While Gandhi Jayanti is officially celebrated in different parts of the country to mark the birth anniversary of Gandhiji and the day is declared to be a national holiday, in a remote corner of the country and among Oraon adivasis of Jharkhand, there is another way of remembering the ‘Mahatma’. ‘Gandhi Baba’ is a deity included within the pantheon of their deotas by the Tana Bhagats, a dwindling community of about ten thousand people as they estimate for themselves, who belong largely to the Oraon community. October 1 and 2, are the most celebrated dates in their calendar. More than a hundred years ago, in April 1914 as colonial records indicate, Jatra Oraon of Gumla, Ranchi, proclaimed that he had received a divine message from Dharmes, the God of the Oraons. Jatra was to be a king and his followers, the Tana Bhagats, were to share his kingdom. Reciting what he claimed to be were divinely inspired mantras, Jatra advocated that Oraon religion should be freed of evils like ghost-finding and exorcism, belief in bhuts and animal sacrifice, and the consumption of alcohol. From the 1920s, fresh injunctions were issued to the Tanas: followers were to carry the Congress jhanda, wear khaddar, and take vows in Gandhi Maharaj’s name. Stories developed around the miraculous powers of Gandhi Baba, his charkha and swaraj. The Tana Bhagats became members of the Congress and attended its annual sessions, participated in processions and hartals, organised panchayats, supported the non-co-operation thanas, spun the charkha, and participated in the no-rent campaign advocated by the Congress during Gandhi’s Non-Co-operation and Civil Disobedience movements. On 1 October every year, Tana Bhagat adivasis from Ranchi, Hazaribagh and Palamau assemble at night in the remote village of Chingri in Bishunpur where Jatra Oraon, the first leader of the Tana Bhagats was born and where a statue was erected of him in 1989.
Clad in white sarees or kurtas made of khaddar if they can afford it, and of synthetic if they cannot, with Gandhi topis on their heads and wearing a janeu or sacred thread around their neck, they clap their hands as they chant their invocations in obeisance to Jatra and Gandhi. The chants of mantras and the sound of the conch-shells pierce the stillness of the night; the smell of dhup or incense is overpowering; the smoke makes vision hazy. As the chanting continues, some of the women get possessed. With their heads shaking, they bend before the statue as they continue with their singing. On the following day, the birth anniversary of Gandhi, below the statue of Jatra Bhagat is placed a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi Baba, deemed to be a powerful deity, is worshipped amidst smoke, the smell of incense, the sound of chanting and the clapping of hands. Linked then through this worship is Jatra Bhagat, the founder of the Tana Bhagat movement, with Gandhi, the ‘Father of the nation’.
It is a symbolic act that entangles the history of the Tana Bhagats with the history of the nation: the date of birth of Gandhi determines when the Tana Bhagats would pay obeisance to the founder of their faith. Both Jatra and Gandhi are Babas, deities in the Tana pantheon of Gods; their making reflects the ways through which the Tana Bhagats relate to the divine world and to their everyday world. And Gandhi, a historical figure and a leader of the Congress who had led the freedom struggle and had outlined ideals that the Tanas claim to uphold even today, is elevated to the status of a Baba, a Maharaj, due to his allegedly extraordinary powers to deliver divine justice. Non-violence’ is a Gandhian ideal that the Tana Bhagats claim for themselves, which links their past with Gandhi and that of the Indian nation, on the basis of which the Tanas claim special privileges from the sarkar and negotiate with the present. Proudly will a Tana Bhagat who had participated in the national movement display his free railway pass or a badge indicating that he was a swantantrata senani, a freedom fighter. Recognising Tana commitment to Gandhi, the Congress had given them a hearing; inviting them for visits to Delhi over the years were Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. In order to give land back to those Tana Bhagats who had lost land in auctions during the Gandhian phase of the national movement, the Bihar government implemented the Ranchi District Tana Bhagat Raiyats’ Agricultural Lands Restoration Act, 1947, which was subsequently amended. However, in Tana perception, this Act could not address their grievances. Beleaguered by the protocols of a legal system, many of the Tana Bhagats could not provide any patta as ‘evidence’, or a legal document, to support their claims for compensation.
Through the twists and turns of a long journey that has spanned over a hundred years, the Tana Bhagats continue even today to battle for their rights, expressing enthusiasm but largely distress. Wearing clothes made of khaddar and with Gandhi topis on their heads, they walk in processions down the streets of Ranchi blowing conch shells; they sit on dharnas and hartals and submit petitions before government officials, demanding for themselves land that they claim they had lost for their participation in the Non-cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements. For the Tanas who lead their difficult lives in scattered pockets of Jharkhand, it is their link with Gandhi that empowers their community and enables them to negotiate with the state as they talk about promises that were never fulfilled by the sarkar. They claim to be, as followers of Gandhi, worshippers of truth and non-violence; they claim also to be, as part of the larger adivasi community, the original inhabitants of the land. Caught between an almost lost past, a difficult present and an uncertain future, and finding many of their practices economically unviable to sustain, they ultimately carry on with their belief in Jatra Bhagat and the Mahatma. Theirs is a long battle that is being patiently fought, but still remains to be won.