Jaipur: A rare event occurred at Amagarh fort, 28 km east of Rajasthan's capital, on 21 June 2021, when a saffron flag or bhagwa—a powerful religious and political Hindu symbol was taken down and replaced with a white flag.
That white flag represented meen bhagwan, an Adivasi deity worshipped by the Meenas, the largest and politically most influential of Rajasthan's 12 scheduled tribes, who make up 14% of the state’s 70 million people.
The replacement of the saffron flag with the white represented recent strife between right-wing Hindu groups and the Meenas over flags, idols and history. At its core, the flag replacement concerns the identity of an Adivasi community that for 81 years between 1871 to 1952 was branded a “criminal tribe” and now is trying to resist being subsumed by Hinduism.
"[The Hindu groups] intend to saffronize our culture,” said Giriraj Meena, the general secretary of the Rajasthan Adivasi Meena Seva Sangh. “We will always remain Adivasi and we are proud of it."
Over two months, the fracas has drawn in Rajasthan’s ruling Congress party, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has become a religious, political and law-and-order issue in a state where both parties, striving for electoral dominance, find their votes split by a new Adivasi party. Over the last 69 years, the Congress won the state 10 times and the BJP four.
Although the fort at Amagarh was given its present form by Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, the Meenas said it predated the Rajputs, who held sway over Rajasthan since the 7th century.
Idols Are Broken, Muslims Blamed
The removal of the saffron flag was preceded on 5 June by a first information report (FIR) filed against unidentified persons at Jaipur’s Transport Nagar police station for vandalising idols at a Meena temple at Amagarh.
The police detained five minor Muslim boys and arrested an adult Muslim man. The man was charged with injuring or defiling a place of worship with “intent to insult the religion” and theft. All were later released on bail.
“The preliminary investigation suggested that the intention of the boys was to steal the idol as they tried to break the iron slab in the window,” assistant commissioner of police Neel Kamal told Article 14. “This was a matter of theft; there was no communal agenda behind this. When boys, who are locals, tried to steal the idol, it was damaged.”
Meena leaders do not believe Muslim youth were involved.
“From the sequence of events over the last six weeks, we can say this was done to create Hindu-Muslim communal violence, ahead of the elections in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat," said Ramkesh Meena, independent member of legislative assembly (MLA) from Gangapur City, 140 km east of Jaipur. He is also the state president of the Rajasthan Adivasi Meena Seva Sangh.
Around 40 days days after the initial FIR, a saffron flag was hoisted at the fort, allegedly by Hindu groups. The incident went largely unreported until discovered and the saffron flag taken down after five days.
"Who gave them the right to hoist a saffron flag on the temple? It was an effort to bring the fort under the Hindutva fold,” said Ramkesh Meena. “The fort and the temple never had any saffron flag ever. We simply use the flag of meen bhagwan, our tribal deity.”
A video of the saffron flag tearing while it was being taken down went viral on social media. Hindu outfits then launched a Twitter war with Adivasi groups.
A Web Of Accusations
So far, four FIRs have been filed over the Amagarh dispute—one for the vandalised idols and two ‘cross’ or opposing FIRs, filed each by Hindu groups and the Meenas, after the saffron flag was taken down.
A fourth FIR accuses a television channel of “hurting the sentiments” of the Meenas. On 31 July, general secretary of the Rajasthan Adivasi Meena Seva Sangh, Giriraj Meena, filed an FIR against Suresh Chavhanke, the editor-in-chief of Sudarshan TV, at the Transport Nagar police station in Jaipur.
The fourth FIR quotes sections 295 and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860, along with section 67 of the IT Act 2000, and sections of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.
On 23 July, Chavhanke’s channel ran programmes, alleging a jihadi conspiracy behind the saffron flag taken down from Ambagarh. The show also insinuated that because the fort is located in the constituency of Congress MLA Rafeek Khan, Muslims were somehow involved.
"The bhagwa flag has been insulted in Rajasthan, the land of the brave,” Chavhanke said in a 23 July show. “ The flag has not only been taken down but was torn before the camera. But even after 36 hours, there are no ripples in Hindustan. I feel impotency has entered the blood, behaviour and character of Hindus.”
Adivasis Allege Attempts To Distort History
Rajasthan's Adivasis have repeatedly tried to differentiate their cultural heritage from Hinduism. The Amagarh dispute is only the latest example.
"They changed the name of Amba Mata to Ambika Bhawani by scribbling it on the walls of the Amagarh fort,” said Ramkesh Meena, the independent MLA. “There is a huge difference between the goddess Ambika Bhawani and Amba Mata. Amba Mata, whom the Meena community worships is a form of an ancestor who represents nature, whereas Ambika Bhawani is a form of Durga.”
Historians said there was ample evidence that the fort was built during Meena rule, long before the Rajputs started ruling Jaipur and adjacent areas.
"The Meena community ruled several parts of Rajasthan before the 11th century,” said Rajasthani author Hari Ram Meena, who writes on tribal issues. “The Amagarh fort belongs to the tribal community; it was built before the 10th century."
As the mother deity, Amba Mata is the deity of creativity for the Meenas, Hari Ram said.
The book Meena Itihaas (the history of the Meena community), written in 1968 by Rajasthani historian Rawat Saraswat Meena, has a photo of a plaque erected by the Archeological Department outside the temple.
"The Ambagadh [another spelling for Amagarh] stands on the north most cliff and forms part of the outline of circumvallation that connects with Amber,” reads the caption. “It is an old fort of the medieval times and is associated with the Minas (sic)."
Adivasi Assertion In Rajasthan
The BJP has been vocal against any efforts to present tribal culture as being distinct from Hinduism. The Congress, in contrast, has downplayed the issue, even choosing to not support its own MLA.
In March, legislator and state youth Congress president Ganesh Ghogra demanded in the Rajasthan assembly an Adivasi religious code. Congress leaders said that was Ghogra’s personal opinion.
Ghogra’s demand found support from the two legislators of the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP).
"The unity of tribal communities is needed in Rajasthan,” BTP MLA from Sagwara, Ramprasad Dindor told Article 14. “Only by standing united can we seek a change in political approach and safeguard our culture.”
Dindor said Amagarh was not an isolated incident. Efforts of Hinduising Adivasi culture were evident at religious sites in Udaipur and Beneshwar in Dungarpur, according to Dindor.
"In the tribal village Jasela in Dungarpur district, Hindu groups tried to vandalise the idols of one of our temples and tried to hold the priest responsible for this,” said Dindor. “Their idea was to remove him from the post and project a new priest with the Hindu ideology. Similarly, in the Sonar Mata temple in the Salumbar block of Udaipur, Hindu groups tried to saffronise it by hoisting a flag that carried their party's ideology.”
These are revered sites for Adivasis, said Dindor, who accused Hindu groups of wanting to grab land or claim these sites for a Hindu temple.
Founded in 2017 by seven-time Gujarat MLA Chhotubhai Vasava, the BTP enjoys the support of Bhils (Adivasis from southern Rajasthan), traditionally Congress voters, who for the first time in the 2018 assembly polls elected two MLAs from the BTP.
The emerging popularity of the BTP has troubled both the Congress and the BJP in Rajasthan.
Congress vote share in Sangwara and Chorasi—the two constituencies that the BTP won in 2018—fell from 45.31% and 36.07% in 2013 to 24.07% and 21.41%, respectively, in 2018.
The BJP vote share similarly fell from 45.74% and 50.17% in 2013 in these two constituencies to 30.95% and 30.51%, respectively in 2018.
The BTP’s winning vote share in Sangwara and Chorasi in 2018 was 33.59% and 38.22%, respectively.
What Do Adivasis Want?
"Our two main demands are the implementation of a separate Adivasi code along with the rights guaranteed in the constitution and adherence to the Supreme court's Samata judgement,” said the BTP MLA Dindor.
Quoting schedule 5 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court protected Adivasi land through a 1997 judgment that asserted their right to equality.
Some legislators, such as Ramkesh Meena, back the BTP’s demands. “The Hindu Marriage Act also doesn't work for us,” he said. “There has been a long-standing demand from the community to have a separate religious code.”
The Adivasi population is particularly high in districts of south Rajasthan, such as Udaipur, Dungarpur and Banswara, areas, where the BTP has emerged as an electoral force.
Areas with a concentration of ST (as per census 2011) population include the eastern Rajasthan of Dausa (26.5 %) , Karauli (22.3 %) and Sawai Madhopur (21.4%) and other areas such as Udaipur (49.7%) and Dungarpur (70.8%), making it impossible for major political parties to ignore in a state where the main political parties are locked in tussle for supremacy.
BJP Vs The Meenas
On 21 July, Hindu groups claimed that the saffron flag was taken down from Amagarh in the presence of independent legislator Ramkesh Meena, who they also accused of tearing the flag.
The MLA has received hate on Twitter from Hindutva supporters, who ran a campaign demanding Ramkesh Meena’s arrest, after he said that Adivasis were not Hindus.
"The claims made by MLA Ramkesh Meena, that Meenas are not Hindus is baseless,” Ramlal Sharma, BJP MLA and the party's chief spokesperson in Rajasthan told Article 14. “They are also Hindus by birth and follow all traditions of the religion just like us. The Congress government is trying to exaggerate [the issue], as their MLA from the concerned area is Rafeek Khan, who is a Muslim and is allowing the issue to flare up.”
Khan denied any involvement.
“Whoever the police found guilty in their investigation should be punished,” Khan told Article 14. “Whatever the status of the fort since independence till 2021 should remain. If any community wants to do anything at the fort, that should be done with mutual understanding and consensus.”
According to Sharma, the BJP and RSS had nothing to do with the hoisting of the flag, attributing it to Hindus living in the area. Members of the BJP from the Meena community have been conflicted.
On 1 August 2021, Rajya Sabha member of Parliament (MP) from the BJP, Kirodi Lal Meena, dodged the police to hoist the white flag of the Meenas.
"[Kirodi Lal Meena] knew that had he hoisted a saffron flag on the fort, he would have been branded a traitor within the Meena community and it would have reduced his support of the community,” said Giriraj Meena, of the Adivasi Meena Seva Sangh. “We consider this our victory.”
BTP Vs The Congress
In July 2020, when the Congress government in Rajasthan was in a crisis after a rebellion by former deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot, the BTP had extended its support to the ruling party. Within six months, it pulled support when Congress and BJP joined forces to defeat a BTP-supported candidate in the zila pramukh (heads of local councils) elections in Dungarpur.
The BTP was also unhappy with the Congress government of chief minister Ashok Gehlot for not fulfilling a 17-point memorandum that referred to alleged State persecution of Adivasi youth after violent protests in Dungarpur over recruitment of government teachers in September 2020.
Although the Congress runs the Rajasthan government, “nothing concrete” happens when it comes to demands of the tribal communities, said Hansraj Meena, an Adivasi activist.
(Tabeenah Anjum is a journalist based in Rajasthan, reporting on politics, gender, human rights, and issues impacting marginalized communities.)