Something unbelievable is happening in the forested tribal areas of south Gujarat, the Dangs. I see miles after miles of people coming down the hills and village roads making it almost impossible to drive up to the venue where Shabri Kumbh - commemorating the legend of Shabri - is being held.
Till Saturday afternoon, more than 3.5 lakh tribals from every nook and corner - from the far Northeastern States to Port Blair and Uttaranchal to Kerala - had arrived. At midnight, they were still reaching from places as far away as Itanagar in Arunachal. It's a unique event in the tribal history post-independence India, and its magnitude is difficult to measure for a reporter who is able to see only a part of the whole even after a hectic day-long tour around the five sq km stretch of the venue on the full moon day of the month of Magh.
Why should tribals feel threatened in a nation whose Constitution provides protection to their cultural and religious identity? It is so "because the constitutional provisions have not been used effectively so far", says Mr Jagdeo Ram Oraon, a tribal leader from Chhattisgarh and president of the largest NGO working among tribals, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram. Mr Oraon who is also chairing the Shabri Kumbh Committee. "We are not against any religion or institution, but are trying to put our own house in order. What's the fuss about?" he asks.
Later in the evening, I meet the lady pastor of the local CNI church. Her grandfather was the first pastor of the same church established in 1932. She says they have nothing to fear from such gatherings as the tribals are always non-violent though there are bad memories of a few incidents that occurred in 1998 in this region. This time the administration has given them full protection. "It's the media reports that make us anxious," she said. And she was right. In spite of everything remaining peaceful, a section of the media tried to create fear amongst the Christians.
It is noteworthy that the tribals have fought more than hundred recorded battles against the British led by heroes like Alluri Sitaram Raju, Birsa Munda, Sidho, Kanho Chand and Bhairon, Pazhsi Raja and Rani Gaidinliu. Without exception, all of them had to resist the onslaught of Christian missionaries, too, as the battle against the British also meant battling to safeguard their religion.
Take the example of Rani Gaidinliu of Nagaland. She had led a heroic guerrilla war against the British and when defeated by the mightier army, was rewarded life imprisonment by means of a "fair trial" -- all this when she was just 16. Nehru met her in Kohima jail and wrote poetically about her heroism calling her "fit to be a Rani", hence the title of Rani.
After independence, it took Nehru more than a year to see her out of jail. Indira Gandhi awarded her the Padma Bhushan and also a tamra patra in the silver jubilee year of independence. But Kohima church and the Christian leaders of the NSCN opposed vehemently when there was a proposal to have her statue installed in Kohima after her death because she had declared her Heraka and Zeliangrong movements Hindu and had refused to convert to Christianity.
In order to convert a tribal, his beliefs, customs and deities are condemned, pronounced "incapable of providing salvation"; his entire worldview is sought to be replaced with Romanised concepts and ways of worship. It was the fear of this aggression that made Congress leader and current Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh create a Dony Polo mission. He also began motivating tribal public educational institutions so that his people were saved from conversion.
Shabri, who waited a lifetime to welcome Ram, is believed to have treated the Lord with her part-eaten wild berries in the Dangs (derived from Dandakaranya) according to the beliefs of the local tribal population. Surely, she has emerged as the most powerful icon of tribal-nontribal harmony, the legend thus helping the evolution of a unique cultural chemistry.
The same place is today witnessing a powerful assertion of tribal rights to protect their identity and culture. They have given an unambiguous call to their converted brethren to return to their original fold. "We are not giving a call to the citizens of Vatican to convert to Hinduism, but calling our own people back," asserts Morari Bapu, world-renowned preacher. In the village of Shabri, it was an unprecedented sight: Revered Shankaracharyas, sannyasins and Brahmins were embracing the tribals and seeking forgiveness if they had been wronged in the past.
But the secular Taliban-like voices refuse to see anything good happening to Hindus. They tried their best to ban Shabri Kumbh, some media persons surveyed the venue in advance and the prophets of doom declared the programme a threat to environment.
Those who merrily lauded the fraud of Benny Hinn, went hammer and tongs against a great Hindu event. But all of them have been silenced by the grandeur and peaceful conclusion of the biggest expression of tribal assertion in our history. This is also the beginning of a new order, which declares: Come what may, obstructionist politics of hate cannot stop the march of the indigenous people.