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Faith by Force

Faith by Force

Uday Mahurkar
News Today Specials
March 13, 2000
Title: Faith by Force
Author: Uday Mahurkar
Publication: News Today Specials
Date: March 13, 2000

It was an unsuspecting, calm morning in Bandhghar village of Dahanu taluk in Thane. Devram Raut and his family were about to finish their siesta when a 200 men-strong horde armed with lathis marched on to their hut and ordered them to remove the tulsi-bead necklaces they were wearing. Dissent was met with fish curry forced down their throats. Their ordeal ended only after the mob had thrashed them up and extracted 400 rupees from Raut as a kind of punitive tax. Six months later, apprehending a second attack, the family fled into the jungle. "Even today we simply shiver at the slightest noise during night. But we will die rather than submit" Says Raut, who's now back in his village.

Raut's case is not an isolated incident. The couple Sukri and Madhu Mahale have gone through traumatic experience as well. The Mahales have been thrashed twice in the past two years in a brutal manner. In the latest attack in their village Shensari around Diwali last year, Mahale was beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalised. His mother too wasn't spared as she tried to protect her son.

The attackers in both the cases were local tribals led by the followers of Kashtkari Sanghathan, a Leftist organisation, and those on the receiving end were the tribal followers of the Vaishnav sect called Mahanubhaav Panth.

In this region of Gujarat-Maharashtra border there have been a series of attacks in the past two years by the tribal activists of the Sanghathan on the Panth followers-better known as Maalkaris for the Vaishnav mala (necklace of tulsi beads) they wear. Formed in 1978 by Christian missionaries-turned-Leftists, the Sanghathan finds its authority threatened by the inroads made lately by the Panth in the tribal community in Dahanu, Thane.

Only a few of these attacks, many of which are brutal like forcing meat and liquor down the throat of the strictly vegetarian and teetotaller tribals, figure in the police files.

According to the police, the non-Maalkaris have the direct support of the Sanghathan. "Like the Naxalites, the Sanghathan is known for instigating the tribals against the establishment. It has a clear missionary connection since it was founded by them," says inspector I.S. Patil of Kasa police station, who has investigated some of the attacks.

The Sanghathan, on the other hand, blames the non-Maalkari tribals, who are unhappy with the Maalkaris for discarding their old faith, for the violence.

Founder of the Sanghathan Pradip Prabhu, earlier a Jesuit priest known as Peter De'Mello, said: "The Maalkaris insult the ancient gods of the tribals. Besides, some of the incidents of violence have been blown out of proportion by the Maalkaris, who are definitely not apolitical." Prabhu, who claims himself to be a staunch Marxist and an atheist, also charges the Panth with introducing the caste system amongst the tribals and communalising them.

The BJP, which has come to the Maalkaris' rescue despite its minimal presence in the area, accuses the Sanghathan of being involved in the Roman Catholic Church's conversion game. Manisha Chaudhary, president of Dahanu municipality and a BJP leader, says: "The Sanghathan prepares the harvest for the Church. Once the crop is ready the Sanghathan withdraws and the Church steps in." What particularly vitiated the atmosphere in the tribal pocket was a pamphlet put out by a band of Sanghthanis accusing the Maalkaris of destroying the tribal culture, insulting the tribal gods and introducing untouchability amongst the tribals by telling the Maalkaris not to drink water from the pots of the non-Maalkaris.

But Sukhdevmuni counters these charges: "Many Vaishnav and Jain Banias don't drink water at the house of a non-vegetarian Rajput. Can you call it untouchability?" Another Sanghathan leader Siraz Balsar chips in: "That the BJP and the RSS have no presence here is the very reason they are making these charges. They are trying to build their presence." On the flipside, however, the Sanghathan's permanent anti-establishment posture has been one of the main reasons why the tribals have been dependent on them.

It is this stranglehold of the Sanghathan that is threatened by the spread of the Mahanubhaav Panth. The Maalkaris' strength in the 20 villages of Dahanu is today 5,000 and is growing fast. The Sanghathan followers are between 10,000 and 15,000 in these villages. For the moment, the Maalkaris are going by the tenets of their faith and haven't hit back. But if the atmosphere of terror prevails, retaliation is the only answer as the Maalkaris are tribals too and the same blood runs in their veins.

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