Dangs: Danger zone once again!

Fr. Cedric Prakash sj

4th January 2006

Hindu fundamentalists are at it once again ! Having failed on several fronts across the country, they have now focused their attention once again on the Dangs District of South Gujarat. Their own website (www.shabarikumbh.org) blatantly proclaims:

"A huge kumbh (religious gathering) of Hindus is on the cards on February 11, 12 and 13, 2006. Named Shabrikumbh it promises to be an unprecedented assembly of awakened Hindus. The Kumbh will be the culmination of sustained efforts towards awakening the Hindus in general and the vanvasi Hindus in the Dang region of Gujarat in particular.

For long, Bharat has been a special target of the Christian Church worldwide. To the Church, the Hindus represent the greatest stumbling block in their grand design to establish Christs kingdom on earth. The poor, illiterate, mild Vanvasi Hindu is an obvious target in this nefarious scheme. For years, under the garb of social service, the Church has been spreading its tentacles in far-flung, tribal regions of our country. These converted vanvasis become alienated from their customs and traditions. They get uprooted from the cultural milieu. Conversion to Christianity is invariably associated with separatism and terrorism as is evident in North-East Bharat. There are several areas in our country which have become hotbeds of Christian missionary activity. The Dang district in Gujarat is one such area".

The website gradually unfolds the plans of this Kumbh Mela, saying that "about six lakhs Hindus are expected to attend the Kumbh Mela" and more so "the momentum generated by the Kumbh is expected to trigger the return of thousands of Christian Vanavasi converts back to the Hindu fold". It unabashedly asserts that "realizing the importance of such a venture to the State of Gujarat, the State Government of Shri Narendra Modi has extended full cooperation. Planning started atleast one and a half years ago".

It is significant that in 1998-99, when Hindu fanatics needed a soft target in Gujarat, they focused their attention on the Dangs district where Christian institutions were attacked, Churches and Prayer Halls were razed to the ground and Christians were intimidated and harassed and some even injured. Only when these attacks received world-wide attention did the then Prime Minister, Mr. A. B. Vajpayee deem it fit to visit the Dangs. Severe international pressure put the Hindu fundamentalists on the back foot and they slowly withdrew into their shell.

The moot question that needs to be asked is "why the Dangs ?". "Why in 1998-99 and once again, now, in 2006 ?".

Dangs is the smallest of the districts of Gujarat in an absolutely sylvan environment with a forest coverage of more than 90%. According to Census 2001 (the Government of Gujarat version), the total population of the Dangs is just about 1.87 lakhs and of these, Hindus comprise around 1.66 lakhs and Christians less than eighteen thousand. It is interesting to note that the breakup of the population of the Dangs hardly mentions the numbers that practice tribal religions (animism), maintaining that just 219 persons did not state their religion. The Dangs, as is well known, is almost 95% tribal, inhabited by tribes like the Dangis (mainly Bhils), Kunknis, Warlis, Gamits, Chaudhris and others. The Christian population consists of Catholics, Members of the CNI family, and other Evangelical groups. Many in the Dangs have been Christians for more than one hundred years with the construction of the Anglican Church having begun, way back in 1907.

But the point of the Dangs is not about "conversion" (as the Hindu fundamentalists would like others to believe), but the fact is, that over a period of 30 years, the tribals have started becoming more and more empowered, thanks to the intervention in the field of education by Christian Missionaries. Today, quality education is given to the tribals in Ahwa, Subir, Shamgahan, Pimpri and Saputara, mainly through the schools of the Catholic Church. There is an emerging movement of tribals which tries to ensure that the forests are protected (from unscrupulous timber merchants who have a nexus with politicians). The tribals have become more vocal in demanding their rights and can no longer be taken for granted as vote banks. Education also ensures that they can no longer be robbed of their lands or for that matter anything else, because of illiteracy. It is therefore not conversions per se but the efforts of the Christian Church towards the empowerment of tribals that rankles those who have tried to control the lives and destinies of the tribals for the last many years. There is an overt and covert attempt to call the tribals "vanvasis". Some years ago, a huge campaign by the tribals demanded that they be called only "adivasis" and not "vanvasis" because they truly are the original inhabitants of the land.

However, the organizers of the Kumbh Mela in tandem with the District authorities, are leaving no stone unturned to get some of the local population on their side even if the methods adopted are dubious and highly manipulative. With hundreds of outsiders already descending on the District, many of the local tribals feel very intimidated and are too frightened to speak out. There is always the bait that is offered that all is being done for the development of the Dangs!

No one today is contesting the fact whether the organizers of the Shabri Kumbh Mela have the right to organize the Mela or not. But there are several questions and concerns which are being raised by Social Activists and Human Rights Groups, who have done investigative and objective analysis of the reality there. These include:

  • The ecological and environmental destruction that is being caused to the Dangs by the construction of over 40 townships in the District to be able to cater to the huge numbers which they intend bringing in. Already several hundreds of trees have been felled for this purpose.
  • The whole exercise seems to be intent in destroying the tribal identity and the social fabric of the Dangs. Hordes of people descending on a virtual paradise is bound to create disharmony and social tensions.
  • The Kumbh Mela seems to have only a one point agenda and that is directed against the Christians. It is indeed surprising that such a massive exercise has to be organized under the bogey of conversion. Whilst the Christians in the Dangs and elsewhere in Gujarat, do continue to feel intimidated and harassed, there is apparently a secret order from those who call the shots, that no Christian or Christian institution be touched in the run up to the Kumbh Mela but the attacks against Christians are expected to take place in neighbouring Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and in other parts of India. The "Ghar vapasi" (re-conversion) programme is planned to take place during the Kumbh Mela and in the days after.
  • It is blatantly obvious that the whole effort has the complete patronage of the Gujarat Government . The Collector of the Dangs has even gone on record to say that all this is being done since it will bring in tourists in the Year of Tourism in Gujarat!
Already rabid rabble rousers of the Sangh Parivar are doing the rounds of the tribal belt of South Gujarat vitiating the atmosphere with vitriolic speeches and hate literature. Like Ayodhya, Dangs is once again becoming a test case in the polarization of communities and is likely to snowball into greater tension and even violence in the days to come.

Citizens of India who intend preserving the secular and diverse fabric of this great country, need to come out and raise their voice so that the sinister designs of this Mela and that of the Gujarat Government are foiled.

Fr. Cedric Prakash sj is the Secretary of the Social Communications Commission of the Western Region Catholic Bishops Council and the Director of PRASHANT, A Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace of the Gujarat Jesuits.

Street Address : Hill Nagar, Near Kamdhenu Hall, Drive-in Road, Ahmedabad - 380052, Gujarat, India
Postal Address : P B 4050, Navrangpura PO, Ahmedabad - 380 009, Gujarat, India
Email: sjprashant@gmail.com

India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep- January 31, 2006