Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Sangh's new Kumbh to take Hindutva offensive to the Dangs

To tackle threat of conversions, says Sangh; five lakh people expected, activists say it will be threat to environment



Far away from the national limelight in this interior village in south-east Gujarat, the RSS and its affiliates are making preparations on a mega scale for the holding of 'Shabari Kumbh mela' early next year.

The mela—expected to be attended by around five lakh pilgrims from across the country - is part of the RSS offensive against Christian missionaries and an attempt to establish Hindutva in this adivasi-dominated district, Sangh activists at the site said.

The Dangs had hit the headlines following attacks on churches and missionary schools in December 1998. Since then, no open violence has taken place but the RSS and its affiliate organisations-notably the Hindu Jagran Manch and the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram-have been steadily working to "Hinduise" the Bhils, Konkanis, Varli and other tribes that live in the heavily forested Dangs region.

And just like the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in the 1980s, here too the legend of the Ramayana is being used to invent a new tradition. The RSS outfits have hit upon the figure of Shabari - the adivasi woman who offered 'ber' to Rama and Lakshmana when they were searching for Sita in the forest - to bring the adivasis into the Hindutva fold and counter - efforts at alleged "conversion" by Christian missionaries.

In October 2004, a grand Shabari Mata Mandir was inaugurated atop a hill near a place called Subir, 33 kilometres from the district headquarters of Ahwa. The temple supposedly commemorates the "exact spot" where Rama and Lakshmana met Shabari. Several top BJP and RSS leaders including RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi have been regular visitors to the temple.

To follow up on the success of the temple, RSS affiliates decided to hold a 'Shabari Kumbh mela' at a little natural pool formed by the Purna river which they claim is the same 'Pampa Sarovar' mentioned in the Ramayana.

The ideological 'guru' of the movement is Swami Asheemananda, a saffron-robed Bengali "saint," who arrived in the Dangs region in 1997. Speaking to The Indian Express outside the Shabari Mata Mandir, Asheemananda made no bones about the aims of the 'Shabari Kumbh Mela.'

"Hindu samaj faces two big challenges - Islamic jehad and Christian conversions. We need to confront both these threats on a global scale," he said. The four traditional kumbh melas (held at Prayag, Hardwar, Nasik and Ujjain) had begun when "Hinduism was under threat". "We thought it was time to start a fifth Kumbh to meet the threat posed by conversions in this region," Asheemananda said.

Proudly taking credit for inspiring the 1998 attacks, Asheemananda, who holds the post of Shraddha Jagran Pramukh of the All India Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (the RSS affiliate which converts tribals to Hinduism), said over the last seven years, thousands of Christian converts in the region had "returned to the Hindu fold." The Shabari Kumbh Mela, scheduled to be held for the first time from February 11-13 and then every four years, would end missionary activity in the Dangs and establish it as a key pilgrimage centre of India, he maintained.

Activists belonging to the RSS, VHP, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and other affiliates are working round-the-clock to make that a reality. A camp site has been set up at a clearing in the forest, and a kilometre-long road is being constructed from the camp to the Pampa Sarovar site.

Busloads of Gujarati tourists as well as RSS swayamsevaks have already started coming to Pampa Sarovar. At the camp site, a meeting of 'karyakartas' was being held when the Express team visited the spot. The model of 'nagars' (townships) that will soon be constructed to house the kumbh mela pilgrims is ready. A total of 40 nagars, each housing 5,000 persons, will be constructed. Apart from 'pucca' arrangements for two lakh pilgrims, tents and other facilities will accommodate another couple of lakhs, said local activist Shambhu Chavan.

Swami Asheemananda said while food and shelter would be "provided by us", the government would help in transport, medicine, water and electricity.

While Christian missionaries are keeping silent about the RSS' "peaceful offensive," adivasis in the villages around the temple and mela site as well as local activists are far from happy.

Laxman Bagul, who lives in Kangariyamal village opposite the Shabari Mata Mandir, said the villagers had already suffered because of the temple. The Kumbh Mela would make things much worse. "We are harassed by forest officials even if we cut a single tree. But over 700 trees were cut to build the Shabari temple. And thousands more will be destroyed to build the 'nagars' near the Pampa Sarovar."

Ghulabbhai Pawar of the Dangi Lok Adhikar Sangh said the Kumbh Mela posed a threat not just to the indigenous beliefs and lifestyle of the adivasis but also spelt an ecological disaster. "The entire population of the Dangs is just 1.86 lakhs. The biggest mela we have is the Dangi darbar (when the five traditional Bhil rajas are given government pension every March) which is attended by just around 10,000. A Kumbh mela with lakhs of pilgrims will completely destroy the environment of this region."

The adivasis of the district, activists said, are too poor and ignorant to resist the Hindutva offensive. And though the Dangs is dominated by the Congress - the MP, MLA and majority of sarpanches belong to the party - there is no political movement yet against the long-term implications of the Shabari Kumbh Mela on the culture and ecology of the Dangs.