Lok Sabha polls: Gujarat tribes unhappy with govt ‘interference’ in their culture, may tilt balance in state

First Post | Bishan Kumar | April 07, 2019

Hundreds of nondescript villages in the tribal lands of south Gujarat seem lost in time. Anyone coming from the glittering cities of Ahmedabad, Vadodara and the likes, are immediately transported into a different world of Bhils, Pagris, Dhodia, Dhanka and their ilk. Living in their serene environment, largely untouched by the winds of development, the tribals are now encountering interference from the outside world, causing a threat to their culture, beliefs and unity. And this defines their current psychological state.

Till a few years back, there was hardly any temple in the areas of Dangs, Bharuch and Valsad but now, many small temples dot the small hills. Ask any local and he denies any knowledge of how and by whom these temples were built. Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) leader and seven-time MLA from Jhagadiya constituency is seriously upset by these intrusions. He accuses saffron outfits of trying to create dissension and confusion among nature worshippers.

Upset and hurt by Patels going away from it (thanks to the emergence of Hardik Patel), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hard-pressed to woo tribal voters. The tribal population stands around 19.23 percent, and is spread over in five districts of south Gujarat (Tapi, Bahruch, Dangs, Valsad and Surat), Sabarkantha in north, Panchmahals in north central, and Vadodara in central Gujarat. BJP has allotted five out of 26 seats to Tribals (ST), hoping that they will make up for the loss of seats due to disenchantment of Patels.

BJP’s performance was not as impressive in the tribal-dominated seats as the party had expected in 2017. The state has a total of 37 constituencies with a significant tribal population, of which the BJP had won 19 seats and the Congress 15. While two seats went to BTP, one was won by an Independent. Out of the 35 seats in south Gujarat, 12 are dominated by Scheduled Tribes.

BJP’s gamble

BJP’s popular tribal leader and sitting MP from Bharuch Mansukhbhai Vasava wields influence in the tribal belt of south Gujarat. BJP is banking on him to help in consolidating votes in the region. A senior BJP leader, who has been active in the tribal belt, candidly acknowledges that the belt has not been a strong pocket for the BJP. In the last three years, RSS and other organisations have worked hard to make inroads in the area and build some support.

A spate of Ram Kathas were organised, several big Hindu godmen made trips to Dangs, Bharuch and other areas to sway the voters. A decade back, the RSS had launched its biggest offensive against conversions in the tribal-dominated Dangs district in Gujarat through Shabari Kumbh Mela, which was attended by over five lakh people. At the Kumbh, elaborate arrangements were made for the pilgrims under tight security and there was no violence, contrary to apprehensions. There were as many as 31 tent townships, equipped with sleeping arrangements for 5,000 people, set up along an 8-km stretch of the River Purna. Around 8,000 swayamsevaks and hundreds of pracharaks had managed the event.

There are about 18 Christian missionary groups active in Dangs. As alleged by the RSS leaders, these missionary groups were systematically converting Adivasis to Christianity.

Chhotubhai Vasava is sure of victory against the BJP and Congress candidates, though he appears to be slightly shaky. Exuding confidence of his win, Chhoubhai said: “Whatever tricks BJP may play, my support base among my people is solid.” Chotu Vasava, the lone Janata Dal (United) MLA of Gujarat, has won six state Assembly elections from the Jhagadiya constituency.

He floated Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) three years ago and was hoping that Congress leader and close confidant of the Gandhis will honour his help in getting Patel elected to Rajya Sabha. He expects them to repay his favour and not field any candidate from Bharuch in Chhotu’s favour. Congress first asked Patel to contest from this seat but he chickened out, citing party commitments.

The party then turned to Nadod MLA PD Vasava, but he too declined. Left with no choice, the party decided to field a young leader, president of Bharuch Youth Congress, Sher Khan, to take on six-time BJP candidate, Mansukh Vasava and six-time MLA from Jhagadia. It’s a big task for him to beat two political heavyweights in their strongholds.

He and his supporters expect some public meetings by Rahul Gandhi and other senior central leaders in his constituency. Only 16 days are left as of today for the campaigning, which ends on 21 April. Rahul has too much on his plate to give much time to Sher Khan. Rahul’s public meetings are still being planned by the state leadership.

Differences among tribals

BJP, on the other hand, can benefit from the division among tribals. Rathwa tribals were the first to create a difference, declaring themselves as the Kshatriyas among tribals. The BJP government found an opportunity to hit back and removed them from the Scheduled Tribes (ST) quota list, suggesting that Kshatriyas are not ST.

Realising that they will have much to lose, Rathwas organised massive protests and forced the government to bring them back into ST quota list. The dominant Bhil community has been opposing inclusion of Rabaris, Bharwads and Charans in the ST quota but so far, they have not been able to put pressure on the government to yield to their demand.

Bhils stand strongly behind BTP leader Chhotubhai Vasava and repose their faith in him for bringing justice to them and protect their homes and hearth. Their grouse is that the fifth and sixth schedule of the Constitution has never been implemented in the tribal belt. Chhotubhai Vasava has been raising these issues, alleging that the tribals have no scope to avail the benefits of jobs or livelihood in those factories. Moreover, the waste from these factories continue to ruin precious agricultural land and produce.

Former chief minister Suresh Mehta’s assessment is that there is serious unrest among tribals against the BJP and it will surely cost the party, especially in the central part of the Adivasi areas. This offers a good opportunity for the Congress to capitalise on it in Bharuch, Chhotaudepur, Sabarkantha and Banaskantha areas.

Major tribes

There are 11 major tribes in Gujarat; the largest being Bhil, constituting 47.89 percent of the state’s tribal population. The notified tribal areas are in Tapi (Uchchhal, Vyara, Nizar, Songadh, Valod, talukas), Bharuch (Dediapada, Sagbara, Valia, Nandod and Jhagadia talukas), Dang district and taluka , Valsad (Bansda, Dharampur, Chikhali, Pardi and Umbergaon talukas), Pachmahal (Jhalod, Dohad, Santrampur, Limkheda and Deogarh), Vadodara (Chhota Udaipur and Naswadi talukas and Tilakwada Mahal), Sabarkantha (Khedbrahma, Bhiloda and Meghraj talukas and Vijayanagar mahal) and Surat (Mahuwa, Mandvi, Mangrol and Bardoli taluka) districts.

About 16 months back, around 10,000 landless people comprising mostly Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes members had staged protest demonstrations in Gandhinagar against the state government for not implementing various laws relating to land rights for them.

About 28 different organisations, including those belonging to tribal communities from Gujarat, had joined hands in this effort to stake claim on land ownership for its people under the aegis of Jamin Adhikar Zumbesh (JAZ) (land rights campaign). According to their leaders , the Gujarat government was supposed to grant them land rights according to various laws but it has been shying away from implementing it.

A 2005 notification allowed allotment of government wasteland to the corporates for contract farming. Under this, 27,000 hectares of land has been given out to 55 industrialists from the total 45 lakh hectares of such land earmarked for the purpose. According to activist Jayanti Makadia, who took part in the demonstrations, more than 90,000 families from 33 districts in the state applied for land under the Land Ceiling Act but there has been no response from the government.

“It’s sheer selfishness of state BJP leaders that allowed these issues to linger on and now, the anger of Adivasis is so deep and spread out that they (BJP) are panicking,” commented Suresh Mehta, who now runs some NGOs and works to strengthen democratic values.

Bullet train conflict

The much publicised bullet train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai has created new areas of conflict. The National High Speed Rail Corporation plans to ply multiple trains on the route every day, with a train every 20 minutes during peak hours. This is meant to benefit textile and diamond merchants and other working professionals who frequently travel between the two cities.

To build the elevated rail lines, the corporation plans to acquire tracts of land with a width of 17.5 metres all along the 508-km route. More land will be acquired to build the 12 railway stations en route. These land areas fall in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Farmers in Valsad and other affected districts and home owners affected by the bullet train project have been mobilising support to fight for their land.

According to the protesting farmers, the steps taken by the National High Speed Rail Corporation and the state government during the public consultation and land acquisition process have been opaque, insensitive and often illegal. They have taken the matter to the High Court.

The bullet train’s glitz and glory is totally lost on these adivasis. It was pretty evident in the areas falling under the train corridor. While passing through a weekly haat in Valia village in Bharuch district, a casual chat with a vegetable vendor evoked a quick retort, “Why should we give our precious lands for a train which we will never ride?”

Now, the ball is definitely in the tribal court and they would possibly like to teach a befitting lesson to those in power who had repeatedly failed to fulfill their promises.

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