Adivasi Backlash in Chhattisgarh as Police, Traders Target CPI Leader for Tribal Beliefs

An FIR has been lodged against Manish Kunjam for circulating an adivasi account of the Durga-Mahisasur conflict that upper caste migrants say hurts their religious sentiments.

Manish Kunjam, right, former MLA and president of the Adivasi Sabha, at a rally organised by the CPI in Bastar

File photo of Manish Kunjam, right, former MLA and president of the Adivasi Sabha, at a rally organised by the CPI in Bastar.

A spectre is haunting the Hindu right in Chhattisgarh: the spectre of adivasi and dalit or ‘moolnivasi’ independence from the Brahminical fold. All the powers of the old order have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, local traders, the media and above all, the police.

On September 15, Manish Kunjam, the Sukma, Chhattisgarh-based national president of the Adivasi Mahasabha, forwarded a WhatsApp message to a group he was part of. The message retold the adivasi version of the conflict between Durga and Mahisasur, a moolnivasi raja. The forward noted that in Bengal, Durga idols are considered incomplete till earth is brought from the house of a sex worker. (It is another matter that sex workers are beginning to resent this practice.) The message goes on to explain the origins of this practice, saying that the Brahmins, being unable to fairly defeat in arms the brave Santhal raja, Mahisasur, sent Durga as a beautiful woman. She plied him with alcohol and other amusements for 8 days till on the 9th day, seeing her chance, she killed him. The message goes on to say that the Brahmins not only defeated the moolnivasi raja, but actually made the adivasis worship his killer, Durga (Shakti being seen as an appropriation of an adivasi mother goddess). It also asks readers whether deities/demons with several arms and half-animal bodies can actually exist as humans, and to think rationally about these depictions. Finally, it addresses the moolnivasi samaj – who had been prevented by Brahminical ideology from reading for themselves – to awake and recognise their ideological subjection. The message ends with the words, ‘Namo Buddhai, Jai Bharat, Jai Moolnivasi’.

Many traditions, many contradictions

Manish Kunjam, leader of the Communist Party of India in Bastar. Credit: Facebook

Manish Kunjam, leader of the Communist Party of India in Bastar. Credit: Facebook

Had the sender not been Manish Kunjam, who is the leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in Bastar and an ex-MLA, the WhatApp message might have remained one of the main stories in circulation on social media describing an alternative version of history and myth, just as oral narratives circulated through the vast subcontinent with many different contradictory versions of the Ramayana, including those where Ravana emerges as the hero, and Sita a victim at the hands of a misogynist Ram.

The proliferation of Mahisasur festivals across the country may be a recent phenomenon, but the worship of Mahisasur has an old and widespread history. The Asurs of Jharkhand and West Bengal regard him as an ancestor and treat the nine days of Navratri as a period of mourning. In Mahoba, in Bundelkhand, there is an ancient Mahisasur temple which has been given protection by the Archaeological Survey of India. Santhals have held a public puja for Mahisasur on navami in Purulia district for at least the past 12 years.

The Durga-Mahisasur debate had come up in parliament even before Smriti Irani raised the Durga-Mahisasur issue. But whereas Irani brought it up to show the ‘depraved’ mentality of Mahisasur devotees, Indira Gandhi had earlier allegedly accepted the point that Durga had killed dalits and adivasis and refrained from accepting a comparison with her.

Complaint against Manish Kunjam

Unfortunately, the Congress cannot be relied on to be consistently secular, and when news of Manish Kunjam’s WhatsApp forward got around, the Youth Congress in Bastar took umbrage and its leader, Sushil Maurya, registered a complaint against Manish Kunjam in the Kotwali thana in Jagdalpur. Not to be outdone, a little known outfit called the Dharmsena filed a complaint in Sukma, and an FIR under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code (intentionally insulting the religion of a particular class) was promptly registered by the police.

Many local traders, all of whom are immigrants from Hindu upper castes and have exploited the adivasis for years, looking down on them as ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’, went to town over the supposed insult. Effigies of Manish Kunjam were burnt at various places and on September 19, the traders and police jointly ensured a bandh of Sukma town.

The adivasi resurgence

However, Manish Kunjam is also the district secretary of the CPI, and one of the best known adivasi leaders in the area, who has consistently fought against Salwa Judum and police atrocities under Operation Green Hunt, against displacement by mining companies in Bastar, and for the introduction of the Sixth Schedule of the constitution, which would better guarantee adivasi rights than the Fifth Schedule has done.


Leaflet issued by the Sarv Adivasi Samaj in Bastar in defence of Manish Kunjam

Once the news got around that their leader was being targeted, all the moolnivasi communities of Bastar began to protest. There are several adivasi communities in Bastar – Halbas, Bhatras, Koyas (Gonds), Dhurwas and several groups which are classed as SC or OBC like the Maharas, Pankas, Rauts, and others – who collectively regard themselves as Bastariya. The CPI has tried hard in recent years to bring them under the common banner of moolnivasi, in its struggle for the Sixth Schedule. There are also umbrella bodies like the Sarv Adivasi Samaj or Sarv Samaj.

Significantly, all of them have issued statements condemning the case against Manish. For instance, the Koya Samaj has said that Mahisasur is worshipped in Bastar and the FIR is an attempt by some forces to impose their Brahminical Hindu ideology on weaker sections like adivasis. They say that adivasis have the right to worship whoever they like, and it should not concern anyone else. They also point out that the entire case has been drummed up to weaken the adivasi struggle for jal, jangal and zameen (water, forests and land) in which Manish Kunjam has been a primary voice. Another press release issued on September 22 by the Sarv Adivasi Samaj has also strongly condemned the FIR against Kunjam and called for an FIR to be registered under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against those who levied the charges in the first place.

The provisions of the Act certainly seem to be attracted in this case, with its effigy burning and other attacks on a respected tribal leader, quite apart from the way in which the gory killing of Mahisasur is depicted and celebrated. Section 4 of the Amendment Act adds the following to Section 3:

‘Whoseover being non-SC/ST…

(p): institutes false, malicious or vexatious suit or criminal or other legal proceedings against a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe;

(t) destroys, damages or defiles any object generally known to be held sacred or in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes.

Explanation.––For the purposes of this clause, the expression “object” means and includes statue, photograph and portrait;

(u) by words either written or spoken or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise promotes or attempts to promote feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will against members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes;

(v) by words either written or spoken or by any other means disrespects any late person held in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes;

shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years and with fine.’

The Sukma Koya Samaj has called for a bandh on September 26, and in the meantime, irate villagers have attempted to shut down weekly markets in Nama (September 20), Korra (September 21), and Kukanar (September 23). Predictably, the police has been working with traders to foil this, and the media has dutifully reported it as a case of poor traders being done out of business and of disappointed village shoppers. Never mind that the same people who are sending these WhatsApp messages condemning the market closures are the same Salwa Judum/Samajik Ekta Manch/Agni leaders who shut down weekly markets for years during Salwa Judum and still prevent villagers from the interior visiting markets.

Previous cases

This is not the first time an attempt to insult adivasis has boomeranged on the Hindutva forces in Chhattisgarh. Earlier this year, journalist cum social activist Vivek Kumar in Manpur, Rajnandgaon was arrested for two months for a Facebook post on Durga and Mahisasur which he had posted two years previously. A March 12 rally by Hindutva forces shouting ‘Mahishasur (Bhainsasur) ki auladon ko, jutey maro salon ko’ (‘it’s time to hit the followers of Mahisasur with shoes’) then resulted in a counter FIR against them.

In 2014, the Delhi police had raided the office of Forward Press in Delhi, for publishing articles on Mahisasur and filed a case against its editor and owner, Pramod Ranjan. However, this has only made him more determined to research and spread the word on Mahisasur and other suppressed Bahujan heroes.

Bastar administration’s response

A clearly shaken administration which has always sided with upper caste immigrants against the adivasis and dalits they are constitutionally charged to serve is now trying to mobilise the traditional pargana majhis – or headmen – against Kunjam. Many of these people left their villages after Salwa Judum and started siding with the administration.

It remains to be seen who will win in this battle between the state-backed forces of the Hindu right and a resurgent adivasi population.

Nandini Sundar is a professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics. Her latest book is The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar (Juggernaut, 2016)