I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it
Evelyn Beatrice Hall
Durga pooja and Dussehra may be a day of celebration of Brahmanic Hindus of India. But not for the Adivasis. It is also the day when their ancestors/gods are killed and their killing is being celebrated. But not anymore. A case has been slapped upon people who celebrate Mahishasura vadh. For the first time in the history of India, the Adivasis have asserted culturally against the celebration of Mahishasura vadh.
In Pakhanjor of Kanker district the Adivasi Moolnivasis first warned the authorities not to permit the non-Adivasis to celebrate Durga pooja and defame their devta Mahishasur. It is assumed that the district administration had warned the pooja committee members too. When this could not prevent members of Adivasi-Moolnivasi organisation went ahead to register an FIR against the insult on Mahishasura. Lokesh Sori the Kanker district Vice-President of SC/ST Morcha is the applicant and a case has been registered under sections 153(a), 295(a) and 298 of IPC. District Collector M.L. Kotwani has confirmed the registration of FIR against members of organising committee of Durga pooja festival celebration in Pakhanjor. He has informed that those accused are now absconding and they are being traced through their mobile numbers at present. Shobaraj Agrawal, Sub-Divisional Officer-Police (SDO-P) of Pakhanjor police station has also confirmed the case and said the lookout for the culprits is on.
People from Adivasi communities over the past one year had come together during different time, means and phases and exchanged their learning and understanding of true history on which they decided to take concrete action this year. It was with this assertion they marshalled their courage and with the blessing of brave ancestors they took a bold step this round.
The first news came from Raigarh when Adivasi communities in nearly 10 panchayats resolved not to celebrate Durga pooja and burning of effigy of Ravana this year. The Sarpanchs from these 10 panchayats came together and submitted a memorandum to the Police Station in charge in Raigarh. These include presidents from Khamhar, Gorpar, Khadgoan, Pandrapani, Puchiyapani, Nagoi and two other panchayats. The Block panchayat member had also signed the memorandum.
In Mohla-Manpur of Rajnandgoan district under the banner of Sarva Adivasi Moolnivasi Samaj a memorandum was addressed to the Governor of Chhattisgarh through the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM). The memorandum signed by nearly 20 persons including the former MLA of Daundi-Lohara Janaklal Thakur notes –
‘We the Adivasi Moolnivasi people neither follow the rites and rituals of Hindu religion nor involve in any of them. We have our unique tradition and culture. According to this Ravana and Mahishasura are our ancestors and therefore we worship them. However, Hindu religious scriptures have described them as Rakshasa (demon) and for ages these ancestors have been insulted. Therefore keeping in mind the sentiments of Adivasi Moolnivasi people we request you to ban the effigy burning of Ravana and scorning of Mahishasura in Scheduled Area with immediate effect. This is essential to ensure our rights upheld in the Constitution.’
In Sukma the Sarpanch’s have come to form a Union of Sarpanchs. The president of the union Manju Kawasi submitted on behalf of all the Sarpanchs of Sukma district. The Sarpanchs have had detailed discussion on the matter before placing it in the memorandum format. The memorandum reads like –
‘We are the indigenous and Adivasi people of India. Our faith is based on nature worship and ancestor worship and we still continue this tradition. Since India is a secular nation and accordingly people of all religion, culture and traditions live here and are respected. But Adivasis are not Hindus. This has been confirmed by the Supreme Court of the country. Since Adivasis are not Hindus, it is an insult of the community’s ancestors Ravana, Kumbhakaran and Mahishasura being burnt and killed. Such insult of religion and faith of any community is strictly prohibited by the Constitution of India.
In accordance with Article 244 under Part-X of India’s Constitution, Adivasis have been guaranteed special rights in Fifth Scheduled. In Scheduled Areas Adivasis worship Ravana, Kumbhakaran and Mahishasura whom others refer as rakshasas (demon). Hindus burn and kill our ancestors is not only an infliction of wound on community cultural but it is an act of treason. In Fifth Scheduled Area it is would lead to action under provisions of SC/ST (PoA) Act and Section 124A of IPC. Even there are provisions to terminate officials who support such crime. Therefore we request you that in the cultural heartland of Adivasis do not let our ancestors be burnt. Do not to give permission for any such activity.’
It is a major victory considering the facts that the Adivasis can’t even worship their own God openly. In Rokda village of Janjgir-Champa there is a Mahisashura (Bhaisasur) shrine worshipped by Adivasis and Dalits. There are many similar instances which many times the community out of fear do not garner the courage to express openly. They fear that they would be immediately identified as followers of Asura parampara (tradition) and sanskruti (culture), which could follow with repercussion on community from dominant sections. The fear that state institutions would view them as rakshasas (demons or criminals in modern terms), look them down, target and corner them had kept them off the mainstream means of expressing their history and culture.
Who Are The Asuras?
Anand Neelakantan boldly authored the book Asura where he takes the reader on a rollercoaster of different world from the perspective of Asuras, especially that of Ravana and Bhadra. He therefore reversed the reading pattern of Ramayana from that one had known till date. Almost two years ago there was a documentary Ravanayana I heard of, where the director of the film intended to retell the story of Ramayana from the point of view of Ravana, the king of Lanka. India is a land of mythologies which do not hold any scientific base. I could not see the documentary till date. However, the story of Mahishasura vadh and Ravana vadh are part of Hindu mythologies which have blinded the masses of India without any scientific evidences.
Mahishasura is termed as the buffalo-demon and every year across India Durga pooja is pompously celebrated with a lot of fervour recollecting his killing. Ravana the ten-headed demon was assumedly killed on the third day of Mahishasura vadh and the festival of Dussehra is celebrated to commemorate the victory of Rama over Ravana. Whatever the mythologies and their contexts be, there has always been a counter story to the same. Many indigenous communities – particularly Adivasis and Dalits and in some cases a few other backward communities – in different parts of India consider Mahishasura and Ravana as their ancestral Gods. There are many folktales, music, songs, paintings, musical dramas, etc. that are popular in many parts of India.
As an anthropologist, I have been studying culture of various First Nation (indigenous) communities for nearly two decades. Such stories are commonly placed as a contest between good and evil. There are two key questions in it. One is who decides what is good and what is evil. Second is, for the Aryans all Dravidian indigenous leaders and even masses were potential centres of evil. Many of the indigenous and Dravidian social groups have rejected this notion of good and evil and have their own stories around the same issue.
As a social scientist I very well understand the importance of such community beliefs in the life and system of indigenous groups and am aware of various nuances of it. It also goes against the mainstream belief and thought that has percolated and permeated amidst the Indian society. It is in contrast with the Hindu mythological tales where both Mahishasura and Ravana are depicted as Rakshasa (demon), while in indigenous stories they are Rakshaks (saviours or fighters). One need not agree to the indigenous faith and belief system; however they do not hold the right to condemn or reject such myths either. Many communities regularly worship both Mahishasura and Ravana and there are hundreds of temples dedicated to both these gods in India and in many parts of the world. It is ironic that some people call for uniform code of religion and belief. It is in this context this debate becomes all the more critical.
Grounds for the New Countercultural Movement in Chhattisgarh
Adivasis from different parts of Chhattisgarh have warned the government not to allow people to burn the effigy of Ravana as it hurts their religious sentiments. It is for the first time that in Chhattisgarh the Adivasis have taken this bold step against the wind that has been blowing till now. Beyond the academic rhetoric, the community had gone ahead to take concrete action. It began in October 2014 when Vivek Kumar a social activist from Manpur of Rajnandgoan district of Chhattisgarh forwarded a comment against the Mahishasura vadh by Durga in a WhatsApp group. It was also the context when the office of Forward Press was ransacked and raided. With BJP coming to power in the centre the right wing Sangh Parivar took it out with all their strength and the dominant caste sections filed an FIR against him. He was accused of insulting Hindu sentiments along with creating a divide between Savarnas and other ‘lower’ castes. When he was not arrested the Hindu organisations took out several rallies and called for Manpur bandh on several occasions. Several houses of Adivasis, Dalits and OBCs were ransacked. These protests came out with slogans such as Mahishasur Ke Aulado Ko; Juta Maro Salo Ko (Children of Mahishasura; Beat those rascals with shoes). Finally he was arrested and remained in jail for several months before he was released. In the meantime thousand of Adivasis, Dalits and OBCs came in his support.
In October 2016 when Vijay Khandekar was arrested in Mungeli for assumedly defaming goddess Durga on his Facebook timeline, it erupted into a debate on the same issue among the Dalit sections in the state. In fact Khandekar only copied and pasted a message that has been already trolling for some time over WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media. This incident created a riot like situation between the dominant castes and Satnamis in Mungeli. After being in jail for four months, he got conditional bail from the High Court of Chhattisgarh in which he was restricted from entering Mungeli district. He was placed as a person with ‘criminally dangerous’ intention.
It is during the same time the National President of Adivasi Mahasabha and CPI leader Manish Kunjam of Sukma issued a public statement, ‘I am the son of Mahisashura and Ravana. They are my ancestors and as per Adivasi culture our ancestors are our Gods. Stop killing our devta every year.’ This was a bold statement from the tall Adivasi leader. Apart from hurling abuses on social media, Kunjan was physically attacked by Hindu organisations in Jagdalpur while he was conducting a press conference in CPI district office.
What was more significant in this entire episode is that it gave birth to a series of discussion and debate across the state among the Adivasis and Dalits on community culture, history and ethics. Pitambar Nirala of Dalit Mukti Morcha says, ‘neither Hindu devas are good nor Asuras are bad. Ravana was the king of the unknown multitudes – an able and good ruler, a kind human to his subjects, a scholar par excellence without any parallel, physically strong person with the strength of 10 men, a maestro in Veena music and so on. That is why Lanka prospered under his rule. There was no poverty or famine during his age.’
In many of those villages where people were conscious, particularly Dalits and Adivasis community members, they resolved not to celebrate Durga pooja and Dussehra anymore. Parallel to this at another level, Community Organisations and Social Organisations got engaged in severe discussion on questions such as Who is Mahisashura? Who is Ravana? Why are they killed every year? Youths in particular began to raise these questions with community elders, leaders, bards, researchers and other persons with knowledge on community aspects. These young men and women from the community went on to read more about their own history as retold from a non-Brahminical perspective. Group reading and sharing of what they learnt from these different sources went around.
They searched and researched who were these two characters Mahisashura and Ravana where they figured out Asura was one of their own oldest clans that fought brave battles against the Aryan invaders. They found the theoretical postulation that whosoever fought against the Arayan invasion were in fact the community’s freedom fighters who turned out to be a star in the sky. As per these beliefs these ancestors have becomes their Duma or devta or God in modern English parlances. It is these Dumas who have been regularly placed as devils, demons and centre of all evil. They in fact were good people, who fought the battery of external invasions of Aryans and others. That is the key reason why they have been revered and worshiped even today in many parts of India – from North to South.
Digree Prasad Chauhan a leader of Dalit Mukti Morcha says, ‘cultural imperialism of Hindutva has been blinded our people. Hence we need to break such shackles of slavery that killed our ancestors where the killers are worshiped. All those who were killed may it be Eklavya, Mahishasura, Ravana, Shambhug, Bali, Holika are our debtas and such moves needs to have a complete stop for all times. Moolnivasis have to be affirmative about what their true history is.’
Priyanka Sandilya an Adivasi scholar notes that, ‘how long we Adivasis should carry the label as Hindu slaves? How long are our Asura tribes to hide in fear of Durga’s anger during the period of navaratri? It is time to affirm that we are not the descendents of Aryan invaders or of their religion. We are who we are and what we are. We are the First Nations and no Hindu god belongs to us. Rather all those who are depicted as Rakshasas are our true god as they were our freedom fighters, our saviours. They posed severe threat to the external invaders and therefore were branded as Rakshasas.’
For the past few years, many students and youths at the university level have been observing the season of Durga pooja as Mahishasura Martyrdom Day (and week). Since then a nationwide debate emerged across the country, including the Indian parliament on evidentiary facts of such festivities where killings are glorified and certain particularly social groups are vilified thoroughly. However this counterculture movement at the village and community level is a new development that has given rise to the current action. This initiative from Chhattisgarh is an attempt to revive the indigenous culture and rescue the gods from the chains of Brahminical systems.
Stories of Mahishasura Martyrdom
Durga pooja was first celebrated in Dinajpur Rajbari in present-day Bangladesh in the 14th century. Since then, the celebration has transformed from a “landlord’s festival” to a community one. However, despite this seeming homogenisation, all these poojas and celebrations are dominated by the upper caste Brahmins and Kayasthas, where Dalits and other lower caste masses are disallowed mostly.
Quoting from a report of Hindustan Times Ranchi edition published on October 2, 2014, Malati Asur says, ‘Devas are power-hungry people. Whenever anyone has challenged them, they branded them as devils. Our ancestors always challenged them so they were branded as demonic figures.’
The slaying of Asuras by the devas might be an ‘ancient truth’ that the ‘Savarnas’ have conveniently made us forget our true history. ‘During Durga Pooja, the Asur tribe in Jharkhand, lock themselves up in their houses during the day and come out in the night to mourn the death of their king, Mahishasura. They fear that if they come out during the day, the devas would slay them,’ says the report in Hindustan Times. This provides a basis to the myth of the Asur community.
In Bengal Asuras observe a state of mourning during the period of navaratri. Similarly the Ravana worshippers in Haryana also observe mourning during the same period. It is period of sorrow and sadness when the world is celebrating the assassination of their god. In Bundhelkhand (Madhya Pradesh & Uttar Pradesh) Dalits worship Mahisashura to rescue them from calamity like drought, bad crops, epidemics, etc. Similar belief systems exist in parts of Haryana, Telengana, Jharkhand, Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamilnadu.
The Adivasis, Dalits, OBCs and other indigenous people have filed cases in different places. It is more important since it is the community that has come forward to take this bold step to file their protest and resistance against the maligning and vilifying their faith under the ambit of celebration of a Hindu festival. The community consciousness speaks loud. It is all the more relevant as the efforts are aimed to re-read history from the prism of the First Nations who have been hitherto kept as secondary subaltern citizens of an independent nation. Thus a reversal of history reading is not just the compulsion of indigenous philosophy rather it is an essential pre-requisite to understand the inhuman history and culture that has been until now glorified by Indian society in the name of culture.
History has always been narrated from the winner’s point of view and regretfully losers are always posed as the villain. However, the filtered version of these epics provides ample scope to read the unwritten history of the First Nations, particularly with the rich pedestal of geo-centric culture and tradition. This is where researchers, scholars, intellectuals and writers from community go beyond the shadows under which one is instructed to walk and learn to unearth the true history. Such epical scriptures passed down from generation to generation prove it is not all black and white as have been told us time and again to believe. Every character is a shade of grey and even those painted the worst have more beauty than the ones painted as the best. Let there be a reversal of history from the chains of Brahminism to a more human indigenous First Nation one!
The author is an activist and social scientist living in Chhattisgarh. He has been the founder of Dalit Mukti Morcha and many other similar movements. Currently he is the Convener of Chhattisgarh Nagrik Sanyukt Sangarsh Samiti (CNSSS) as well as the Chief Editor of Journal of People’s Studies. He has been a student of Cultural Anthropology and holds a PhD from Tata Institute of Social Science.