Freethought Activism In The Tribal Areas Of Madhya Pradesh

(Professor Narendra Nayak has been traveling into the rural areas of India, promoting rationalism on the ground for over 30 years. His rationalism tours include demonstrations and training sessions for young rationalists in schools and colleges across the country. He is the successor of Basava Premanand, the world famous skeptic and rationalist, in his role as the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations)

This is a brief account of some of my visits to the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh. It is neither a chronicle of events, nor a comprehensive report of our work there. It is a write-up about some of the incidents that have taken place in the region, which I can recall. We have been working in this area for quite some time now.

Itarsi, a town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, is an important railway junction that connects the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western parts of India. During my train journeys I would take what are known as a ‘break journeys’ in this town, while on my way to other places by rail. The prominent Indian rationalist, Premanand and I have been there together quite a few times.

Madhya Pradesh is one of the states of India which has a very large population of tribals, even after the bifurcation of the state a few years back when the tribal dominated areas were made into the state of Chattisgarh. In collaboration with a few welfare groups, we have been trying to encourage the tribal people to think rationally about the occurrences in their lives. Importantly, we don’t replace their belief systems with something equally if not more irrational. That has been the job of the Christian missionaries who keep attempting to replace their animistic idols with that of the cross and icons of Jesus Christ under the guise of saving their souls. The Sangh Parivar, which woke up late, swung into action with vigour doing what the “upper castes” have been doing all the time- superimposing their pantheon of Hindu gods on the worship system of these people! The “upper caste” Hindus have a way of looking at the gods worshipped by the “lower castes” as superstitions and try to substitute it with their own. Thereby, they can also perpetuate the exploitative system as the Hindu gods require the intervention of the priestly class who are naturally from the “upper castes”! The Muslims have perhaps not intervened here as they were of the ruling class imposed from outside, although they were the part of the ruling elite that owned large swathes of land and property.

The Adivasis (the first inhabitants) have their own set of rituals, culture and as is to be expected -the class that exploits their superstitious beliefs. I stepped into this system with an intent to not impose any another belief system upon them or pave the way for others to use our campaign to serve their ends.dscn2100

We have been having programs in the areas around Itarsi and Betul in this state. Most of them have been conducted by the organisation headed by Rajesh Parashar and his friends, all of whom are teachers. Many of them work with the tribal welfare department which is running special schools for the underprivileged, that is the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. They have enabled our campaign to reach the students and the villages. Training programs have been also conducted to make their youngsters learn the techniques and get back to their people and create awareness among them. In the last decade we have been holding programs in villages and tribal schools to increase the levels of awareness among these people, who are the most exploited of our country in every sense of the word. They have been ruthlessly evicted from their land in the name of development, they have been used as cheap labour and their women have been sexually exploited.

The techniques and scripts we use while interacting with them is very different from what we use in other parts of the country. It isn’t of any use talking to them about the miracles of Satya Narayana Raju and such urban god men or debunking pseudosciences such as astrology, as they have never heard of them. However, the locals here have their own versions of pseudosciences called as Ojhas, Bhagaths, Padeyars etc. They also have “witches” called as Dayins who supposedly cast evil spells and have their own rituals. A combination of these ensures that they are in penury and open to more exploitation! It is indeed a tough job to see that these evils are combated without trying to affect their culture.

Welfare groups in this area offer me a standing invitation to visit and conduct programs whenever I pass through. During one such trip, I had the opportunity to interact with tribal children at a training program at Betul at the district school about a decade back, where we trained them in mythbusting techniques. I also had some programs at nearby villages. In one such village, the headman invited me to use a platform where the religious ceremonies are performed. One person was continuously asking questions about everything that I was doing and genially interfering with the proceedings. So, I made him sit on the side on the chair which had been given to me so that I could keep an eye on him. As always a number of items were shown and explained, particularly relating to the practices which were being followed in their area.

At the end of the interaction, I asked the audience whether there was anyone who claimed to have magical powers in their village, who would take up my challenge. Many of them pointed out to the man who was sitting on the chair and said that he was the ‘Bhagat’ of the village. In this area, the local healer is called ‘Bhagat’. This man got defensive and he told me that he was a good healer and always helped people and never took anything from any one. When he said this, one man stood up from the audience and retorted, “you don’t take anything from any one? Who ate my goat?” Another person said that this man had eaten his chicken after sacrificing it! A third person pointed at him and said that this man had taken four hundred rupees from him claiming that he would cure his knee joint pain by his spiritual powers. Allegations came flying so thick and fast and the Bhagat had to beat a hasty retreat. But, before going away, he massaged the knee joints of an old lady who was lying outside a nearby hut warming her legs in the sun! I was told that it was the first time that anyone took him on. He must have come to our program to learn new tricks!

Among the various tribes in the region, some were labeled by the British as criminal and were notified accordingly. If any crime took place when the people of these tribes were around, they would be taken to the police stations as the first suspects and tortured. In fact, they would be considered guilty until proven innocent.

One day, in a village called Pipariya near Itarsi, I had an interaction with the members of one such tribe called as Pardhis, invited by an NGO working for them. A number of people, including some young girls, had turned up. After the day’s interaction was over, I was at the bus station ready to leave when one of the girls came running towards me with a two rupee coin in hand. I had previously given a few of the girls some coins while training them, and as far as I remembered, all of them had returned it back to me. This particular girl had forgotten to return it and had gone home. On finding the coin, she came running after me to return it! This from member of a so-called habitually ‘criminal tribe’!

Such labels, which were created by the British, who were probably prompted by some vested interests to do so, had continued till the time India became independent. After independence, the label was changed as ‘Denotified tribes’, but the prejudices continue. As the head of the NGO who was with me remarked, “imagine this from people who have been accused of being habitual thieves!”

Last week, I read in the newspapers that six members of a family belonging to this tribe were burnt alive in a village in Maharashtra. They are abhorred and made to stay outside villages in temporary structures, and are diven away by the police when some crime occurs. They are also prey to a number of superstitions.

Near Itarsi there is a dam called as the Tava Dam. The construction of this dam led to the displacement of several tribal villages. Settlements were made to accommodate them, and special schools were provided for the children. We have collaborated with an NGO here to train and send the educated youth to their villages to create scientific temper among the members of their communities.

dscn2092There is a tribal school at Khesla nearby and one of the teachers there, Rajesh Parashar, and his friends have trained a group of tribal boys and girls who are now interested in trying to bring about a change among their people. Last June, we had a training program for some of them at Itarsi which was attended by an audience of about forty. We trained them for five days, and after a few dropouts and the few who did not take any interest thereafter, a small group of three are now keen to work for the development of rational thinking among their own. They belong to the Gond and Korku tribes and we have been on the on the lookout for funds to sponsor them for some time so that they could work with some sort of economic freedom. In fact, when we went around this time conducting programs in these areas this time as a curtain raiser for the activities to follow later, three of them accompanied us for the day and we had a number of interactions with these tribals in their own villages and at a village weekly bazar.

In these areas, we heard a lot about the exploitation of their so called healers called ‘Padeyars’. The villagers said that they would first claim that their services were free and start their rituals. However, with the passage of time, they would begin to claim that animal sacrifice and liquor was needed to pacify the ‘angry spirits’. They would also begin to demand money.

The people who accompanied me insisted on performing one their most well known ‘miracles’ by demonstrating their supernatural powers. This ‘miracle’ involved performing ‘arati’ or worship with fire with a piece of lit camphor on their palms and then transferring it to their tongue. The spectators were surprised to see their own boys doing it. After conducting programs at the weekly bazaar, we invited girls from a nearby hostel and a few more from another hostel nearby, and we organised a very good program from them. On finding out the truth behind the ‘miracle’, these girls promised us that they would question many such practices when they went home.

During the last training camp at Itarsi, I had been invited for an interaction with tribals who had come from all parts of the state for attending a film festival at Bhopal. This was held at around 11pm and although we were all tired after a hectic day, as we had conducted a training program for nearly eight hours that day, we had excellent response. They were all very surprised to see that many of the things they had ascribed to the supernatural powers of their so called healers were things which any one could do with a little bit of help and understanding of the principles of science.

During this visit I went back to a school for the more intelligent students of Scheduled Castes who had been selected after state-level entrance examinations. These were very intelligent students coming from various backgrounds, but all belonging to some of the most oppressed castes known as Dalits. They, along with the tribals in the region, have been outcastes for thousands of years and have been subjected to atrocities of all kinds. It was a pleasure to interact with these youngsters and kick off their celebration of Vigyan Divas or Science Day, which was to be on 28th of February.

After Bhopal I went to Indore where we had a five day training camp for students of some colleges who were studying social work at the undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate levels. This program was organized by Anand, who is a lecturer in a college of social work at Indore and his organization is called Deen Bandhu Samaj. Some of them were very vehement Christians and there were a few nuns too. Most of them were tribals who were either converted to Christianity or continuing with their usual customs. Ours was a five day program for training these students to create scientific temper in their community. Some of them, particularly the devout Christians, were offended by my statements about the efficacy of prayer to heal disease and brought others to confront and defeat me in argument.

On the third day of the training program, a few new people had come and were sitting at the back of the hall. When I threw the session open to the audience to clarify any doubts, one of them asked me how I could say that prayer does not work to heal disease. Specifically, he asked me how Benny Hinn heals people by prayer. I told him that Benny Hinn better heal his own broken marriage before he starts healing others. They were not aware of his broken marriage and were shocked. He then asked me how people fall into a trance at his command. To illustrate the point, I gave a command and five people in the front row collapsed in a trance. I told him that they were planted by me, the same way Benny Hinn does it! He then told me that prayer can move mountains. I took a coin in my hand and told him to move it upwards by prayer. He replied that it works only on living things. I showed him my arm, circled a few hairs with a ball point pen and asked him to pray and make them disappear in an hour! I had to tell them that I had no objection to people praying though it was a waste of time in my opinion! But, when claims were made that it could perform physical changes we would need evidence with proper controlled trials. I also quoted the American study which was done under controlled conditions which proved that prayer does not have any effect on the course of disease. I told them that prayers for the ill were perhaps a device which could help overcome the feeling of helplessness that one gets when ones loved ones are ill and one are unable to anything for them. I was thinking that this silencing through arguments would drive them away but they kept coming again for the next two days!

We have had campaigns among all sections of the society but those with the oppressed are more vital as they have been the worst victims of superstitions, particularly untouchability. To make matters worse, they have been displaced from the lands which they have been living on for thousands of years, in the name of ‘development’. The votaries of Hindutva do not address them as ‘adivasis’ as that would mean that they were the original occupants of the land- they give them a fancy nomenclature and call them ‘Girijans’-people of the hills!

We are trying to create awareness among them to stop their exploitation so that they can lead their lives the way they choose to and not have belief systems forcefully thrust on them, as it has been going on for centuries. We are most certainly not like those who decry their practices, calling them primitive superstitions, and then try to impose their own brands of superstitious beliefs on them. We are also looking for people who could sponsor a few of these boys for a year or two to conduct programs to demystify the superstitions and create scientific temper among their people.

Professor Nayak is the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, an umbrella group consisting of more that 60 rationalist organizations all over India. You can contact him at : narenyen (@)

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Narendra Nayak


  • Dear Narendra, the story about the girl form the “criminal tribe” who ran all the way to the bus stop to return the two-rupee coin was very moving. I wonder if the majority of those who call themselves “upper castes” would have done that.

    • Ajita, the labels are most inappropriate that is all. Last week six of them were burnt alive!There is an autobiography of a person born in such a tribe called as Uchalya and it gives us a very raw picture of how they are treated. But, it also gives an insight into why they are so and even their method of training the younger generation! Unless this cycle is broken their lives shall remain so.

      • Yes, I see what you are saying. The labels are used very effectively by the socially dominant classes to keep the others down. This autobiography sounds interesting. Has it been translated into English, assuming that it was not originally in English?

  • The nation owes Prof. Nayak a debt of gratitude. I had the distinct privilege of attending one of his training programs designed for the public as well as school children in a rural part of Mangalore district a few years ago. Readers, do not for a moment underestimate the amount of energy, determination, courage, presence of mind, quick-thinking and sacrifice needed to do such activism in India. It is a surprise that no one has tried to harm him so far though probably has been threatened. This man is a true embodiment of Activism.

    K. P. S. Kamath

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