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Tribal culture

Haat of the matter

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Is Bhagoria Haat a marriage market or a tribal harvest celebration? While the Madhya Pradesh tourism department has been promoting it as a mass swayamvara ceremony, tribals say the government has been deliberately distorting the facts.

Acheery tribal festival of Madhya Pradesh would seem to be an event least likely to stoke a debate on etymology. Yet, Bhagoria Haat - which draws celebratory crowds from Jhabua, Dhar, and parts of West Nimar - has pitted the state government against tribals over meaning and significance. So much so, that the Prime Minister has been urged to arbitrate.

The cultural war has a scenic setting. The festival falls at a time when the arid landscape of Madhya Pradesh's tribal belt turns into a lush idyll with palash trees in full bloom, and colourfully dressed farmers working on fields of wheat and corn. The general liveliness is spiked by tadi - a local drink which men prepare in earthen pots and women sell on roads.

A row began in this paradise last year, when the official website of the Madhya Pradesh tourism department claimed that the festival was "... actually in the nature of mass 'swayamvara', a marriage market usually held on various market days falling before the Holi festival in March. " It appears that the tourism department has taken "bhag" to mean "run". The website says: "... after choosing their partners, the young people elope and are subsequently accepted as husband and wife by society through predetermined customs. "

But the elopement theory has been tersely dismissed by tribals and activists. "It is not true that Bhagoria Haat is a tribal matchmaking fair, " says Laxman Senani, president of Adivasi Yuva Vikas Samiti, an organisation working for the tribals. He says the haat is being wrongly projected as a tribal Valentine's Day. Curiously, even the tourism department adds a caveat. "It is not always boys and girls intending to marry each other meet in the festival for the first time, " the website says. "In a large number of cases the alliance is already made between the two, the festival providing the institutionalised framework for announcing the alliance publicly. "

But this clarification by the state government has not mollified the tribals. Indore-based Tribals' Multi-Purpose Welfare Society says that it has written letters to PM Manmohan Singh, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes and the state government, seeking their intervention to stop what they term as the wrongful portrayal of tribal culture. The society says that the word "bhagoria" is itself a distortion of "bhangraya", which means a weekly market where tribals buy puja materials for Holi.

The website adds that Bhagoria Haat coincides with the end of harvest, "which gives it the dimension of an agricultural festival. " This too is incorrect : harvest is in fact the main point of the festival. If there have been bountiful yields, the festival assumes an additional air of gaiety. It starts seven days before Holi, moving each day to a different tribal hamlet. The days weekly markets are held, the festival attracts thousands of people. Men and women turn up in their best attire, the women glittering in silver jewellery.

"Every year the young girls of my village choose a particular colour and the entire group of girls wears that colour to the fair, " says Ramti Bai, the sarpanch of Vakner panchyat of the Sondhva block. "They go together to buy things like bangles and lipsticks, and to enjoy Ferris wheel rides. "

In fact, the tribals of the Jhabua region, the Bhils and the Bhilalas, learnt of the elopement theory belatedly. "The people, being largely illiterate, did not know what was being said about them, " says Porlal Kharte, a Bhil who has had some education. Like many others from his community, Kharte says the misinformation was spread by certain vested interests, including government agencies, to attract tourists.
Now that the tribals have become aware of how the festival has been wrongfully portrayed by the government, they are beginning to speak up. "Bhagoria is essentially a ritual celebration after the harvest season when markets are set up and people, mostly young men and women, enjoy themselves, " says Shankar Tadwal, who runs an NGO working for the welfare of the tribals. "Maybe once in a while a young couple decides to marry, but this is not as common a phenomenon as is made out to be. "

Many tribal organisations, like Adivasi Vikas Sangathan, Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Mahasangh, Adivasi Mukti Sangathan and Adivasi Bhil Samaj Sangathan, have now joined forces to disabuse the state government of its notion. Among other things, they are planning to distribute pamphlets to clear the misconception. Political support is also coming. Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee president Kantilal Bhuria, a tribal leader from Jhabua, says: "This is false propaganda to attract foreign tourists. The tourism department is distorting facts about tribal culture. "

As for the tourism department, it seems to be covering all bases to promote the festival. "Earlier, Bhagoria Haat was also the place for settling old disputes, " the website says. "Open invitations were sent to enemies for a fight in the haat. Bloody battles used to be quite common in the past but today police and administration do not allow people to go to the haat armed. "
For now, the battle at the haat is only intellectual.

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