Congress seeks to beat the BJP at its Hindutva game in Chhattisgarh

Print edition : January 29, 2021

Chief Minister Bhupesh BagheL (third from left) performing a ritual after a ‘holy dip’ in Mahadev Ghat in Raipur on November 30, 2020, on Kartik Purnima. The Chief Minister had posted this picture on Twitter. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A protest organised by the Chhattisgarh Sarva Adivasi Samaj against the Ram Van Gaman tourism campaign, at Kalgaon, Bastar, on December 16. Photo: Anubhav Sori

In a bid to retain power and be one up on the BJP, the Congress in Chhattisgarh is utilising Hindu symbols to the core.

In the early hours of November 30, 2020, on the occasion of Kartik Purnima, a Hindu festival also known as Chhoti Diwali, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel took a dip in Mahadev Ghat in the State’s capital Raipur. Hindus believe that a dip on the 15th lunar day of Kartik (November-December) washes one’s sins away.

The video clip of a bare-chested Baghel performing a reverse flip in the Kharun river, and posted on Twitter by the Chief Minister himself, became the talk of town. In a bid to counter Hindutva forces in the State, the Congress is projecting this image of Baghel, who is a practising Hindu from the Kurmi caste. As such, the political strategy of the Congress government in Chhattisgarh has taken a decisive right turn in the past six months. This move has inadvertently strengthened the cultural assertion of Hindu Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the image of a warrior Lord Ram vis-a-vis the identity and cultural practices of tribal people, who constitute more than 30 per cent of the State’s population.

Given the Hindutva onslaught across the country, the Congress in Chhattisgarh believes it is better to imitate Hindutva forces than confront them with a secular ideology.

Also read: The quiet arrival of Chhatisgarh

Said a Congress functionary on the condition of anonymity: “While every other centrist party is struggling to counter fascism, Chhattisgarh has a model to offer. The secular-progressive section wants to take it head on, but strategically it is not going to pay dividends. Hindutva has gone deep into the psyche of the masses, especially the middle class. The ideology has entered every household egged on by Bollywood and TV serials. Earlier, Karva Chauth used to be a Punjabi festival. Now even women from Bihar and Gujarat celebrate it. The vermilion applied by married women comes to the tip of the nose now. The manifestation of Hindu identity has gone deep. It is no longer a taboo to talk ill of Muslims. Muslim bashing has become the new cool in drawing rooms. Where the secular forces failed, the thinkers and propagators of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] seem to have won. They did what we could not do. Today, if you confront them, you will lose major sections.” He added that these new strategies had helped the Congress retain power and win all the elections in Chhattisgarh in the past two years.

Moreover, all the Mayors, 70 of the 90 MLAs, 70 per cent of the councillors and 67 per cent of the District Council members in the State were with the Congress, he said, adding that the BJP had cut no ice here.

Tourism rally

Soon after the holy dip, Baghel embarked on a Ram Van Gaman Paryatan Paripath to celebrate two years of Congress rule in the State. A tourism route of 1,500 kilometres cutting across north and south Chhattisgarh was announced with a rath (chariot) yatra and viraat (massive) bike rally. All the signs and symbols used in the campaign were decisively Hindu in tone and tenor. Soil was collected from all the districts along the way.

According to the Ramayana mythology, Chandkhuri village, which is 27 km from Raipur, is the birthplace of Ram’s mother Kaushalya. “Chhattisgarh is nanihal [maternal home] of Lord Ram. He spent most of his time in Chhattisgarh during his 14 year-long exile from Ayodhya,” Baghel said while announcing Rs.134 crore for the first phase of the project to develop nine sites—Sitamarhi-Harchaika (Koriya), Ramgarh (Ambikapur), Shivrinarayan (Janjgir-Champa), Turturiya (Baloda Bazar), Chandkhuri (Raipur), Rajim (Gariaband), Sihawa-Saptarishi Ashram (Dhamtari), Jagdalpur (Bastar) and Ramaram (Sukma).

The political commentator Sudeep Srivastava told Frontline that beyond the political rhetoric of the Ramayana, the move should be seen as developing long-neglected airports and railway lines in Chhattisgarh and boosting tourism in the State. “In the name of Ram, the tribal tourism spots, where no one goes right now, will also get developed,” he said.

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He said the charge that the Congress was practising soft Hindutva did not hold. Said Srivastava: “A secular thought process asserts that there should be no role for religion in secularism. But the BJP has always asked why Haj subsidy was given to Muslims. The political compulsion in today’s context, which did not hold 20 years ago, is that if any party leaves the centre space, it will be occupied from Centre to Right by one party [BJP]. So it is the centrist parties’ compulsion to hold this space without becoming communal or a B Team of the BJP. Here it is important to note the stand the party is taking when it comes to minority issues. As far as the Congress in Chhattisgarh is concerned, it has addressed two issues of the tribal people. Firstly, the government returned the land for the Lohandiguda project of the Tatas to the tribals soon after coming to power. Secondly, the State government has said that it will not let the Nagarnar steel plant, which the Centre is disinvesting, go into the hands of private players. Rather, the government will purchase it,” he said.

Tribal protest

But the tribal people are angry and protesting against the government’s Hinduisation tactics. The Sarva Adivasi Samaj has opposed the tourism rally and project in toto.

Degree Prasad Chauhan of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties told Frontline that thousands of Adivasis from both north and south Chhattisgarh had vociferously protested against the project. In Kanker, for instance, the tribal people did not even allow those participating in the rally to take the soil.

In response to the protests, the government registered first information reports (FIRs) against 16-17 Dalit and Adivasi leaders. Said Chauhan: “They were hoping it would silence the critics. But the opposite happened. All the Dalit and Adivasi organisations across Chhattisgarh came together and courted arrest. This compelled the government to say that it would withdraw the cases slapped against the leaders. Be it the BJP or the Congress, we do not see any difference in their actions. The erstwhile BJP government undertook two major programmes to Hinduise the Adivasis. One was to translate and circulate the Ramayana in Gondi, the major language of the Bastar Adivasis. The second was to take the idol of Ram into the jhuggies of 5,000 Adivasis. And now the Congress is doing this.”

Also read: War on Bastar

Earlier this year, just before Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed the groundbreaking ceremony for a Ram temple where the Babri Masjid stood, Baghel announced the expansion of Mata Kaushalya’s temple in Raipur. The Congress accused the BJP of neglecting Chhattisgarh in the story of Ram. “For them it is a political Ram. For us, it is aastha ka [faith-based] Ram,” said the Congress functionary.

In June, the government launched a Gaudhan Nyay Yojana wherein it would buy gobar, or cow dung, from local people at Rs.1.50 a kg. The Chief Minister said: “The purpose of this scheme is to promote cattle-rearing in the State and to benefit the cattle owners, who are mostly farmers. The government tried to strengthen the rural economy of the State through the Narva, Garuva, Ghuruwa and Badi scheme in which we have developed cowsheds in 2,200 villages of the State. In the next two-three months, about 5,000 more cowsheds will be developed in the State. This scheme is an incremental step forward.” The urban administration would be directed to prevent stray cattle from roaming the cities, he added.

The Congress believes that these moves have put the BJP on the defensive. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) was forced to praise Baghel on some of these measures and, according to a Congress leader, when the BJP questioned the veracity of the story on Ram’s nanihal, the party “paid them back in the same coin”. “We asked them how dare you cast doubts or aspersions on Ram? They had nothing left to say,” chuckled the Congress leader.

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In the 15 years of BJP rule in Chhattisgarh (2003 to 2018), tribal cultures were successfully appropriated into Hinduism. A binary of Hindu tribal versus Christian tribal was created, and the tensions that resulted from this played out intermittently, particularly around Christmas when Christian congregations and pastors were attacked. The Congress is either unable to or unwilling to upset the apple cart. The truth is that more Congress workers than BJP workers burst crackers when the Supreme Court decision on the construction of a Ram temple came, said the Congress leader. He said he personally felt awkward but did not have the courage to speak against it. “The Congress has tried to pre-empt every move of the BJP. In the rest of India, the Congress is perceived to be anti-Hindu, but in Chhattisgarh you will get a different response,” he said.

Resisting Hinduisation

But the tribals are resisting this Hinduisation. Speaking to Frontline over phone, the activist Soni Sori said it was about saving the tribal cultural identity. She said: “Every Adivasi community has its own culture, food, gods and goddesses, and by these acts the State government in cahoots with the Centre was trying to invisibilise these cultures. This is a political issue. We also oppose the cow protection programme. It is nothing but commercialising an age-old practice of the Adivasis. Ever since we were children, our mother used to tell us to collect gobar. We used to make compost from it which would help our plants grow well.”

Concerning the attacks on Adivasi Christians she said, “There is a huge debate raging in our communities with regard to the people who have converted to Christianity, especially on conducting last rites. If Adivasis want to go to church, it is their right to do so and no one has any objection to that. But when churches tell them to discard their Adivasi identity and turn them away from Adivasi culture and people, we oppose that. Let the Adivasi remain an Adivasi. They can go to a church or a gurudwara or wherever, but religious conversions should not take place. Do not lead them astray.”

Also read: Prisoners of conscience in Chhatisgarh

Degree Prasad Chauhan said that both the Congress and the BJP had forgotten the constitutional promise of a secular society. He said: “They are working in opposition to the pluralistic traditions of a diverse sociocultural milieu. The Congress too has stooped to a level where it is competing with the fascists at their own game. It is becoming a vote for communal frenzy. Instead of pushing the Ram agenda, the Congress should address the burning question of land and forest for Adivasis. There are more than 30,000 people on the streets against the building of new paramilitary camps. There are more forces in Bastar than in Kashmir. Someone should do a study on the ratio of soldiers to one Adivasi.”

Subhash Gatade of the New Socialist Initiative told Frontline that he could see the compulsions of electoral politics which had led the Congress to take these measures in Chhattisgarh. He said: “By all counts, the Chhattisgarh government is trying to save some space. This was visible in the elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Rather than soft Hindutva, I would call it soft Hinduism, which even big parties are being compelled to adhere to in order to survive. They have been brought to this end where in order to remain relevant they have to either talk about Hinduism or keep silent about the issues of minorities. Having said that, once you use the terminology of the right wing, it becomes easy for them to push their agenda. The biggest challenge for all of us on the side of secularism is how to fight the fascist forces, and I do not have an answer to that. So, the strategy employed by the State government helps them in the short term with electoral gains, but in the long term, it helps the right wing to further its dubious agenda.”

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