Wooing the tribal people

Print edition : February 02, 2002

THE 'Hindu Sangam' sponsored by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Jhabua on January 17 was described by its organisers as a huge success. The occasion marked the culmination of a year-long campaign to instal pictures of Hindu deities in the homes of 3.5 lakh tribal people in the districts of Jhabua, Khargone and Dhar in western Madhya Pradesh. Sources in the RSS claim that 2.5 lakh tribal people attended the function. Independent estimates, however, put the number at 50,000.

During the three final months of the campaign, RSS volunteers visited the houses of Bhils, a tribal community, installed portraits of Hanuman and taught them to worship Hindu deities. They organised bhajans and sermons as part of an exercise aimed at "awakening Hindus".

The State government, which initially considered banning the campaign and the function on the ground that these would fan communal hatred against the minority Christian community in the region, refrained from doing so. Instead, it maintained a strict watch on the campaign and provided tight security to Christian institutions and places of worship. This approach pre-empted the RSS' plan to mobilise the tribal peoples' opinion against conversion to Christianity.

Senior Sangh Parivar leaders, including RSS Sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan, Sadhvi Rithambara, Swami Parmanand and Acharya Dharmendra, addressed the gathering in Jhabua. Sudarshan alleged that religious conversions were responsible for the "conflict in society".

The RSS hailed the Jhabua function as one marking ghar vapasi (home-coming). Even though it was not openly described as an attempt to reconvert Christian tribal people to Hinduism, probably to ward off any legal action, the function was a blatant attempt to persuade the tribal people to adopt Hindu ways of worship and organise them on religious lines.

Long before the RSS' campaign began in Jhabua, the Bhils and the Bhilalas had been responding to some social reform movements that were not related to the Sangh Parivar. Many of them had given up animist beliefs and practices such as animal sacrifice, meat-eating and drinking. As sociologist Amita Baviskar explains in her book In the Belly of the River (Oxford University Press, 1995), the tribal people were moved by the notion of sudhaar (improvement), the betterment of their moral selves, rather than by any zeal to adopt Hinduism as their religion. Bhagat (giving up animist practices) was a folk version of the Bhakti movement among the tribes, but it was not equivalent to the RSS' Hindutva movement, she told Frontline.

If the tribal people are today inclined to worship Hindu gods, it is not owing to the success of the Sangh Parivar's campaign. Baviskar points out that even while worshipping Hindu deities, they keep a distance from organised Hinduism. Their worship of Hindu deities, she says, is characterised by a Protestant ethic - to motivate oneself to work hard and to eschew the drinking habit.

Baviskar says that the subordination of the tribal people by non-tribal people who control the market economy and the state has made the values of the dominant culture appear desirable and worthy of emulation. This in some cases has given rise to Bhagat movements. The juxtaposition of tribal and non-tribal cultures has thrown into relief their differences, which have been seized upon by those aiming to unite Adivasis for political ends, Baviskar says.

The political goal seems to have prompted the RSS to organise the Hindu Sangam. Worried by the shrinkage of the vote-base of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Madhya Pradesh in the past decade, the RSS appears to be working to bring the tribal people into its fold.

Will the gamble pay? The tribal peoples' religious affiliation is not very strong and it may indeed be difficult to sustain their devotion to Hindu deities. The RSS' move to paint Christianity as the tribals' adversary is thus an ominous attempt to give a communal colour to the normal changes in the life-styles of the tribal people. In a fundamental sense, the RSS' enthusiasm to spread Hinduism among the tribal people is not matched by a similar interest in eradicating the social inequality between the upper castes and Dalits. n