Banjaras divided as RSS plans event to ‘bring them into Sanatan Dharma fold’

The community is split between those who claim that the Banjaras have always been Hindus, and others saying the RSS is distorting tribal history and seeking to bolster the BJP’s vote bank

January 28, 2023 10:40 pm | Updated January 29, 2023 12:49 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The event, called Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Gaur Banjara and Labhana Naikada Kumbh, aims to bring the Banjaras, traditionally nomadic pastoralists and traders, into the Sanatan Dharma fold. Photo: Special Arrangement

The event, called Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Gaur Banjara and Labhana Naikada Kumbh, aims to bring the Banjaras, traditionally nomadic pastoralists and traders, into the Sanatan Dharma fold. Photo: Special Arrangement

In a bid to bring the Banjaras firmly into the Hindu fold, an organisation supported by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is hosting a five-day gathering of the nomadic community in Maharashtra this week. However, the community seems to have divided opinions on its own religious heritage and identity, with some members skeptical about the political motivations of the event’s organisers.

The Dharam Jagran Manch, an RSS-linked outfit, along with other Hindu religious and social organisations, kick-started a six-day-long congregation of Banjaras at Godri village in Jalgaon district on January 25. The event, called the Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Gaur Banjara and Labhana Naikada Kumbh, aims to bring the community — who are traditionally nomadic pastoralists and traders — into the Sanatan Dharma fold. They are currently classified under the Other Backward Classes (OBC), Scheduled Caste (SC), and Scheduled Tribe (ST) categories in different States.

This is the first major RSS event engaging the community and is expected to witness a footfall of one million people. Participating leaders include Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and his deputy Devendra Fadnavis, Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, and RSS leader Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi.

‘Inseparable part of Hindu society’

During the inauguration, Jitendra ‘Maharaj’, a religious leader of the Banjara community, urged participants to stay away from organisations such as BAMCEF (The All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation), which he said were creating differences among people in Hindu society. “The Gor Banjara community is an inseparable part of the Hindu religion and we are all Sanatan Dharmi. We have our own Teej, Holi, and Diwali songs. Christian missionaries are attacking our community and converting our people. Beware of them,” he added.

However, the event is also drawing criticism from a section of Banjara leaders who claim that the Kumbh is a concept alien to the community, and allege that this was being done to force Hinduism on them. They are protesting the event, both online and offline.

‘Political motivations’

Mohan Singh Chavhan, a retired professor of electronics engineering from Nagpur, and the national president of the Bhartiya Banjara Samaj Karmachari Seva Sanstha that is associated with the upliftment of the community, said that the Kumbh for Banjaras is part of the outreach planned by the RSS to help its political wing, the BJP.

“They are organising the Kumbh, which doesn’t exist in our customs, in preparation for the Assembly elections in Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. All these States have a significant population of Banjaras,” said Mr. Chavhan.

Crores of rupees have been spent for the religious event, for which 1,000 tents have been erected, along with the construction of three helipads and scores of community kitchens across a 500-acre plot.

‘Only seen as vote bank’

N. Shantha Naik, an English professor at Vijayanagara Sri Krishnadevaraya University in Karnataka, who hails from the community himself, has written two books on the culture and history of the Banjaras. He told The Hindu that he had never heard of any history of the Banjaras associated with Godri village. The community’s biggest pilgrimage site is the Pohra Devi temple in Wasim, also in Maharashtra, he said.

Alleging that governments at both the Centre and States have only looked at the Banjaras as a vote bank, Mr Chavhan said that no one has ever tried to uplift the nomadic community, which has a population of about 10 crore across India. They are often stigmatised as criminals, and hardly get basic rights like ration cards, free education, and housing under government schemes, he added.

“This community has given two Chief Ministers to Maharashtra [Sudhakarrao Naik and Vasantrao Naik]. The world knows we don’t believe in Hindu dharma. Then how can we take part in the Kumbh? This activity is an attempt by the RSS to distort tribal history,” said Devanand Pawar, member of the Maharashtra Congress Committee, who is also from the Banjara community.

‘Identify as Hindu in census’

However, the other section that supports the Kumbh spoke in favour of aligning with Hinduism. Another Banjara religious leader, who is also named Mohan Singh Chavhan, told the audience at the Kumbh about a resolution that was passed by the community’s religious leaders. All Banjara colonies would now have temples of Balaji, Jagdamba, and Krishna, he said. Every Banjara family would participate in morning and evening aarti (prayers) in temples, and photos of Sevalal and Ramrao Bapu (religious leaders from the community) and Guru Nanak Dev would be placed in every house.

“All of us must write our religion as Hindu in the upcoming census,” urged Vinayakrao Deshpande, a leader from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, another affiliate of the RSS.

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