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There’s Temple Politics Where You Least Expect It – Bengal’s Jungle Mahal, for One

Before the invention of Ram Navami processions, which frequently results in riots, these temples served as the primary 'logo' and entry point to the grand Hindutva model in West Bengal.
A Hindutva rally in Barrackpore. Photo: Author provided

On January 23, 2017 – nearly three years before the Supreme Court would give the historic verdict on Ram temple – in West Bengal’s Gangajalghati subdivision of Bankura, an old autorickshaw passed through the dusty village road. It was being chased by Santhali kids from Shiulibona village and as it sped up, I heard the announcement of the grand inauguration of a Hanuman temple near Jamshala village the next day.

Kids were excited, so was my key informant from Jamshala Shyamal Mandi, about the construction of the temple in their village instead of Shiulibona. The next day, I met Rabon Shoren, a middle-aged tribal gentleman, who introduced me to ‘Samayita Math’ – a quasi-religious Hindu centre in Shiulibona.

Samayita Math runs an open prayer hall and has installed a road-side temple-like structure in the village in the name of Marang Buru. Approximately one kilometre from the Susunia hills is the Santhali Disham shrine – the highest in the religio-political hierarchy of the Santhal tradition. The shrine has three erected stones and, now aided with a submersible pump set, an overhead tank for the visitors to have access to basic amenities. “All these are recent developments,” Rabon said. 

On October 15, 2020, while driving from Purulia towards Ranchi, I decided to stay at the Pathersathi hotel in Chashmore, developed by the West Bengal government and run by local self help groups. It was easy to get rooms as not many were travelling during the pandemic. On my way, I encountered a Hanuman temple at each village we crossed. My travel partner Sukumar Hansda, a local young guy, saw my curiosity and said, “First they kept a Hanuman idol, then they constructed a plinth and then a temple.” On being asked who ‘they’ were, he said, “Hindus… they are many. Bajrang dal, Durgashakti, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram..” he continued.

Also read: Once a Maoist Hotbed, Bengal’s Jungle Mahal Is Now Battling Hunger and Anger

We realised that the hotel where we were staying was located exactly between two such temples – one at Dumardih Upar Para and another one at Velaidihi. There was another a little inside the village at Tanasi. All three were constructed almost overnight in 2019, a few months before the parliamentary elections. Before that they were open installations of Hanuman idols.

The three villages have mixed population, predominated by Hindus, a few hamlets of Santhal people and a small ghettoised Muslim settlement on the northern side. The three temples ran Hanuman Chalisa and the Ramayana on a loudspeaker that were directed towards the Muslim settlement. Visibly afraid, none of the Muslims, during my first visit, said anything about the temple. They maintained that such constructions or the loudspeaker, which was quite noisy even to my urban ear habituated with everyday cacophony, did not affect their everyday life.

During my subsequent visits to the villages over the last few years, I learned that all three temples were constructed by taking subscription money from the villagers which included both Hindus and Santhals. People belonging to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bajrang Dal from Joypur appointed village level volunteers for temple construction and now they are run by temple committees.

Evenings are well spent near the temple site and the mahant (chief priest) worships Ram and Hanuman, narrating stories of the great power. Villagers are also told that in a remote past, they protected local kings and their beautiful daughters from getting abducted by the ‘ruthless Muslim rulers’.

Background of Jungle Mahal

Between 2008-2011, Jungle Mahal (Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore and Jhargram districts of West Bengal) had seen one of the bloodiest episodes of violence in independent India with a total of 505 civilians getting killed during the period.

Based on a longitudinal, mixed method study in a recently published journal article we have reported that while the rebel align party wins immediately after the civil war, their continuation depends on the nature of violence used by the rebel groups. In case of Jungle Mahal. the sudden disappearance of Maoist rebels, especially after the death of Kishen ji  and their counterparts, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M)-controlled Harmad Bahini, led to an organisational vacuum. Such vacuum was never compensated and the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) government did what is termed as hyper-development using the non-elected arms of the local government.

Also read: BJP and the Art of Selling Hindutva Nationalism to Bengal

It was precisely in this moment of absence of organisations that Jungle Mahal saw a proliferation of Hanuman idols and temples. Coordinated precisely by Ekal Vidyalayas and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the Ram Navami processions soon ventured on the newly constructed roads laid by the TMC.

The everyday image of Hindutva

Temple politics at the grassroots has been rather successful in translating popular support to gain electoral dividend for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The four major parliamentary constituencies of Jungle Mahal were won by the BJP with astonishing increase in electoral support base.

BJP’s vote share increased by 14.4% in Bankura, Purulia (42.1%), Bishnupur (32.1%) and Jhargram (34.8%) as compared to 2014. But it would be immature to associate BJP’s win solely to temple politics. There are reasons related to TMC’s failures as well. However, temple politics does play a crucial role in uniting an otherwise diverse pool of voters against a common enemy, the Muslims, for a common cause – ‘search for the true soul of Bharat’ and for a common insecurity that ‘Hindus are in danger’.

My ongoing ethnographic work is an attempt to find out people’s engagement in Hindutva ideology. If everyday polarisation through low-intense riots that resulted in wide spread of fundamentalist sentiments among both the communities is one of the mechanisms, invented traditions is another.

In parallel to this has been the construction of the Hindutva image among the villagers of the remote villages of Jungle Mahal. Before the invention of Ram Navami processions, which frequently results in riots, these temples served as the primary ‘logo’ and entry point to the grand Hindutva model in West Bengal.

A shrine in Kolkata where a Hanuman idol can be seen. Photo: Author provided

Today, while every village of Jungle Mahal region has a Hanuman temple, bright orange flags and relatively smaller Hanuman idols are kept in the pre-existing shrines of Shitala and Manasha cult which has been worshipped by the villagers since time immemorial. Spatial and boundary principles are attached to the traditional shrines and their archaeological continuity and significance is enormous.

Needless to say, these have created a special space in the mind of the people who worship them. It was the everyday form of benevolent local goddess who were supposed to be the protectors of people from snakebites and infectious diseases. They were never a part of the Hindutva ideology. These goddesses are usually worshipped by the women of these villages and men placing a Hanuman idol next to them is not only an intrusion of masculinity within the feminine sphere, but also an introduction of the masculine Hindutva thought in the folk tradition of village deities.

In several villages, where Hanuman idols are placed in existing sacred groves, villagers, including the women haven’t found it unusual. Hanuman’s stories are being narrated through oral traditions and in school-level texts. “There is no harm in having Pavanputra in the village, he is a Hindu devta and we should worship him,” a women from Gangajalghati said during a casual conversation among the villagers during my visit last year.

Therefore, the ideology of Hindutva is expanding its base among the poor and marginalised because of the narrative that the BJP and RSS has been so successful in building. We know that construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya is not where they would stop, perhaps it is just the beginning of their plan. And the temple politics in Jungle Mahal, which has helped BJP in bagging several constituencies, is just one small part of it. The groves and temples that were decked with bright orange flags of angry hanuman and Ram images on January 22 have further made an impact into the cultural-cognitive dimensions of these people.


Suman Nath teaches anthropology at Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Government College and is the author of the book Democracy and Social Cleavage in India Ethnography of Riots, Everyday Politics and Communalism in West Bengal c. 2012–2021

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