Venerating the tricolour

Diehard Gandhians


The Tana Bhagats who have no religion but nationalism consider Gandhiji to be their God whom they worship

While some people worship idols of dieties others venerate objects of their choice. But guess what  the  Tana Bhagats worship?  They worship the national flag . Originally  tribals who belong to the Oraon group, Bhagats have no religion of  their own, and so are the Birsaites belonging to the Munda  tribes. Welcome to the state of Jharkhand. Here members of two sects   devote their lives to the nation.

Constituting a population of around 5000 and residing mainly in Jharkhand’s Gumla, Hazaribag, Palamu and Ranchi districts, the Tana Bhagats believe their way of life is  synonymous with devotion to the nation and that Gandhiji is their God. Lending credence to the fact is their habitual practices and sacraments.

A visitor to a Tana Bhagat house invariably finds three Congress flags and two tri-colours, besides a Tulsi plant in the courtyard. Dressed in traditional khadi kurta, dhoti and Gandhi caps, the Bhagats begin begin their day at  dawn by offering flowers and bowing their heads before the national and Congress flags; besides chanting “Vande Mataram” as part of their religious practices.

“Being Gandhian in the true sense,” points out Prakas Oraon, Director of the Ranchi-based government-run Tribal Research Institute (TRI), “they maintain self-restraint. Apart from being strict vegetarians and non-alcoholic, they never eat carrots, onions and tomatoes, more because they too happen to be red like the colour of  blood. To them, eating such edibles would make them susceptible to violence, which is opposed to  Gandhian principles.” In fact, their origin dates back to April 1914 when groups of people mainly from the Oraon tribe came under the influence of one Jatra Bhagat who espoused the principle of non-violence and they became  known as Tana Bhagats.

After the early demise of Jatra Bhagat, it was during the Civil Disobedience Movement, the Tana Bhagats had their first interaction with Mahatma Gandhi in Lohardaga (now in Jharkhand). They became his staunch supporters and participated actively in the Indian National Movement in this part of the country.

Reasons of hygiene

Ironically, a Tana Bhagat never accepts food and water from a non-Tana. Says KD Guru, Tana Bhagat leader: “It should not be taken to mean that we believe in
untouchablity. It has more to do with reasons of hygiene and sanitation rather than anything else, and the permission in this regard was granted by Gandhiji himself after our forefathers pleaded for the same.”

However, all is not well with Tana Bhagats in Independent India. Barring their demand for the restoration of land rights and ownership rights over tracts of forest land remaining unfulfilled, they have to face humiliations for one reason or another. However, very much akin to the Gandhian way, they react sharply and subject themselves to physical torture and hunger strikes, stirring the people concerned to swing into action and persuade them against carrying their agitation further. The closing years of the 19th century saw the rise of another sect called Birsaites, the staunch followers of the doctrines of the legendary Birsa Munda who raised the banner of rebellion against the British Raj and other tormentors in this region.

Though Birsa Munda died in 1900 much before the national movement gained impetus, his followers participated actively in the  movement in keeping with  Birsa Munda’s ideals.

The Birsaites, who dwell mainly in the Khunti, Murhu and Tamar areas of Jharkhand, believe that the lord dwelled in him. “Like Mahatma Gandhi, Birsa is also an incarnation
on earth, and he has the purity of character and habits, which are essential
things demanded of man by God,” says a Birsaite.

A Birsaite invariably wears the sacred thread (janeu), abstains from non-vegetarian food and does not work on Thursdays (birthday of Birsa). However, Republic Day, Independence Day and Gandhi’s birth anniversary happen to be their biggest festivals. But worse, they feel marginalised, and their population is pegged at around 3,000 at present.

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