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Mahisasur has become the rallying point of dalits and tribals in Bengal

RSS says the movement is ‘brainchild of JNU students’ aimed at splitting the nation.

kolkata Updated: Oct 24, 2017 18:17 IST
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
Mahisasur,West Bengal,Dalits
A rally taken out at Garia in the southern fringes of Kolkata on October 1, a day after Bijoya Dasami. It was organised to celebrate Biswa Asur Divas (World Asura Day).(Photo courtesy: Facebook/Saradindu Uddipan)

In the evening of September 19 (Mahalaya), the beginning of matri paksha, at a small pandal in front of a Durga temple adjacent to Durganagar rail station in the northern suburbs of Kolkata, one speaker after another walked up to the microphone to lambast the narrative of goddess Durga and the killing of ‘demon king’ Mahisasur.

The podium was named after slain journalist Gauri Lankesh, described as ‘a martyr of Aryan imperialism’.

The speeches ended with the salutations ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Jai Mahisasur’. A majority of the gathering of about 100-odd people described themselves as followers of the Ambedkar-Periyar stream of thoughts. By mid-October more than 1,000 such gatherings were held across West Bengal.

Read: New Dalit icons emerging in Uttar Pradesh as BJP tightens its reins

In February 2016, statements similar to their speeches found in a leaflet on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus earned the wrath of the former HRD minister Smriti Irani, resulting in her outburst in Lok Sabha against those who hailed Mahisasur as a hero and ‘scandalised Durga’.

Members of the Matua community observed Mahisasur martyrdom day at Gaighata in North 24 Parganas district. (Photo courtesy: Facebook/Saradindu Uddipan)

Her speech had an unintended effect. In Bengal, where Durga puja is the biggest annual festival, it angered those who consider themselves as descendents of Mahisasur.

“Such incidents as Rohith Vemula’s death, Smriti Irani’s Parliament speech and the thrashing of dalits at Una in Gujarat prompted various organisations in Bengal to reclaim the identity and pride of India’s indigenous people,” said Saradindu Uddipan, a writer and coordinator of the Mahisasur Smaransabha Samiti, an amalgamation of about four dozen dalit and tribal organisations.

Read: Kerala: Dalit priests break barriers, win hearts to make history

Formed towards the end of 2016, the samiti’s principle intention is ‘to coordinate between the shudras across Bengal’ to promote tribal and dalit festivals throughout the year.

A devotee bows down before Mahisasur. (Photo courtesy: Facebook/Saradindu Uddipan)

“Mahisasur is the central figure Bengal’s dalit and adibasi people are uniting around,” said Ananta Acharya of Democratic Action Forum of Dalits, Women and Minorities.

In Bengal, apart from members of the Asur community, who number a little more than 4,000, a large number of the followers of Sari and Sarna religions (Scheduled Tribe or ST), numbering at 4.93 lakh and 2.64 lakh respectively, consider Mahisasur as their ancestor, besides sections of people belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Other Backward Classes (OBC).

Read: The Dalit story in today’s India is no longer a side plot of class

Bengal has 21.4 million SC population (23%), second highest in India, after Uttar Pradesh, apart from 4.6 million (5%) ST population. There is no official figure yet on the state’s Hindu OBC population but it is estimated at about 9%.

Tribals celebrate at Salboni in West Midnapore district of West Bengal in end-September. (Photo courtesy: Facebook/Saradindu Uddipan)

Though a social movement, the campaign is a challenge to the initiatives of the saffron camp, led by the Sangh Parivar, as they principally challenge ‘the Manuvaadi culture of north India’.

“The inclusive culture of the descendants of Mahisasur and Ravana is challenging the exclusive culture of the Manuvadi Aryans. So, we intend or not, our movement will challenge the ideology and narrative of the saffron camp,” said Uddipan.

Read: Mission 2019: On Ambedkar Jayanti, BJP to roll out more Dalit outreach initiatives

Take the case of the Matua community, the namasudra refugees from Bangladesh, one of the largest SC communities in the state, and that of the Kurmi-Mahatos, a major OBC community.

The saffron camp has been trying to capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiments among a section of Matuas because they suffered atrocities in Bangladesh. The Sangh Parivar is also telling the Hindu OBCs including the Mahatos that it is because of the Mamata Banerjee government’s policy of including Muslims in OBC quota that the pie is shrinking for Hindu OBCs.

The Mahisasur Smaran Sabha Samiti, however, has a different plan. Urging them to shun ‘Manuvad’ and embrace the ‘original asura identity’, the samiti this year has managed to increase number of asura worship events in Mahato-dominated areas. This was also the first time, members from the Matua community organised a Mahisasur Memorial Day event.

“It’s a conspiracy hatched by those who want to split the nation into pieces,” said Jisnu Basu, general secretary of RSS south Bengal.

“This idea is being fed to a section of dalit and tribal activists by a group of anti-nationals based in JNU. Kanhaia Kumar and his ilk published leaflets propagating this theory five times in the oast 10 years. JNU is the headquarters of this vicious propaganda,” Basu said.

First Published: Oct 24, 2017 17:34 IST