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Jaipur: A fort that has long been neglected by both the Union and state governments has emerged as a symbol of tribal identity assertion in Rajasthan, after members of the Meena community pulled down a bhagwa (saffron) flag hoisted there by Hindutva organisations last week.
The 18th-century Ambagarh garrison fort is at the centre of the conflict between the Meena Scheduled Tribe (ST) community and Hindutva organisations backed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and with vocal support from the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The trouble began earlier this month, when Yuva Shakti Manch, a Hindutva organisation associated with the VHP, hoisted a saffron flag with the words ‘Jai Shri Ram’ inscribed on it, on an electric pole in the premises of the fort.
The Meenas consider the fort sacred as it houses the temple of Aamba Maata, a clan goddess of the community. According to community leaders, hoisting the bhagwa flag with the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ inscription hurt the sentiments of the Meenas.
Members of the Meena community, led by independent MLA Ramkesh Meena, gathered at the fort on July 22 and took down the flag. From a video of the incident, it appears that as the flag was being pulled down, a part of it tore off. This led to outrage by Hindutva organisations, as the video went viral on Facebook and Twitter. Both sides filed police complaints against each other at the Transport Nagar police station.
Since then, a war of hashtags between the Meena activists and Hindutva organisations has broken out on social media. While the Meenas say they are asserting their independent identity and resisting attempts at being appropriated under the Hindu religion, saffron activists are expressing outrage over the purported insult to the saffron flag.
The Sudarshan News TV channel and its editor Suresh Chavhanke, who has in the past made incendiary TV programmes, have added fuel to the fire by running a TV campaign for the saffron flag and announcing a massive gathering at Ambagarh to once again hoist the saffron flag there on August 1. Social groups in the state and several users online have accused Chavhanke of running a divisive campaign and using casteist slurs against the Meena community. A Meena youngster has filed a complaint against Chavhanke at the Ramgarh Pachwara police station and has demanded his arrest.
Tribal Army founder Hansraj Meena accused the Hindutva organisations of trying to subvert tribal identity and trying to saffronise the Meena community. “We have also instructed our members to reach Ambagarh on the same day in large numbers and carry a plant and a Tricolour flag to give out the message that we worship mother nature and are patriots,” he said.
Over the past few days, several MLAs, politicians and activists have asked chief minister Ashok Gehlot to intervene in the matter.
Rajkumar Roat, an MLA from the Bhartiya Tribal Party, told The Wire, “This is not new, it’s part of a pattern of attempted saffronisation of tribals. A similar incident had happened at the Sonar Mata temple in Salumbar (near Udaipur) last year, when RSS volunteers had replaced the traditional tribal flag with the bhagwa flag.”
While the state unit of the BJP says it has nothing to do with any social media campaign, party leaders have been tweeting in support of the demands being raised by Hindutva activists.
Laxmikant Bharadwaj, a BJP leader and former spokesperson of the party, has been vocal about the issue. He claimed, “We respect the Aamba Maata temple and the beliefs of the Meenas. Our only point is that the Meenas are a part of the Hindu religion, but some people with vested interests in the community are doing this at the behest of Congress. This is the Congress’s plan to divide Hindus.”
The Adarsh Nagar police station in-charge Neel Kamal said the police were aware of Chavhanke’s statement and will be keeping a close watch on the situation.
About the fort
Ambagarh, also known as Amagarh, was built by Sawai Jai Singh II in the 18th century. However, oral legend says it belonged to the Meenas before that. Before the Kacchwa rulers began ruling Jaipur, the area was inhabited by five confederacies of Meenas or Minas, called the Panch-Wara, according to historian Jadunath Sarkar’s book A History of Jaipur: C. 1503-1938.
Rima Hooja, historian and author of A History of Rajasthan, and several other books on the state, said a lot of forts in the state “show signs of habitation and in some cases early fortification”, prior to whichever date we know they were founded. “For instance, we know that Nahargarh and Jaigarh were mainly built by Sawai Jai Singh II, but Jaigarh already existed in the form of a little fortified space before that and it is believed that the Cheel Ka Tola part of Jaigarh was part of a Meena fortification,” Hooja said.
“So it’s entirely possible that this was true of other forts too. Which is why while Ambagarh was built as a garrison fort by Sawai Jai Singh II in the 18th century, it’s believed that it existed as a Meena fort prior to that,” she adds.
The fort, or what remains of it, lies in a state of ruin, with neither the state department of geology nor the Archaeological Survey of India taking any steps towards its conservation.