The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Hindutva is not a spent force in tribal Gujarat

It's not as if we have forgotten what the Hindu fundoos are capable of. But since the electoral defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre, many of us have been tempted to take a break from foregrounding resistance to the parivar's day-to-day communal designs. Our attention has also been diverted by the public antics of the BJP and its cohorts as they reinvent their internal power structures. As a result, a little hope has lodged itself in us; a hope that Hindutva is almost a spent force. This hope, like so many of our dearest hopes, is unlikely to be realized quite as soon as we would wish. It's been business as usual ' malignant business ' for the Hindutva brigade in several places in the country. The tribal district of Dangs in Gujarat is a case in point.

Dangs, of course, is not the only tribal area that has been at the receiving end of Hindutvadi cultural indoctrination. For several years now, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its front organizations ' such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad and the Hindu Jagran Manch ' have targeted the tribal belt. This includes Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Orissa and Gujarat. In all these areas, the object of the Sangh's activities has been to 'Hinduize' the adivasis.

But Dangs has the misfortune to be in Gujarat, a state in which the BJP government has systematically abused power to isolate and terrorize minorities. In addition to the generalized statewide 'policy' of hatred against Muslims, there is the anti-Christian propaganda in tribal areas. Although the population of Christians in the state is a mere 5 per cent, and though there are less than 8,000 Christians in Dangs, the bogeyman at large is the 'threat' of Christian conversion.

Consider, for a moment, a view of Dangs if we look at the inhabitants as people, not as numbers on the scorecard of one religion or the other. In this district with more than 90 per cent forest cover, most cultivators barely manage to survive for a few months of the year on the crops they harvest in their smallholdings. Agricultural labourers are able to get some employment only during the agricultural season. The rest of the time, they migrate in large numbers to Surat District ' often to work as semi-bonded labour. Overall, the political economy of Dangs makes the district a study of neglect, dispossession and non-development.

What has been the state government's reaction to such a situation' Like a good servant of Hindutva, the state, in close collaboration with Sangh organizations, has come up with a familiar answer: cultural indoctrination. In other words, never mind the dull and painstaking task of building economic and social progress; what these tribals really need is some new mythology, some new folklore that will tell them who they should be. The fundoo solution to the difficult life of the Dangi tribals has been to gift them with a new goddess that will make them less tribal but more 'Hindu'.

The goddess is Shabri, a faithful servant of Ram, just like Hanuman. (But the choice of Shabri also has that edge to it: the adivasis are linked to the dominant ideology-bearing myth only through a female servant of Ram.) With the open support of the BJP state government, organizations affiliated to the RSS have been working hard at mobilizing lakhs of adivasis and Hindutva activists to attend a gathering in mid-February ' what is being described as a massive 'Shabri Kumbh'. Two fact-finding citizens' committees visited the district in December 2005 to investigate the plans for the Kumbh. Both teams talked to the local people and activists, and the second team also met local district officials and leaders of the RSS.

The report that emerged from the teams' investigations describes the misuse of the legend of Ram and Shabri by the attempts to draw adivasis into the Hindu fold. We already know that the RSS lot have a hotline to Ram ' they know exactly where he was born, where he travelled, where he made his mid-journey halts. So it should not surprise us when these informed people tell us (or tell the adivasis) that Ram visited Dangs, which is actually the Dandakaranya of the Ramayana. The new legend naturally adds that important detail: a nearby hill, Chamak Dongar, is the exact place where Ram met Shabri and ate the sweet wild berries she tasted for him. This is the place where the 'Shabri experts' have chosen to build a temple. In our own Ram-less times, this has meant cutting down a large number of trees, and violating laws protecting forests, as well as tribal land ownership.

The Kumbh Mela is an old tradition; it has been organized by turn in Nasik, Hardwar, Allahabad and Ujjain. But courtesy the new tradition-keepers, the mela is now being organized in Dangs. Professionally prepared CDs reveal the real intention of this gift to the Dangi tribals. They call for the destruction of Christianity, a dangerous foreign faith, just as Ram destroyed Ravan. 'Hindu jagao, Christi bhagao' is the rallying slogan.

The report of the fact-finding teams traces the way this anti-Christian propaganda has been building up over the years. It also illustrates the ways in which the propaganda seeks to divide the adivasis and distract them from the real issue in their lives ' dispossession. Perhaps worst of all, it undermines tribal identity as it attempts to take tribals 'home' to Hinduism through a process called ghar-vapasi or re-conversion.

These findings are based on various testimonies from the Dangis as they describe the strategies of the Hindutva brigade. Typically, the RSS-type activists encourage the adivasis to think of themselves as vanvasis, and encourage the youth to join outfits such as the Bajrang Dal. With the arrival of Swami Aseemanand, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad functionary from West Bengal, ancestral stones where adivasis worshipped or performed agriculture-related rituals were identified, and small temples built next to them. This creates a new, non-tribal practice of housing a god as opposed to the usual practice of a god kept in the open. The traditional practice of sacrificing chickens and goats is stopped. And over a period of time, this 'temple deity' is incorporated into the Hindu pantheon as a lesser god ' befitting the lower caste status of the 'vanvasis'. The promotion of the Shabri legend is in line with this approach to 'gift' the tribals mythological characters who were subservient to more elite characters or gods. Community leaders in Dangi villages point out that they have heard of Shabri only in the last year or so. But the shrines for Shabri not only assault tribal identity, they also mean the grabbing of land ' as much as sixteen acres in the case of Jairam Kashiram for example.

What will the Shabri Mela bring the Dangi tribals' The collector and others who have bought the RSS line claim it will develop religious tourism, provide employment, and 'help instil moral values in the tribals'. The victims of the mela, the Dangis, testify otherwise. What they expect is more intimidation of Christians; more tree-felling and land-grabbing; more threats to an already precarious livelihood; and a new position as a marginal member of the 'Hindu family'.

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