The arrest of tribal theatre activist Jeetrai Hansda in Jharkhand over a 2017 Facebook post, has exposed the fault lines over tribal identity and culture all over again. In the post, Hansda had asserted that for Santhals and other tribals, beef-eating was intrinsic to their culture.
“There should be no law that forces us to accept Hindu customs and rituals,” he had said, drawing the ire of the RSS and the police, in a state where the eating or selling of beef is banned.
Hindu right-wing organisations as well as the BJP government in the state have been proactively persecuting such acts of tribal self-assertion for at least a couple of years now.
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But this persecution, and the accompanying co-opting of tribal practices into the Hindu fold, is not limited to Jharkhand alone.
A Battle To Protect Their Identity
From Karnataka in the south to Chhattisgarh in central India, tribal groups in all parts of the country have been fighting a pitched, if only unacknowledged, battle to protect their identity.
Activists and intellectuals from tribal movements have been physically attacked by the RSS and its offshoots, while governments have sought to criminalise tribal assertions as attempts at outraging religious feelings and sowing communal discord.
All this, in the context of Jeetrai Hansda’s arrest, begs the question: must tribals in India live like Hindus, as per the terms dictated by the Hindu Right, to be assured of their safety and security?
Jharkhand is as good an example as any of the other nine Scheduled Area states in India when it comes to revealing how tribals are rebuked, as well as courted, and often left with little choice.
About a couple of years ago, tribal groups in Jharkhand began the Pattalgarhi movement. As part of it, and in keeping with traditional tribal practice, village bodies started erecting stones proclaiming self-rule in their villages.
Although the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution recognises the gram sabha’s role in safeguarding and preserving tribal traditions, cultural identity and community resources, the BJP government in Jharkhand saw red.
It launched a massive crackdown on Pattalgarhi leaders and activists, arresting thousands. By early 2019, it had booked over 250 tribals for sedition, merely for asserting what was written in the Constitution.
Yet the same government has been bending over backwards to present itself as a champion of tribal identity. This February, Chief Minister Raghubar Das, along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, laid the foundation stone of a grand Birsa Museum in Ranchi. Speaking on the occasion, Modi said the museum was evidence of the government’s efforts at showcasing tribal heroes for future generations.
The museum, under construction now, only builds on decades of work by the RSS across Jharkhand’s villages. Its members and associated organisations have erected innumerable temples to Bhagwan Birsa, featuring a janeyu (sacred thread)-wearing Birsa statue, thus turning the tribal hero into a Hindu god.
Raising Adivasi Awareness Amidst Efforts To Wipe Out Indigenous Culture
Recent decades have seen the emergence of several tribal intellectuals reversing centuries-old practices in caste Hindu society, where tribals were equated with Asuras (demons) and denied an education. It is these intellectuals, like Jeetrai Hansda, who are at the forefront of tribal self-assertion.
Yet, it is the very same education that Hindu-ises tribal life in unforeseen ways, as I learnt during my reporting trips in Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. Tribals in these areas name their children Somaru, Mangru, Sainu, Lalsu and the likes. But these names give way to Hindu names like Ram, Shiva, Ravi and Arjun once they enter school.
An old villager in Gadchiroli once explained to me how this happened. “The teachers are mostly non-tribals. They frown upon our names and choose to give each new student a name they are familiar with and can remember,” he reasoned.
Government departments fare no better when it comes to protecting tribal culture and identity. No state in mainland India counts a tribal language as an official language, ensuring policy and official documents remain beyond the comprehension of the average tribal. Laws like Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act that recognise the right to tribal self-governance are seldom implemented. While tribal activists who raise awareness about such laws are routinely harassed, framed and arrested as accused Maoists.
Alongside all this, ghar wapsis remain a frequent affair in states with large tribal populations. They are mostly conducted by organisations associated with the RSS.
‘Ghar Wapsi’ Programmes & Ban On Worship Of Non-Hindu Deities
‘Ghar wapsi’ programmes, featuring a few dozen to a few hundred tribal families ‘coming back’ into the Hindu fold, are typically held on auspicious days of the Hindu calendar. These activities go on unabated despite the presence of laws banning conversions.
In Chhattisgarh, I also came across numerous instances of right-wing organisations issuing edicts banning the worship of non-Hindu gods and goddesses in tribal villages. Several tribals in these villages told me that although they abided by their own gods and goddesses and disagreed with the edicts, they rarely spoke up fearing reprisals from village-based tribal elites who were part of right-wing organisations.
‘Choice’: To Live as Hindus?
The Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to religious freedom and expression. This is what Jeetrai Hansda held up in his Facebook post. This is also what the Pattalgarhi supporters swore by— Pattagarhi stones outside villages even had excerpts from the Constitution.
Yet, the hounding of those making such assertions clearly shows that the RSS-BJP is unwilling to cede ground or narrative space as regards tribal identity. Hansda’s arrest two days after PM Modi was elected back to power makes it abundantly clear that in this new ‘inclusive’ India, tribals have no place unless they live as good Hindus.
(The writer is an independent journalist and researcher, and currently teaches at a college in Bengaluru. He can be reached at @b_aritra on Twitter and Instagram. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)