In the Name of the Ten-headed King
A counter-culture movement is mobilising tribals, Dalits against the ‘slander of Ravana’
At a tribal boys’ hostel in Nashik on September 30, some 150 people danced around a young man dressed as Ravana, chanting “Ravan mandavi (king) ki jai!”. In faraway Vidarbha, another tribal community in Katol forced the local administration to cancel the burning of Ravana effigies on Dussehra.
A counterculture movement is mobilising tribals and Dalits across several states, including Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The Maharashtra Rajya Adivasi Bachao Abhiyan (MRABA) is uniting tribal communities and has come out against the “slander of Ravana”. Besides prayers at six locations, it’s pushing an alternative narrative: “Ravana did no wrong except abducting Sita. That too was an act of revenge, not lust,” says MRABA chief Ashok Bagul. A tribal himself, Bagul points to festivals like Bohda and Dongaryadev, dedicated to the Lanka Medha (King of Lanka). In mass marriages it organises, MRABA has couples seek Ravana’s blessings. Five such events were recently organised in and around Nashik.
Nashik, in tribal folklore, was part of Ravana’s kingdom and governed by his sister Surpanakha and her husband Marich. Local tribal leader Ramesh Bhoye echoes Bagul: “Ravana abducted Sita to avenge the disrespect to his sister”.
While the movement is centred around Ravana worship, Bagul says the real purpose is to get tribals moolnivasi (original inhabitant) status and demand their right to resources. MRABA celebrates August 9 as moolnivasi din in keeping with the resolution the United Nations passed on 13 September 2007, establishing minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples.
The Ravana worship, though, has the right wing worried. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s national sampark pramukh Aniruddha Deshpande says “Ravana glorification” will create a cultural divide in India. Sharad Shelke of Maharashtra’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) criticises MRABA for “corrupting tribals”. He claims only two of the 45 tribes— Kokana and Bhilla—see Ravana as a hero. “The tribals narrate Ramkatha in their songs. In all of them, Ram wins,” he says. VKA is now going about ‘educating’ tribals about ‘their’ sacrifices for the country. It has been organising lectures on how tribes like Magasa in UP and Bhilla in Rajasthan stood behind the locals against foreign intruders.
The new tribal assertion in Maharashtra is apparently driven by fears that the Devendra Fadnavis government could dilute tribal quotas, a move the CM himself denies.
RAVANA WORSHIP, THE SANGH WORRIES, MAY CREATE A CULTURAL DIVIDE
HE’S NO DEMON Ravana puja organised in Nashik