New Delhi: In Chattisgarh, it’s gobar economy vs ghar wapsi. As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gears up for the assembly election later this year, its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is pitching in with a two-pronged thrust to weaken the Congress government’s support. The Sangh is stepping up efforts to draw the state’s electorally vital tribal population into the Hindutva fold, while dismissing Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s “pro-Hindu” image as “eyewash”.
Twenty-nine of the 91 seats in the Chhattisgarh assembly are from tribal-dominated areas and reserved for the Scheduled Tribes (ST). The BJP had lost 26 of these in the previous assembly election, in 2018.
Unlike many BJP-governed states such as Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand — which have passed anti-conversion laws triggered by the spectre of ‘love jihad’ and ‘Hindus converting to Islam’ — in Chhattisgarh the socio-political narrative is driven by terms such as dharmantaran (tribals converting to Christianity) and ghar wapsi (‘reconversion’ to Hinduism), as ThePrint had earlier reported.
The simmering tension between the RSS and its affiliates and the Church is palpable as one travels in the tribal-dominated areas, ThePrint had found. The Hindutva groups accused the Church and missionaries of using the tribals’ poor living conditions and the lure of education and healthcare to convert them to Christianity. For its part, the Church maintained that no one is “asked” to convert to access the benefits it offers. Church leaders alleged that ghar wapsi “was not even constitutional”.
Now, the RSS has stepped up its anti-conversion campaigns and ghar wapsi programmes, as well as community development and economic initiatives, to “draw tribals back to the fold” with an eye on the upcoming elections, sources in the organisation said.
According to the sources, the organisation has deployed 70 pracharaks (senior functionaries) and 200 full-time workers in Chattisgarh this year. It has also been organising anti-conversion rallies across districts in the state as part of its ghar wapsi campaign, they added.
Part of the RSS’s task in the state is also to downplay Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s “pro-Hindu” image.
While senior RSS functionaries have called Baghel’s “pro-Hindu” stance an “eyewash” and a “soft Hindutva” plank to win elections, the organisation is struggling to dismiss policies like the cow-dung linked economic model as mere “scams”, the sources added.
Earlier this month, 15 pracharaks from Chhattisgarh were in attendance at the annual meeting of the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the RSS’s highest decision-making body. The issue of religious conversion in the state was discussed, sources said.
“Ghar wapsi programmes in Chhattisgarh have an impact on the Baghel government. The chief minister is trying to practise soft Hindutva to get Hindu votes, because he also knows that Hindu votes may get polarised in this election,” a senior member of the RSS’s central executive committee told ThePrint.
“His (Baghel’s) schemes are just an eyewash. People have witnessed violence and poor economic conditions in the past five years across districts,” the RSS leader alleged.
With the incumbent BJP winning only 15 seats in Chhattisgarh in the 2018 election while the Congress bagged 68, the upcoming election promises to be a high-stakes one for the opposition party.
Also read: Chhattisgarh CM Baghel takes Ram’s name but stands with those involved in conversion: Raman Singh
Baghel’s Hindu pull
Last year, the Baghel-led Congress government had announced that it would construct eight statues of the god Ram across Chhattisgarh by June 2023.
The government is also working on a Ram Van Gaman tourism circuit — tracing the route taken by Ram in Chhattisgarh during his vanvas (exile) as mentioned in the epic Ramayan.
In the run-up to an RSS meet in the state in September last year, the chief minister had invited RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to visit the Mata Kaushalya temple near Raipur, dedicated to Ram’s mother.
The Baghel government also introduced the Godhan Nyay Yojana — now its flagship economic model. This began as a scheme for procuring cow dung and making organic fertiliser in 2020. It aimed to provide income support to farmers, while also addressing a shortage of chemical fertilisers in the state.
The cow dung procurement and composting scheme led to the setting up of gauthans, where cattle could be kept for the day and looked after. These gradually started housing vermicompost pits. Over time, the gauthans have been transforming into what the state government calls rural industrial parks — centres for cottage industries which it hopes will create retail products such as artisanal soaps and teas that can “compete with the market”.
From sarees to metal sculptures to food supplements and lifestyle products, the government has big plans for what it wants these cottage industries to produce. Many of the products have no connection with cow dung, except that they are made at the gauthans.
“They (BJP) just talk about it, but we have connected (cows) to the economy,” Baghel had told ThePrint in an interview this month.
He had added, “Today, cow-rearing is not economically viable. Hence, our government took the decision of buying cow dung. Again, due to increasing population, cow sheds are disappearing in villages. They’re getting illegally occupied and houses are being built on them. So, in 10,000 panchayats we acquired 1,50,000 acres of land and turned them into gauthans, from where cow dung was procured. We are using cow dung to make vermicompost. We have procured 100 lakh quintals of cow dung and made 20 lakh quintals of vermicompost.”
RSS & BJP pushback
The RSS -BJP combine, however, has dismissed the Baghel government’s scheme as a “scam”.
“We are running a campaign to tell people how Baghel made all false premises. In fact, the gauthan scheme is a scam. At least 56 cows in and around the Bilaspur area have died in the past three months,” said Vishnudeo Sai, a senior leader and former state president of the BJP.
Sai added: “Violence in Bastar has gone up, our leaders are being targeted and killed in the area. This happened because Baghel’s government facilitated conversion.”
Sai was referring to the murders of three BJP workers, allegedly by Maoists, in Chhattisgarh last month. In the wake of these attacks, the BJP staged protests across the state over the law-and-order situation and “targeted killings” of party workers, and state BJP leaders alleged that the Congress had collaborated with Maoists to silence the opposition ahead of polls. The Congress dismissed these allegations as pre-election slander.
Data accessed by ThePrint had also shown that “political killings” by Maoists aren’t new in the state and have claimed more Congress leaders.
Meanwhile, the RSS pointed at welfare measures the organisation has launched for tribals in the state.
A pracharak based in Chhattisgarh spoke of teams set up by the Sangh to “create livelihood opportunities” in villages across the 29 tribal-dominated districts.
The RSS central executive committee member quoted above said, “We have launched special projects to empower the tribal villagers. They are now associated with many NGOs related to the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (RSS affiliate), and we are training them in building self-help groups. Access to hospitals or medical assistance has been a very important factor among tribals, and the missionaries (Christian) used it in their favour to convert the tribals.”
He added, “We now have small medical teams including a doctor and paramedics working in villages too. The tribal population needs to understand that they committed sin by leaving their sanatan religion.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)
Also read: Unemployment allowance, ‘International Ram Festival’ — Baghel govt presents last pre-poll budget