In January 2018, Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said all are “children of Adivasis”. Addressing a rally in Raipur, Bhagwat said: “When we say Adivasi, then that is our core identity. We are their children. Even though we see different pictures, our forefathers were the same … from 40,000 years ago.”
According to the 2011 census, 21 per cent of the total population of Madhya Pradesh is Scheduled Tribe, known as Adivasi. The Malwa-Nimar region comprising the districts of Jhabua, Dhar, Badwani, Khargone, Khandwa, Dewas, and Ratlam has 22 out of the 47 seats reserved for STs in Madhya Pradesh. The area, of extreme political consequence, has been part of the RSS’s pet project to draw the tribals into a pan-Hindu world through RSS-affiliated outfits like the Sewa Bharti, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and Vidya Bharti, among others.
Despite that, since the first Lok Sabha elections in 1952 up till 2015—a span of 17 elections—the RSS’s political body, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has only won this seat once, in 2014.
The Ratlam-Jhabua parliamentary seat is set for polls in the last phase of the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections on May 19. Newslaundry meets members of different age groups and outfits of the RSS to find out about their work, areas of focus, and preparations for the upcoming elections.
The RSS: old men and ‘ghar wapsi’
“As of now, religious conversions of tribals by Christians is at an all-time high in Jhabua. Thirty-five per cent of the district is now Christian,” says Ashok Verma, sitting in the verandah of his house in Antervelia village. Verma is in charge of the RSS unit of Antervelia in Meghnagar town in Jhabua district. A small-built man in his mid-50s, he runs a tent house and a local grocery shop, even as he’s otherwise employed in “spreading Hindutva”.
Verma attended a “Hindu Sangam” in 2008 in Jhabua and joined the RSS soon after. The Hindu Sangam is a platform to bring members, supporters of the RSS and its affiliate organisations—over 40 of them—together to exchange thoughts on building a Hindu nation. The RSS has been holding these Sangams, a congregation of Hindus in the tribal-dominated areas of Jhabua, for over three decades.
Ashok Verma, who is in charge of the RSS unit in Antervelia.
Verma’s anti-conversion Hindutva rhetoric against Christians in Jhabua dates back to the 1990s. It first started when Sister Rani, a nun at a local church, was killed in the neighbouring district of Indore in 1995. When Uma Bharti, the hardline BJP leader who came into prominence for her role in the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, was appointed as the Madhya Pradesh chief minister from 2003 to 2004, slogans like “Pehle Kasai, Phir Isai (First the Muslims, then Christians)” became commonplace in this tribal belt. These are the two communities that are perceived enemies in the Hindutva project of RSS.
In 2005, there was a spate of attacks on churches in Jhabua when a minor girl was raped inside a Christian missionary school. Since then, almost every year, anti-Christian violence picks up during the month of December. As a result, NDTV reports, in 2017, in parts of Madhya Pradesh, Christians chose to “forego Sunday prayers, carol singing and displaying crosses and rosaries through the year, fearing they will be accused of converting locals and persecuted”. In January 2018, two boys performing a “Christmas dance” in a primary school in Meghnagar were stopped by RSS members.
According to Verma, there are 400 “illegal” churches in Jhabua built to convert tribals to Christianity and to occupy government land. He estimates that at least 7,000 people have converted to Christianity in the last three years in the district. This year, on February 3, a statue of the Virgin Mary was set on fire in Ishgar village in Jhabua. He says: “They lure them with biscuits, cakes, money, non-vegetarian food. First, they get them to start lighting incense sticks in front of a picture of Jesus Christ on a weekly basis, and then get them to baptize. Are we going to be mute spectators?”
He says his local RSS unit has managed to do “ghar wapsi” of over 100 families over the past year in Jhabua.
“Ghar wapsi” is a series of “reconversion” activities initiated by the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the RSS to “facilitate” the conversion of non-Hindus to Hinduism. In December 2014, VHP leader Pravin Togadia had said the world was once inhabited only by Hindus, and that the VHP would ensure the Hindu population in India increased from its current 82 per cent to 100 per cent.
The reconversion process involves a hawan, a Hindu ritual of burning offerings to “purge” the converts, and a pledge to follow the tenets of Hinduism.
Verma believes there is a larger conspiracy behind the religious conversions done by the local churches. “The Indian Constitution guarantees reservation to STs in the government sector. By converting tribals to Christianity, they want to take over positions of power in the Indian administration and rule the Hindus.”
His son Rohendra Verma, 24, nods at his father’s statement. Currently unemployed, Rohendra believes that only “kattar” or “staunch” Hindus can save India. When asked if he knows of any cases of tribals converting to Christianity, he replies, “I have heard of them but don’t know any in my own circles. They are taking away our jobs. We either save Hindus now or get rid of Muslims and Christians later. There are only two choices.” He is yet to officially join the RSS.
The 2011 census data negates the paranoia peddled by the RSS. According to these figures, 0.3 per cent of Madhya Pradesh’s population of 77 million were registered as Christians and around 90 per cent were Hindus. The same census figures state that the Christian population in Jhabua is 3.75 per cent, 10 times less than the RSS’s figures. In fact, instead of an increase, the overall population of Christians in India has been on a decline in the past five decades: 2.60 per cent in 1971, 2.44 per cent in 1981, 2.34 per cent in 1991, 2.30 per cent in 2001 and 2.30 per cent in 2011.
Verma says the census data is “flawed”.
Apart from “saving” the tribal population from Christians, Verma also actively works towards propagating the Hindu religion among them. This includes distributing statues of Hanuman to all households, teaching them how to celebrate Raksha Bandhan, and how to conduct Hindu weddings. He says, “They didn’t even know how to take seven rounds around the fire. We had to teach them.”
In her book In The Belly Of The River, sociologist Amita Baviskar had written: “Adivasi religious life is built around animism and ancestor worship and evolved quite distinctly from the Hindu tradition. Their myths and rituals are located in their closeness to and reverence for nature.” Verma’s task is to appropriate these practices as Hinduism. “The kind of round stone the Bhil community worships as Bada Dev is actually like Shiv. Similarly, the foliage and the trees are part of the ‘Mata Ka Van (Forest of the Goddess)’. We tell them their practices are all Hindu. They just don’t know that.”
Another task is to repudiate local tribal practices and replace them with “upper-caste” Hindu rituals. The RSS started a drive here to stop the sacrifice of kadaknath—a rare breed of fowl available only in this belt—among tribals on Diwali and replaced it with the ritual worship of Ganapati and Goddess Lakshmi. Similarly, the tribal communities participate in a pre-Holi celebration called Bhagoria: a “festival of love” called pranayapurva where young women choose their life partners by applying gulal on the faces of the young men. Verma says this behaviour is a “blot on the character” of Indian women. “We have worked to stop this perversion.”
In this area, the RSS has a comprehensive network that follows a five-tiered structure of villages, mandals, khands, sankuls and jilas (divisions, segments, complexes and districts) parallel to the two-tiered government model. When asked what is the larger goal of Hindutva, Verma says, “I didn’t think about it ever. I just want to see a society purged of Christianity. I hope Modiji will help us in his second term.”
In the upcoming 2019 elections in the state, the BJP has fielded their local MLA Guman Singh Damor. Verma says, “We worked very hard to get Damor elected from the Jhabua Assembly seat. For the upcoming elections, our booth agents have been shortlisted. The booth tolis with 20 RSS members each are ready. Our slogan will be ‘Hindu Jago, Kristi bhago (Hindus wake up, Christians go away)’.”
The young men: battling Muslims and ‘deviant’ Hindu girls
Meanwhile, the Bajrang Dal is also hard at work to save Hinduism in the area.
“We try very hard to work for Hindu unity. Our special focus is on ‘love jihad’ cases,” says Devraj Singh Rathore, a 21-year-old member of the outfit. Tall, lean and well-built, he wears a freshly-applied red tilak on his forehead. Rathore is an undergraduate student of commerce at a local college. His area of concern, “love jihad”, is a Hindu Right-wing theory that Muslim men “lure” Hindu women to marry them and convert them to Islam. Many police investigations have conceded in court that there is no evidence to prove the existence of this practice.
The Bajrang Dal is the youth wing of the VHP, formed in 1984 in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, when the VHP was organising a “Ram-Janki rath yatra” in the town. Ayodhya is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram and the tense communal atmosphere at the time led the government to refuse the VHP permission to carry out the procession, citing security reasons. As a result, senior leaders of the VHP had called upon the Hindu youth to protect the procession—and Hinduism—from its enemies, resulting in the formation of the Bajrang Dal.
The group organises akhadas, training camps to teach martial arts, wrestling and Hindutva ideology. Like a lot of young men, Rathore was interested in bodybuilding and wrestling, and hence started attending the local akhada in the area three years ago. “I was initially just having fun. I really got interested in Bajrang Dal activities when Deepak Makwana, the RSS pracharak from Thandla tehsil, addressed us. He said that we should think of how Muslims are united all over the world. Then why not Hindus? That really struck a chord with me.”
Devraj Singh Rathore and Gaurav Vikram, both members of the Bajrang Dal.
Rathore’s friend, 22-year-old Gaurav Vikram, sits next to him. He’s also a member of the Bajrang Dal. “There are one crore Bangladeshi Muslims and 11 lakh Rohingya Muslims in India,” Vikram says. “They run terrorist training camps inside madrassas. There’s an organisation by the name of Jaish even in Jhabua. This needs to stop or they will take over.”
However, he is unable to explain how an organisation called “Jaish” is necessarily a terrorist outfit. He says, “I will find out and tell you.”
Vikram has been running a mobile shop for the last three years. He was unable to enroll for higher education because of financial constraints at home. “They are taking over jobs, our country and our women. For the last three years, I have actively done the Hindu religion’s promotion to fight the Islamic threat,” he says.
On May 19, Rathore and Vikram will vote for the first time in a Lok Sabha election. Rathore says, “We want a government at the Centre that listens to us. The BJP government in Madhya Pradesh under Shivraj Singh was here for 15 years. Even their administration rarely listened to us when we protested against Muslims taking out Muharram processions and against ‘love jihad’ cases. Now, with the Congress government in power, there is even less scope.”
Both young men firmly believe that they “show the direction to those who get lost or deviate from the Hindu way of life”. They regularly conduct vigils in Meghnagar town, especially on Fridays and during Ramzan because that is the time “Muslim shop owners in town get together to plan anti-Hindu activities”, according to them. This has often led to many reported skirmishes between the two communities.
Rathore says, “Two years back, we had a major breakthrough. We managed to separate at least five Hindu women from their Muslim husbands in town. It was a big achievement for us. But now, our Hindu girls are deviating from our traditions at a lightning fast speed.”
To prevent “love jihad”, the local Bajrang Dal unit actively collaborates with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS, to keep tabs on every single girl in college to track whom they’re interacting with. “If we see them talking to boys, especially Muslim boys, we inform their families,” Vikram says. The girls are then stopped from coming to college regularly and only come to sit for the exams. That is one way of saving girls from ‘love jihad’ kind of situations.”
However, this tactic hasn’t been as effective as they’d hoped over the last year. When Rathore spotted the daughter of a well-known Hindu family in Meghnagar roaming around with her Muslim boyfriend, her family was informed. However, they paid no heed. When nothing worked, they tried to “explain” to the young woman that she should end the relationship immediately. Rathore says: “She was my college senior. She said, ‘there is nothing illegal in having a Muslim boyfriend’. She even threatened us with a police complaint. Imagine! We want the central government to change this law in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.”
The boys: protecting the Hindu way of life
A few kilometres inside Khacchartodi village of Meghnagar in Jhabua, in the backdrop of hillocks, stands a building under construction in a huge compound. The plaque on the building identifies it as the “Vanvasi Sashaktikaran Kendra/Forest Dwellers’ Empowerment Centre” run by the Padma Keshav Trust.
The Sewa Bharti building.
The centre currently serves as a hostel for 26 boys in the age group of 5-17 monitored by Sewa Bharti, the welfare organisation of the RSS. “We have children from many tribal communities including Damoh, Bhil, Bhilala, and Katara. It takes up to three years to make a Bhil-speaking child learn Hindi. How will they learn Indian values and build a Hindu Rashtra if they don’t learn Hindi?” asks Kailash Ameliya, the hostel’s coordinator. He is lean and wears a pigtail on his head—a tradition observed by upper caste Brahmins—and a pointy moustache. Ameliya has been associated with the organisation for the last 15 years.
Most of the boys are students of Class 2 to Class 11 in several local government-run (shasakiya) schools, Ameliya says. They are selected on the basis of a test that involves IQ, general knowledge and course-related questions. “Most of their parents are migrant labourers in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, so we get them here. The children of single parents are given priority.”
Once they complete their school education, the students are made to stay at the hostel for four more years to, as Ameliya says, integrate them into the “mainstream” way of life and “serve Bharat Mata”.
At the hostel, the students wake up at 5 am. The shakha, an RSS assembly ritual, commences at 6 am. Mango Singh Katariya, the manager of this Sewa Bharti branch, says, “We teach them how to play Indian games like kabaddi and kho-kho. We have also come up with a game called Tank War to instill feelings of nationalism in the young boys so that they can protect Bharat Mata.” Tank War is a game where each group tries to make a chain and encircle the other group to capture it. The groups are often named “India” and “Pakistan”.
Mango Singh Katariya, the manager of this Sewa Bharti branch, and Verma.
As we talk, Satyanarayan Chakradhari, a member of Vidya Bharti, the educational wing of the RSS, steps in. He announces that he was just passing by. On his arrival, both Ameliya and Katariya stop answering further questions from this reporter. Instead, Chakradhari intervenes in the conversation.
“Our aim is to protect Indian culture and values, and we can only do that by catching the children young,” he says. According to him, there are 16 Christian schools in Jhabua which convert tribal children to Christianity. Chakradhari echoes what Ashok Verma had said earlier: “5,000 people were converted to Christianity last year.”
He laments, “Can’t you see the Christian influence? Children want to celebrate birthdays by cutting cake instead of going to temples. They want to study in an English medium school. And the girls! The Western clothes, such forthrightness instead of being docile. We believe in teaching them Indian values and culture from childhood itself so that they don’t lose their way when they grow up.”
When I ask to take a photograph, Chakradhari refuses. “We don’t engage with the media. You can take pictures of the boys.”
The boys who stay in this hostel.
The 26 boys are lined up in a huge hall in the backdrop of a large Bharat Mata poster. They’re all dressed in half-sleeved shirts and pants. I’m not allowed to speak to them. They greet me in chaste Hindi and begin with a war song followed by a hymn in praise of Bharat Mata.
In the upcoming elections, this Sewa Bharti branch plans to carry out a mass drive among the hostel children to “write pamphlets on Bharat Mata and the Hindu way of life” for distribution among the local population. “So that they vote for the sons of Bharat Mata and not the Kristis,” adds Chakradhari.