Anatomy of another confrontation

Print edition : March 09, 2007

Police action on a gathering of Bhils following a court order on the Rishabdeo temple ends in violence and escalation of tensions.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Udaipur

At the Rishabdeo temple near Udaipur, a priest at the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum.-PHOTOGRAPHS BY T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

TUCKED between the low hills of the Aravalli range is Rishabdeo town, famous for its black-stone Jain temple. Legend has it that Dhula Bhil, a tribal man, installed the idol of Rishabdeo, the first Tirthankara, here. The town is also called Dhulev, and later it got a third name, Kesariyaji, after kesar, or saffron, began to be used as an oblation. The town, located 65 kilometres from Udaipur city and 190 km from Ahmedabad, not only is a centre of religious activity but also is well known for its green marble deposits.

Rishabhdeo and nearby towns such as Kalyanpur are mainly Jain townships and are surrounded by habitations of Bhil tribal people on and around the hills. There is a relationship of interdependence between the communities. A third social category thrives here: Brahmins who manage the offerings and prayers at the temple. There are around 100 persons directly dependent on earnings from the temple, which is one of the many promoted by the State government's Devasthan Department.

Bhils are at the bottom and Jains and Brahmins at the top of the income ladder. But the temple is all about pluralism. Bhils worship the idol as Kalaji Bavji, Brahmins consider it the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, and Jains believe it is Rishabhdeo.

However, on January 4, the peaceful coexistence and mutual dependence was torn asunder when the Supreme Court, upholding an order of the Rajasthan High Court, declared that the temple was a Jain temple. The order mandated that the Devasthan Department constitute a management committee within four months. As to whether it was a Digambar or Shwetambar Jain temple, the State government was asked to decide on the basis of facts.

The dispute over the management of the temple dates to the 1960s. Initially, the wrangle was whether it was a Digambara or a Shwetambara temple. As the economy around the temple flourished, the number of claimants to manage it increased, but devotees of Dhula Bhil were not among them. Following the court order, they were dragged into the controversy by vested interests that conveyed the impression that the temple had been handed over to the Jain community and that Bhils would not be allowed to worship there.

The next step was taken at the Veneshwar Mela on February 2, also known as the `Mahakumbh' of the tribal people as it is held at the confluence of three rivers in the tribal district of Dungarpur. Tribal people who flocked to the venue from as far as Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat got anonymous pamphlets informing them of a "Mahapadaav" or grand meeting on February 7 at Pagliaji, also a place of religious importance, to discuss the effects of the court order. Subsequently, a section of tribal elders called off the Mahapadaav and decided to discuss the issue in a small group. This decision was disseminated orally.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Rajasthan failed to read the resentment building up among the tribal people. Chief Minister Vasundra Raje Scindia and Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria, who represents Udaipur in the Assembly, remained oblivious to the developments in Rishabdeo. The party itself was busy tackling faction fights that surfaced in the State unit around the same time.

On February 7, thousands of tribal people gathered at Pagliaji, unaware that the meeting had been called off. Around noon the police, anticipating trouble, lathi-charged the assembly. The Bhils retaliated and the police burst tear-gas shells and also opened fire. The Bhils then turned their wrath on properties belonging to Jains and on the machines used at the marble mines. A tribal youth, Ram Lal, died in the police firing and many were injured. Only some of the injured were admitted to hospital; many of them preferred to stay away from hospitals fearing police reprisal.

Policemen also faced the brunt of tribal anger and many of them, including Superintendent of Police M.N. Dinesh, were injured. The siege of Rishabdeo town continued the next day as well. Dinesh, speaking to Frontline, justified the firing on the grounds that "none from the tribal community approached the police or the government with any representation after the firing". According to him, this meant most people felt that had the firing not taken place more people would have died and shops would have been set on fire.

Tribal aggression against Jains is an expression of the social and economic resentment that has built up over the years, say C.L. Sharma, a retired Professor of Sociology, and B.L. Singhvi, district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). "It is a class war," says Sharma. Bhils here, as in most of Rajasthan, have very little to subsist on. They are entirely dependent on Jains, and the lack of any qualitative government intervention has ensured that the majority of Bhils live below subsistence level.

At Delana village, 15 km from Rishabdeo town, people visit the family of Ram Lal, who was killed in the police firing at Pagliagi on February 7.-

Though the tribal people are supposed to have pattas for the land they own, the actual ownership is with others. Several politicians in the ruling party own mines in the area. The struggle over the temple, says Singhvi, is more about the continued marginalisation of the tribal people. "Their action against the police was an expression of suppressed anger as most of the time they have been at the receiving end of police action," he said.

In Delana village, where mourners gathered at Ram Lal's house, there is a sense of resignation. People are angry over the death of a tribal youth, but they are more upset with the government for neglecting them. "These Jains have become millionaires because of us. What do we have? Last year, when the floods came, the government announced Rs.6,000 for each family whose home was destroyed. Many of us are yet to get that amount," says Lacchi Ram, an ex-serviceman.

Others too poured out the same story of neglect. Nearly 80 per cent of the people in the village did not have Below-Poverty-Line (BPL) ration cards, they said and added that Jains owned the ration shops. The villages had neither tar roads nor electricity. Residents showed the wheat and the rice they received as BPL entitlements. "It is absolutely rotten," says Ram Lal Meena, a ward panch member.

The sarpanch of Delana village, Seema Meena, admitted reluctantly that even under the National Rural Employment Gurantee Act hardly anyone had been paid the prescribed wage of Rs.73 a day. The people felt that had the controversy and the firing not been over Kesariyaji, none would have bothered to come this far to meet Ram Lal's family. "In any agitation, only the Adivasi gets killed. We want the Devasthan Department to take over the management of the temple and use the revenues for the development of this region," said Govardhanlal, a former sarpanch.

The revenue earned by the temple was also perhaps the main issue behind the legal tangle and the current confrontation, in which tribal people have been used as cannon fodder. The temple complex lies on 378 hectares of land and houses a guest house as well. Its moveable property alone is said to be valued at about Rs.51 crores. It is estimated that on an average 2,000 devotees visit Rishabdeo every day.

The tribal people have an organic relationship with the temple. Their economic and social lives are closely linked to it even though their offerings are modest when compared with those of others. The temple's eight Brahmin priests share the bulk of the offerings.

The priests insist that the management cannot be handed over to the Jain community. "Where will we go? The Maharanas of Mewar gave us the right to conduct prayers here. They also made valuable offerings to the god," says Bhogilal, a priest. "I won't let the mandir go either to the Devasthan or to the tribals," he says.

But there are several sections that want the issue resolved, for more than one reason. Raghuveer Meena, Congress legislator from Sarada in Udaipur, said that in the interests of everybody the matter had to be settled before the onset of Holi. "In April, lakhs of tribal people come here to worship and it may become a delicate situation," he said. Soon after the new government took over in 2003, Sarada witnessed clashes between tribal people and Muslims over a petty issue.

Raghuveer Meena is one of the few Congress legislators from the Mewar region, where the BJP won the majority of seats in 2003 and where a lot of "Hinduisation" of the tribal people has taken place because of the efforts of organisations such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad. This has also led to much resentment against the Christian and Muslim minorities. Paresh Dwivedi, a sociologist, told Frontline that the aggression among tribal people was bound to take a new form, especially as most of the elected representatives were aligned with the ruling party and were reluctant to come out in the open with the real issues.

The Rishabdeo incident should not be seen as an isolated one. It is a sign of the restlessness that is building up in the area. Bhil youth, unlike their forefathers, are not prepared to take things lying down and the consolidation of their resentment can take any form. Religion is only a faade; the real reasons are apparently rooted in the political economy of the region.

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