Mumbai: Since the early 17th century, members of the Banjara community from across India have been gathering every year at the Pohra Devi shrine in the Washim district of Maharashtra. But this year, attempts are being made to replace the Pohra Devi pilgrimage – considered to be a vital part of the community’s belief system – with a ‘Kumbh Mela’ at Godhri village in Jalgaon, which began on January 25 and will continue until January 30.
Many community members are unhappy about this development and allege that the intention behind the Banjara Kumbh Mela, organised under the patronage of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is to “Hinduise” the nomadic community and woo them into the Hindu fold.
The Maharashtra state government has funded a large part of the six-day festival, spending close to Rs 2 crore just on sanitation for the event organised over 500 acres of land in Jalgaon district. Over 10-12 lakh people from the Banjara community from across India are expected to attend the mela. Senior RSS member Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi, Maharashtra chief minister Eknath Shinde and his deputy Devendra Fadnavis are also expected to attend.
Several rights activists and academics from the community have questioned the state government’s decision to spend the exchequer money on a private event organised for one caste. “Focusing on one community and spending government funds on it is plainly unconstitutional,” alleges Arjun Rathod, a community activist who has been campaigning against the state government and the RSS for attempting to impose “Brahminical practices” on the nomadic community.
Arjun says that suddenly two new names – Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Gaur Banjara and Labhana Naikada Kumbh – cropped up at the end of last year. “No one knows the origin of these names. These terms are alien to the community. They were floated by the RSS unit in the region just to force-fit us into their Hindutva agenda,” he claims.
In the middle of December last year, the state rural development department issued a government resolution, sanctioning Rs 2 crore for providing water and sanitation facilities for the Kumbh. Besides this, four helipads have also been built to fly in political leaders to the venue.
Prakash Rathod, an academic and community leader, says systematic work has gone into organising the Kumbh. “Banjara community across India have a similar belief system. They are more pragmatic and scientific in their belief and have very little regard for Hindu customs. But for many years, there has been a collective effort to invoke baseless stories of warriors among the Banjaras,” Prakash says.
Advocate Nihalsingh Rathod, also from the community, says, “If the government starts funding private religious activities of one caste/tribe, there won’t be an end to this. Tomorrow if an individual walks up to the state and asks them to fund his marriage, will the state do that too?” he asks.
History of Banjaras
The Banjara community has a long history of resistance, especially against the Britishers who had tried to take over their lands for plantations and enrol them as labourers. The community was branded as a “Criminal Tribe” and was subjected to severe hardships. Although the law has been repealed, the community still continues to live in abject poverty, and in many states, they look for odd jobs for sustenance.
“And for a community that has suffered injustice for centuries and continues to be ignored, such conglomeration, unfortunately, sounds attractive,” Prakash Rathod observes.
The classification of the Banjara community varies across states. In Maharashtra, they are recognised under the Vimukta Jaati and Nomadic Tribes whereas, in Rajasthan and Karnataka, they fall under the Scheduled Caste category, and come under the Scheduled Tribe category in Andhra Pradesh.
The organisers of the Kumbh Mela while dodging questions about RSS and BJP’s involvement say that the Kumbh aims to be a platform to dissuade Banjaras from converting to Christianity. “Christian missionaries have been wooing our community people and forcefully getting them converted to Christianity. This Kumbh is organised to bring Banjaras together and remind them that their ancestors were all Hindus,” said Phulsing Jadhav, one of the organisers of the Kumbh Mela.
Over the past decade, the RSS has intensified its outreach work not just with the Banjara community but with several other nomadic and denotified tribes. The Balkrishna Renke commission, in its report submitted in 2008, had estimated the total population of the community to be over 10.8 crore. These communities, because of their highly nomadic lifestyle are seldom enumerated in the population census and experts say the nomadic/denotified tribe population might actually be much higher.
“Like the Christian missionaries, the RSS and other radical Hindu outfits have aggressively begun working with these communities and invoking Hindutva sentiments among them,” shares Dinanath Waghmare, founder member of Sangharsh Wahini, an organisation that has worked with the nomadic and denotified tribes (NT and DNT) in the state.
In 2019, the Union government set up a Development and Welfare Board for De-Notified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Communities. The board was set up with the intention to identify hundreds of Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (DNT/ NT/ SNT) who were never classified as either Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), or Other Backward Classes (OBC) resulting in them being entirely left out of the reservations and all welfare schemes meant for backward communities. The key positions on the board, however, are yet to be appointed.