KUNKNA TALES

By Anosh Malekar

  A Kunkna bhagat reciting a katha in the Dangs. Photo courtesy: Aruna Joshi, Vadodara.

A Kunkna bhagat reciting a katha in the Dangs. Photo courtesy: Aruna Joshi, Vadodara.

‘The earth, in the beginning, was ripe enough to receive the seeds that Parvati the goddess sowed. The forests grew thick and birds and animals lived in harmony. There was a river and a beautiful garden where a man and a woman lounged in all their pristine innocence until they ate the fruit of sin. Mahadeva decided to put an end to the evil rampant in the world and willed deluge. Two each of the innocent would, however, survive on a huge gourd that would stay afloat…..’

This is a translated version of the katha of Kanasari, the goddess of foodgrain, who is believed to manifest herself as a sprout. I heard it the first time in 1998 on a moonlit night in the Dangs forest. We were sitting around a mound of grain — the first harvest of the season — at a campfire in the middle of a teak forest. And the great adventure of mankind from the beginning of the earth to the present was unfolding before our eyes. It was an experience I will never forget.

The tradition of kathas or long narratives is a favourite among the seven-lakh Konkna or Kunkna adivasis, one of India’s many indigenous tribes living in remote villages and hamlets spread across the rolling hills in Dhule, Nashik and Khandesh areas of Maharashtra and the hilly tracts and fertile plains of south-central Gujarat stretching beyond Baroda.

Some say the Kunknas are migrants from Maharashtra’s coastal strip known as Konkan, while others claim they have always lived in this land that was earlier an extension of Konkan. This claim is borne out by their community name and language, Kunkna, a dialect of Marathi with certain north Konkani elements.

If one goes by the oral tradition, the Kunknas may have migrated north due to the terrible Durgadev famine of 1396–1408 that devastated the Konkan region. Life for the Kunknas, tillers of land who take immense pride in being producers of grain, centres on these kathas; each birth, wedding or death calls for a katha by the bhagat.

The katha of goddess Kanasari is one of the many important stories and songs from the vast repertoire of the bhagats, a priestly class among the tribals. It is recited in Kunkna, but many words from the mainstream Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi languages find their way into the bhagat’s recital.

There are several versions of the katha of Kanasari and the narrative varies from place to place and from bhagat to bhagat. The plot, characters and style may differ but the focus of the katha is the power of Kanasari and the importance of foodgrain for mankind. The protagonist is Kanasari who adopts a human form.

Kanasari is a complex being. She is the pod of foodgrain, no, the grain itself, part divine, part human. I asked the bhagat and he explained: “Kanasari is foodgrain, she is everything, the only thing. There is no greater God. The harvested foodgrain itself is the highest God”.

The narrative begins with the Gods unleashing a catastrophe to end all evil on earth and making a new beginning out of the seeds of all living beings, including humans, stored carefully for this purpose. Humans once again multiply to form a society, and ‘a king is made’. The daughter of this king marries a God, and gives birth to Kanasari.

The toddler Kanasari has divine powers. She can produce foodgrain from pebbles and turn water into milk. But ‘the black-headed human being’ is not supposed to show such great potential. The Gods become envious and kidnap her. She is found and brought back only when she comes of age. The young damsel falls in love with a cowherd who plays the tambemahovar, a type of flute.

The King holds a Swayamvar, where Kanasari rejects all the Gods and Kings for the cowherd. The angry Gods kill her consort. To avenge his killing, Kanasari appeals the natural phenomena — the clouds, the winds, and the thunder — and withholds food and water from the earth. Human beings become miserable and start despising the vicious Gods.

The Gods apologise and appeal Kanasari to save the world. Kanasari brings back food and water to the earth, blesses all human beings, and takes her place among the Gods — the Devasabha. She then brings her consort, the cowherd, back to life.

Kanasari prefers to live a commoner’s life despite her divine powers. She is an independent mind. Not even the Gods can dictate to her. She lives where she wants and values her independence.

In some versions of the katha, Kanasari appears as a diseased and a filthy creature to test the human character. The rest of humanity despises her, but the Kunkna welcomes her to his home and shares his bread with her. Kanasari is pleased and blesses him with prosperity. But when this material prosperity makes him proud and arrogant, she immediately abandons him. All his prosperity vanishes and he repents. The Kunkna yields to Kanasari in the end.

If the katha of goddess Kanasari is mistaken for a Kunkna version of the Genesis and Noah’s Ark combined together, they have one for the popular Hindu epic Ramayana too.

It begins with Ravana, the seventh son of Opingadeva. Born handicapped, Ravana is a neglected child and pleads with Mahadeva for a pair of hands and legs. When Mahadeva pays no attention, Ravana in a bid to commit suicide jumps into a well that is incidentally filled with amrut or nectar. Ravana gulps down nine mouthfuls of the magical potion and is bestowed with nine heads and eighteen hands. He becomes so powerful as to be able to challenge Mahadeva, the destroyer.

The Kunkna katha, unlike the original Sanskrit version describing the good deeds of Rama, depicts his rival, the demon king Ravana, as more wronged by the gods. When Mahadeva realises Ravana’s newfound power, he gives him the throne of death and his beautiful wife Parvati as gifts. But Krishna replaces Parvati with a frog that has taken her form. Ravana ends up being deceived by the gods.

The Kunkna bhagats also have a version of the epic Mahabharata, which in its original form describes the Great War between the descendants of Bharata, in which the five Pandava brothers with the help of Krishna defeat the evil Kauravas. There are many more and it will require a lifetime to listen to all the kathas and arrive at an understanding of the adivasi world-view.

Interestingly, in all the kathas, the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh are depicted as lusty and greedy, who harass the poor. Listening to the bhagat’s kathas, I could not help wonder if the circumstances have changed down the ages for the adivasis of India.

The adivasis are the earliest people to have inhabited this land. Spread across the Indian subcontinent, they have traditionally lived far from the plains, mostly inhabiting the hills, forests and dry plateau regions. The British wrongly labeled them as ‘tribals’. Some people living on the plains call them ‘vanvasis’ and ‘girijans’ (dwellers of forests and hills).

Nearly one-tenth of India’s adivasis live in the western Indian state of Gujarat. They are over seven million in number. Gujarat is one of the most developed states of India where industrialisation and commercial agriculture along with infrastructure facilities like roads and communication facilities have penetrated almost every nook and corner of the state. But there are areas that are left out. The government of Gujarat lists some 56 of its 184 talukas as ‘most backward’. Of these, 32 are tribal talukas.

Adivasis in Gujarat are concentrated in the hilly eastern belt of the state from Sabarkantha district in the north to the Dangs in the south. Like elsewhere in India they are divided into several tribes. The major adivasi tribes of Gujarat are the Bhils, Dhodiyas, Chaudhari, Gamit, Kunkna, Pateliya, Warli, Dubala and Kotwaliya.

Among all the districts of the state the highest concentration of adivasi population is found in the Dangs. They make up nearly 95 per cent of the district’s nearly 1.5-lakh population. It is a small district compared with the other districts of Gujarat. The different adivasi groups of the Dangs or the Dangis were relatively late in becoming settled agriculturists. Even 60 years after India’s independence, most of them continue to live more or less isolated from the outside world.

I was lucky to get inside their isolated world thanks to my friend Dahyabhai Vadhu, a Kunkna writer with sincere eyes, dark complexion and a slight but elegant physique. Dahyabhai is one of the few Kunkna adivasis from the Dangs to have attended college. His education filled him with the urge to present his culture and literature to the world and preserve it for posterity.

“I picked up my pen to do so in 1982,” Dahyabhai recalled. Since then, Dahyabhai, a bhagat’s son, has been documenting the kathas handed down the generations only by word of mouth.

  Dahyabhai Vadhu. Photo: Anosh Malekar.

Dahyabhai Vadhu. Photo: Anosh Malekar.

It was harvest time at Malhar Gangurde’s farm in Gondhalvihir village, seven kilometer from Ahwa, the administrative headquarters of the Dangs district. Dahyabhai was there on his usual mission to listen and record the kathas. I was accompanying him and was introduced to the small gathering of men, young and old, sitting in a circle around the campfire, as his journalist friend from Ahmedabad.

I had boarded a state transport bus in Ahmedabad the previous night to reach the city of Surat in south Gujarat early morning. From Surat, it was a four-hour journey through thick forests to Ahwa.

The administrative headquarters of the district turned out to be a small village. At around 10 am the only visibly activity was the arrival of a 100-odd passengers at the centrally located state transport bus stop. I seemed to be the only outsider, the rest were all adivasis, men, women and children, returning from the grueling toil of surviving in the big cities — Ahmedabad, Baroda and Surat — in anticipation of a good harvest season back home.

Nothing stirred in Ahwa for rest of the day which I spent observing the adivasis hanging around teashops on the main street or sitting in the shade of big trees discussing nothing in particular. The routine office activity at the nearby district collectorate and the State Bank of India premises across the street did not seem to interest them. I waited rather impatiently for the day to pass and late evening headed straight to Malhar Gangurde’s farm along with Dahyabhai in a hired jeep.

“I grew up listening to the bhagat’s tales and songs like any other Kunkna child,” said a nostalgic Dahyabhai. “We were happy with the least means of life. The earth was our bed and the sky our blanket. Those were days of starvation in the jungle. But we never realised our condition as poverty. I came to know about poverty very late in life, after I started working as a clerk for a national bank”.

Dahyabhai’s first major success in his chosen life mission came when the katha of Kanasari was published in ‘Gadyaparva’, a literary magazine in Gujarati language. Since then his reputation in select literary circles had been on the rise. Dahyabhai’s English translation of the Salvan-Mansinha, a katha rendered at death, won him the Indian Sahitya Akademi’s Katha award.

For him the katha session at Gondhalvihir village was all the more interesting because the bhagat for the night was Bhilubhai Chaudhary, a veteran storyteller and one of the few who could play the thali, an indigenous instrument consisting of a bronze plate with a stick fixed to its centre by a mixture of honey and wax. Bhilubhai rubbed his palms on the stick to exert pressure that created a rhythm perfectly blending with his recital.

His rhythmic recital transported us into a different world inhabited by the spirits of the adivasi ancestors. I tried to listen to the mysterious spirits, with little success. After all I was a man of the material world.

Bhilubhai kept the recital on till the wee hours, improvising upon the innumerable versions of the katha recited from time immemorial to suit the place and time in the present. I was amazed by his storytelling skills. All this he did for Rs 50 and a tiny share of the harvest, said the bhagat’s disciple Ramu Pawar.

To an outsider like me the bhagats appeared a curious lot. Bhilubhai revealed little about himself and his monosyllabic responses to my persistent queries felt strange after having witnessed a marathon katha recital by him. But one should not expect adivasis who value silence to give in to the demands of a prying journalist. The bhagats were a handful of people with deep knowledge of nature’s secrets, which was traditionally kept within their families.

“Sometimes you have to buy mahua liquor to make the bhagats sing,” a smiling Dahyabhai hinted.

From whatever little I could gather, the bhagats also doubled as shamans and soothsayers. Dahyabhai said some modern-day bhagats also performed the role of social workers for their communities. They can spread superstitions also but the genuine ones do not mislead people. The bhagats are still a respected lot among the adivasis, because their knowledge of nature distinguishes them from ordinary people.

Our conversation drifted to other issues and Dahyabhai suggested I meet the Bhil chiefs or the adivasi kings of the Dangs. “They are in a bad shape, but chances are they will respond more openly to all your queries,” he added with a chuckle.

The way Dahyabhai said it heightened my curiosity and I returned to Ahwa a couple of years later to find out for myself. The town wore a festive look, though the March festival of Holi was still a week away. A large number of adivasis had come down from the adjoining hills and forests to attend the annual Dangs Darbar, a royal court the government of Gujarat organises in honour of the Bhil chiefs whose forebears ruled the Dangs forest from time out of mind till as recently as the mid-19th century.

They were rulers, I was told even in the days of Lord Rama when the Dangs was known as Dandakaranya. The ancestors of the royals from Gadhvi, Pimpri, Amala-Linga, Wasurne and Daher were for centuries invincible. The Bhil chiefs ruled over their community as well as other subordinate communities including Kunknas, the Warlis and Gamits. The invading Mughals and the Marathas could never conquer the hilly tracts of the Dangs from them. Neither could the British, who preferred a truce with the Dangi kings.

In 1842, the British made them sign a timber lease agreement offering Rs 11,230 to be paid annually for permitting the Royal Indian Naval Dockyard in Bombay to collect teak wood from the forests. The payment was made ceremonially and so began the Dangs Darbar over 150 years ago.

The annual affair continued even after India’s Independence in 1947, though in 1954 the privileges of the chiefs and the naiks of the Dangs were cancelled and instead hereditary political pension was granted to them. Once a year the royals would descend upon Ahwa with their entire paraphernalia to collect their monthly pension in all pomp and glory at the darbar. After three nights’ revelry, the chiefs would go back to their villages.

Pity, there was little honour at the darbar: the chiefs remained mute spectators while politicians and bureaucrats held forth for over three hours. Dressed in spotless white clothes, the chiefs stirred only to receive their pensions from the Governor of Gujarat, after which they left the dais unescorted and got lost in the crowds.

  The Bhil royals at the Dangs darbar. Photo:  http://www.wanderink.com

The Bhil royals at the Dangs darbar. Photo: http://www.wanderink.com

It is customary for the royals to join the political dignitaries and bureaucrats for a feast before retiring to their temporary jungle resorts on the outskirts of the town. But I could not find the chiefs anywhere near the venue of the feast. The government officials were preoccupied with the Governor’s departure after the feast to the state capital in Gandhinagar, and the adivasis on the street were in a bacchanalian mood.

Later in the evening, I learnt that one of the royals, Bhavarsingh Maharaj Suryavanshi of the erstwhile Amala-Linga state, had retired to his temporary resort on the forest fringes of Ahwa. After a 30-minute trek in pitch darkness with a local adivasi for company, we spotted a campfire at a distance.

The chief was holding court there, far from the madding crowd at the annual fair in Ahwa. Haystacks served as his throne, and burning wood illuminated his face. “Like Rama, I am in exile,” the chief said. “Rama’s exile lasted 14 years. Mine will end the day I die”. His subjects, who were high on mahua liquor, roared in laughter. One of them blubbered to the chief: “You are right, I am sorry. OK, good night”. He had taken more than his usual quota of Mahua liquor, the others explained. Deep inside, all of them seemed to pity their chief.

The three nights after the darbar were spent by the chief and his spouse sleeping on haystacks inside the matchbox-like structure made of bamboo and leaves, while the rest of his royal entourage slept in the open. A fire was kept burning all night for warmth and to keep away wild animals.

The Bhil rajas have long been at the receiving end, said Mahru Pawar, self-styled pardhan (minister) to the chief of Pimpri, Tikamrao Maharaj Pawar, whom I met the next morning. “Hanuman was a Van-Nar (jungle man),” he said. “After Rama got back Sita, Hanuman was banished to the jungles. The Ramayana story applies here, to us, the unfortunate products of this Ram rajya. But we do not complain. If the government decides to stop our pensions, we will say, ‘thank you, goodbye’. We will continue to survive in this jungle”.

Dangs district collector Mukesh Kumar said the chiefs, naiks (lesser royals) and their families in Dangs continue to get pensions, though the government abolished privy purses meant for the erstwhile royals in the country in the 1970s, because the government respects the tribals and their culture. Kumar, a young Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer, was sympathetic and the chiefs and their hangers-on were grateful to him for sanctioning money for buying new dhotis (loincloths) in addition to the traditional pheta (turban) presented to them during the darbar.

The Dangi royals were nostalgic of the British Raj. “They paid us in silver coins in gunny bags. Now we get paper money. You buy a few sets of clothes and it is gone,” said Chandarsingh Maharaj Pawar of Wasurne. The septuagenarian was the seniormost among the chiefs and was entitled to a monthly pension of Rs 2,829. Though the government was paying his relatives separately, some still retained a share of his purse.

Tikamrao Maharaj of Pimpri shared his pension of Rs 3,802 with 14 others including his mother, uncles, brothers and hereditary staff. He was hardly left with Rs 500 a month to survive. Since the chief did not know how to count, the claimants piled up 50 and 100-rupee notes on the ground as each one’s share and put 10 and 20-rupee notes on top of the pile for those who deserved more. Once everybody was satisfied with their share, the claimants picked up their respective share. “It is an open system,” said Jaswant Pawar, younger brother of Tikamrao Maharaj.

Few of the royals had studied beyond primary school, and most used the thumb impression while claiming pension. Kiransingh Maharaj Pawar of Gadhvi, who at 20 was the youngest among the chiefs, said: “We can only hope to become peons in banks or government offices while our subjects are prospering”. He said his father, Yashwantrao Maharaj, who had studied in a convent school, disappeared seven years ago after a prolonged mental illness. Education was of little help under the circumstances, he argued.

The hierarchy among the Bhils was always based on power and status rather than material wealth. The Bhils, keen hunters with bows and arrows, did no field labour and subsisted on the hunted flesh, fruits, wild grasses, roots and mahua flowers. The non-Bhil cultivators grew crops and paid the Bhil chiefs annual taxes, normally in grain.

Some royals still owned huge tracts of land, but most of it was wasteland and the few cultivable patches had passed into the hands of sharecropping Kunkna and Warli tribesmen. Though the royals believed that much of the land in Dangs was theirs, none of them had records to establish ownership. They lived like the commoners, in ordinary thatched houses and tilled their smallholdings for a living like anybody else in the villages.

The future appeared bleak for the Bhil royals. “The rajas are yet to learn settled cultivation or the importance of education,” said Lalubhai Vasava, a social activist in Ahwa, who had set up the Shree Dandakaranya Rajvi Vikas Samiti to highlight the plight of the Dangi chiefs.

The British had built the Rajkumar hostel for the princes and a guesthouse for the chiefs and naiks in Ahwa. After independence, it was converted into a hostel for tribal girls and the guesthouse served as a police official’s bungalow. The government was doing little to improve the lot of the present generation of royals, said Vasava.

Unlike the royals elsewhere in the country who continue to rule by getting elected as members of national parliament and state legislative assemblies, the Bhil chiefs were afraid of a defeat in elections. “They fear losing whatever prestige and privileges they enjoy among their subjects,” said Dhiraj Bagul, a social activist in Ahwa.

The prestige earns the Bhil chief Rs seven each time a girl from his erstwhile state gets married. In return for this bridal fee paid by the bridegroom’s father, the chief settles any marital discord that may arise. But no longer was his word regarded as final though many adivasi subjects still respect the royals and would offer tribute — a chicken and a five-rupee note — when the chief visits them, said Mahru Pawar.

“Nobody does, even our subjects have abandoned us,” a female voice behind him protested. It was the ‘queen’ of Pimpri, who had been listening to our conversation from inside her ‘royal enclosure’. She sounded irritated by Mahru Pawar’s bragging and in response he laughed: “How often do we have to tell the women to keep quiet”.

The next moment, he was again serious, talking about the loss of land. “We want nothing except our jungle,” he said. “We have no greed for wealth. Just restore us our hills and trees as they were at the time the British took them away from us”.

  The Dangs forests. Photo: Gujarat tourism

The Dangs forests. Photo: Gujarat tourism

I turned to seek the reaction of the Bhil chief of Pimpri to find him quiet, lying face down in the hay. The Mahua liquor had taken its effect. I could not help imagining him as Ravana, helpless despite the nine heads and eighteen hands.

The elderly Dangis recalled that under British rule certain restrictions came on their movement from one place to another for the first time. This affected their livelihood options. Before the British came they would cultivate land wherever it was available, hunt animals and birds, indulge in fishing or collect honey and other useful products of the forests. It only got worse after the British left. The tribals are now prohibited by the Indian state from entering the forests. They cannot set fire to the tall grass to smoke out the hares from their holes, nor could they set traps for the birds. And, increasingly they were losing land to non-tribals.

After Independence, the Dangs saw Gandhians making inroads to start multi-purpose co-operatives, which were granted the right to cut wood in certain forest coupes by the erstwhile Bombay government. Between 1967 and 1986 forest cutting throughout the Dangs was controlled by these cooperatives, which had become highly politicised during the bifurcation of the Bombay state into Gujarat and Maharashtra that resulted in the Dangs being awarded to Gujarat.

The Gujarat government and the leaders of the cooperatives were interested in maximizing earnings from the forests, and had little interest in conservation. The state forest department was gradually encroaching on areas in which cultivation was permitted for the tribals, and reclassifying them as reserved forest.

Social scientist Ghanshyam Shah in his essay, ‘Unrest among the Adivasis and their struggles’ published in ‘The Other Gujarat’ edited by Takashi Shinoda, writes: “In 1960 the government classified the forest of Dangs into three categories: reserved forest, protected forest and unclassified forest. The unclassified forest area, which the tribals could use for cultivation has been declining over the years”.

Shah elaborates, referring to the division in 1961 of the 6013 square kilometer forestland under the Surat circle, which covers Dangs, into 2977 square kilometer of reserved forest, 818 square kilometer protected forest and 2218 square kilometer unclassified forest. By 1979, the unclassified forest area had declined from 2218 square kilometer to 621 square kilometer, while the reserved forest area had increased from 2977 square kilometer to 4318 square kilometer.

In 1970, the government ordered the transfer of 56,214 hectares of land for agriculture. But only 15,617 hectares was allocated to 17,638 tribal cultivators, which meant on an average each tribal cultivator received less than one hectare of land for cultivation. And as the tribal families grew in size not only did the land for cultivation and dwellings declined, but the number of landless tribals increased too.

In the mid-seventies, the Dangis organised a political struggle for land with support of the Communists but this only caused confrontation with the powerful state apparatus. In many villages of Dangs the tribal villagers collectively took away land under control of the forest department and started cultivation. The government removed their crops and arrested them. The government did not heed their demand for land and instead registered false police cases and harassed them. Shah notes the tribal struggle in the Dangs was diffused in the 1980s and tribal land alienation continued despite legislation to prevent it.

David Hardiman, a founding member of ‘Subaltern Studies’ and the author of several valuable books on societies, cultures and histories of Western India, writes in ‘Histories for the Subordinated’ of active resistance by the people of the Dangs in 1989, when a dozen forest guards want to Gira-Dabdar village to confiscate wood that the villagers had allegedly taken from the reserves. “Village women surrounded the guards….They argued that the forest had been taken from the Dangi people by the government through trickery….The guards were forced to retreat”.

This event led on to a more organized and planned resistance under the leadership of two outsiders — Irfan Engineer, a Naxalite from Bombay, and Virsinhbhai Patel, a Choudhari adivasi from Songadh in Surat district, notes Hardiman. But the Gujarat government clamped down, deploying more than a thousand special reserve police to attack the villages where the resistance movement was centered.

“The reign of terror began in November 1991, when police officers went to Kosimba village and fired on a group of adivasis, killing twenty four-year-old Bhil woman Taraben Pawar. Soon after, the authorities arrested and imprisoned Irfan Engineer and Virsinhbhai Patel. Local activists were seized and beaten severely. Villages were raided, people were thrashed, women molested, household utensils and grain-holders smashed, and property seized. The police threatened that if people did not leave the ‘Naxalite group’ they would suffer more of the same, and that Taraben would not be the only one killed. The terror continued until March 1992, effectively shattering the movement”.

The power of the forest department — whose personnel were nicknamed kam-da chor (chicken thief) by the tribals for habitually demanding free chickens to look the other way — was thus reasserted. The grievances of the Dangis remained unaddressed. A Central government report of 2000 suggests that 15 per cent of tribal land had changed hands from tribal to non-tribal in Gujarat. On the other hand, development projects, drought and deforestation in the jungles of the eastern belt had driven tribals from their villages to the cities of Gujarat to work on road and building construction sites and in sugarcane fields under subhuman conditions.

Every year some 1.5 lakh tribals are known to migrate to sugarcane growing areas of south Gujarat, spending seven to eight months toiling in the fields. They are locally known as ‘Koyata’, a Marathi word for the big sickle used to cut sugarcane, and paid paltry Rs 20–25 for a hard days labour lasting 12–15 hours, far below the state stipulated minimum wage of Rs 34 for eight hours.

Nearly 10 per cent of the Koyatas come from the 300-odd villages of Dangs, where the tribal inhabitants are left to fend for themselves in absence of employment opportunities. The only visible development of some benefit to the Dangi tribals are the schools and dispensaries set up by Christian missionaries since they first arrived in this remote corner nearly a century ago.

Consequently, the population of Christians in Dangs has grown considerably. In 1948 there were only 500 Christians. By 1998, it had grown by about 500 per cent, according to alarmed hard-line Hindu groups who suspect the church wants to convert India.

Hardiman notes: “During the 1980s and 1990s evangelical Christian missionaries, originating in most cases from Tamil Nadu, managed to convert around a tenth of the population of the Dangs to Christianity (representing a total of between 15,000 and 20,000 converts)…..As conversation to Christianity often caused disruption within families and villages — for the converts refused to participate in community rituals and social ceremonies — the Hindu right was able to tap a source of discontent”.

Hardiman further points out that some ambitious Dangis who were excluded from leadership within the Congress party saw this as a means to win popularity and possible votes. For the Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was also ruling Gujarat, the tribals forming 15 per cent of the state’s population were a crucial factor to consolidate its position of power. One in every seven Gujarati was a tribal and still considered a traditional votebank by the BJP’s predecessor, the Indian National Congress (INC) or simply Congress party.

Sporadic attacks on Christians were reported from different parts of Gujarat ever since the BJP came to power in the state. But the real shocker came on Christmas day in 1998 when hard-line Hindu groups burned and vandalised churches and prayer halls in the Dangs district. A Jesuit priest was stoned and his jeep set ablaze. Mobs armed with tridents and stones also attacked a convent school in Ahwa. The then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who visited the area after the violence, called for an open debate on the large-scale conversions to Christianity in tribal areas like the Dangs.

For the innocent tribals it was as if Mahadeva, the destroyer, had finally decided to end the peace and harmony in the thick forest with the river and a beautiful garden, because some men and women had chosen to eat the fruit of sin. The suppressed tale of land-grab and intrigue had suddenly snowballed into a full-fledged battle of politics and religion between Hindu hardliners and Christian proselytizers in the Dangs.

The Dangis were caught in a dilemma. Suddenly there was heavy pressure on the nature worshippers to decide whether they were Christian or Hindu. A local widow, who was well off, had donated a piece of land to the Carmelite Sisters of Charity to set up education facilities and a health clinic for tribal girls. While the paperwork was all but completed, a Hindu group compelled the widow’s stepson to donate the land to them instead.

It became mandatory for the tribals to mention their religion as ‘Hindu-Adivasi’ while applying for ration cards and election identity cards. Even so-called converts to Christianity had to do this at the time of school admissions; otherwise they would lose various government benefits for scheduled tribes (STs).

Brothers were pitted against each other and husbands against wives. Nothing illustrated the tribal dilemma better than this incident in Vadpada village. Turjibhai Gamit, a young tribal Christian, was concerned that his Hindu-Adivasi wife of 10 months, Ushaben, preferred to be on the rolls of the Durga Vahini, a Hindu women’s front, rather than accompany him to church. Apparently he questioned her and was snubbed. Unable to bear the humiliation Turjibhai reached for the nearest bottle of poison and drowned it in her presence. Human emotions took over religion as Ushaben snatched the bottle from her husband and drank up what little poison was left in it. The couple had a miraculous escape and ended up in hospital, and were still shaken and confused when I met them days after the incident.

I also met Dahyabhai who was worried about both the Hindu and Christian influences that had crept in the last 50 years or so in Dangs. He saw the competing faiths as a danger to the tribal beliefs and way of life. Hindu groups were opening schools and building temples under the guidance of Swami Aseemananda, a Bengali monk whose mission was to popularise Hindu religion and culture among tribals in the Dangs. While in the Christian schools, the tribal children were learning the habits of the modern western world, and dreaming of a breakthrough in Indian mainstream society.

Some tribals were glad they were getting national and international media attention, courtesy the VIP visits including one by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Ahwa in the wake of the attacks on churches. Few villages had even got proper roads for the first time, while some of its inhabitants were now living in houses with wide verandahs and tiled roofs in place of their old mud-and-bamboo houses. The saffron flags atop the houses, old and new, indicated which way the wind was blowing.

The Dangis continue to hold their own festivals, where young girls and boys dance through the night to the beat of drums and the old men recite folk tales with echoes of other religions. Dahyabhai continues to ponder over the old mysteries of nature that have shaped the tribal destiny.

The history of the Dangs over the past two centuries has been one of defeat and loss of land and livelihood. And despite offering resistance, the future of the adivasi way of life remains at stake. I wonder, its time for the Gods to unleash a catastrophe to end all evil and make a new beginning.

Watch Dahyabhai Vadhu in conversation with the author