Opposed to Durga Puja at home, Adivasi youth kills himself

Jitendra Maravi was an active member of the movement responsible for the resurgence of Gond identity and heritage. Courtesy Rupesh Markam
31 October, 2019

This was my moral loss and I could not bear this loss. I have not taken this step out of fear, but only to open the eyes of these people. And the committee members are fully responsible for it. I want to apologise to all my friends, for leaving the fight midway. Remember one thing, that the revolution always demands sacrifice. I hope to achieve this martyrdom. Those who dishonour our ancestors should not be spared. This Durga Puja was breaking me day and night. I felt as if the 55 days of sacrifice had gone to waste. I would like my friends to fight my unfinished battle with much passion. I am always with all of you. I would like to apologise once again to all the people who were associated with me. I also want to apologise to my family members as they had to be ashamed because of me. I am giving you this last trouble. I won’t anymore. My body should not be dissected, this is my wish.
Love Gondwana. Sonu

The suicide note of a 22-year-old tribal youth, Jitendra Maravi or Sonu, is a living document of the tragic times towards which a Hindu majoritarian ideology is aggressively pushing the country.

On 9 October, in Ketaka village of the Surajpur district in the Adivasi-majority state of Chhattisgarh, Jitendra took his own life after a Durga Puja was performed in his house, despite his objections. Jitendra’s friend, Rupesh Markam told me that a Durga Puja committee was formed at the local level. Jitendra’s father, Dhansay Maravi was also a part of the committee. “In the committee’s meeting, Jitendra’s father was pressurised to persuade his son, as he was against Durga Puja” Rupesh said. Jitendra’s father was also asked to “take a resolution to perform Durga Puja in his house.”

According to Rupesh and his friends—Dev Koram and Vijay Singh Marpachi—Jitendra was upset with his father because the Durga Puja was performed in their house despite the son’s opposition to the demonization of Mahishasur and Ravan, and his anti-Brahminical ideology for which he was jailed. Last year, in October, a case was registered against Jitendra at the Surajpur police station for an objectionable social-media post criticising the practice of Durga Puja. The police arrested Jitendra and according to the court’s order, he was jailed for 55 days. In his post, Jitendra had mentioned the greatness of his ancestors, Ravan and Mahishasur.

While at the local level, questions are being raised about Jitendra’s suicide and the absence of a police investigation against the accused, media organisations in the state capital, Raipur, have maintained a stifling silence. The national media, on the other hand, has not even considered this news worthy enough of publishing or broadcasting.

People who knew Jitendra told me that when he was around sixteen years old, he had joined the ongoing movement of asserting Gond culture and traditions. At a young age, Jitendra had developed an understanding of Adivasi heritage and history that countered the hegemony of mainstream Hindu narratives on such issues. In his poem, “My being Adivasi is enough!” Jitendra wrote:

My being Adivasi is enough to kill me,
Naxalite or spy, that’s just an excuse.
You have your eye on my land,
Development and harmony, that’s just a ruse.

On 26 September this year, Jitendra along with his friends submitted a memorandum to the district collector, which stated:

The ancestors of Adivasis and mulnivasis [original inhabitants] such as Mahishasur, revered as a king by Asurs and Gonds, have for long been depicted alongside Durga’s idol, where she is shown inflicting violence on him; this is not merely an insult of Mahishasur but also of the Adivasi and mulnivasi communities. This in not justifiable by any means … (Adivasi) communities, since time immemorial, have worshipped sacred power, known as Gongo. That is why the effigy of Maharaj Ravan (Raven) pen [ancestral spirit] should not be burned on the day of Vijayadashmi every year. The administration should immediately stop this … We demand that no one should be discriminated based on religion, caste, gender, their origin and place of birth; and the rights enshrined by Article 15 of the Indian Constitution should be complied with … If any organisation, ( Durga Puja) committee puts the idol of Mahishasur along with Durga and depicts violence, or burns the effigy of Ravan, as a symbol of evil; then … an immediate legal action should be taken against them … If the administration fails to take actions by themselves, and the members of society are compelled to come to roads and take lawful actions, then the administration will be responsible for it.

The Adivasi community in various states besides Chhattisgarh, such as Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat consider Mahishasur and Ravan as their ancestors. In Gond tradition, Ravan is considered as an ancestral spirit. Over the last decade, the Adivasi cultural and religious assertion has emerged strongly, along with the struggle for Jal, Jangal, Jameen [Water, Jungle, Land]. As a result, in Gond-dominated areas, there have been protests against the Durga Puja as it is considered an insult to their ancestors, Mahishasur and Ravan.

The history of the Brahmanisation of Adivasis in Surajpur region is not too old. On 1 September this year, Jitendra, in an article published in the website Adivasi Resurgence, wrote:

By 1951, a movement led by Rajmohini Devi had begun in Surguja region. It was supported by the Congress party and propagated Hindu religion, nationalism and Gandhian ideology. The Rajmohini Devi movement called for ban on alcohol, giving up meat, worshipping cow, practicing teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, among other things. During the movement, village deities were “purified” and converted into bhagats [followers of Rajmohini], in such a manner that Hinduism was promoted in each and every village of the region.

Most Gond families of the region came under the influence of the Rajmohini Devi movement and Jitendra’s family was not untouched too.

The Gonds of Chhattisgarh believe in the Koya Punem—their indigenous belief system—as opposed to Hindu belief. Motiravan Kangali, a prominent scholar of Gond culture, tradition and language, has written at length on the issue. In his book, he argues that in Gond culture, there is a festival called the “Khadeyara Pandum or Gadh Puja” or Meghnad Puja. Gonds believe that Meghnad, the son of Ravan, was a devotee of Kali Kankali—a revered ancestral figure among Gonds—and used to worship her. During this puja, two Aryan youth called Ram and Lakshman killed him by treacherous methods. This story is also found in Brahmanical Hindu-literature in which Hindus take pride. Even today, the whole incident is reiterated in the songs of the Gond tribe.

For the Asurs of Chhota Nagpur, the indigenous communities of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, and at the Mahishasur temple in the Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh, Mahishasur is a reality. For them, Mahishasur is not only an honourable king, ancestor and a mythical figure, but also a mighty warrior. Mahishasur is still worshipped in several tribal societies. The Asur community in Jharkhand consider themselves as the descendants of Mahishasur and worship Meghnad, Ravan and other tribal heroes.

Similarly, the tribals of the Majherdabri tea-garden, in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, mourn during Durga Puja. During this time, they neither wear new clothes nor do they get out of their houses. They are Asurs and consider Mahishasur as their ancestor.

Jitendra was active on social media as “Sonu Maravi Rudra.” Even now, one can see his commitment towards Gond culture and tradition on his Facebook account. On 22 September this year, he wrote a post on a Facebook page, “Our caravan is moving ahead.” Along with this, he also uploaded pictures to “One day constitutional and cultural training” organised in Ketaka.

However, Jitendra was concerned not just with cultural questions, but was also creating awareness among the youth about other issues. On 28 September, around 10:30 pm, he posted:

For protecting my land….Yes, I am a separatist.

In the name of nationalism, if [the Brahmanical forces] are going to kill my culture—Panthi, Suwa, Karma—and create an environment where my people are forced to follow non-Chhattisgarhi dance, songs and culture, then I will strongly oppose it.

This is the reason that today, throughout the state, 100-percent outsourcing is taking place in employment and all Chhattisgarhia youth is unemployed, because it’s you who have destroyed the Chhattisgarhia self-respect and have joined hands with the outsiders.

For these issues, if a nationalist calls me “a separatist” then yes, I am a separatist. For protecting my land…Yes, I am a separatist. For me, my land, culture and language are foremost.

-Johaar Chhattisgarh

Jitendra’s friend and classmate, Dev Koram remembers him as a “very good orator.” “He had amazing leadership potential,” Dev told me. “When he talked about the history of his ancestors and revealed the lies spread by outsiders on stages, the audience could barely resist his influence.” Dev felt that Jitendra, who singlehandedly organised the movement against the Durga Puja in Surajpur, would never kill himself. “I cannot understand why he took this step,” Dev said to me. “But it has come to our notice that Durga Puja committee members had pressurised his family members to celebrate Durga Puja, while it was unacceptable for Jitendra.”

Another friend of Jitendra, Vijay Singh Marpachi said that Ajay Tiwari, a local Brahmin man, had pressurised Jitendra’s father to celebrate Durga Puja in his house. Ajay’s younger brother, Omprakash Tiwari has been an active worker of the Shiv Sena. Apart from this, Ajay shares a close relationship with Khelsay Singh, the local member of legislative assembly who is from the Congress, and the Zila Panchayat president, Ashok Jagate.

According to Marpachi, strengthened by the support of political leaders, the Durga Puja committee members coerced Dhansay and threatened him with dire consequences if he did not get the Durga Puja done in his house. Dhansay has not spoken openly of these threats. He only argues that “my son was very capable. Durga killed him.”

Dev has a grocery shop in Surajpur. He met Jitendra on the night of 8 October, around midnight. Dev remembers that Ajay, who owns a garage in Surajpur, went to Jitendra’s house and insulted Dhansay. According to Dev, it was Omprakash who registered the case against Jitendra in October 2018, at the Surajpur police station, due to which Jitendra had to spend 55 days in jail.

The people I spoke to said that Surajpur police is protecting those who have been held responsible by Jitendra. Surajpur’s superintendent of police, Rajesh Kukreja told me that the police would get the suicide note “investigated by a handwriting expert and take the necessary steps.” But even after ten days after Jitendra’s death, the police had not conducted any investigation. The Surajpur police station in-charge, Vivek Tiwari admitted, “Jitendra Maravi aka Sonu Maravi named youth had committed suicide.” He added that Jitendra “did not want Durga Puja to be celebrated in his village.” When I asked him why the police had not taken any action based on the suicide note, Vivek said, “marg”—record of observation—“has been registered.”

Evidently, the local police and the local administration were aware of the movement led by Jitendra. The police’s inaction over the suicide seems to indicate that they are trying to protect Ajay and others who were involved in the Durga Puja committee.

According to Arvind Jain, a Delhi High Court lawyer and human-rights activist, “Suicide note is essential evidence. The police should register a case against the person or persons mentioned in the suicide note and take appropriate actions against them. If this is not done, then it raises suspicion over the police.”

Chandralekha Kangali, a scholar of Gond literature, believes that, “Jitendra might have committed suicide, but it is actually a murder. The people who want to dominate our religion and culture have done this. This used to happen before 1947 and continues even today.”