Rationalists have been trying to fight the ‘bhuvas’ who wield enormous influence in rural Gujarat
Ahmedabad: Days after Gujarat minister of social justice and empowerment Atmaram Parmar and education minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasma felicitated about 500 ‘bhuvas’ – or exorcists – in Parmar’s constituency, Ghadhara, Dalits in the state have castigated the two leaders for promoting harmful superstitions.
About 400 Dalits gathered in Wadhwan in Surendranagar district on June 11 and burned the effigy of Parmar, who is himself a Dalit. Three leaders amongst the Dalit protestors were identified and detained by Surendranagar police on the grounds that they did not take permission from the police for their protests at the venue. They were released later.
“It was a Sunday and we could neither have taken permission nor could we have delayed the programme. Rural Gujarat is in the grip of superstition and instead of creating awareness the two ministers ended up honouring the bhuvas. This will encourage them to practice their ‘trade’ with added vigour,” stated Natubhai Parmar, one of the Dalit leaders. “We knew we could be arrested but we felt it was important to attack this practice,” he added.
In September 2012, bhuva rituals were blamed for the death of 27 year old Lalji Sarvaiyya, a Dalit in Ankolali village of Una. Lalji was said to be in a relationship with an upper caste girl who went missing, following which her uncle called local bhuvas and conducted a ritual to find his niece. The bhuvas pointed out the Sarvaiyyas’ house and claimed that the girl was hiding there. The house was doused with kerosene, allegedly by five upper caste villagers. Lalji was burnt alive and all the possessions the family owned, including cattle, were reduced to ashes.
The case is currently being heard in the Gujarat high court. The five accused are out on bail. “We had given the names of the bhuvas involved in the incident but apart from the uncle of the girl who was directly involved in dousing our house, the court refused to include the names of other bhuvas as accomplises,” Lalji’s brother, Piyush Sarvaiyya, told The Wire.
“We were forced to leave the village but little has changed in Anklolali. Last month the same bhuvas held a huge programme (called ‘mandva’) and invited bhuvas from neighbouring villages too. Earlier there were two temples, now there are three temples in Ankolali where bhuvas of different castes worship,” he added.
Exorcism is rampant in the state and a survey conducted over 10 years ago by the NGO Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha, run by Jayant Pandya, a prominent rationalist, found about 30,000 bhuvas in Gujarat.
“The numbers must have increased over the years. The bhuvas are people who engage in all kinds of acts of superstitions and the villagers have unshaken and blind faith in them. They are called by villagers for all kinds of reasons, from snake bites to thefts, to even help in conceiving a male child,” says Pandya, who has been working against these practices since 1990. “We have exposed 2700 bhuvas who were involved in cases of exorcism and 1085 bhuvas who had been engaged in various other acts of superstition,” he added. Bhuvas also often label women as witches, which is usually to rob them of their property at the best of their relatives, says Neeta Hardikar, a tribal activist.
“Such mandwas and are not an uncommon sight in rural Gujarat. However, it is the first time that a minister has participated,” says Martin Macwan, a veteran Dalit activist and head of the NGO Navsarjan Trust.
“Dalits and tribals are the worst affected by superstitions owing to poverty and lack of access to proper education. Families who hesitate to spend on their child’s education and even curb essential spending don’t mind spending tens of thousands of rupees for a mandwa,” Macwan says.
The tradition of bhuvas in rural Gujarat goes back about two hundred years now. The practice is more rampant in areas and among communities that are economically and socially disadvantaged.
“Amongst Dalits, the practice is more prevalent in Valmikis owing to years of oppression that has kept them away from mainstream society. The dependence on these bhuvas has remained over the years due to the lack of an alternate mechanism of redressal of social issues or health issues. These villagers need proper education and health care, not a bhuva,” says Natu Parmar.
However, minister Atmaram Parmar defends his presence at the event. “The people who are protesting don’t know about Hindu culture. These are holy men of divine power. There might be a few bad men among them but all of them cannot be defamed. NGOs are behind these protests.”