It's faith against tribal identity in western Madhya Pradesh

The Catholic Mission School, the most reputed educational institution of this small town dominated by the Bhil tribe in western Madhya Pradesh, is adjacent to the bus station and bears the name of the freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad.

Behind the school and church, and within the precincts of the institution, is the colony of the church, the largest dwelling here in Bhils that embraced the Christian faith.

In 2017, Vivek Mera, a Christian Bhil, had the electoral surprise when he won the local municipal polls with a BJP ticket issued by the predominantly Christian neighborhood, humiliating for the first time the Congress Party candidate in this district .

This result is largely due to the fact that the congressional advisor did not work much for the locality, said several residents, adding that many of them were considering voting for the Congress when Jhabua would go to the polls later this month as part of the statewide assembly elections.

"BJP governments work for Hindus rather than Christians, but Congress is neutral," said Vinod Mera, a Christian resident of the church colony in Bhil, who runs a small business.

Farmers in the tribal community are also unhappy, complaining of losses in agriculture, as input costs rise and prices fail to keep pace with these increases.

In short, the battle for Jhabua is very open.

But under material concerns lies a deeper division.

Cultural fracture

The Catholic Church, which has been working with tribes here for about 140 years, has been facing stiff competition from SSR and its allied organizations in recent years, as educated tribal youth increasingly seek avoid both religions.

Although it is generally thought that the RSS works to help mobilize votes for the BJP, those who claim an autonomous tribal identity may opt for the support of Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS), a newcomer to the fray.

although it does not have much rural base yet.

Sustainable cultural competition, however, has not been violent.

At least since 2005, when the rape of a minor girl in the school grounds of the mission had provoked attacks against churches.

"It was an outsider who took the girl – who was selling fruits outside the gate – raped her and killed her. There were accusations of church involvement, but the police investigation revealed that we were innocent, "says Father Rocky, spokesman for the Diocese of Jhabua, present in five districts.

Near the school, residents of the ecclesiastical colony report that stones were bombed in their homes and that young people were beaten.

However, Jhabua has been peaceful ever since.

Father Rocky stated that relations between the Christian and Hindu communities were cordial and that the troubles were caused by strangers. "I have good friends even in the RSS here," he says.

The sangh

In order to dissociate tribal youth from the influence of the Church, the RSS seeks here to associate tribal customs with Hindu gods and goddesses.

For example, the Bhils' Bhagoria festival – described in the 2011 census manual as a mass swayamvara or marital market – was associated by the Holi RSS, which occurs at about the same time.

"It's like Braj's Holi, people apply mutually to the drumbeat," said Khem Singh, in charge of spreading the intellectual position of the RSS as a pramukh bauddhik district, referring to the version of Holi celebrated in Vrindavan. A member of the Bhilala tribe, Mr. Singh claimed that the association of the festival with marriage had a Christian influence. "It's a missionary propaganda that if a girl applies her book to a boy that day, she accepts it as her husband."

Harsh Chauhan from Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, an RSS affiliate, is running a campaign called "Mata Ka Van" in Jhabua. The goal is to try to protect the foliage around the stones that the tribes worship.

"These stones represent Lord Shiva and the goddess; What the Bhils call Bada Dev is identical to Lord Shiva, "Singh said.

For the RSS-affiliated Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, tribal culture has long faced a Christian threat.

Tribal autonomy

However, there is now a new threat to the influence exercised both by the Church and by the SSR.

The young, educated tribes began to assert an autonomous tribal identity under the banner of Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS). Their affirmation: the tribes are neither Christians nor Hindus.

"These are Delhi-educated, Vaampanthi [leftists] influenced by the culture of Delhi University, "said Singh, referring to JAYS activists.