed at bringing about a "religious re-awakening" among the people.

Sambaru Sabar was a VHP activist for 15 years before he left the organisation to join the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Sabar, who belongs to a tribal community and hails from Gajapati district, told Frontline: "Earlier we used to pray to trees and rocks. Then VHP men started visiting us, convincing us that all the sins we have committed by killing and eating animals will be forgiven by God if we start praying to the photographs they gave us of Rama. They told us that trees and rocks were not gods, Rama was." The VHP has devised a clever way to spread Hindutva among the tribal people. Its argument is that the greatest follower of the "Aryan warrior" Rama was Hanuman, who was tribal; hence, the Adivasis are the original worshippers of Rama and, by derivation, Hindus. "They told us that Christianity was a foreign religion and being Indian, we should not tolerate any foreign religion in our country, let alone be a follower of it," Sabar said.

To facilitate the induction of tribal people into the Hindu fold, Hanuman statues and temples dedicated to Hanuman worship are being constructed across the State. "Hanuman has in fact become the number one encroacher of government land," said Ali Patnaik, a CPI(M) State secretariat member. He added that the sole aim of the Sangh Parivar and its activities was to benefit the BJP in the State. "The growth of the BJP in Orissa is inextricably linked to the communal activities carried out by various arms of the Parivar."

Several factors peculiar to Orissa have been used by the RSS to its advantage. The presence of Christian missionaries working in the backward regions of the State gave the Parivar scope to organise itself as a parallel but antithetical force. Moreover, an Adivasi population of over seven million from more than 60 tribes and a Dalit population of over five million provided the Parivar two more or less cohesive communities to work on. With a large section of the Dalit community being Christian, it is also easy to foster a division and sow the seeds of communal hatred. "In cases of land disputes between Adivasis and Dalits, the activists of the Parivar would take sides with the non-Christian community, rather than allow the dispute to be settled between themselves," said Patnaik.

ONE of the most recent incidents indicating the extent of communalisation in the State took place in Tirtal village in Jagatsinghpur district. On the morning of February 10, six Dalit Christian women and the pastor of the village were dragged out of their houses by other residents and publicly tonsured. Sanjukta Kandi, one of the victims of the attack, said: "In our village we were socially boycotted because we were Christians. We were not even allowed to take water from the village pump." Sumitra Kandi and her two teenage daughters, Umitra and Shanti, were beaten when they tried to resist the attackers. "As they shaved our heads, they kept taunting us saying, `Call your Jesus now. He'll come and save you'," said Shanti. The women and their family members left the village and sought shelter in an administrative office of the Church on Mount Zion. "We will return home only if we are assured protection by the police. We only want justice and to live in peace," Nisa Samant, another victim, said.

Yet another example of how successful the Parivar has been in bringing about a division among the tribal communities on communal lines can be seen in the remote village of Khambarisahi in the hilly district of Gajapati in southern Orissa. A fence running through the middle of the village separates the Hindu tribal people from the Christians. In the Hindu part of the village, most of the houses are marked with symbols of the Sivalinga and slogans of `Jai Sree Ram'; the houses on the Christian side have crosses and `welcome' signs. Both the communities belong to the same tribe, but there is hardly any interaction between them. Each is wary of the other's presence. Ajambar Sambar, a Christian youth of the village, told Frontline: "Most of us feel scared to move about alone. Any time we can be attacked for our religion."

In Dimrisai village in the same district, Bankabihari Sabar and his family were forced to leave their home district when the entire village, at the insistence of VHP workers, boycotted them for converting to Christianity three years ago. "First VHP activists came armed with sticks and asked how we had the audacity to convert to Christianity in this `Ram Rajya'. They turned the entire village against us and finally we had to leave," Bankabihari Sabar said. These days he, his wife and four children live in Jalanga village and they do not dare wear a cross for fear of being found out by fundamentalists.

In Bangosai village under Jeeranga gram panchayat in Gajapati district, Swetambar Sabar was beaten up by VHP activists who accused him of promoting conversion after his friend Romesh Sabar accepted Christianity. "Although I pleaded my innocence, they did not listen, and around 150 of them came to lynch me. They broke my head and hands. I managed to escape and secretly made it to the police station," Swetambar Sabar said. The mob, before attacking Swetambar Sabar, vandalised the village church and wrote on the walls `Bharat Mata ki Jai' and `Kill whoever converted Romesh'. Romesh, however, told Frontline that it was a personal choice he made and no one had anything to do with it.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay
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