Vanvasi Awakening : Fortunes of Forest
The Kalyan Ashram activities going on since 1952 in remote Vanvasi areas have generated a hope among the Vanvasis. They are now awakened towards the protection of their culture and faith and are one with the national mainstream
There may not be a single village in Bharat where RSS name is not heard, even though all citizens may not have proper understanding of its work and its purpose or have perverted notions. However, a swayamsewak who does his individual work with the ideology and values of the RSS introduces the citizens to the RSS work and wherever he works, he strives to associate and activate them in this ideology.
Shri Ramakant Keshav Deshpande and Shri Morubhaiya Ketkar, who initiated the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram work, joined the RSS in their childhood. They met RSS founder Dr Hedgewar at that time itself. Deshpandeji went to jail in the 1942 Quit India Movement, while Ketkarji left home as a Sangh Pracharak. After Independence, the Christian Missionaries carried out violent agitations in the areas where they were dominating and managed to convert Hindus in a big number to secede from Bharat. There were violent agitations in 1947-48 Jashpur area of Central Province & Berar and tribal-majority hilly areas of Chhota Nagpur in Bihar. The Chief Minister of CP & Berar opened a separate department in his province, on the advice of Sardar Patel and Thakkar Bapa, and started schemes for benefit of backward classes so that anti-national activities could be curbed. Deshpandeji was appointed in the extremely backward Jashpur area. He worked in the Department with full dedication, but soon realised that the change he wants to see is not possible through the government. Hence, he resigned from his four-year old government job in 1952 and started work by forming a voluntary organisation. He formed Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in December the same year.
The number of Vanvasis in Bharat is 10-11 crores. This entire area was almost aloof from the national mainstream because of the Muslim aggression. The British further strengthened the mistrust. They even made a rule of obtaining permit to enter some states like Arunachal, Nagaland and Mizoram, which still continues. However, the foreign missionaries were freely allowed to go inside those remote and backward areas, as if they were invited and given all facilities. In Mizoram and Nagaland, more than three-fourth of the population is converted into Christianity. The Missionaries told the Vanvasis that they are not Hindus and the Hindus were their enemies. Hence, even an educated person in many areas today believe that Vanvasis are not Hindus.
But now, with the efforts of the Kalyan Ashram the feeling that all Vanvasis are Hindus is strengthening. Even the sense that Vanvasis and Hindus are brethren, we are followers of the same way of life and culture is also gaining ground. The RSS also wants to reinforce the same sense.
How the sense of national unity penetrated into the Vanvasi areas through Kalyan Ashram can be understood through a couple of examples. Members of a particular caste converted into Islam in Minakshipuram during the 1980s. The whole of the country reacted to this. At that time, there was a fund-raising campaign for the protection of Hindu dharma. Jashpur is a Vanvasi-dominated area. There was fundraising campaign in the villages. An extremely poor Vanvasi in a village donated Rs 50 to the volunteers. The workers were surprised to see that amount because the person wore knee-long dhoti and torn banyan. Just two to four rupees were expected from him. He had given all his saving after knowing the importance of the dharma's protection. Equally, there was a time when nobody in Nagaland would call himself Hindu. The Kalyan Ashram’s work began there in 1980-81. The campaign for constructing Shri Ram Temple in Ayodhya was going on. At that time, Rani Maa Gaidinliu said the government must allow reconstruction of Shri Ram Temple at the birthplace in Ayodhya. She also said the Nagas are Hindus.
There is one more incident. The Kalyan Ashram work was limited to Jashpur tehsil only from 1952 to 1970, in present day Chhattisgarh. I was in the government service posted at Ambikapur (Sarguja) from 1962 to 64. A Vanvasi usually had choti on his head, but he called himself as adivasi When asked whether they were Hindus, they mostly remained silent. I came to Jashpur in 1966 after joining the Kalyan Ashram. There was hardly any rain that year. The drought situation persisted. I saw the hilly Korbas, the most backward community and which usually kept long chotis on their heads, going to the Mission Centres for receiving food. None of them became Christian; such was their faith.
Wherever the Kalyan Ashram work began, the vested interests opposed that. The gullible Vanvasis kept a distance initially. However, they would understand everything soon. However, the volunteers suffered too much during the first two decades in Nagaland. However, the opposition ended with time. But, many keep a distance because of the Mission influence.
The converted Christians are in majority in Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. In Nagaland, the terrorists collect 'tax' from even government officers, traders, businesspersons, and social organisations. They asked the Kalyan Ashram to pay the 'tax'. The workers said they did not keep money. The terrorists threatened and asked them to stop the work and go away. The workers said, “Okay, we will go”. Then their senior leader accompanying him said, “This is the best school and our kids also study here. Let them be here”.
There is a Kalyan Ashram hostel at Mangaon in Raigarh district of Maharashtra. The purpose was to teach the most backward Katkari children. The children would go home without informing. The workers convinced and brought them back. It continued for two-three years. Then, they started staying and learning with discipline. Later, they excelled in their life.
The Kalyan Ashram has made valuable contribution to the organisational and cultural-faith activities also. Gram Samitis are formed in villages where 8-10 villagers sit together after every one or two months for discussions. Decisions about village development, government schemes, village festivals, deliberations on a crisis are taken there. Besides, the committees for instilling faith are also active in villages. Protection of the places of faith, their creation, celebrating of the festivals unitedly, katha and pravachan at occasions etc. programmes are also held. The religious and cultural faith is also reinforced through this, which is a significant part of the social life.
Because of the Eklavya Khelkud Prakalp, even the government machinery pays attention to the Vanvasi sports talent. A grand national sports meet of 12-13 sports is organised in every four years. The sports talent comes out before the nation due to such competitions. Some of them have won medals at the international events. Kavita Raut of Maharashtra won Bronze Medal in Commonwealth Games.
By and large the Kalyan Ashram activities have proved to be highly useful in awakening the Vanvasis. The sense that ‘I am of Bharat and Bharat is mine’ is growing. They are making progress in every sphere of life.
The writer is a founder member of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram