‘Our lost brothers’: Adivasis and the Hindu Right

This article was published in the Duckbill Blog on October 22:

The Hindutva experiment has been, since its beginning, an imperialist enterprise, as all forms of fascism are. The militaristic motifs and language, the public display of weaponry and reverence of militaristic historical and mythical figures, the geographic revision of the idea of India, the seeking of empire in its history and iconography are by now familiar in mainstream discourse. One of these imperialist elements is the mission of the Hindu Right to ‘civilise’ what it claims to be outliers of cultural and scriptural Hinduism — the Adivasis.

The traditional Hindu varna system — that is, caste as hierarchy — has placed Adivasis and other tribes of India, whether in the centre of the subcontinent or its peripheries such as the Northeast, outside the four major caste categories. Till the advent of the Government of India Act, 1935, and elections two years later, Adivasis were not considered significant enough to be engaged with by upper caste Hindu leaders, just as Dalits had not been traditionally included in the upper-caste definition of ‘Hindu’. But with elections came constituencies, and demographics, and other statistical measures. The Hindu Right and upper-caste Hindu leaders of other parties like the Congress, needed to include Adivasis in the Hindu fold in as many ways as possible, and through whatever means they could find.

Over the decades, the Hindu Right’s co-option of Adivasis has been along two parallel lines. The first has been the ‘rediscovery’ of Adivasis in scripture. Therefore Sabari in the Ramayana, who has been hailed as an epitome of piety towards Rama. Therefore Guha, king of the Nishadas and friend to the exiled prince. Therefore Eklavya, the ‘good’ Adivasi who sacrificed his greatness as an archer because the Brahmin Drona wanted the Kshatriya Arjuna to remain the world’s greatest archer, in the Mahabharata. The sub-text was clear: Adivasis were to be accommodated as Hindus provided they knew the rules and were subservient to the caste hierarchy. The varna pyramid was not modified; only its base was expanded. In the Hindu upper-caste imagination, there has always been room at the base.

The second approach has been a relentless demolition of Adivasi identity, culture and religion. Co-option of belief systems where convenient, rejection by decree where not. This is not a new process. All religions, particularly polytheistic ones like Hinduism, have co-opted myths, beliefs and practices from cultures they have subsumed. Consider Manasa, a folk goddess of snakes who has been popular since the Middle Ages in Bengal and Western Assam. Her tribal origins are clear, and for Brahmins in the Middle Ages she presented a difficult problem: she was not a Vedic goddess, but by the 10th century she had become popular among the lower castes and needed to be accommodated.

The process by which this was done was bureaucratic. By the 11th century Manasa was considered a daughter of the Vedic and Puranic sage Kashyapa. In the next three hundred years, with the Manasa cult becoming even more powerful, she had to be ‘promoted’ and considered a daughter of Shiva. Symbolically, tribals could only hope for a subservient status to caste Hindus, just as their gods could, at best, be children of mainstream deities.

The modern Hindu Right’s methods are more direct. Co-option continues, but those elements of Adivasi life which make upper castes uncomfortable need to go. Consider the religious ceremony of ‘indal’ among Adivasis in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. A celebration of their creation myths, ‘indal’ is an intimate ritual performed by individual families, involving spirit possession, alcohol and animal sacrifice. In its unfettered abandon, in its joyous celebration of fertility and life, ‘indal’ could very well stand for the directness and the simultaneously complex philosophies behind tribal rituals. But it is these elements — alcohol, animal sacrifice, spirit possession and dance which is not exactly staid and measured like ‘classical’ temple-mandated Hindu dance forms — which make upper-caste Hindus uncomfortable at an atavistic level. Over time, the pressure of co-option on tribal families practicing indal has been intense.

Consider the storm of abuse and threats which erupted when an Adivasi college lecturer in Jharkhand asked on social media, in June 2017, where he could find beef. Ironically, Jharkhand, a state created to safeguard and promote Adivasis, has been enacting laws which mirror upper-caste Hindu sentiments more than Adivasis’. Thirteen years ago, the state passed a law under which cow slaughter would lead to imprisonment for 10 years, the highest such sentence for this offence in any Indian state at that time. The process of co-opting Adivasis has only quickened with the rise and rise of the Hindu Right in the past few years. Therefore ‘shuddhikaran’ ceremonies in which Adivasis are formally adopted into the varna fold, regardless of the fact that there is no scriptural basis for such ceremonies. Therefore new temples in places where there hadn’t been any. Therefore, in Odisha’s Balangir district (where ‘Year of the Weeds’ is set) the indigenous Kondhs can’t practice animal sacrifice during the Mathkai festival. Upper castes, who also worship at the tribal temple, have claimed the Mathkai deities are Shiva and Durga, and have successfully prevented Kondhs from claiming their own gods or practicing their own rituals.

The Hindu Right’s message to Adivasis is thus: we will accommodate you, whether you want this or not, but on our terms, and whatever is ‘un-Hindu’ has to go.

In ‘Year of the Weeds’, Korok the gardener from a Gond village occasionally visits Balangir town, and comes to know of a new temple built by an organisation that wants to bring ‘the lost brothers’ back to Hinduism. New gods, new systems of coercion and co-option. There is very little difference between the methods of operation of the Hindu Right and predatory multinational companies which first create demand and then attempt changes in behaviour patterns. There is almost no difference between imperial entities of the past and proponents of Hindutva in their absolute conviction about the civilising mission of Hinduism.

One of the two political groups which attempt to parachute into the Gond movement against a mine in their sacred hill includes these people who built the temple in Balangir. Their prominent leader, a ‘grim fellow’ full of what the cadre call ‘purpose’ gives a speech at Deogan village, where Korok lives. The big leader calls the Gonds ‘his tribal brothers’. His speech is mainly about how some nefarious people want the Gonds to worship other gods, to eat beef and pork, and drink alcohol. The Gonds in the audience, including Korok, are puzzled and ultimately find the argument hilarious because these are activities they have traditionally done. The leader also promises a temple to the goddess of the hill, unaware — or unwilling to acknowledge — that there is no goddess of the hill as understood by a Hindu. The entire hill is sacred and its gender is incidental to the Gonds’ beliefs. But these are nuances that have always escaped the Hindu Right.

Ultimately, nothing much emerges from the big leader’s speech, as has happened in peoples’ movements in real life. Bulldozing of traditions and cultural nuances, of ways of life and identities of Adivasi deities continue. As the Hindu Right continues its agenda of undermining what had once been India’s experiment with modernity, the Adivasi ways of life too are at greater peril than before.

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