The Conquest of Chattisgarh: Unearthing Sangh Ascendancy In The State

Odisha followed by Madhya Pradesh enacted the so called Freedom of Religion Acts for the first time in India. State of Chattishgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh which inherited the same law. Recently media reported of a series of Ghar Wapsi and attacks on Christians led by Dinesh Kashyap, a BJP MP from Jagdalpur, Chattishgarh. I joined a fact finding team that went to Jagadalpur and since then, I visited a couple of time to understand the state of Adivasi Christians in the state.

Chattisgarh Christians have withstood the vicious attacks even before Independence of the country. Their story is not  just a story of marginalisation of faith and religion; but also for their right to exist as Adivasis; fighting for Izzat led by the honourable tribal leader, Jaipal Singh Munda, on the ground as well as in the Constituent Assembly.

Even though, Kandhamal/Odisha has witnessed the largest and biggest attacks on the Christians in India; Chattisgarh is facing the longest anti-christian violence in the history of India. This article is divided into two parts; one on their struggle for faith and second one on education vis the designs of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), an arm of right wing Hindutva Sangh Parivar.

The History of Freedom of Religion

The Raigarh State Conversion Act, 1936 requires submission of the application of the willing convert before the designated court. Raigarh law was actually a hindrance placed by the government officials to thwart the missionaries and the oppressed classes of Hindus, such as Adivasis not to adopt religions other than hinduism.

The Sarguja State Apostasy Act, 1945, required a person to notify the government of his intended Conversion three months in advance, and no change of faith was legal without state sanction. Udaipur State Conversion Act, 1946 required all conversions from Hindu religion to other faiths to be registered officially. The enactment banned the preaching of Christianity and prohibited the entry of Christian missionaries into the Kingdoms of Raigarh, Jashpur, Surguja etc. of Chhotanagpur areas.

Surguja State Hindu Apostasy Act, 1945 was the second enactment on conversion from Hinduism to Islam and Christianity by vesting the power to allow or disallow conversion in the Darbar of the Rajas under the guise of maintaining law and order and establishing public peace.[1]

The Central Province and Berar Safety Act, 1947 forbade a person from converting another without the sanction of the District Magistrate. This clause was, of course, dropped upon its re-enactment a year later.[2]

These anti-conversion laws show its caste-based anti-tribal, anti-Dalit logic. In 1793, East India Company’s Permanent Settlement Act had resulted in the dispossession of those deemed tenants by giving landlords the power to further exploit, harass, even evict mostly tribal communities from their own lands. Some missionaries were able to act as advocates in courts for those being exploited by the landlords. It is precisely to stop this challenge to zamindari exploitation that the princely state resorted to the anti-conversion laws.[3]

The Madhya Pradesh Christian Missionary Activity Enquiries Committee  known as Niyogi commission report(1956) hatched by Congress and Rastriya Swayam Sevak Sangh enquired the alleged missionary activities aimed at conversion became ‘handy’ to enact for ‘ Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act 1968 after unsuccessful attempts in 1958 and 1963. The Madhya Pradesh ‘Freedom of Religion Act 1968’ , requires that a convert produce a legal affidavit that s/he was not under any pressure, force, or allurement to convert but was converting by own will and desire after evaluating the religion properly. Further, according to this law, anyone who writes or speaks or sings of ‘divine displeasure’ (with an intention to induce forced conversion by means of threat) can be imprisoned for a period of up to two years and fined up to five thousand rupees.[4]

Madhya Pradesh became the second state to enact the Act after the state of Odisha (1967).  The Freedom of Religion Act was challenged in both the states’ High Courts. While Odisha High Court scrapped the Act, Madhya Pradesh High Court upheld it. The Supreme Court heard the matter and upheld the Madhya Pradesh Court ruling vis Rev Stanislaus vs Madhya Pradesh, 1977 SCR (2) 611 by drawing ‘a specious distinction between a fundamental right to propagate (that the judge ruled is constitutional) against a ‘right to convert’ (that the judge ruled does not exist) laid out in Article 26 of the Constitution.  He arrived at this conclusion because the judge reasoned that one’s right to convert violates another’s freedom of conscience, and therefore is untenable.[5]

I know it was on this word ‘propagate’ that the Indian Christian community laid the greatest emphasis, not because they wanted to convert people aggressively, but because the word ‘propagate’ was fundamental part of their tenet. Even if the word were not there, I am sure, under the freedom of speech which the Constitution guarantees it will be open to any religious community to persuade other people to join their faith. So long as religion is religion, conversion by free exercise of the conscience has to be recognised.”
—K M Munshi, Constituent Assembly debates.[6]

The constitutional law scholar, H.M.Seervi termed the verdict of Supreme Court as “productive of greatest public mischief”.[7]

Rajeev Dhavan, senior Supreme Court lawyer and constitutional expert stated: “The decision of the Supreme Court in the Stainislaus case is flawed for many reasons. Yet, it has been portrayed as the last word. What is needed is to examine the constitutional dispensation on religious freedom afresh inorder to reappraise the anti-conversion legislation as a danger to the secular fabric that holds India together.”[8]

Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act 18 of 2006 has been passed to further amend the Chattisgarh Dharma Swantantraya Adhiniyam [Freedom of Religion] Act, 1968 (No. 27 of 1968). The act has rather damning features curtail the religious freedom of the citizen while giving a leeway to Hinduism; a. “Provided that the return in ancestor’s original religion or his own original religion by any person shall not be construed as ‘conversion’, b. Holds the religious priest to ask permission from the district magistrate, c. Empowers the district magistrate to order enquiry, permit or refuse any person to convert from one religion to another, d. Ensures the District Judge decision binding, moreover, it provides blanket protection to the officials, ‘ No civil court shall entertain any suit or proceeding against any decision made or order passed by any officer or authority under the Act or any rule made under.

Chattishgarh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) 2006 Act makes mockery of the freedom of religion as well as dignity of human person as if adult citizen has no conscience to decide what is good for him/her rather than some other person must decide what is right for him/her. It is insult to the person. It presumes citizen has no conscience to decide.

Dr. Faizan Mustafa, Vice-Chancellor, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad reasons, “These laws were passed at the behest of rich landlords who had a vested interest in keeping the Scheduled Cases and Scheduled Tribes in a state of poverty and unconstitutional bondage so that their vested interest would not be hampered”.

Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the Face of Sangh Parivar

V.D. Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha asked the Governor  if there would be any objection to Hindu schools being set up in the district and was told that the Government ‘would give them every encouragement and thus VKA was launched.

Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) traces its inception to the black flags and slogans (beings raised) demanding (the formation of) Jharkhand with which Jashpur tribes greeted Ravi Sankar Shukla on his first time to the area after becoming Chief Minister of central provinces. This (showing of the black flags and slogans) was done under the influence of Christian missionaries. Ravi Shankar Shukla then consulted Thakkar Bappa (General Secretary, Harijan Seva Sangh, a brain child of Mahatma Gandhi) and on the advice of P.G.Vannikar, they identified R.K. Deshpande of the RSS as someone who could be sent to close down the work of Missionaries. Deshpande followed Vannikar’s (Vannikar had set up schools for Bhils in Mandla) example by setting up schools in precisely those villages where Christians already had primary schools. The VKA, which has branches all over the country, runs play-schools, primary and middle schools, hostels and health centres, mainly because these are the activities that the Christian missions are well-known for.[9]

Deshpande, an associate of two former RSS Chiefs and a relative of 3rd RSS Chief Balasaheb Deoras arrived in Jashpur in 1948 and founded Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in 1951[10]. VKA credits its growth to both late  Maharaja Vijaybhushan and late  Dilip Singh Judeo for their continuous support to take on the Christian missionaries.[11]

VKA ideology remains as variant as its origin to the general public, its three basic strategies are; 1) primarily focus on hinduising tribals as necessarily for mainstreaming Hindu rashtra with twin objectives: to ‘bring them back’ to Hindu faith and to ‘check’ the conversions to Christianity 2) Use its influence in Tribal areas to secure electoral gains along with other Sangh Parviar outfits strategically to outscore Congress in the region 3) Activities geared towards creating communal tensions and  sectarian violence in tribal areas, as elsewhere, are accompanied by a spread of literature full of hatred towards minorities. This has been well documented in The Hinduisation of Tribals in India[12]

VKA, a threat to Christian Minorities

VKA never wavered on its sole mission to convert tribes to Hinduism and wean them away from Christian missionaries. Deshpande was also instrumental in the work of the Niyogi commission, which led to the passing of anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.

[13]

The documentary, Fishers of Men by Ranjan Kamath captures the terrorization of the Christian community with anti-christian propaganda and killing of a Christian adivasi  led by VKA workers with the support of Jashpur Royal Family, traumatising the Christians in the region while it augmented the Ghar Wapsi and consolidation of Hindutva forces in the state. Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams are at the forefront of a violent campaign to reassert Hindu identity and ‘reconvert’ adivasis to Hinduism. Violence is justified in this strategy in part because the ‘reconversion’ are so central to Sangh ideology’s very sustenance and also because the process of regaining this Hindu Rashtra is embedded within a rhetoric of regaining a lost manhood.[14]

Dr.Saumya Pandey, Assistant Professor at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) captures the role of VKA in the region, seemingly a joint platform of government and Sangh Parivar, ‘Earlier the Hindu and Christian neighbors had very friendly relations but each community feels threatened with the other;  simmering discontent and conflict growing between the two communities and if unchecked this could lead to violence in future. Religion is used as a tool to reach out to people, gain acceptance and then proliferate the VRA’s agenda of spreading the feeling of hatred against the “other” community.  VKA proudly says that they have made a difference with their existence. Yes, the difference has manifested: now the adivasi children and elders all have learnt to shout “Jai Shri Ram” even though their issues of land rights, bread, clothing, and shelter remains underplayed and their attention diverted! VKA seems to have succeeded in indoctrinating the tribals with the view that they are indeed Hindus and that Christians are their enemies. In the end, one must realise that the space occupied by the communal outfits has largely corresponded with the unconcerned withdrawal of the state from quarters which meant a great deal for the common masses.[15]

VKA, A Threat to plural and diversity ethos of the Nation

RSS credits VKA that the Christian missionary enquiry activities report as ‘another most commendable mission that was accomplished during Deshpande time was the work of Niyogi Commission’[16]

Prof Nandini Sundar underlines, “Rightwing of Congress and Jana Sangh that went in the form of Christian missionaries’ Enquiry commission in 1950s. This remains an important weapon for Hindutva brigade today….In a situation of rising Hindu chauvinism, it is the Christian minority which is under threat and a bogey of conversion is used more to terrorise this minority more than to maintain the freedom of tribes”. [17] The Niyogi report was the culmination of lies, threats, rumours, harassments, conflicts and hate propaganda against Christians as well as source of conflicts for future. The report instigated hate-propaganda, conversion and reconversion, anti-conversion laws in several states making conflicts and communal riots as an act which got state impunity for the violent fanatics meanwhile throwing the Christians of the country into anxiety and insecurity.

VKA’s portal informs that it is a social service organisation of Vanvasis. The people are called by Britishers as Adivasis. VKA concentrates from education to promotion of culture and tradition and lately forays into water, forests and lands in 375 tribal districts in India and its students are in every walks of life including army. [18]

Jaipal Singh, the undisputed and the only tribal leader to participate in Constituent Assembly debate appealed to India not to use the word ‘Vanvasi/Vanjati’ rather use Adivasi as the word has grace while the other is abusive.

The Sangh Parivar’s efforts to recast adivasi’s as vanvasi with the aim of projecting Hindus as indigenous to the people of  is a clever tactic of their project of a Hindu Rashtra. The reason why the Sangh denies Adivasis the status of the original dwellers is that it runs counter to its own claim that the Aryans, who brought Vedic civilization to the country, are the original inhabitants of the land.[19]

VKA ideologues note that unlike the Ramakrishna mission or the Jesuits, many of whose graduates go on to the well paying jobs, their emphasis is not education as per se. As one VKA ideologue said, “Our real and ultimate objective is Dharm Jagaran (religious awakening)”. Schools are merely an easy way to draw people into our fold. Indeed, some of them are quite clear that the teaching of Hinduism is not the goal, but our ‘aim is to keep the Christians out.

This is quite alarming as the hinduisation of the Adivasi with hatred machine sets off a huge agenda to destroy the Adivasi community not just in Chattisgarh, but as the ‘successful experiment’ are being replicated in Tribal India robbing of Adivasi of their very culture and identity. This experiment is not just simply damage to the Adivasi community, but to the nations’ life itself: challenging the very life of social, secular democratic republic.

Saffron Education Agenda

VKA owes it origin to saffron education agenda as an entry to the tribal world of Jasphur to counter the ‘missionary’ schools. Initially, it trained its gun on non-missionary school children enrolling in its own managed schools/hostels or slowly, but steadily pushing its on governments’. Presently, it has eyes on the Christian minority schools.

Ramakant Keshav Deshpande, a relative of the third RSS supremo was initiated into RSS by is founder, Dr.Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. After independence Balasaheb was appointed by the then Ravi Shankar Shukla Government to work in tribal dominated Jashpur area as ‘Regional Officer’ of the ‘Tribal Development Scheme’. Balasaheb insisted upon opening 100 government schools in just one go in the tribal areas to counter the missionaries and he did so overruling all objections and difficulties in 1948. Even the late Thakkar Bappa viewed it as the most difficult task and promised to visit the area if this was accomplished.[20]

The strategy is to open up the schools wherever the Christian missionaries have the schools to ensure that they are closed down. The Shukla government is so annoyed with the Christians; it hardly mattered whether it is government or VKA schools as long as it countered Christian missions’ schools. One could conclude that the government did whatever it could do support the anti-christian mission schools campaign.

Prof Nandini Sunder sheds light on how the vitiated campaign against Christian schools were launched by Hindu Mahasabha and Gandhians like AV Thakkar with the support of state government. Verrier Elwyn, the anthropologist, who differed with Gandhians like AV Thakkar on the assimilation of adivasi in mainstream society joined hands with him alongside of Madan Mohan Malavia (He was awarded with Bhrat Ratna by Modi government), had dual members of Congress as well as Hindu Mahasabha to ensure that the government does not support teachers training institute to Christian mission. Ramakant Deshpande, a government official; but worked on the direction of RSS; eventually ‘setting up of hindu schools precisely those villages where Christians have already schools’.

The goal was clear to vitiate not only education of the tribal children, but to divide the communities based on religion as well as force upon christens missions to shut down the schools and leave the area.[21] Sangh Parivar communal education agenda being implemented by Saraswati Sishu Mandirs, Vidya Bharati and ‘EKal’ Vidyalayas ‘have very distinct and a clearly spelt out-agenda to ‘ save the tribals from the grave danger from Christianity to “save” the nation”.  RSS/VKA facilitates the divisive ‘indoctrination of intolerance for non-hindus from the early age in their schools and hostels’. Communalism: Narratives in Chattisgarh, EPW, January 12, 2008. ‘VKA ideologues note that VKA emphasis is not education per se. Our real and ultimate aim is Dharma Jagaran (religious awakening) and schools are only an easy way to draw people to our fold. Indeed, some of them are very clear that even teaching Hinduism is not the goal; our main aim is to keep the Christians out’. [22]

The Sangh Parivar elements have set their eyes on Christian schools. The Vicar General of Jagadalpur Catholic Diocese and Bastar President of VHP issued a joint statement; agreeing that the term Father’ can be replaced and addressed asPracharya’ or Up-pracharya’ in Catholic Schools, putting up photographs of “Maa Saraswati” in schools and work together for the development of the region.We are peace loving and sensitive citizens. We have agreed to accommodate local sentiments as goodwill measures and harmony for the people in the area’, a CMI priest, explained the reason behind the joint statement. The Carmelites of Mary Imaculate (CMI) congregation, in collaboration with the Diocese, runs several reputed schools and hospitals in the region. Arun Pannalal, President, Chattisgarh Christian Forum (CCF) has a different take. “The Joint Press Meet and statement might set a precedent and the Hindutva forces could play mischief and try to impose themselves on our schools all over’. The community seemed to be divided as how to respond to the onslaught of the well-planned strategy of the communal forces in tacit support of the state.

Mr.Pannalal’s fear seems to be confirmed. The District Education Officer shot off letters to Christian run Schools with attached copies of Right to Information (RTI) information application filed by Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers in Jagadalpur dated 20th February 15 to provide information on 1) the number and places of statues and crosses and religious photos in the schools; 2) Rule or Order of the State that allows the religious statues in the schools; 3) List of hindu children studying in the schools; 4) Details of the land and recognition of the schools by the state.

The schools have been asked to provide the information as per the RTI Act to the applicant within a time period; failing to provide the information the school authorities would be held responsible.

According to the RTI Act, the information should be given to the applicant within a time period; failing which the responsible persons will be liable for punishment. The notice set alarm bells among the school authorities.

Fr.Tarcitius Toppo of Raigarh Diocese says that the standard of education of children imparted in the state is being compromised. ‘The Texts have been saffronised and history is being rewritten; freedom of faith and practice of our Christian children in government hostels are curtailed as they are not encouraged and in some cases not allowed to practise Sunday Service as before”. A lady teacher wanted to remain anonymous when the school received a circular to give the list of minority community children. They believe there could be hidden motive as to why no mention of Hindu religion in the RTI query. Moreover, it is further revealed that the government-run hostels bar their students to join for Sunday Prayers.

The children, tribal community, the society and the nation is being harmed. The very purpose of education is being questioned and all of it is done with a hidden agenda.

Ajaya Kumar Singh is a social activist

http://www.countercurrents.org/2017/05/10/the-conquest-of-chattisgarh-unearthing-sangh-ascendancy-in-the-state/