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The Mahishasur movement: Challenging savarna nationalism

Anil Kumar tries to understand the various conflicting nationalisms of India by analyzing the debate and discussion on the propriety or otherwise of Mahishasur Day celebrations and the clashes they have triggered

smriti-irani-mahishasurUnion Minister for Human Resource Development Smriti Irani told the Lok Sabha on 24 February 2016 and the Rajya Sabha the next day that those observing “Mahishasur Martyrdom/Memorial Day” were perverts and traitors. She dared anyone had the courage to celebrate Mahishasur Jayanti in West Bengal. What Irani probably did not know was that Mahishasur Martyrdom/Memorial Day has been celebrated by the Tribals and Backwards of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and other states for a long time.

Our nationalism versus their nationalism

In my view, there is no earthly reason for describing those who celebrate Mahishasur Day as “perverts” and “traitors”. But the minister saw it as high treason. Why? Because we were challenging her nationalism and thus were committing treason in her eyes. Benedict Anderson (1936-2015), in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1982), said, “Nation is a feeling of togetherness. It is different from citizenship.” Far from becoming a community or a nation, India still has many communities who don’t enjoy the fundamental rights granted to them by the Constitution and the laws. They are still deprived of their minimum legal rights, including those available to foreign nationals. This discrimination is based on their community, their identity and their nationalism.


No wonder, Prof Amita Singh, head of the Centre for Study of Law and Governance, JNU, says, “Some SC, ST, OBC and Muslim faculty members of JNU are traitors to the nation.” (See online editions of The Indian Express and The Times of India, 12 March 2016). Dismissing Smriti Irani as the “Bahu” of TV serials, who only knows how to sing and dance, is meaningless, for isn’t BJP-supporter Prof Amita Singh – a professor in JNU and by extension, a top intellectual – saying the same thing?

Another BJP leader and Assam Governor P.B. Acharya says, “Hindustan is for Hindus … Muslims are free to go to Pakistan, Bangladesh or any other Muslim country” (See online editions of The Indian Express and NDTV, 22 November 2015). Chiding Muslims, by asking them to move to Pakistan at the drop of a hat, comes easy to BJP leaders. When I was in school, many people expanded BJP as “Bhago Jolha Pakistan” (Muslims go to Pakistan).

Yet another BJP leader, and former IAS officer and union minister, Yashwant Singh, when asked about who would be next chief minister of Jharkhand during the run-up to the assembly polls in that state, replied, “Koyee bhi ch***** ban sakta hai” (https://youtube/SHtnCbt0fGE 2 July 2014). His comment had much to do with the fact that since its creation on 15 November 2000 till then (2014), only Tribals had become the chief ministers of the state and there were people demanding that the next chief minister also be from the tribal community. What he meant was a “ch*****” – a buffoon, flatterer, good-for-nothing, fool and joker (ie a Tribal) – can become the chief minister. Clearly, he believed that the Tribals are all this and more. Ultimately, on 28 December 2014, BJP leader Raghubar Das became the first non-tribal chief minister of Jharkhand. (Note: “Chutiya”, incidentally, is the name of an impoverished and weak tribe. The names of deprived communities are often used as expletives. Yashwant Sinha had used the word in this sense. This writer respects the Chutiya tribe and believes that using the name as a term of abuse is inhuman. The word has been used here only in reference to the context).

Yashwant Singh’s comment was not against any individual. It was savarna nationalism’s assault on Tribal nationalism.

Tribals perform traditional dance to commemorate Mahishasur on October 8 in West Medinipur, West Bengal


History of savarna nationalism

Savarna nationalism believes that to rule is its birthright. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) said that “Swaraj is our birthright”. His swaraj was about his self-rule (swa + raj), not about the rule of Indians. He never fought shy of admitting this. He openly declared, “Will Telis sell oil in Parliament? Will Kunbis (farmers) plough land in Parliament?” (Sholapur, 1918). He wrote in his essay Hamari Shiksha Pranali: Dosh Aur Ilaj (Our education system: problems and solutions): “The [British] government is depriving the farmers and the deprived classes of their traditional knowledge by giving them modern education. Once they get educated, they’ll want government jobs. Thus, you are wasting money on depriving them of the skills and knowledge of their traditional occupations” (The Maratha, 15 May 1881). Thirty years later, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, in his Hind Swaraj (1909), made the same argument. In chapter 18, titled Shiksha, Gandhiji writes, “A farmer works with honesty. He knows the ways of the world. He knows morality and it is a part of his conduct. But he does not know how to write his name. What will you gain by teaching him to recognize alphabets? Will you be adding even an inch to his happiness?” (p 76). “Our old education system is good enough” (p 77) and  “The education system which Macaulay has introduced will enslave us” (p 78). (Hind Swaraj; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; Navjivan Trust, Gujarat, 1938/2000).  Gandhiji had written Hind Swaraj in 1909. Hindu extremists led by Nathuram Godse assassinated him in 1948. In these 39 years, responding to criticisms of his book, he said on many occasions that “I am not ready to change a word of Hindi Swaraj”.

Sanjay Raut, MP of BJP’s electoral and ideological partner Shiv Sena, says, “Muslims are being appeased for their vote bank. This is leading to their exploitation. To end this exploitation, the Muslims should be disenfranchised.” He quotes Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray to buttress his argument. He says that Balasaheb was also in favour of depriving Muslims of the right to vote. (See, Time, USA; The Indian Express and The Hindu online edition 13 April 2016). Raut forgets that in a democracy, a voter represents only himself and his vote represents his views/ opinion.

It was not without reason that during the Bihar Assembly polls, BJP national president Amit Shah had said that if the Nitish-Lalu duo won, there would be fireworks in Pakistan. (The Indian Express, online edition, 29 October 2015). BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Choubey advised Lalu and Nitish to move to Pakistan. (NDTV, online edition, 4 November 2015). The message is clear: There is no place for your beliefs in India. This is not your country. You cannot rule it. There is only Pakistan for you. The savarnas are not ready to accept the nationalisms of other communities.

 Chhattisgarhi rendition of nationalism

Manish Kunjam (right)

Any news about Tribals does not make it to the national media till at least half a dozen Tribals lay down their lives or till someone becomes a Soni Sori. The BJP government of Chhattisgarh filed an FIR against well-known CPI leader and former MLA Manish Kunjam only because he was publicizing the Tribal version of Mahishasur’s tale. When, on 26 September 2016, a call was given for a bandh in Sukma town of Bastar district to protest against the filing of the case, the government machinery became hyperactive to somehow ensure that the call failed to evoke the desired response. In an interview with ETV, S.R.P. Kalluri, the IGP of Bastar, cast away the responsibility of using democratic and decent language. He openly talked of crushing those who had called for a bandh. He threateningly said, “The consequences will be such which they will never forget. They will not gather the courage to do it again” (https://youtube/cN2iLQgWUdA). It is difficult to believe that this top officer did not know that Article 25 of the Indian Constitution grants every citizen the right to freedom of conscience and belief. I may believe in Durga, you may believe in Mahishasur. Both of us have the right to live in this country with our respective beliefs.

According to media reports, the BJP, the Congress and the police jointly ensured that the bandh fizzled out. Since the morning of 26 September 2016, social media reported that the town had been converted into a police camp. The threat issued by the IGP must have made even the bandh supporters worried about the security of their life and property. Or maybe, the media wrongly reported that the call did not evoke any response. It is no secret that in Tribal areas, only non-Tribals are deployed at key positions in civil and police administration. Wherever in the world the government wants to massacre a community, it ensures that the representatives of that community get no place in the establishment. In Chhattisgarh, that community is the Tribals.

What Prof Amrita Singh, Sanjay Raut, P.B. Acharya, Yashwant Sinha, Ashwini Kumar Choubey and Amit Shah are saying is no different from the utterances of Smriti Irani. What connects their statements is a common concept of nationalism. They all feel that their nationalism is being threatened. Obviously, the pain of savarna nationalism being challenged is finding expression.

A natural, relevant and obvious question is what their nationalism is. Their nationalism is perpetuation of savarna and feudal domination. Manusmriti says the same thing and so do Hindu scriptures. That is why Jagdev Prasad (1922-1974), the “Lenin of India”, said, “Nationalism and patriotism demand that the tomorrow’s India should be the India of the exploited 90 per cent” (Bokaro, 31 October 1969; Jagdev Prasad Vangmay, Dr Rajendra Prasad and Shashikala, Samyak Prakashan, 2011). His demand was not limited to government jobs. He said that for social justice, freedom and impartial administration, it was essential that at least 90 per cent government, semi-government and private jobs were reserved for the exploited (speech in Bihar Assembly, 2 April 1970). His nationalism propounded that “The principle of special opportunities should be applied to politics [too]” (Interview with Russian historian Paul Gard Lebin; 24 February 1969).

It is because of the clash between different nationalisms that India could never become one nation. Here, one nationalism looks down upon other nationalisms. This nationalism is not even ready to concede that SCs and STs are humans.

King Mahishasur had challenged their nationalism and they have yet to forget it. Merely taking his name reminds them of their old wounds. They are still not ready to accept that this country belongs to everyone and that everyone has the right to live here with dignity. The savarnas still symbolically murder a particular community and celebrate the murder. Had they believed that other communities are as much a part of the nation as they are, they would never have done what they are doing. Let alone sharing pains and pleasures, we do not even share common parameters of respect and dignity. We have different yardsticks for different communities.

What is even more worrisome is that (as far as my knowledge goes) no court or the election commission took note of any of the six statements quoted above. The Election Commission said that it had taken note of Amit Shah’s statement (Outlook and NDTV; online editions; 30 October 2015). But that was that.

Painful relevance

Dr Ambedkar, the builder of modern India, had said that India was not a nation, but a nation in the making. I am not happy to note that what he said is turning out to be true. It would have been much better had his observation become irrelevant and false in his lifetime. Can we forget that when Savitribai Phule went to teach in schools, members of the dwij/ savarna communities used to throw cow dung and mud on her? Can we forget that when the British tried to universalize education, the dwij/savarna communities steadfastly opposed it? (For detailed information, read Foundations of Tilak’s Nationalism: Discrimination, Education and Hindutva; Prof Parimala V. Rao, Orient BlackSwan, 2010). Even in today’s India, all the initiatives for universalization of education are being run with the aid of European nations and the US.

The performances in West Medinipur on October 8 went on through the night

I would like to link the controversy over this mythological story with the clash of nationalisms. Mahishasur was not a fictional character; there are historical evidences to show that he walked on this earth. However, the historicity of Durga is still unproved. While I have doubts about the political prowess of Smriti Irani, I am sure the BJP strategists must have raked up the Mahishasur issue – as there was no immediate provocation – with an eye on the elections in West Bengal, which were due in April-May. They knew that the leftist rulers of West Bengal did nothing ever for cultural transformation and so they would get benefit out of raising the issue. When the results were announced, the BJP, which could not win even a single seat in 2011, romped home with six seats. Mamta Banerjee might have won majority but the BJP is the net gainer.

The Mahishasur movement must be seen as a revolt against cultural slavery and domination. It is a revolt against savarna nationalism, identity and cultural dominance. The BJP was so rattled by this revolt that Smriti Irani described the proponents of Mahishasur movement as perverts and traitors. She did not stop at that. She even challenged the “perverts” and the “traitors” to celebrate Mahishasur Day in West Bengal.

Slavery cannot be sustained only on economic grounds. It needs identity-based and cultural grounds too. In this context, I would like to quote Jagdev Prasad: “The upper castes do not even drink the water touched by Telis. But the same Telis enthusiastically add oil to the earthen lamp of Jansangh”,  (Khusrupar, Bihar; 21 October 1970; For the full version of speech, see Jagdev Prasad Vangmay). I think this one line is enough to make us realize the importance of cultural elements. Antonio Gramsci (1881-1937) writes in his Prison Notebooks, “Only economic status is not enough to establish dominance; cultural elements are also important.”

Concerns of the maginalized

In this clash of nationalisms, on one side is the identity and nationalism of the exploited, the deprived, the backwards and the Tribals; on the other side is the feudal arrogance of caste superiority, Brahmanism and its nationalism. As far as I know, no social reform movement has ever been launched in this country for reforming the savarna-Brahmin communities. If the upper, exploiter section reforms itself, the communities lower down in the hierarchy will have no reason to agitate. Innumerable savarnas and Brahmins have played active, highly commendable roles in the movements of the exploited, the deprived, OBCs and Tribals. But at least I am not aware of any movement they have launched to reform their own communities. In the meantime, members of the backward, deprived communities (Tribals, SCs and OBCs) who have entered institutions of higher learning began talking of an egalitarian, humanistic culture and juxtaposing it against the culture of dominance. This has assumed the form of a movement and is building awareness in society.

In this battle of nationalism, the exploited, deprived, OBCs and tribals will have to come together so that they can put forth their arguments logically, democratically and intellectually, and establish their case. But the ultimate objective of this exercise should be to strengthen humanity. No society can live with two opposing logics and ideas. Brahmins are also becoming victims of Brahmanism, especially their women. That is why humanists even among Brahmins are coming forward to oppose Brahmanism. On the other hand, the spread of education and growing prosperity of the exploited, deprived, OBC and Tribal communities has led to the rise of rebellious voices among them. This has forced the upper crust of society to change a bit. They are not doing this out of goodwill but out of compulsion. When the earth shakes, the structures standing on it cannot remain safe. The countrywide uproar over Smriti Irani’s statements forced the BJP to put an end to the debate on Mahishasur. They could avoid the disgrace of defeat on the floor of the House but they lost the battle on the ground.

 For more information on Mahishasur, see Mahishasur: A People’s Hero. The book is available both in English and Hindi. Contact The Marginalised, Delhi (Phone: 9968527911).

Or, find the book on Amazon: Mahishasur: A People’s Hero (English edition),  Mahishasur: Ek Jan Nayak (Hindi edition)

About The Author

Anil Kumar

Anil Kumar has a Phd in sociology from JNU. His dissertation was titled “The Politics of Identity”.

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