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The battle over Adivasi identity

In the tribal belt of Udaipur, Banswara, and Dungarpur in the southernmost tip of Rajasthan, small signboards dot the dusty highways which lead into settlements of the Bhil Adivasi people. The signboards, mostly painted by hand and often featuring a drawing of the 16th century tribal icon, Rana Punja Bhil, mark the people in the settlements as belonging to the “Adivasi Parivar”.

“The Adivasi Parivar is what we call the larger ideology under which we are trying to awaken the conscience of our people here,” says Amit Kharadi, 27, a worker of the Bharat Adivasi Party, which was formed by MLA Rajkumar Roat in September 2023. As he drives his white SUV across rural Udaipur, Kharadi points to home after home with the signboard. “We are not putting these up and neither do we tell them to. The people here have started doing it themselves in the last few years,” he says.

Many narratives

The Bharat Adivasi Party, which rose out of the demand for a separate Bhil State for the Bhil Adivasi people, is on a mission to “take control” of the narrative around Adivasi identity, explains senior party leader Bhanwarlal Parmar. Its emergence, Parmar says, was partly a response to the histories of Adivasi communities coming under attack from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and its federated outfits for decades.

Now, narratives on Adivasi identity created by the Sangh Parivar are increasingly merging with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government’s efforts to reclaim the lost stories of Adivasi resistance movements in order to build a nationalistic Adivasi identity, explain political workers and party leaders.

The Union government has let the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes take the lead in directing this project. The aim is to replace current literature on Adivasi histories, communities, and resistance movements that originated from sources within colonial establishments with literature that is created by the indigenous people about their own communities. The BAP has termed this act an appropriation of their identity.

Kharadi, 27, who had unsuccessfully fought the Assembly elections in Rajasthan in November 2023, credited the “Adivasi Parivar” thinking for the 40,000 votes he secured. It was his first contest for public office and he barely had resources. “It will take time. But people are realising what is happening with the histories of their community. No matter how much our community tries to progress, our footsteps are being wiped away behind our backs. The moment we look back, we see the very existence of our history being denied,” he says.

But these signboards that declare “Adivasi Parivars” across the Bhil belt of southern Rajasthan are coming up against the messaging of the BJP’s campaign for tribal voters. The BJP is using the iconography of leaders such as warrior-social reformers Punja Bhil and Govind Guru to play up its government’s efforts to recognise and honour “deliberately forgotten” heroes from Adivasi communities who fought “outside” forces.

“What the BJP and the RSS are doing is nothing short of offering us lollipops,” says Kharadi. “Why else are they still calling us Vanvasi (forest dwellers) and Janjati (tribal people)? What is this resistance to calling us Adivasi? Our identity is not just linked to jal (water), jungle, zameen (land); it is also linked to time. We have been on these lands from time immemorial, predating the Hinduism they claim we have been a part of. Have you seen what they have done with the story of Mangarh’s Govind Guru?”

A tool for the BJP

Last year, on November 15, which marked tribal icon Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh were in the thick of Assembly election campaigning. These States are home to over 30% of India’s Scheduled Tribe population. During campaigning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended an event to commemorate Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary at Ulihatu, the tribal leader’s birthplace in Jharkhand. After inaugurating several government projects, the Prime Minister rose to address the crowd. “It is this nation’s misfortune that ever since Independence, our tribal heroes who have fought in this country’s freedom struggle have not been given their due. I am happy that on the occasion of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav (an initiative of the Government of India to commemorate 75 years of Independence), we have got the opportunity to bring the stories of their courage and valour to all of you,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to Birsa Munda on the tribal leader’s birth anniversary in Khunti, Jharkhand, in 2023.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to Birsa Munda on the tribal leader’s birth anniversary in Khunti, Jharkhand, in 2023.
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Modi spoke of the contributions of “Adivasi warriors” to saving “this land” and proceeded to list out the names of leaders including Birsa Munda, Tilka Manjhi, Rani Durgavati, and Alluri Sitarama Raju. He also made it a point to mention the sacrifice of Govind Guru at the Mangarh massacre, which occurred in 1913 in the Mangarh hills of Rajasthan.

Just days before Modi’s remarks, the BJP’s Scheduled Tribe Morcha had posted a photo of Govind Guru on X (formerly Twitter) along with a short description of his struggle. The illustration and text were identical to the one published by the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes a year ago in a book. Titled Contributions of Tribal Leaders in the Freedom Struggle, this book, compiled by the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, contained information on 50 leaders who led Adivasi movements.

The book and its contents have already become an indispensable tool for the BJP in its project to situate Adivasis as people who were “equal partners” in India’s polity until British rule, after which they started getting left behind, much like other communities in the country, in terms of social and economic progress.

The BJP Scheduled Tribe Morcha’s post described Govind Guru as the leader of “one of the most efficient movements against British rule in India”. It showed him wearing a white kurta with a rudraksh mala (beads considered divine) around his neck. For 20 years, he had fought against British rule and wanted to establish self-rule, it said. British forces had massacred thousands of his Bhil followers at Mangarh when they had gathered for a “Sump Sabha,” it added.

In addition to the date of the massacre contradicting scholarly work on the Bhil Revolt in the early 20th Century and the Mangarh massacre, the reason why Govind Guru ended up at the Mangarh fort was left out in this description. According to Vijay Kumar Vashishth’s work on the movement published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, the Ruler of the Idar kingdom had, a month before the massacre, tried to arrest Govind Guru in a bid to subdue his rising influence among the Bhils of Banswara, Dungarpur, and Sunth States because of his preaching.

His teachings, Vashishth’s work asserts, was based on an appreciation of rationality, a tendency to shun superstition, and monotheism, among other principles. Govind Guru preached a religion that involved praying at Dhunis (firepits). Followers of this religion wore a rudraksh around their neck and carried iron tongs. Special worship took place on Sundays. He also “taught them to consider themselves as equal to the higher Hindu castes of Rajputs and Brahmins who were even declared to be inferior in such respect as keeping their women in degrading position,” Vashishth’s work concludes.

“This is what I am talking about,” exclaims Jitendra Meena, national spokesperson for BAP and Assistant Professor of History, Delhi University. “Just because Govind Guru borrowed from whatever was around and wore a rudraksh, it is not correct to use an image portraying him in that manner. It is also not right to erase the fact that his battle was against the social structure of caste that they were being subjected to by upper caste rulers. It is crucial to highlight that he was fighting to break out of everything that was restricting the community and create a new social order.”

Meena, an Adivasi researcher and a member of the Indian History Congress and the Rajasthan History Congress, has turned the BAP’s ideology of reclaiming their identities into a personal project to counter the narratives being set by the government. He has started work on picking apart stories being promoted by the government on at least a dozen Adivasi leaders.

“There are so many tribal reformers who were resisting attacks from all quarters economically, socially, culturally — from increased contact with landlords and rulers as a result of colonising administrations expanding their reach, to the expansion of Christian missionaries and ideas of different forms of Hinduism and Islam invading their discourse,” he says. Some might have picked up elements from each other, but the effort everywhere was to establish something new,” he says.

Fighting against misrepresentations

About 1,400 kilometres from Udaipur, in Jharkhand’s Murma, Sarna thinker and spiritual leader Bandhan Tigga has been fighting the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram for at least a decade. “Just like Sarna is the distinct religion of Adivasis existing outside of and predating any other religion, the reform movements like that of Birsa Munda’s must be seen in the same lens. They were attempts to create a social order that was exclusive to the Adivasi communities. That is what the Birsaite agitation attempted,” he says.

Every time delegates of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams build networks in the remote tribal villages of Jharkhand, their campaigns to build Hindu temples is almost always accompanied with indoctrination, Tigga says.

Handu Bhagat, a worker of the Kendriya Sarna Samiti in Jharkhand’s Gumla district, has been observing the Sangh Parivar’s work in his district for at least a decade now. “They will first try to convince us that Hindu rituals and Adivasi rituals are similar just because some aspects might correlate. Then they will try to distort the stories of leaders like Birsa Munda to drive home their point. In the process, they alienate our people from their roots,” Bhagat says, pointing to villages like Sugakatta, where the Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra, another federated outfit of the Sangh Parivar, has built a Hanuman temple and where people no longer see any difference between the traditional Adivasi religion of Sarna and Hinduism.

Jharkhand-based writer and journalist Jacinta Kerketta echoes the argument that every time leaders from the tribal community are honoured, they are shown fighting the British and the Mughals. However, their dissatisfaction with the Hindu landlords and moneylenders working for the British is not depicted.

“The army of landlords that the British had created in the tribal areas to increase revenue used to collect taxes forcibly. To pay the taxes, the tribal people had to take loans from moneylenders. Moneylenders used to exploit them. In this way, the struggle of the tribal heroes was against Hindu landlords, moneylenders, and the British rule at the same time,” Kerketta says, citing the representation of the Hul movement of the Santhal people. “Sido, Kanhu, Chand, and Bhairav (all brothers) converted the dissatisfaction arising from landlords and moneylenders into a widespread movement. The Hul started with the killing of a police inspector who was taking the village head as hostage. Later, the British sent their army and thousands of tribal people were killed in this movement,” she adds.

Ranendra Kumar, an author in Jharkhand, dismisses the use of the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes’ book for studying any actual history of Adivasi rebellions. “It is introductory information at best. Most Adivasi resistance movements began as a direct response to the everyday oppression they faced at the hands of upper caste landlords and local rulers, who had incentives to collaborate with colonial administrations in order to maintain their hegemony in the social structure,” explains Kumar, who is also the Director of the Ram Dayal Munda Tribal Welfare Research Institute in Ranchi.

“Erasing their resistance to caste structures would definitely be misleading,” he continues. He adds that even though the resistance was a direct response to this, it had, on many occasions, taken on the British administration directly. “There is evidence of leaders like Birsa Munda recognising the political role of the British Empire in the sociocultural battles he was fighting in Jharkhand and framing his fight as such,” he says. “Erasing either part of this history would be dishonest and untrue.”

Kerketta says, “The tribal people are victims of an oppressive system, irrespective of the government. Even after independence, they have been the victims of internal colonisation.”

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