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Ram Naam Reforming Criminal Minds

The author visits the interiors of Jhabua District of Madhya Pradesh to investigate the `criminal' minds of Jhabua Bhil tribes and explore how Ram Naam diksha (initiation) acts as a silent reformer.

It was a summer afternoon in a small village in Jhabua District of Madhya Pradesh. An Adivasi Bhil youth returned home after a long day's work and demanded food immediately of his sister-in-law. She replied that it would take a few minutes. "Why the delay of five minutes?" This troubled the youth. He was enveloped with rage and took an axe and chopped off the hands, legs and finally the neck of his sister-in-law. After committing this heinous murder the youth went straight to the police station to confess the crime.

Sub inspector incharge of Alirajpur police station which tops the crime graph of Asia, was taken aback. Police investigation revealed that the youth killed his sister-in-law out of sheer hunger and anger as the "delay was too much for him". The police officer lamented that in this region Adivasi Bhils commit crimes "on the provocation of no logical reason". He narrated another incident where a youth chopped off his friend's head just because his friend deprived him of a biri (rolled tobacco leaf). Interestingly, the youth, after killing his friend, took the murder weapon in one hand and the head of the victim in the other and went straight to the police station to report and confess his crime.

While interacting with several strata of people it was found that the Bhils who are neck deep in debt and live below poverty line are heavy drinkers and kill people on trifling issues. Yet they do not run away from the crime or evade the police. There is an interesting story in connection with a murder case when twenty people were to be arrested but the police station did not have a long enough rope to tie all of them and present them before the magistrate. So the constable asked them to present themselves before the court the next day. All of them complied and turned up before the magistrate the following day. This is an unheard of and unbelievable incident in modern society.

`Innocence' remains the mainstay of Jhabua Bhils who are often stigmatized as criminals. During a special field investigation we found that Ram Naam Diksha is creating a wonderful impact on the Bhil population. When Dr Viswamitra Maharaj, Head of Sri Ram Sharanam, visited the Bhils, he was presented with a bow and arrows. In return he distributed wooden rosaries and introduced them to Ram Naam i.e. reciting the name of Ram continuously either aloud or silently within. This slowly and steadily eased out the `negatives' from the innocent minds of the Bhils and they, on their own, started living a more pious life. There was `involuntary reformation' through Ram Naam Simran.

The etymological meaning of Bhil is `bow' which is the traditional weapon of the tribe. R.V. Russell recorded in 1916: "It has been suggested that the Bhils are the pygmies referred by Ktesias (400 BC) and Phyllite of Ptolemy (AD 150). The Bhils are recognized as the oldest inhabitants of southern Rajputana and part of Gujarat and are usually Kolis who inhabit the adjoining tracts. The Kolis are the western branch of the Kol or Munda tribe who have spread from Chota Nagpur through Mandla and Jubbulpore, Central India and Rajputana to Gujarat. If this is correct the Kolis would be a Kolarian tribe".

While delving into the origin of Bhils and their reaction to Ram Naam I came across an interesting reference made by the celebrated writer, Kamladevi Chattopadhyaya. She pointed out that Valmiki, the author of the great epic, Ramayana, was a Bhil bandit named Walia. With the blessings of saints and Goddess Saraswati he was subsequently transformed from a bandit into a saint and wrote the masterpiece, Ramayana.

Again, in the Ramayana, we find mention of Sabri who happened to be the daughter of a Bhil raja. During his fourteen years in exile Ram visited Sabri's house which he referred to as ashram and ate ber (a berry) offered by her. In another epic, Mahabharata, we find Eklavya, the famous archer, who was also a Bhil. The story goes that Eklavya mastered the art of archery keeping in front of him the icon of Dronacharya, the guru who rejected his formal admission to his gurukul (school). Eklavya sacrificed his thumb as guru-dakshina as demanded by Dronacharya. Thus we find through these references that Bhils dominated the mythological scenario by being in the forefront of character transformation, piousness, innocence and capacity for making supreme sacrifices.

In order to understand the various Pauranic references let us examine the summing up of historian Dr. Bachan Kumar who traced the mythological sources. He wrote, "A descendant of Manu Swayambhua, Vena, was childless. The sage rubbed his thigh and produced a man like a charred log with a flat face and extremely short. He was told to sit down (nishada). He did and since then he was known as Nishada from whom sprang the Nishadas dwelling in the Vindhya mountain, distinguished by their wicked deeds."

Now after several millennium the Bhils are still stigmatized by their `wicked deeds' as Jhabua figures top in the criminal map of Asia. Yet, Bhils of Jhabua are also known for their valour as these were the people who helped the famous Rana Pratap while he was in hiding and fighting from the woods. Guerilla fights still remain in vogue among the Bhils though now utilized for criminal activities as a judicial officer commented.

Bhils account for 85% of the population of Jhabua. In order to understand them better we undertook a journey into the interiors. Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh is situated in the extreme west of the state hemmed with Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. There are about 1760 villages in two sub-divisions, 5 tehsils and 12 blocks of Jhabua.

The terrain of Jhabua is generally hilly and the soil is light, not suited for cultivation. The vegetation over the hilly terrain has been indiscriminately cut causing complete denudation of hills resulting in serious soil erosion. Unable to sustain themselves the illiterate people, with no positive from society, are becoming victims of spontaneous and organized crime. Bhils are heavy drinkers and idle their time away in the woods. During the harvest season they toil in the fields but the night is for crime.

Bhil tribals often use bamboo bows and arrow and gofans (somewhat like a catapult) to enact crimes. One retired DSP, Sunderlal Mahajan of Jhabua said that the weapon, gofan, is most powerful. It consists of a cord. One end has a knitted bag for small pebbles. The pebbles are first swung in the air and then released on the target. They effect not only 100% accuracy but are faster than bullets. The police commented that nobody would be able to know wherefrom it came and would not pass the test of evidence in the court of law. Bhils generally hide by the roadside in darkness and communicate with light and sound before selecting the crime. One magistrate informed us that they often say Tum din ka raja, hamre raat ka raja (during the day you are king; at night we rule). This is no simple sociological expression but an indication of selection of night for their modus operandi.

Several ex-criminals who have now become sadhaks of Ram Naam recalled that the head of the team decided on the `prey' and the other group positioned nearer the road made the attack. While talking to a Judge we were told "they would not loot anybody without roughing up the person as they feel that if they don't beat up the victim they are not doing justice to their act of crime. They often say crime is their tradition and it is a matter of pride for them." Generally Bhils loot buses and private vehicles and escape with valuables under cover of darkness. Police authorities have not been able to stem their activities and only provide escorts in some areas like Kali Ghati.

We travelled from Jhabua to Para via Khardu -- a total 18 km stretch. A local, Vivek, told us that nobody dared to venture out after sunset from Jhabua to Para. Bhils drink and assemble in hideouts near the road. However, several Bhils who had been introduced to Ram Naam started reforming themselves by becoming teetotalers. Since then the 12 km stretch from Jhabua city to Khardu has had no criminal activities. In contrast the 6 km stretch from Khardu to Para where Ram Naam has not spread is still crime infested.

On further investigation Jogiya, a Bhil, revealed "people, after Ram Naam diksha (initiation), realize that daru (liquor) is poison and kills the self. And once they stop drinking they do not attack others and enact crime. Ram Naam has changed our lifestyle and we have started saving and taking care of the family. In Khardu village there has been no incident of any theft for a long time now." Another Bhil confessed. "I used to steal goats, cows etc. I was afraid about where to keep them. Today I do not steal so others need not fear and I am also spared of fear."

Another gentleman, Amar Singh of Umria Salam recalled that his father was a dacoit and killed two persons and was jailed. He finally died in prison. His mother brought him up and made him graduate from Para. Yet, he became a drunkard and, under pressure from his peers, he took to their traditional crime. Fortunately after Ram Naam diksha realization dawned upon him and enabled him to lead a normal life and he was able to influence his peer group as well.

Amar Singh further said, Daru joru and Jamin (liquor, woman and land) were the main causes of rivalry and people got themselves entrapped in revenge from generation to generation. This seems to have been stalled and people now try to settle matters amicably -- after taking Ram Naam diksha.

Radhu Damor is another Bhil who used to drink 3-4 bottles a day and get into brawls with no rhyme or reason. He neglected his family of 8 children and his wife. One year back he got diksha and he reeled under repentance of his past deeds. Ram Naam has turned him into a good husband and father. His profession was slaughtering of animals. He has saved 365 animals from being killed and has become a vegetarian.

In Umria Salam I was fortunate to interview an aged lady, Bodhi Bai, who had recently lost her son. Through her we discovered that torture of women was a daily routine in most Bhi households prior to Ram Naam diksha. In the world of Bhil women the belief system revolves around the world of evil and empowered demi gods called `Devi'. Literacy has not dawned here at all. The women do all the chores and take care of the animals. Poverty remains the factual sheet of their lives and deprivation roots deep in their lifestyle.

Generally speaking, Bhil women believe that everything is happening in the context of `Devi shakti' and evil spirits or ghosts. Being deprived of doctors the witch doctor called Badwa is the source of information and probable solution to all physical, mental and environmental problems.

These Badwas are the male traditional magicians who play with some grains and gesticulates in a state of trance. While diagnosing they drink and chant mantras. Finally they come out with a solution with an order of sacrifice of a goat or chicken and demand liquor. They create a fear psychosis among the people to extract anything. These Badwas also work as a tool for social vengeance and exploit the women. If a woman does not succumb to advances made by a Badwa he projects her as an evil soul and declares her a dikini. Then the whole tribe hunts her down and kills her.

I got an opportunity to talk to two ex-Badwas. They confessed to having no knowledge either of magic or traditional medicine. They simply did their job to earn a livelihood.

When a girl is born into a Bhil family there is rejoicing because she will bring money from the bridegroom as per the Bhil custom. Even if the woman leaves her husband for another man the case is settled amicably with exchange of money. A life convict, Brahmar Singh, told me that while he was in Indore Central Jail, his wife went to another man. When Brahmar Singh was released from jail he was paid a handsome sum by his wife's new husband.

To understand the traditional belief system of Jhabua womenfolk and the transformation undergone by them after Ram Naam diksha, we conducted a series of interviews. It was revealed that most of them no longer face torture as their husbands no longer consume liquor. Post liquor consumption fights have become a thing of the past. Women no longer go to Badwas. They now believe that Sri Ram resides in them. The concept of shanti (peace) received a good response from a large section of women. Elderly women have taken the lead.

Umria Salam village is one of the most backward villages where black magic looms large and crime is a disturbing factor. Today around 60% residents have taken Ram Naam diksha. The result is enlightenment has dawned on the lifestyle of the people. We visited several villages: Biodev, Khagela, Jhambua. We were stunned by the changed scenario. Poverty stricken huts now house Sri Adhistanji and japa (reciting mantras with a rosary) has become a regular feature every evening around 7.30 pm. This time was once earmarked out for `drinks and crime'. It is n interesting to note that in Sri Ram Sharanam School of thought nobody is forcefully made a vegetarian. Rather everybody is told to install the sound icon of Ram Naam in the heart and the inherent effacing power would automatically wipe out the given negatives.

We heard many startling confessions from many Bhil tribes. However, today feelings of compassion and love are dawning on them. In Jhabua, in the tiny hamlets of Bhil tribes, many Valmikis are in the making. Ram Naam, the time tested celestial sound, is working wonders silently in the midst of woods.