Creating a Kumbh

Print edition : February 10, 2006

The Sangh Parivar's move to organise a new Kumbh Mela in the Dangs district of Gujarat exacerbates the tensions in the communally sensitive tribal area, which has a sizable Christian presence.

DIONNE BUNSHA in the Dangs

The new Shabari Dham temple built on Manad Powar's land.-

How Lord Ram destroyed demonic forces like Ravan Today, demonic forces are trying to destroy Hinduism (picture of a church with a cross) To confront them and to create religious awakening The Shabari Kumbh Mela calls out to everyone. ... It will try to get all parts of society to unite with Hindu religion And will stop conversions.

From a promotional video for the Shabari Kumbh Mela in the Dangs, Gujarat.

SOUNDS like a call for religious war? It may well be. A targeted communal attack disguised as a holy festival.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has created a fifth Kumbh Mela, the Shabari Kumbh Mela, in the Dangs district. The festival is being used to build up tension and intimidate Christian Adivasis in this isolated forest region in south Gujarat.

For several years, local VHP leader Swami Aseemanand has led a vicious campaign against Christians of the area. In 1998, there were 38 attacks on Christians in a span of three weeks. Since then, organisations affiliated to the Sangh Parivar have worked to create hostility towards them. The Shabari Kumbh Mela is one more step in that direction. The propaganda on the website of the organisers and in their promotional video states that the event is meant to fight the influence of Christianity in this area and `awaken' Hinduism amongst the tribal people. Hindu jaage, Christi bhaage (Hindus awake, Christians run) is the slogan being used.

The strategies of oppression are planned systematically. In 2002, they invited Sant Morari Bapu for a Ram Katha. In his speech, Morari Bapu said that there should be a Kumbh Mela here at the place where Rama met his Adivasi devotee Shabari. The Sangh has been propagating the myth that Rama met Shabari here and ate the wild berries that she had tasted. However, there is no historical evidence, nor is there any religious precedent, of a Kumbh Mela having been held here. For centuries, there have been only four Kumbh Melas. Suddenly, a fifth one has been created, based solely on Morari Bapu's declaration - and with a clear intent to intimidate.

From February 11 to 13, the Sangh plans to get more than five lakh pilgrims for this event. The total population of the Dangs district is just a little over two lakhs, almost entirely Adivasi. So, the entire district will be swamped with the Sangh's supporters. The event is being marketed in the cities of neighbouring States as a new religious tourism destination.

Jarsol Dahad, a small pond in Subir village, has been renamed `Pampa Sarovar', the place where Rama met Shabari. A place that has seen no development for decades is suddenly awash with funds. The government has built 12 check dams to make sure there is enough water in the `Pampa Sarovar' for pilgrims to bathe. Village roads are being tarred. Piped drinking water and electricity are being brought to places where there has been none so far. Tents, water tanks and toilets are being put up on farmlands, paying villagers a mere Rs.300 as rent for. If people are not willing to rent out their land, local officials intervene on behalf of the mela organisers. Forty temporary townships, to accommodate 5,000 people each, are being constructed.

Surrounding villages have been swamped with Sangh activists. In Subir, they distribute free meals, grains and clothes to villagers. Activists are visiting villages to mobilise supporters. They are intimidating Adivasi Christians and taking photographs of their homes and of Christian institutions such as schools and dispensaries. The local All India Radio broadcasts Morari Bapu's speech every evening. Audio-visual vans tour the villages, screening the promotional video and the Ramayana TV serial. A tense situation prevails in the villages. People refuse to speak about the mela. Rumours are rife that Christians will be attacked.

The "Pampa Sarovar" lake built for the Shabari Kumbh Mela.-

"Swami Aseemanand's supporters come here and tell us that everyone should become a Hindu. There shouldn't be a single Christian in this village," said Sonu Powar (name changed), an Adivasi Christian farmer in Jarsol village. "There are rumours that there will be a riot. People will come from outside and the police will not stop them."

Threats began many months earlier. Shimbuben Powar (name changed) was filling water when Sangh activists came to her home a few months back. "My little son was home. They entered my house and tore the picture of Jesus. I rushed back. They told me, `If you don't follow Ram, you will be finished in the Kumbh Mela. Even the police won't save you.' They took photographs of me and of our house," she said. When Shimbuben reported it to the police, they took down the names, but did not lodge a complaint. Earlier this month, some women came back to her house and told her to stop believing in Jesus and follow Rama.

The newly constructed "Pampa Sarovar" and Shabari Dham temple are both built on land grabbed from Adivasis, villagers allege. The Shabari trust has snatched Sonu's land near the "Pampa Sarovar". The government has done nothing to stop it. Instead, villagers allege that it is assisting the land grab. "Government officials came and surveyed my land. They said they wanted to find out how much was mine and how much was protected forest land. I told them that I had the title deed as proof," said Sonu Powar. But they did not listen to him. They have let the land be used as a tourist spot. "The swami's supporters fought with me and told me to give the land to the swami. They even filed a police case against me for fighting with a shopkeeper." If the land is protected forest, then why is the government turning it into a tourist playground?

Manad Powar had 3.5 hectares of land on a hill known as Chamak Dongar (shining mountain). When the Shabari trust wanted to build a temple there, it asked Manad to sell one hectare for Rs.40,000. But it occupied the entire 3.5-hectares. "I still have title to the land. But now if I go there, the security guards threaten me. I am alone here, my sons work in the cities. I can't fight them. They even cut 100 trees that I had planted to make a road to the temple," Manad said. "They made my cousin a member of the Shabari trust and claim the land is in his name." Manad is now planning to fight his case in court.

"We have taken people's consent for using their land. Anyway, the land is not being used after the monsoon crop," said Suresh Kulkarni, secretary of the Shabari Kumbh Samaroh Ayojan Samiti. He said the main aim of the Kumbh was to awaken Hinduism. He said he had not seen the Shabari Kumbh website, which spews venom against Christians. When asked if any historical proof existed that Rama came to this exact location, he said: "We know because Morari Bapu said this is the spot. And the Ramayan is proof enough. We are organising it on February 11, because that is Mag Panchami, the day when Ram and Shabari met. Also, the Adivasis celebrate Basant Panchami at this time."

Amidst bamboo poles put up in a farm for tents, a Bhil tablet depiciting symbols of nature. The Sangh Parivar simply assumes that all tribal people are Hindus.-

Local Member of the Legislative Assembly Madhu Bhoye has been petitioning the District Collector and other officials to prevent any communal trouble and forest destruction. "Innocent Adivasi people are being misguided by so-called religious organisations by propagating the imaginary mythological story of the Pampa Sarovar. There is no mention of the Pampa Sarovar in the history of the Dangs," he said. Explaining the environmental effects, Bhoye said: "In the last few months, illegal timber felling in the forest has also increased because outsiders have come here to prepare for the Kumbh. Every day, Rs.10-15 lakhs worth of timber is being stolen from the forest."

But the government's only response to the upheaval in the district has been to expedite all work connected with the Kumbh. District Collector R.N. Jadhav estimates that Rs.3 to 4 crores has been spent on the building of check dams and roads and the laying of pipelines. "We would have done it anyway even if the Kumbh was not there," he said. Jadhav says there will be no trouble during the mela. When asked why no action has been taken even though the Kumbh's promotional video spews anti-Christian propaganda, he says: "I have not received any complaint, so why should I take any action?" Meanwhile, human rights groups have filed a case in the Supreme Court seeking its intervention to ensure that people from minority communities are protected, in view of the hate propaganda.

The Sangh's promotional video warns that the rate of increase of the Christian population in the Dangs has been fourfold. It points out that Christians constitute only 0.44 per cent of Gujarat's population, but are 5.43 per cent of the population in the Dangs. "History has shown us that places where the Hindu majority has weakened have become hotbeds of terrorism and anti-national activities," the video says. The Sangh is generating fear to gain political and economic control of this rich forest area. Even today, money and muscle power are used to gain support in the villages. Traditional bonds between communities are being torn.

Contrary to the Sangh's myth, Adivasis are not being converted forcibly. Most turn to the church for health reasons. "My father and I kept falling ill. There was some bad influence on us. We went to the local bhagats who made us spend money on killing one goat every month. Yet, it didn't work. So my uncle took me to a local Christian priest and I felt some peace. We got better without paying anything," said Ramesh (name changed). While the Sangh wants to `re-convert' Christians, they were never Hindus to begin with. Adivasis have their own festivals and rituals in which they worship nature. Their religious practices are very different from the brahmanical brand of Hinduism that the Sangh wants them to follow.

But regardless of facts, the myths continue to be propagated. The show will go on. The swamis and Sanghis are all set to take the Dangs by storm next month. All indications are that it may not be as innocuous as just a dip in the pond.

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