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Home > 2023 > Saffron Clad Babas in Odisha’s Politics | Radhakanta Barik

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 13, March 25, 2023

Saffron Clad Babas in Odisha’s Politics | Radhakanta Barik

Saturday 25 March 2023, by Radhakanta Barik


Bola Bola Hari, Khay Magur machar jhola
— Sri Chaitanya Dev

The medieval Bhakti Cult spiritual leader from Nadia in Bengal, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534, whose followers are today known as the Hare-Krishna Cult and promote the ISKON movement) had initially pleaded with people for vegetarianism but failing to convince the coastal fish-eating people of Odisha and Bengal, later in life changed his view on vegetarianism. He then told the people, ‘Bola Bola Hari, Khay Magur machar jhola’, meaning eat catfish curry, chanting Krishna’s name.

FRONT PAGE NEWSPAPERS a few months ago announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will focus especially on Ordisha for the 2024 national elections. The Vishwa Guru is going to give fifty election speeches in Odisha and South Bengal. It seems, the BJP is unsure of Odisha too, after losing its decades-old ally Nitish Kumar in neighbouring Bihar. Navin Patnaik has been a ‘no frenzies’ fifth-time Chief Minister of Odisha since 2000. As the inheritor of Congress stalwart, Biju Patnaik, he has all the qualities of a traditional leader from the INC. Though his party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is an offshoot of the Janata Dal, it is not saffron in that sense. And ahead of 2024 elections, Navin Patnaik’s bonhomie with Mamata Banerjee of Bengal is not being looked at favourably by the BJP, Navin’s poll ally.

It is Mamata who has chalked out her 3-day Odisha temple tour, and every citizen has the right to offer prayers at Lord Jagannath’s feet. The BJP cannot stop this nor the meeting of non-BJP leaders. What it can do and is doing is to try to saffronise the populace of Odisha, ahead of the 2024 elections, hoping to keep the Odia voters in its pocket. It has begun to put in place one year ago the strategy it has adopted — flood the State with religious sentiments. Here is how this works.

My readers may recall that one year ago local media in a small town like Bhadrak had carried a news item reporting the arrival of a hoard of saffron-clad babas in this sea-shore district. They started Sankritan mandals (prayer groups) and started moving from the village to village. A year on, they have succeeded in bringing theology into public discourse. A month ago, a huge group of people were banded together for a temple tour of South India. They told me that they were inspired by the Bhadrak Babas to go pilgrimage to South. Then they plan to go North. If this is true, then the infused Babas have successfully planted the seeds of communalism in public mentality. They are able to organise the everyday life of an individual in a theological sense and have managed to make a section of the coastal population vegetarian.

The BJP’s hopes have been high for Odisha. In the last one year they have sent a hundred thousand Babas in saffron robes to villages. They are very active, move from place to place, and hold lectures in the village temples. Their agenda is clear. They are on a mission to reinvent the temples of each village. Although each village has some festivals related to its specific temple, now the temple authorities and village authorities are spending money for holding special festivals. These saffron-clad Babas began their campaign with their pet deity, the popular and child-friendly Hanuman, taking it from village to village. Unlike in Uttar Pradesh, the monkey is not a common religious icon in Odisha. It is less extant as a commonly-visible animal species in Odisha temple sites than in UP.

The next step was that they have been telling the people that the world will end in 2024. After that they advised, the only way it can be saved is if people go on pilgrimages. These Babas are organising these trips. It appears that the campaign will slowly end in 2024, with the last word — that the world can be saved by bringing Modi back to power. What a brilliant argument and there has been so far no legal action against them by Patnaik’s BJD government.

This makes it look as if Odisha is a fertile land for the Hindutva forces. After the Marwadis, the Gujaratis have been trying for almost sixty years to spread Hindutva on the soil of Kalinga, the great warrior Ashoka’s battlefield, where the land turned him into a Buddhist after the massive bloodshed. Have the Gujaratis succeeded? It is while talking to the pilgrims going to the South that I realised the importance of the sentence, ‘We are Hindus’. This is not a slogan heard in rural Odisha or its small towns.

One realizes that a large section of secular and devout people have now adopted vegetarianism and pilgrimage under the influence of saffron-clad Babas who are actually members of the RSS. They do not disclose their ideological identity in public as that might not let them to enter the villages. Odisha had a Buddhist past and despite the glorious Hindu architecture, the underlying ‘live and let live’ Buddhist philosophy has lingered in Odia society and the subconscious. People do not ignore it. The people of Bhadrak have so long maintained a relationship of bhairchara with the district’s large Muslims population.

 However, many RSS and BJP leaders come from this town. Once a Marwari business man hailing from Bhadrak became the president of the RSS wing in Rajasthan. They have so long lacked local support. But today, circumstances may be changing. This is reflected in the recently-held assembly bye-election in Bhandaripokhari, where the BJP won the seat. The investment made by Adani in the sea port near Bhadrak is allegedly also playing its role in investing in the growing communal politics of the district.

One often finds the sons of important leaders of the town involved in today’s communal politics. Dark times have truly come to Odisha’s politics. Two towns here regularly experience riots almost every year — and they are Bhadrak and Kendrapara. At the outset the Marwaris organised the riots but today, the social elite are involved in the riots, including sons of ministers and MLAs. These riots signify many things in today’s politics. The Babas go on organising the Sankritans in the small towns and go singing and dancing through the lanes dominated by Muslim households. They incite the riots but the Muslims response is quiet. They continue to practice the traditional bhaichara unless really provoked. They are also involved in local pujas of the common people. The Babas have succeeded in creating schisms between Hindus and Muslims and although riots have happened in the past, they had earlier never succeeded in disturbing public interest.

Bhadrak has two chief ministers hailing from the town. The past of the town has a collective memory and a collective voice. Once, during the UPA regime, people gathered at the railway station, demanding that the Rajadhani train from Bhubaneswar to Delhi and back should stop at Bhadrak. This the government accepted, though few alight at this station. Nevertheless, the train stops.

 The district linked to the Adani port voted for the BJP in the 2019 election. Thanks to Baba politics, BJP has also won a bye election in Bhadrak district recently. The Hindutva elements here are not fighting against untouchability or for bringing some changes in gender relations; they are specifically engaged in communalising Odisha’s politics. Despite being sea-shore districts, one cannot ger fish most days of the week in Balesore and Bhadrak. Here the Babas organise campaigns against eating fish, like their campaign in UP against the beef. For them fish and beef both have the same symbolic value in constructing a Hindutva culture in Odisha. The campaign to make Odisha vegetarian began some ten years ago in the Talcher area. I was told this by a group who had been to Ayodhya on a pilgrimage. They had also emphasized the importance of Babas in Odisha’s politics. The saffron-clad Babas who move from village to village in motorcycles, hold yagnas (the fire rituals) in each village and try to bring the issue of religion to the centre of the village’s political discourse. In the old Cuttack district, they often target the Brahmins who work as priests and convert their way of thinking first.

It was the scholar-politician Panchanan Kanungo who explained the role of the Babas in Odisha politics. In the 2019 general elections, Sambit Patra contested from the Puri Parliamentary Constituency as a BJP candidate and discovered that the temples played a decisive role in making him give a close fight to the sitting BJD candidate. The Babas have made religion a tool for mobilisation of voters in favour of the BJP. After Patra’s contest, the swing of votes towards the BJP rose by 16.9 percentage points and the BJP managed to win 8 MP seats, whereas the BJD won 12 seats. In 2024 general election, the BJP may win many more seats, thanks to the activities of the Saffron Babas in mobilising people for the Hindutva agenda.

The Prime Minister’s last election speech in Odisha was in Khurda near Bhubaneswar, where he spoke about the bravery of the Paik community and its role in fighting imaginary enemies. After the election meeting, the conflict between Dalits and Paiks increased manifold. We went to a village at the Bhubaneswar coast , dominated by the fishing community. This community today feels threatened by the Paiks of Brahmagiri. The assembly constituency of Brahmgiri was won by the local Paik community king and his rabble-rousing speeches can create conflict in Odisha’s politics.

The strategy of Hindutva in urban areas of Odisha is different. They use spectacular violence against the democratic forces who are engaged in any discussions. A good recent example is the incident in Utkal University on 12 February. The youth wing of the BJP disrupted the conference on ‘Indian democracy and Constitution’ organised in the campus. They physically attacked the organisers and speakers. Professor Mazmudar from JNU, who was a participant in the discussion, was not allowed to continue his speech. The same forces allied to the BJP forced the cancellation of the film festival on Satyajit Ray organised by students of the Ravenshaw University.This has never happened before in Odisha’s universities. This is the first time such violence and political pressure tactics is on display at higher institutions of education. The message to the urban middle class is clear — that they either to stand with the BJP or they face violence. This is the way the Hindutva brigade want to win the coming election in 2024.

Let us not forget the killing of Graham Staines and his two minor sons in January 1999. This did not win the Hindutva lobby the Kendujhar assembly seat, which went to the left party, SUCI. Twenty years later, by bringing local temples into village politics, the Babas are even able to choose the candidate for the panchayat election, in every panchayat in Odisha.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) vote share in Odisha in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections increased by almost 73 per cent, from the two seats 2014 to eight in 2019 Lok Sabha. This explains the momentum of the party and its Baba brigade.

Alliance NDA UPA
Last election 20 1 0
Seats won 12 8 1
Seat change  8  7  1
Percentage 42.8% 38.4% 13.4%
Swing  1.3%  16.9%  12.2%

A friend has pointed out that one must take note that it is not the Congress that the BJP is targeting. The BJP’s gains are all harvested from friend BJD’s votebank. When the BJD has such friends, it does not need enemies, one can say. In 2024, if the BJP is looking to increase its parliamentary seats from Odisha, it definitely will indicate that the sun is setting on Navin Patnaik. In such a scenario, does the INC under Rahul Gandhi have a better chance? Ever since independence, Odisha has been a Congress bastion, and its secular polity surely has a credible past to look at.

(Author: Radhakanta Barik is a former member of the faculty at Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi)

This paper was edited by Papri Sri Raman

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