Thane tribal belt has been a turbulent area in the past. Thomas Blom Hansen, Professor of South Asian Studies in Stanford University, in his work, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India, examines the network of what he calls “ educational Ashrams” such as boarding schools, hostels and associations built since late 1960s, by Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (hence forth VKA), in tribal areas of the northern Talukas of Thane district in Maharashtra. The tribal belt of Thane district comprises mainly of Dahanu, Talasari, Jawahar, Mokhada, Vikramgad, Wada, Palghar, Shahapur and Murbad talukas. Hansen finds that the efforts of the VKA has been successful especially in Mokhada and Jawahar talukas.
Hansen highlights how Madhavrao Kane, long-standing RSS man and president of the Kalyan Municipal Council for the Jana Sangh in the 1960s, started the VKA in Talasari. Hansen underlines it as one of the largest and most controversial projects in the area— which was launched precisely to combat communists and Christian missionaries, who as Hansen narrates, were creeping into the political and cultural loyalties of tribals. The president of the BJP in Thane district, Chintamani Wangar, who was elected as MP in 1996, is a tribal from this area educated through the system of ashrams, hostels, and educational grants created by the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP), according to Hansen.
But the Thane, which included Palghar before 2014, was also one of the citadels of the CPI(M). Nobody can combat the Indian Marxist in sub-rural horror. The Marxists in India have mastered the art of violent repression of their ideological opponents by any means. The VKA at Talasari in current Palghar district has been the locus of political clashes between communists and VKA as pointed out by Hansen. He narrates, Madhavrao Kane accused, how the VKA was attacked by Marxists in 1991, who assaulted the staff and also destroyed its property. What Hansen skipped was, how in the absence of Madhavrao Kane, another prominent worker of VKS, Appa Joshi and his wife Vasudha Joshi succumbed to multiple injuries by the Marxists who arrived baying for the blood of Kane.
In his study of Christian Missions in Talasari area, Rudolf C.Heredia, highlights that, the Communists saw the rise of an organization named Kashtakari Sanghatana, which was inspired by Marxism –Leninism, but adopted to liberation theology, as a challenge to its political dominance in the region. India Today reported in 1983 that rampaging mobs of CPI(M) sympathisers attacked villages in Thane district’s Dahanu and Talasari talukas, destroyed huts, beat up known Kashtakari Sanghatana supporters, raped women and looted scores of homes of their frugal possessions. India Today also described that villagers accuse the four strong permanent police contingent of being ineffective and playing into CPI(M) hands. On September 18, the policemen were promptly driven off by the mob of over 400 who ransacked seven huts before the villagers could drive them away (CPI-M supporters renew campaign of terror against villages dominated by Kashtakari Sanghatana in India Today, Oct., 31, 1983).
These are not just two isolated incidents. They clearly show how Marxist comrades launch orchestrated attacks on their opponents and eliminate them in the Thane region of Maharashtra, as they have executed this strategy ruthlessly in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.
The tribal areas of Maharashtra are spread in three distinct regions of western Sahyadris, northern Satpudas and eastern Gondwana belts. Majority of the tribes reside in Sahyadri belt, which covers Thane, Raigad, Pune, Ahmednagar, Nasik and Dhule districts. In 2014, Palghar was carved out of India’s most populous Thane district.
The beginning of work by VKA along the extensive tribal belt of Maharashtra and Central India irritated many Christian denominations. From Colonial Period, the Central Indian tribal belt was seen as a fertile land by missionaries for helping the colonial regime suppress anti-imperial agitations and for gathering linguistic and ethnological data for conversions. Stephen Hislop, Missionary of the Free Church of Scotland at Nagpur, assisted R.V. Russell in his preparation of castes and tribes of central India. Ethnological accounts of tribes in central India and Deccan were prepared by Bishop Westcott, Rev. T.P. Hugh, Rev. E.M. Gordon, Jeremiah Philips, Lars Olsen Skrefsrud, Fr. Augustus Stockman, John Baptist Hoffman and Rev. P. Dehon to propagate Aryan invasion myths and subjugation of tribals by Hindus. Naturally, the entry of VKA and its remarkable growth is viewed as a potential threat by missionaries in a vast tribal region, which was held under their sway from the British Period.
Besides Maharashtra, in Central India, the number of re conversions by the VKA shot up tremendously in early nineties . It claims to have re converted 25,000 Christian tribals and the final straw was its mass conversion camp in 1992, at Kumbhichuha, a village in Raigarh district. Earlier in January, it organised a similar camp at Kumbhichuha village where about 900 tribals were re converted. Last year it converted the entire population – 121 Scheduled Castes families – of Saritoli village in Raigarh district. Raigarh and Surguja districts, are the centers of feverish missionary activity(Hindu revivalists incur Christian missionaries wrath by luring tribals back to the fold in India Today, May 15, 1992)
Situations changed after nineties. Early in 2003, 500 tribals, including a local pastor, Motu Nurawalvi of Silo Delsya church of Sonare village in Navapur town of Nandurbar district of Maharashtra were reconverted back to Hindu fold which fueled tensions in the area (Tribals back in Hindu fold? In The Times of India, Dec 26., 2003).
But tensions escalated especially at Thane in Maharashtra with the intervention of Sadhus, with tribals in the region. In 2008, in the presence of Swami Narendra Maharaj, chief of the Ramanandcharya Peeth of Nanij in the Konkan, 1700 tribals reconverted back to Hindu fold at a massive function held at Shimpoli in Borivli West (Over 1,700 return to Hindu fold in Hindustan Times April 28., 2008). A large function was held to celebrate the return to Hinduism of 1,130 families who had left the traditional religion of India to become Christian. It took place in Kalyan, a city in the district of Thane (Thousands converting back to Hinduism: truth, or propaganda? in Asianews. it, Aug 4., 2009).
The same year, a group of 6,000 persons, largely tribals returned back to Hindu fold at a function to be held in Thane under Swami Narendra Maharaj, (6,000 to reconvert as Hindus in Thane on Monday in India Today, Oct 26, 2009). Three Christians were arrested at Thane in Maharashtra on charges of “forced conversions to Christianity (Maharashtra, three Christians arrested for ‘forced conversions’ in Asianews. it, Nov., 12, 2019). Eleven members of Our Lady of Mercy Church in Thane were arrested in 2019 for creating disturbances by burying a body in a plot that is not marked as a cemetery (Hindustan Times,Mar 27, 2019).
Christophe Jaffrelot in his work The Sangh Parivar –A Reader: Critical Issues in Indian Politics (2007) reviews the exceptional growth of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in tribal belts of Thane and central India. Upset by the remarkable growth of VKA, John Dayal in his work A Matter of Equity: Freedom of Faith in Secular India charged VHP and VKA for unleashing vigilante groups in sensitive areas such as Thane .Nandini Sunder in her article in the work Majoritarian State (edited by Chatterji, Hansen and Jaffrelot) accuses VKA of having branches in Maharashtra and Central India, running hostels and health work and thus indoctrinating children to hate other religions. She charges attack on Christians in tribal pockets of Maharashtra and elsewhere, without any factual proof. These critics cannot present a single instance of either mob lynching or assassination of Christian priests.
The Kashtakari Sanghatana was founded by Jesuit priest Peter D’Mello, in the tribal belt of Dahanu region in district Thane. Peter D’Mello later adopted the name Pradip Prabhu. Kashtakari Sanghatana is a group inspired by liberation theology. It was formally launched on 23d,December,1978 with its headquarters at Siesne village in Dahanu taluka, in Thane district. Prakash Kashwan in his work, Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania and Mexico narrates how under Congress regime in 2004, to resolve forestland conflicts, especially naxal violence, the National Advisory Council under Sonia Gandhi along with Ministry of Tribal Affairs, consulted Pradip Prabhu and took his advice.
During California Text Book controversy which depicted Hindus as Aryan invaders from outside, Hindu organizations demanded a change in false historical and archaeological data in text books which was based on dubious Aryan invasion propaganda. Pradip Prabhu, as convenor of National Front for Tribal Self Rule, had written a letter to Dr. Thomas Adams, Executive Director to the Curriculum Commission, State Board of Education, California, stating that the proposed changes would effectively deny the legitimacy and rights of real indigenous people of India, the Adivasis, who have been suppressed by Aryan invaders.
In tribal belt of Maharashtra, assertions of distinct tribal identity are emerging, as observed in campaigns by Maharashtra Rajya Adivasi Bachao Abhiyan (MRABA), headed by the Nashik-based professor Ashok Bagul, who spearheads a movement to have tribal communities acknowledged as ‘mool-nivasi’ or ‘original inhabitants’. Since 2017, MRABA has been organising tribal weddings where Ravana is honoured as the central deity and witness. “We firmly believe we are the original inhabitants of this country. The rest are migrants,” according to Bagul (The tribal uprising in India Today, June 30, 2018). Nandini Sundar in her article in Majoritarian State, acclaims the celebration and worship of Mahishasur as a cultural and political resistance against Hindutva, and Durga, which she argues “is indicative of the long history of appropriation and exclusion and symbolizing perhaps the ultimate fate of Adivasi under Hindutva”.
In Maharashtra, left extremism is also spreading across these tribal belts. Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad has arrested in 2018, seven suspected Maoists from Kalyan in Thane district. The Maoists have declared parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat as a ‘golden corridor’ to spread their ideology and lure people to their organisation, besides being in touch with left-wing extremist cadres in the forests (Seven suspected Maoists arrested in Maharashtra in Outlook, Jan 14., 2018)
On 16th April, two Hindu monks Kalpvriksh Giri Maharaj (70) and Sushil Giri Maharaj (35), along with their driver Nilesh Telgade, were lynched to death by a 200-strong mob in Palghar district.The sadhus belonged to the Akhara’s Trayambakeshwar unit of Sri Panch Dashanam Juna Akhara, based at Varanasi . The police remained mute spectators. The Dahanu Assembly constituency where the gruesome crime was committed also happens to be the only constituency in Maharashtra with a CPI (M) MLA, Vinod Bhiva Nikole.
On Aug 23, 2008, the 80 year old Swami Laxmananda Saraswati and his four aides were was brutally gunned down by a heavily armed mob at his ashram at Jaleshpata in Kandhamal tribal belt of Orissa, which has not vanished from our memory.