Hindutva and Adivasi Conversions to Hinduism in Madhya Pradesh

Hindutva and Adivasi Conversions to Hinduism in Madhya Pradesh

Yoginder Sikand

Historically, the spread of what is known as Hinduism today throughout India occurred through the gradual absorption of non-Hindu indigenous communities into the Hindu fold, accompanied by a reinvention of their religious and cultural traditions and myths by seeking to locate them firmly within the broader framework of the Brahminical tradition. The Hinduisation process was inextricably linked to the quest for power, resources and authority on the part of the ‘upper’ caste minority. Given Hinduism’s elaborate mythology to justify the caste system and the claim of innate superiority of the ‘upper’ castes, the spread of Hinduism to new areas in India from outside Aryavarta inevitably entailed the absorption of indigenous communities at the bottom the caste hierarchy. This process was by no means mostly a peaceful affair. Often, it involved bloody wars directed against the indigenous peoples, with religious conquest following in the wake of political subjugation.

Today, too, the Hinduisation of indigenous communities in the country, also known as Adivasis (‘original inhabitants’) or Tribals, continues apace. In fact, modern technology, the organizational and financial networks of Hindutva and Hindu missionary outfits and the collaborative role of the state have further galvanised the process of the Hinduisation of the non-Hindu indigenous or Adivasi communities. As before, the contemporary process of Hinduisation of the Adivasis is a political phenomenon, linked to the caste/class interests of its ‘upper’ caste sponsors. This is strikingly brought out in a recently published booklet by M. Prakash, titled “Adivasi Samaj Ka Dharmantran: Ek Rajnaitik Karyakram” (‘The Religious Conversion of the Adivasis: A Political Project’). The book discusses various aspects of process of Hinduisation of the Adivasis in the large Adivasi belt in Madhya Pradesh, taking two districts, Jhabua in the west and Mandla in the east, as case studies and seeking to explore its underlying political agenda.

Contesting the claims of both Hindutva as well as ‘mainstream nationalist’ ideologues, Prakash insists that the Adivasis are definitely not Hindus. Indeed, a close examination of the various Brahminical scriptures, from the Vedas onwards, clearly testifies to Prakash’s claim. Almost invariably, these scriptures describe the indigenous, mostly dark-skinned communities, in lurid terms, as related to the forces of ‘darkness’ and as enemies of the fair-skinned Aryans. Having been pushed into inaccessible mountainous and thickly-forested areas by the invading Aryans, the Adivasis were able to protect their own religious traditions and resist the pull towards Hinduisation. But things are now rapidly changing, Prakash tells us, as agencies of the state, along with various Hindutva groups, are working together to Hinduise these communities, drawing them into the caste system, almost inevitably at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, and using them for their own political purposes.

Agencies of the ‘upper’-caste dominated but supposedly secular state, Prakash writes, play a key role in the contemporary process of the Hinduisation of the Adivasis. Although, in actual fact, the Adivasis are not Hindus, they are considered as such by the state. The census authorities do not recognize the legitimacy of any Adivasi religion. If they do not identify themselves as Muslims, Christians or Buddhists, Adivasis are automatically assumed to be ‘Hindus’, although their local religions might have little or nothing at all to do with the Hinduism of the ‘upper’ castes. The government school system serves as a principal vehicle for the Hinduisation of the Adivasis. Adivasi children are often registered as ‘Hindus’ by ‘upper’ caste teachers in school certificates without seeking the consent of their parents. Hindu festivals are routinely celebrated and Hindu prayers are generally held in such schools, and pictures of Hindu deities often adorn their walls. The school curriculum is replete with references to Brahminical Hinduism, describing Adivasis as Hindus and presenting Indian nationalism in Brahminical terms.

In Jhabua, contractors and ‘upper’ caste migrants, mainly firm backers of Hindutva, have captured the local economy and felled down the thick forests that the Adivasis dwelled in for centuries, forcing the impoverished Adivasis to migrate to cities to work as manual labourers or to villages in Gujarat to toil in the fields of landlords for a pittance. Here they are exposed to various forms of Brahminical Hinduism, and many of them take to it as a means of upward social mobility. In addition, Hindutva groups have sponsored numerous fronts that are active in Jhabua and elsewhere to galvanise the process of the Hinduisation of the Adivasis, including setting up Ekal Vidyalayas or one-teacher schools and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams, supposed social work centers, as well as promoting ‘reconversion’ or “Ghar Vapasi” drives and sending out batches of sadhus or so-called holy men to preach Brahminical Hinduism in Adivasi villages. Hundreds of schools established by Hindutva groups in the Adivasi areas carefully instill in their students an undying hatred of Muslims and Christians, propagating a Brahminical form of Indian nationalism that has no room for non-Hindus at all.

These groups adopt a subtle and carefully planned approach to conversion. They insist, contrary to all historical and ethnographic evidence, that the Adivasis are Hindus and that, therefore, by becoming ‘more Hindu’ with the help of various Hindu missionary groups they are not converting to a new religion but simply following in the footsteps of their forefathers. As part of this subtle strategy, local Adivasi gods and goddesses, that have nothing to do with Brahminical Hinduism, are absorbed into the Hindu fold by being given a ‘suitable’ Hindu pedigree. This entails a radical re-writing of Adivasi religion, and every effort is made to transform and subsume it within the broader Brahminical tradition. Thus, Bagh Dev and Buddha Dev are passed off as local forms of Shiva and local goddesses are explained away as forms of Kali or Durga. In this way, the Adivasis’ own religions are attacked and destroyed and the Adivasis come to be gradually absorbed into the Hindu fold. Adivasi shrines are taken over by Brahmin priests and new Hindu temples, almost inevitably controlled by Brahmins, are being set up in vast numbers in the Adivasi areas in order to further hasten the conversion of the Adivasis to Hinduism.  Hindutva activists, including many ‘upper’ caste traders living in the area, also travel to Adivasi villages and distribute pictures of Hindu deities and saffron flags and introduce and promote Hindu festivals that have hitherto been unheard of in the region. Adivasis are even told, Prakash writes, that if they worship Hindu deities they would not fall sick, evil spirits will not dare to enter their homes and they would become rich.

For Hindutva groups active in promoting the Hinduisation of the Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere, the process is not a peaceful and harmless religious project per se, Prakash insists. Rather, he writes, one of its main aims is to promote the Hindutva political project and the political fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has now established a firm base in the Adivasi areas. Thus, Prakash writes, when Adivasis in Jhabua, forced out of their homes because of the large-scale felling of the forests mainly by ‘upper’ caste migrants who are the backbone of Hindutva, travel to cities in Gujarat to labour in the mills, their ‘upper’ caste employees often pressurize them to vote for the BJP. Prakash refers to Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, the man behind the anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat in 2002 that took a toll of several thousand lives, as having declared at a public meeting at Alirajpur in Jhabua that they would not be allowed to work in Gujarat if they did not vote for the BJP. In 2002, just before the Vidhan Sabha elections, Hindutva outfits sponsored a massive Hindu Mahasangham in Jhabua, which brought together some 2,50,000 people. The aim was to garner Adivasi votes, using Hinduism as an excuse. The event was addressed by such firebrand Hindutva leaders as Praveen Togadia and ‘Sadhvi’ Rithambhara. Fiery speeches that spewed hatred against Muslims and Christians were delivered and appeals were made to the Adivasis to vote for the BJP. To mobilize support for the event, activists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Seva Bharti (the RSS’s so-called social service department) visited numerous Adivasi villages, holding bhajans and pujas in the name of various Hindu gods and distributing pictures and amulets of the monkey-god Hanuman. Two years later, in February 2004 another such Hindu Mahasangham was organized in Alirajpur, which succeeded in attracting tens of thousands of Adivasis.

This process of active Hinduisation of the Adivasis by fascist Hindutva groups that seek to use them for their own political purposes and instigate them against local Christians and Muslims has now, in Prakash’s words, ‘led to an explosive situation’, being further galvanized in the wake of the anti-Muslim genocide of 2002 orchestrated by Hindutva groups in Gujarat. In the name of spreading Hinduism, Hindutva groups are, in fact, actively involved in communalizing the Adivasis, firing them with a passionate hatred for Muslims and Christians. In Gujarat, this has had tragic consequences, as for instance, in 2002, when Adivasis were egged on by Hindutva groups to loot and murder Muslims on a massive scale. Emboldened with their ‘success’ in Gujarat, Hindutva activists in Jhabua are said to have burnt down mosques, attacked several Muslim homes and driven out Muslim families from some villages. Hindutva groups active in the area are deliberately setting up temples in the vicinity of churches in order to spread anti-Christian hatred. Fearful of the awareness that some Christian groups are promoting among the Adivasis for their rights through the schools that they run, Hindutva groups fervently appeal to the Adivasis to boycott Christian institutions. Prakash writes that they are also training Adivasi youth in the use of arms, possibly to use them in anti-Muslim or anti-Christian pogroms. Through their well-oiled propaganda machine, Hindutva groups are hard at work seeking to convince the Adivasis that it is the Christians and Muslims who are allegedly responsible for all their woes, cleverly seeking to deflect their wrath from the dominant ‘upper’ caste Hindu oppressors, the backbone of the Hindutva movement.

In Mandla, a largely Adivasi district in eastern Madhya Pradesh, similar processes are at work to Hinduise the Adivasis and to promote the Hindutva fascist project at the same time as fierce supporters of Hindutva, mainly ‘upper’ caste contractors, traders and government servants, have reduced the Adivasis to penury, felling the forests and forcing the Adivasis to migrate to outlying towns and villages for manual work. Today, Prakash says, the Hinduisation of the Adivasis here is almost complete. He writes that many Adivasis now identify themselves as ‘Hindus’ although they actually know little about the Hindu religion as such. However, Prakash notes that today there are also voices of resistance to the Hinduisation project that reflect an urge for Adivasi autonomy and preservation of Adivasi identity and a realization that the quest for upward social mobility through Hinduisation is illusory and ultimately only works to strengthen the hegemony of the dominant castes/classes and to further promote the marginalization of the Adivasis themselves. He mentions in this regard the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, the Mazdoor Chetna Sangathan, the Adivasi Yuva Sena, and the Gondwana Deomcratic Party as seeking to resist the Hindutva invasion and stressing the separate identity of the Adivasis as non-Hindus and as indigenous inhabitants of the land. These groups are clear that the Hindutva agenda in the Adivasi areas is ultimately geared to subject the Adivasis to ‘upper’ caste hegemony through Hinduising them. Yet, Prakash laments, these voices still seem too feeble to resist the juggernaut of Hindutva and its project of communalizing the Adivasis in the name of Hinduism and using them as foot-soldiers against Muslims and Christians and in support of its fascist project.