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Chhattisgarh: State’s wanton assault on Adivasi identity

In the Fifth Schedule areas, the Hindutva-brand cultural crusade is using the PESA Act to mobilize the non-Christian Adivasis against the Christian Adivasis by instilling ideas like purity and pollution and the fear of contamination and by giving a caste-based complexion to their traditional and customary social fabric, writes Degree Prasad Chouhan

This article is a lightly edited version of the preface to a report titled “Bastar ka Bahishkrit Bharat: Alpasankhyak Isai Adivasiyon par anvarat jaree hinsa aur atyacharon par lekha-jokha” (The Outcast India in Bastar: An account of persistent violence and atrocities against minority Christian Adivasis) released by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Chhattisgarh and written by its president, Degree Prasad Chouhan. The preface has been republished here with the author’s permission.  

Hinduization of the Adivasis is at the root of the violence against Christian Adivasis and the brewing animosity within the Adivasi community in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. The Congress party, which runs the state government, has launched the Ram Van Gaman Path project in selected Adivasi areas and is engaged in state-sponsored religious conversion. This extra-constitutional Hinduization of the Adivasis is the biggest phenomenon of its kind in India. Adivasi Pengudis (seats of ancestors), where, in the traditional belief system, the recipients of the reverence of the Adivasis reside in the form of natural objects, are being converted into Devgudis (the places of gods), in the name of giving them a makeover. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had been doing this for decades on the pretext of giving “Diksha” to the Adivasis. Now, the Congress leaders are doing the same under their soft Hindutva agenda to further their politics of power. 

According to mythological tales, Dandakaranya was one of the places where Ram spent some time during his 14-year-long exile. The region between the Ganga and the Godavari in Chhattisgarh is considered Dandakaranya. The Congress government of the state claims that there is not a place in this region, right from Sitamarhi in the north to Ramaram in the south, which was not sanctified by the dust from Ram’s feet. 

The ancient Hindu text Rigveda refers to the Adivasis as slaves or aboriginal castes. Hindu mythological character Nishad Raj was said to be the king of the Adivasis inhabiting the banks of the Ganga. He arranges the boats and the boatmen to take Ram, Laxman and Sita across the Ganga. In the story, Nishad Raj prostrates before Ram, who asks him to get up and embraces him. The Mahabharata’s Adivasi character Eklavya practises archery before a statue of Dronacharya, the guru of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas, and Dronacharya asks him to present his right thumb to his teacher-in-absentia as Guru Dakshina.

The Ramayana has a character called Shabri who serves ber (wild berries) to Ram. The “Aranya Kaand” of the Ramayana says that Shabri took care of Rishi Matang. She is one of the popular characters of Valmiki’s epic. At the Shabri Kumbh held in the Dangs district of Gujarat in 2005, the RSS claimed that Dangs was the area described as Dandakaranya in the Ramayana. There is a Nar-Narayan Temple at Shivrinarayan, the confluence of the Jok, Mahanadi and Shivnath rivers, in the Janjgir-Champa district of Chhattisgarh. A concocted tale claims that this is the place where Ram broke his journey and where Shabri served him the ber, having taken a bite of it herself. Earlier, the Shabri episode was said to have taken place somewhere in today’s Odisha.

Adivasis protesting against the imposition of Hinduism

Now the government functionaries are busy in yatras and foundation-laying ceremonies for the Ram Van Gaman Path (the path Ram took through the forests), pushing the Adivasi- and Dalit-dominated areas of Chhattisgarh into a cauldron of communal and casteist violence. In Mahasamund, the communal elements are writing warnings for Dalits on the walls against using public ponds for bathing, etc and reminding them of their “aukat” (place). In Dharampura, the places revered by the Dalits, known as Jaitkham, are being set afire. The dispute over hoisting a flag at Kabirdham and oaths being taken collectively to socially boycott religious minorities in Lindra, Surguja – all point to concerted attempts at terrorizing minorities.  

Government schemes like Pauni Pasari, Charmshilp and Nai Peti are being used to promote Varnashram-mandated traditional and caste-based occupations. The Congress-led state government has also launched a Godhan Nyay Yojana, which is depriving the landless farm workers, already on the margins, of their right to get land. Instead of making the communities, which have been landless for centuries, collect cow dung, they should be allotted land under the land-reform schemes. The implementation of the land-revenue law, which seeks to protect the Adivasis from being deprived of their land by non-Adivasis through fraud and deceit, is selective and discriminatory. 

In Raigarh, the administration has failed to protect the land of the Adivasis from being usurped by thermal power and mining companies and to restore the already-usurped land to them. The same provisions, however, are being used to initiate administrative action against churches set up by Christian missionaries in Jashpur. The state’s administrative machinery appears to be on the side of the obscurantist zealots guilty of gross overreaction that often leads violence against religious minorities.  

The Hindutva-brand cultural crusade is deftly using the highest status granted to the Gram Sabhas under the PESA Act to further its objectives. In the Fifth Schedule areas, it is using the PESA Act to mobilize the non-Christian Adivasis against the Christian Adivasis by instilling ideas like purity and pollution and the fear of contamination and by giving a caste-based complexion to their traditional and customary social fabric. As part of a well-thought-out strategy, the RSS is on a mission to portray the Christian Adivasis as outsiders and enemies.

On the pretext of establishing Adivasi self-rule by restoring the traditional system, the PESA Act is being used as a tool to socially and economically target the non-Hindu religious minorities. They are being driven out of their villages and are being denied access to the natural resources, crucial to their survival.   

The eviction of Christian minorities from their villages and habitations, their socio-economic boycott, depriving them of their right to bury their dead and the endless atrocities against them – all spring from the concept of Hindu nationalism. It seems that the so-called people’s movement, avowedly working for establishing village republics, protecting “jal, jangal, zameen” (water, forest, land) and preserving the ecosystem, has been hijacked by fascist forces. 

On the one hand, these forces are aggressively campaigning against the construction of religious places of non-Hindus and their system of worship while on the other hand they are completely silent on translation of Hindu scriptures into local languages and their mass distribution, the Ram Van Gaman Path project and the conversion of Adivasi Pengudis into Hindu Devgudis. One instance of this is a diktat issued by a joint meeting of more than 35 Gram Sabhas in Bastar’s Sirisguda, banning prayer meetings and sermons of non-Hindu communities, and propagation of non-Hindu religions. 

This hegemonic cultural aggression by the Hindutva forces has triggered a resistance movement that rejects brahmanical culture and traditions and seeks to re-establish the traditions and the culture of the indigenous inhabitants. The indigenous inhabitants now voice their protest when the killing of Ravana is depicted during Dussehra celebrations or when Durga is shown killing Mahishasur. In Manpur, a saffron flag was burnt; in Durg, Jango-Lingo Sangathan submitted a memorandum to the sub-divisional officer against the construction of Ram Van Gaman Path; in Kalgaon, there were protests against the Ram Van Gaman Path Prachar Rath Yatra; and in Tumakhurd, Dhamtari, the foundation stone for Boodhadev Ayurveda Chikitsa Anusandhan Kendra was laid after uprooting the board of Ram Mandir.

The forces of cultural communalism, who want to capture the administrative machinery of this predominantly Adivasi state and thrust Hinduism on its denizens, have unleashed a regime of State repression and are using the police to smother the resistance of local Dalits and Adivasis against the brahmanical cultural imperialism. 

The Hindu fanatics’ unease over the indigenous inhabitants rejecting Hinduism is eminently understandable. The Ghar Wapsi and Shuddhikaran campaigns are being used to pit the Hindu Adivasis against the Christian Adivasis. The Religion Freedom Act, which seeks to stop religious conversions, is in force in Chhattisgarh. But when it comes to Ghar Wapsi, the law-enforcers become unbelievably lax. This law is being blatantly used to persecute and humiliate the Adivasis who have converted to Christianity.

Ghar Wapsi is, in fact, a euphemism for forcible religious conversion of Dalits and Adivasis. The claim that people can be proselytized impliedly questions their reasoning power. The mandatory requirement of informing the administration in advance about proposed conversions is a sure recipe for provoking the fanatical forces and giving them the opportunity and the time to react.   

The recent years have witnessed a surge in campaigns and movements seeking to convince the rural populace that traditional and antiquated beliefs are above the Constitution. Needless to say, this is part of the Hindu Rashtra agenda, under which the campaign to “delist” converted Dalits and Adivasis – in other words, have their Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) status removed – is at its peak.   

(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)

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About The Author

Degree Prasad Chouhan

Degree Prasad Chouhan is president, People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Chhattisgarh.

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