In Bastar’s Cultural Clash, Alienation Widens as Hindutva Deepens

“Jai Sri Ram”, the girls squealed as they rushed forward to touch our feet as a mark of respect. They had to be stopped in their tracks to spare us the embarrassment, but the salutation – among other habits – is drilled into the psyche of the young wards at the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in Barsoor village, some 45 kms from Chitrakoot in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, from an early age.

Run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a chain of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams function across most of the tribal-dominated districts of Chhattisgarh, where the Sangh Parivar has been engaged in social engineering, with the avowed objective of Hinduising the largely animist, indigenous (adivasi) population for years together. Besides these ashrams, the RSS also runs several hostels for boys and girls.

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From left to right: Neelu Murhaki, Pramila Baskar and Lalita Kashyap. (Photo: Chandan Nandy/The Quint)

The ‘Secular’ Education of the RSS

On its part, the BJP government of Chief Minister Raman Singh has built a series of “potacabins” (portable cabins made of bamboo and straw mats) for young boys and girls, where they supposedly receive “secular” education and learn skills related to agriculture, fertiliser-making, welding, electrical appliances, sewing, cooking and a range of other tradecraft that could potentially hold them in good stead while finding way for livelihood means.

The three girls – Neelu Murhaki, Pramila Baskar and Lalita Kashyap – were admitted to Class I at the Barsoor ashram and at a time when they had not mastered their indigenous Gondiya dialect. Hindi comes more naturally to them. Far from the tribal world of non-vegetarian delicacies – pork, jungle fowl and the flesh of other exotic animals and birds – the girls, 17 in all, are growing up on a strict vegetarian diet.

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Since summer vacation is on, 14 of the wards at the Barsoor ashram have left for their respective villages in the forest-covered tribal districts of the state. Neelu (Class III), Pramila (Class IV) and Lalita (Class III) have been unable to leave the campus since “nobody has come to take us home”. Lalita almost fights off HER tears at the thought of not being home with her parents and in the “company of nature”.

About 50 kms from Barsoor, beyond the heavily forested Chitrakoot mountains, Mangal Sai is one of 25 boys who has – for circumstances that he did not disclose – stayed behind at the RSS-run Chhatrawas Bhavan, built over five acres, in Lohandigooda village. Mangal and the hostel warden, Manoj Netam, greet us with full-throated cries of “Jai Sri Ram”.

The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (Photo: Chandan Nandy/The Quint)

The Hindutva Indoctrination of the Adivasi Youth

In the RSS’ worldview, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams and the hostels are part of the larger project to wean away young tribal minds so they can be “Indianised-Hinduised” in the Sangh’s conception of nation-building. The dominant, Hindu worldview in these parts of Chhattisgarh is to subsume and shape the indigenous tribals to be part of the “mainstream”. The unstated objective is to reculturise them by steady and constant doses of Hindutva indoctrination.

While it is hard to measure the success or failure of these “laboratories”, the numerically dominant adivasis continue to live and pursue their rich cultural practices in all their glory, unmindful of the RSS’ widespread (it is no longer surreptitious) attempts to absorb them into the Hindutva fold.

The weekly haat at Mardoom village, not very far from the banks of Indravati River, is awash in a riot of adivasi colours and gaiety. Women in loud sarees, scrawny men with red gamchhas wrapped around their heads sit on their haunches under the shade of Mahua trees or plastic sheds, sipping local brews – coffee-coloured mahua, landha (rice beer, which in Jharkhand is referred to as handiya) and taadi (toddy). A drinking binge is on at the large field near the main market.

The young men hit on nubile girls, the middle-aged women giggle or break out in rapturous laughter as jokes are cracked in Gondiya – the most prevalent dialect among the adivasis of south Bastar. A lota (aluminium mug) of any of the three mild intoxicants costs Rs 10. Men and women alike sip from cups made of tendu leaves.

Adivasis Thrive in Their Own Separate Identity

Saturday, is the one day in a week when the adivasis living in far-flung villages gather at the Mardoom market to sell their wares and socialise. They have all the time in the world since this is not the sowing season. “We wrap up by 4-4:40 pm, by which time we are merrily high,” a young man said using a couple of Hindi words, which were sufficient for us to catch on.

A young woman, bedecked in tribal jewellery, was enjoying the flirtatious advances of a man toying with a mobile phone – a rare possession among the tribals of Bastar. But she turned away her face, hiding it behind the fading-black canopy of her umbrella as we approached her for a photograph. She continued to giggle alright, but she wouldn’t relent.

Adivasi women gathering in the market (Photo: Chandan Nandy/The Quint)

At another clutch of men and women under a tree, we were offered cups of the sweet and intensely fragrant mahua, free of cost! As the minutes ticked by, more and more men and women, some on bicycles, trickled in.

The main marketplace itself is a crush of human activity. Rudimentary market forces are at work. Bargains are struck between buyers and sellers in clucking Gondiya. Simple, ordinary items of daily use – cheap plastic sandals (most adivasis prefer walking bare feet), small mountains of dried mango flesh ( aamchur), mahua flower, small piles of vegetables, plastic combs, tribal jewellery and a range of products for kitchen-use – are on sale. Small amounts of cash, mostly Rs 10 notes, which emerged from saree folds at the hip, changed hands after a quick haggle.

Adivasi women selling their wares in the marketplace (Photo: Chandan Nandy)

This is an adivasi-only marketplace. Non-adivasis usually do not visit these haats as language is a huge conversational barrier. Beyond the merry moments of Mardoom, two types of conflicts are at work in Bastar.

One is a clash of cultures, and is unspoken. The second involves the use of firearms – also unspoken – and is being fought in the forests of Bastar. What is undoubted is the inevitable mutual alienation among ethnic groups.