Political Line | Appropriating Birsa Munda

(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu. You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)

What do tribespeople have in common with Lord Ram? It was his interaction with the tribespeople that transformed Ram, born a prince, into a maryadapurushotam, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a gathering of tribespeople on November 15 which will now on be observed as Tribal Pride Day. November 15 is the birthday of Birsa Munda, the 19th century tribal leader who was born in today’s Jharkhand. He fought against the imperial invasion into tribal culture. If Birsa Munda’s cultural politics was about protecting indigenous cultures from outside influence, Mr. Modi’s cultural politics is about appropriating all tribal cultures as part of a Hindu umbrella politics. That’s why a link is sought to be established between Sri Ram, the centre of BJP’s Hindutva politics, with tribespeople.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with tribal folk artists after paying floral tribtues to Bhagwan Birsa Munda’s statue on his birth anniversary at Parliament House, in New Delhi on November 15,2021.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with tribal folk artists after paying floral tribtues to Bhagwan Birsa Munda’s statue on his birth anniversary at Parliament House, in New Delhi on November 15,2021.   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena


Birsa Munda will now be equal to Sardar Patel, B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi as a national icon, the Prime Minister declared. Mr. Modi also referred to the fact that this year’s Padma awards honoured tribal communities. Tangentially, those who received Padma awards recently at Rashtrapati Bhavan represented the social composition of the support base the BJP has been building. In the pre-Modi years, Padma awards were shared among an elite mutual admiration club. Mr. Modi has changed that. For instance, read this story of a Padma Shri who happens to be an orange seller.  

Connectivity schemes announced by the Centre this week -- telecom and road infrastructure -- specifically focus on tribal regions.   Over 7,200 uncovered tribal villages will be provided with 4G connectivity by 2023 at an estimated cost of ₹6,466 crore. More than half of it is in the State of Odisha and the rest are in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.  With 4G network, these communities could leapfrog from rampant illiteracy to digital platforms, which will be beneficial to the BJP politically. The BJP did exceptionally well in tribal seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.  Of the 47 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes candidates, the BJP won 31 seats while the Congress won only four seats. But tribal communities had a different preference in recent Assembly elections. In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand they voted the BJP out.  

Federalism tract: Language battles

New facility: Union Home Minister Amit Shah laying the foundation stone of a State university in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh on Saturday. PTI

New facility: Union Home Minister Amit Shah laying the foundation stone of a State university in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh on Saturday. PTI  


A combination of Hindu and Hindi identities is at the heart of Hindutva political mobilisation and this is going to be at full play in Uttar Pradesh where both are potent electoral weapons. Union Home Minister Amit Shah said democracy can only become successful when the language of the administration is Swabhasha and Rajbhasha, which is Hindi, according to him. Mr. Shah also said there was “no conflict” between Hindi and other regional languages.  At the same time, the government also wants to revive Sanskrit as a spoken language, along with the promotion of several other languages. A committee appointed this week will formulate a roadmap for this.

The Karnataka government, led by the BJP, is following in the footsteps of previous governments in promoting Kannada. It has made Kannada compulsory at the UG level, and argues that the decision is in line with the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, which supports the promotion of local languages. The decision is being contested in the Karnataka High Court, which has sought the Centre’s response.

A file photo of Government Higher Primary School at Doddakallahalli in Malur.

A file photo of Government Higher Primary School at Doddakallahalli in Malur.   | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash K.


Separately, a 10-year-old student is challenging the constitutional validity of Kannada Language Learning (KLL) Act, 2015, which makes teaching of Kannada compulsory either as a first or second language from Classes I to X from the academic year 2015-16 even in schools affiliated to CBSE/ICSE. She has termed the law “draconian, discriminatory, and violative of the Constitution of India”.

Other wars  

A Commanding Officer of Assam Rifles, his wife and child, and four jawans were killed in an ambush in Manipur. An insurgent group that claimed responsibility for the attack wants to free Manipur from India. It said it had no knowledge of the presence of the family along with the officer.  

At least 26 Naxals were killed in an encounter with the Maharashtra police in Gadchiroli district, including a top leader of the banned outfit that is fighting for the overthrow of the state.

In Kashmir, the death of four people in an encounter in Srinagar is spiralling into a controversy. While the police say the dead were all terrorists or their supporters, families of at least three of the dead say they were civilians. A magisterial inquiry has been ordered.

Autonomy battles 

Even as the clamour for the restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir still continues, groups in Ladakh which was carved out of the previous State into a Union Territory are demanding more autonomy and statehood

Allegations that the CBI is being used by the Centre to settle political scores with opponents are credible. Several States under Opposition rule have withdrawn what is known as the “general consent” given to the CBI to investigate cases under their jurisdiction. West Bengal has brought the issue before the Supreme Court, challenging the CBI’s jurisdiction to register FIRs and conduct investigations in the State in myriad cases. The Centre on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that the CBI is an “autonomous body” and it has no ‘control’ over the investigative agency. 

On the same day, the West Bengal Legislative Assembly passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of the notification by the Ministry of Home Affairs extending the territorial jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) from 15 km to 50 km along the international border.

Another autonomy question that is making headlines is about the judiciary. The Supreme Court collegium’s recommendation to transfer the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Sanjib Banerjee, to the Meghalaya High Court, as well as the senior-most judge of the Allahabad High Court, Munishwar Nath Bhandari, to the Madras High Court, has raised eyebrows, points out Justice K. Chandru, a retired judge of the Madras High Court.

Hurt sentiments

Director Gnanavel, Suriya and Justice Chandru

Director Gnanavel, Suriya and Justice Chandru   | Photo Credit: PICHUMANI K


Justice Chandru has inspired the lead character of Jai Bhim, a multilingual film on caste oppression and state complicity. Federalism questions are often reduced to the sharing of power between States/regions and the Central/federal governments. What is often ignored in federalism debates are questions regarding distribution of power within the constituent units. It is here that social identities come into play. Vanniyars, a politically powerful and socially dominant community in Tamil Nadu are feeling hurt by the film’s portrayal of the reality of caste equations in the State. 

In Gujarat, vegetarians are apparently hurt by the very sight of non-vegetarian food. The BJP-ruled civic bodies in Vadodara, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Junagadh in Gujarat have launched a drive against hawkers and vendors running non-vegetarian food joints along streets and footpaths on the ground that selling non-vegetarian food items in the open “hurts religious sentiments”.

Subscribe to the Political Line newsletter here

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 3:18:25 AM |

Next Story