Meena Adivasis say hoisting of saffron flag at Jaipur fort is an attempt at Hinduisation

In July 2021, Hindutva groups hoisted a saffron flag, with a “Jai Shri Ram” inscription, atop the Ambagarh fort in Jaipur, Rajasthan. The fort houses the temple of Amba Mata, a goddess revered by the Meena community, a Scheduled Tribe in Rajasthan. The Meenas consider the temple to be a sacred place. According to members of the community, the saffron flag was hoisted by members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The community saw the saffron flag as an affront to their beliefs.

The Wire reported that the Yuva Shakti Manch, an Hindutva organisation associated with the VHP, was responsible for the flag hoisting. I spoke to Narpat Singh Shekhawat, a former Rajasthan VHP president and currently the president of Akhil Bhartiya Vishesh Samapark, a wing of the VHP. He admitted that members of the Sangh had hoisted the saffron flag. “It is a right to hoist the bhagwa”—the saffron flag—“ in India,” he told me.

However, Meena leaders saw that this incident as an attempt to saffronise the Adivasi community. “It is a well-planned conspiracy by the RSS and BJP to capture our sacred fort and erase our Adivasi culture,” Ramkesh Meena, an MLA and the state president of the Rajasthan Adivasi Meena Seva Sangh, or RAMSS, a community organisation working for the rights of Meenas, told me. Ramkesh is an independent MLA who supports the Congress government. He believed this incident is part of a larger effort by the RSS and Hindu-right wing groups to bring Adivasis within the Hindu fold. Ramkesh referred to how Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, in February 2020, urged RSS cadre to persuade Adivasis to mark themselves as Hindus in the census. According to the 2011 Census, Scheduled Tribes constitute 13.4 percent of the Rajasthan’s population, of which Meenas are the largest community. They are also among the most politically influential tribes in the state, with 18 Meena MLA’s in the 200-member Rajasthan state assembly.

On 22 July, the saffron flag at the fort was taken down by an assembled group. The flag tore in the process of it being lowered. A video of the tattered flag was circulated on social media leading to outrage from Hindu groups. Media reports of the incident suggested that the flag had been pulled down by members of the Meena community. However, Ramkesh denied that community members had been involved. He told me that the incident first came to light when Giriraj Meena, the president of the Suraj Pol unit of the RAMSS, heard about it. Suraj Pol is an area in Jaipur near the fort.

“They then informed the state unit of the RAMSS, we went there and saw that a saffron flag was hoisted there,” Ramkesh said. He claimed that he subsequently spoke to members of the Yuva Shakti Manch. Referring to them, he continued, “When we enquired who did it and confronted them, they accepted the mistake and agreed to take it down. While pulling down the flag, it’s stick broke and the flag got torn. We weren’t even present there when the flag was being pulled down, we were away from it. None of our men were there. Those who had hoisted the flag had attempted to pull it down and in that attempt, it tore off. There was no intention to disrespect the flag in this.”

According to members of the Meena community, before the saffron flag was hoisted, idols of local deities worshipped by the community were vandalised in the temple. “Few people with the intention to capture the fort first vandalised the idols, and then hoisted saffron at the wall’s fort,” Ramkesh said.

Jitendra Meena, an assistant professor of history at Delhi University, added that in June a wall inscription outside the temple referring to the Amba goddess was also changed. “Our idols were vandalised and the name of Amba Mata was changed to Ambika Bhawani, and a shivling installed there,” he said.

However, in early June, the Rajasthan police targeted Muslims for vandalising the idols at the temple. Five minor boys were briefly detained. An adult Muslim man arrested and later released on bail. “Muslims were arrested just to give a Hindu-Muslim angle to the issue,” Ramkesh said. “They have nothing to do with it. Ramganj area near the fort is a Muslim-dominated area and hence their name was floated in to add a communal colour.”

Shekhawat denied that members of the Sangh had the vandalised the idols or had any involvement in bringing the saffron flag down. “Sangh people had gone there and hoisted the saffron flag. VHP and Sangh did it,” he said. “They weren’t even aware of the idols being vandalised, they got to know about everything when we hoisted the saffron flag. People of Muslim community had vandalised them.” He added, “It's a total lie that we either said sorry or accepted our mistake or anything, we didn't do anything wrong.”

Meena community members said the incident at the Ambagarh fort pointed to how Hindu forces are attempting to appropriate the community. “If we follow the last 60 to 70 years, there has been a trend of saffronisation of the heritage of the backward and the minorities in India, by the RSS and the Hindutva forces,” Hansraj Meena, the founder of Tribal Army, a social organisation working for Adivasi rights, said. “This attempt at Ambagarh fort is part of that campaign, in which the Sangh failed. This was an attack on our Adivasi culture.”

Hansraj added that for the last few years, the RSS had been especially aggressively promoting the saffronisation of the Meena community. “Posters reading ‘Meenas are Hindu’ are being circulated in different areas,” he said. “After this incident, RSS has become active in our area. But none of the Hindu laws are applicable to tribes. We don’t want our culture, identity to be saffronised. It is our tribe’s biggest identity, the indigenous of India.”

I spoke to Vikas Pathak, an academic and former editor at The Hindu who has extensively covered the BJP and the RSS. Referring to the Ambagarh fort incident, he too reiterated, “We should see it as a larger agenda by the Hindutva organisations for the saffronisation of the tribals, as Hindutva organisations have been doing special work for the last 50 years on this.” He continued, “BJP and RSS have always been of the view that tribals are also Hindus. They have done this in various parts of India earlier, primarily in Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. The RSS refers to tribals as vanvasis, which translates to people who have come from the jungle, while Adivasi stands for the indigenous people of India.”

Bhanwar Meghwanshi, a Rajasthan based Dalit-rights activist and former RSS karsevak recalled the RSS messaging on Adivasis. “I remember that during our shakhas, it was said in the speeches that ‘vanvasi bandhus,’”—forest dwelling friends—“are being converted by the Christian missionaries and we have to stop it.”

Hansraj told me about other attempts to saffronise Adivasis. He said that every November, Adivasis go to Mangadh in the Banswara district of Rajasthan to mark martyrs’ day. In 1913, British troops had gunned down around 1,500 Adivasis on the Mangadh hill. “It is a plan to make that place a Hindu heritage site,” Hansraj said. “It has been observed that attempts are being made to make Adivasis worship according to Hindu rituals, and photos of [Hindu] gods and goddess have been put rather than of local deities of the Adivasis. They are brainwashing people and are forcing these practices on them.” 

Hansraj said that a similar attempt was being made at Baneshwar in the Dungarpur district, where Adivasis across India gather in huge numbers every year for an annual fair. Referring to Hindutva groups, Hansraj continued, “Now these forces are promoting it like a Kumbh Mela and trying to make it like Haridwar’s Kumbh. Now sadhu, sants are being called there, pandals are being set up for these sadhu, sants. Such kind of attempts are being made repeatedly to destroy our culture and heritage.”

Speaking about the events at Ambagarh fort, Pathak added, “This attempt at the Hinduisation of the tribals was unsuccessful this time because it was against the Meenas, who are the most empowered tribals in India with their substantial footprint in different sections of the society like politics, academics and bureaucracy.”

After the flag hoisting incident, there was police presence at the fort. On 1 August, Kirodi Lal Meena, a BJP Rajya Sabha member of parliament and a member of the Meena community, dodged the police and entered the fort. He then hoisted a white flag that represents an Adivasi deity worshipped by the Meena community. Kirodi was briefly detained by the police and subsequently released. “Kirodi Meena jumped into the incident as a BJP man, part of their strategy to cover up the situation as everything didn’t go according to their plan,” Meghwanshi said.

Kirodi denied that the VHP or RSS had been involved in the hoisting of the saffron flag. He also did not support other Meena community leaders struggling for a separate Adivasi identity. Referring to Adivasis and Hindus, he told me, “We are one.”

Laxmikant Bhardwaj, a BJP leader and former Rajasthan BJP spokesperson, reiterated this view. “Our leaders have put posters all over India that ‘Garv se kaho hum Hindu hai,’—Say with pride that I am a Hindu,” he said. “Tribals are Hindus and what’s the controversy in that?”

However, Meena community members said they were determined to push back. “We are also the citizens of India and you cannot erase our identity and culture like this,” Hansraj said. “We will keep fighting.”