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It’s faith versus tribal identity in western Madhya Pradesh

The Church and the RSS vie for Bhils’ faith; JAYS eyes political autonomy.

The Catholic Mission School, the most reputed educational institution in this small town dominated by the Bhil tribe in western Madhya Pradesh, stands adjacent to the bus stand, named after freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad.

Behind the school and the church and located within the institution’s precincts lies the Church Colony, the largest habitation here of Bhils who have embraced the Christian faith.

In 2017, Vivek Mera, a Christian Bhil, sprang an electoral surprise when he won the local municipal polls on a BJP ticket from the Christian-dominated ward, humbling the Congress party’s candidate for the first time in this ward.

That result was largely a result of the Congress councillor not having done much work for the locality, several residents said, adding that many of them were, however, planning to vote for the Congress when Jhabua goes to the polls later this month as part of the Assembly elections in the State.

“BJP governments work for Hindus rather than Christians, but the Congress is neutral,” said Vinod Mera, a Christian Bhil resident of Church Colony who operates a small business.

Farmers from among the tribal community are also a disgruntled lot, complaining that they are running losses in agriculture, as input costs rise and prices fail to keep pace with the increases.

In short, the battle for Jhabua is very much open.

But beneath material concerns lies a deeper divide.

Cultural divide

The Catholic Church, which has been working among the tribals here for some 140 years, has in recent years found itself facing intense competition from the RSS and its allied organisations, even as educated tribal youth increasingly seek to steer clear of both the faiths.

While the RSS is widely believed to work towards helping mobilise votes for the BJP, those asserting an autonomous tribal identity may opt to back the Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS), a recent entrant to the fray.

, though it does not yet have much of a rural base.

The enduring cultural competiton, however, has not been violent.

At least since 2005, when the rape of a minor girl in the Mission School compound had led to attackes on churches.

“It was a man from outside who took the girl – who was selling fruits outside the gate – inside and raped and killed her. There were accusations that the Church was involved but police investigation showed we were innocent,” says Father Rocky, the spokesperson of the Jhabua diocese, which has a presence in five districts here.

Close to the school, residents of the Church colony recount that stones were pelted on their houses and youth were beaten up.

However, Jhabua has been peaceful ever since.

Father Rocky says local Hindu-Christian relations are cordial and the trouble was caused by outsiders. “I have good friends even in the RSS here,” he asserts.

The Sangh

The RSS’s tack here, as it tries to wean tribal youth away from the Church’s influence, has been to associate tribal customs with Hindu gods and goddesses.

For instance, the Bhils’ Bhagoria festival — described by the 2011 census handbook as a mass swayamvara or marriage market — has been associated by the RSS with Holi, which occurs around the same time.

“This is like the Holi of Braj, people apply gulal to one another to the beating of drums,” said Khem Singh, who is in charge of disseminating the RSS’s intellectual position as its district bauddhik pramukh, referring to the version of Holi celebrated in Vrindavan. A Bhilala tribal, Mr. Singh contended that the festival’s association with marriage was a Christian influence. “It is missionary propaganda that if a girl applies gulal to a boy on this day, she accepts him as her husband.”

Harsh Chauhan of the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, an RSS affiliate, conducts a campaign called ‘Mata Ka Van’ in Jhabua. The goal is to try and protect the foliage around the stones that the tribals worship.

“These stones represent Lord Shiva and the goddess; what the Bhils call Bada Dev is identical with Lord Shiva,” claimed Mr. Singh.

For the RSS-affiliated Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, tribal culture is facing a Christian threat for long.

Tribal autonomy

However, there is now a new threat to the influence wielded by both the Church and the RSS.

Educated tribal youth have begun to assert an autonomous tribal identity under the banner of Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS). Their assertion: the tribals are neither Christian, nor Hindu.

“These are Delhi-educated, Vaampanthi [leftists] influenced by the Delhi University culture,” Mr. Singh asserted, referring to the JAYS activists.

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