Gujarat polls: Alienated tribals lament BJP, Congress' apathy, say they have lost hope in political parties

The intention of syncing the growth of each of the 4.33 crore voting individuals with that of the development of the state of Gujarat is evident in its ruling party's campaign slogan Ho Chu Vikas, Ho Chu Gujarat (I am Vikas, I am Gujarat). The individual doesn't become one with the grand collective as easily though, at least in the reality that lies beyond the spectre of rally and the sound of rhetoric.

One such reality are Gujarat's tribals, nearly 15 percent of the total voters in the upcoming Gujarat Assembly elections. The 2011 census recorded that Gujarat was home to 89,17,174 Scheduled Tribes. In a BJP-dominated state, 16 out of 27 tribal seats across the state are Congress seats. To read into the mind of the tribal voter, Firstpost drove into adivasi belt of South Gujarat and made stops at several villages in the districts of Tapi, Navsari, Surat and Valsad.

First, we reached a village called Anaval. Interestingly, the Desai Brahmins trace their roots to this village where it's now nearly impossible to spot a Brahmin. Here, the president of Gujarat’s Samast Adivasi Samaj Dr Pradip Garasia runs a small clinic. Today, when he sees Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor emerging as young faces of the Patidars, Dalits and OBCs respectively, he feels that the mainstream political discourse has completely ignored tribals.

"Till the time we remain on the fringes of public debate, we will only be viewed as another 'category'. Reservation is not the end of our problems," he said while talking about how Chief Minister Vijay Rupani distributed fake ST certificates to those living in Gir forests on 14 May, 2017 in 14th Kutiyana, Junagarh.

"In the recent recruitments for the post of deputy collectors by the Gujarat Public Service Commission, out of 68 Scheduled Tribe seats, 27 were given to those having the farzi (fake) certificates. We are filing RTIs and have complained to the government, the governor and the ST commission," Garasia revealed that the entire tribal belt is upset about this and he said that only the ST commission has responded to complaints, pacifying them into believing that an inquiry is on.

These certificates were distributed on the basis of two government resolutions, one in 2007 and another in 2017. In the first government resolution, passed on 26 June, 2007, the use of the word 'parents' was misconstrued to mean 'ancestors'.

"This means that if the people inhabiting the forests of Gir, Barda and Alech in Junagarh district are able to trace the roots of their ancestors to that region, they would be entitled to ST reservations. Similarly, the resolution passed in 2017 extended reservations to those currently living in those regions," Garasia said. He pointed out that in 1956, the locals of these regions were counted as STs and now, through these certificates, their descendants who live elsewhere are also being counted as STs. "It is not about BJP and Congress at this point. It is about repeated attempts to remodel our identity," he added. He has no big hopes from any party.

In January, the Gujarat government announced the implementation of the Rule-2017 under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) in 4,503 gram sabhas, to empower them with powers like fixing the loan interest and eliminating money lenders. In a village called Vyaara, an erstwhile Gaikwadi town, tribal rights activist Viral Konkani dismissed promises pertaining to the PESA.

The Act was passed in 1996 based on the recommendations made by the Bhuria committee. It was designed to give powers to the gram sabhas of regions that fall under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, where the governor has the power to adapt laws passed both by Parliament and the State legislature in a way that they suit the complicated needs of these areas. The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution mandates laws separate from the Panchayati Raj Act and the Nagarpalika Act to administer villages and towns in tribal-dominated regions.

"To implement these, there is a need for a tribal advisory committee. In Gujarat, there have been only two meetings of this committee in six years. Also, the 2017 PESA has moved away from the original act of 1996. Take a good look at the list of powers and you see that gram sabhas have no real powers left, all they can really do his debate-discuss,"  Konkani said.

 Gujarat polls: Alienated tribals lament BJP, Congress apathy, say they have lost hope in political parties

The Samast Adivasi Samaj of Gujarat State regularly acquaints the Scheduled Tribes Commission with the issues of tribals. Image courtesy: Pallavi Rebbapragada

Another issue that the tribal activists raise is the use of the words adivasi and vanvasi interchangeably. He went to say that by using the word vanvasi like in the government's Vanvasi Kalyan Yojana, anybody who simply lives in the forest belt is being defined as an adivasi. "Tribals are culturally and socially different from Hindus and the attempt to erase our identity is something we are opposed to," added Konkani, who is also a young member of the adivasi samaj.

In village Jamki, a tiny dot along the highway, where men still roam around in Gandhi topis, pramukh Pravina bhen Gamit said that even educated boys and girls, some holding BA and MA degrees aren't able to clear the teacher training Tests (TAT). A village of Congress supporters will tell you that it doesn’t have water supply although the Ukai dam is just a kilometre away.

Ask these people if the Congress leaders have offered any alternative or have promised to address their issues and they say nothing. They stand around with flags and sashes, screaming 'panja aayega'. The reasons for their support aren’t clear.

"To understand that, you have to enter the pages of history. When I was growing up, I remember that in remote places like Lakhali, Karanjkhed, Panchor, Asopalav and Besaniya, people had no clothes to wear, no food to eat. The Congress opened primary schools here. I joined the Congress in 1966 at the age of 25 and tenants became the owners of lands," said Amarsinh Zinabhai Chaudhary, who was a Member of the Parliament from 1971 to 1977. We met him at his home in Vyaara. "Earlier, the Congress wasn't commercialised. It used to work for the people with honesty. Now, leaders work for their own benefit, whether it's the BJP or the Congress," he said.

Amarsinh Zinabhai Chaudhary holds a picture of members of firth Lok Sabha. Image procured by the author.

Amarsinh Zinabhai Chaudhary holds a picture of members of firth Lok Sabha. Image courtesy: Pallavi Rebbapragaada

We then travelled along the highway to Vedchi, home to a Gandhi ashram. This village was the centre for the freedom struggle in South Gujarat. Here, we met Ashok Chaudhary, the son of Dashri bhen and Kanji bhai, the couple famous across the tribal belt for having taught Kasturba Gandhi how to read and write in jail.

Ashok Chaudhary is a Gandhian environmentalist who feels that political parties, be it the Congress or the BJP, are failing to understand, let alone learn, from the values of the adivasis towards the environment. The spirit of community, brotherhood and eco-friendly way of life is being damaged by politics at large, feels Ashok Chaudhary, who has delivered lectures at Oxford University’s Ruskin College and at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. "Congress is forgetting its old values. Its economic policies like land and wealth distribution which were earlier pro-poor are more centralised," he added.

Move some kilometres south and you reach Songadh, where the Gaikwads built a fort on a hill, a more developed taluka with three-storeyed houses, banks and shops. Here, we ran into Pramod Valvi, a former employee of Bank of India, who said that some people have found jobs after the construction of the Ukai dam and most people head to cities to find work. Dilip Bhai Bhatt, who laid the foundation of the BJP taluka in this village, explained that the Sangh is doing a lot of work to re-orient the people towards development.

He talked about the growth in Ekal Vidyalayas (one-teacher schools) and Gareeb Kalyan Melas, where cycles and clothes are distributed to the poor. However, he holds one grudge against the evolution of the BJP: That it is rapidly forgetting the work done by old Jan Sangh members and becoming arrogant about its power. He also said that if a powerful leader leaves the Congress to join the BJP, he or she gets more importance than old loyalists.

After a long drive along thinner roads, inwards from the highway, comes the home of Chhotubhai Vasava in Jhagadia. Chhotubhai gave his vote to Congress' senior leader Ahmad Patel and saved him from defeat in the recent Rajya Sabha elections. The Robinhood of the tribal belt, Chottubhai has created the Bharatiya Tribal Party after the split between Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar.

Although in partnership with the Congress, which has given him four seats, Vasava told Firstpost that big parties only politicise the needs of the tribals. He believes that neither of the parties are interested in implementing Section 330 to 342 of the Constitution with honesty.

The most immediate need is the right approach towards primary education. The government has made efforts in that direction, including opening ashram shalas and Samras hostels for Scheduled Tribes students in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Rajkot, Vidya Vidya Nagar and Jamnagar. Aside from supplying food in government hostels and appointing teachers with full pay in Eklavya Model Residential Schools, the government has decided to offer a 90 percent grant for construction of ashram shalas.

Along with ashram shalas, the RSS also operates schools. We identified three of them in the tribal regions of Ahwa, Dharampur and Limdi.

The inside of schools operated by RSS in tribal region of Dharampur. Image procured by the author.

The inside of schools operated by RSS in tribal region of Dharampur. Image courtesy: Pallavi Rebbapragada

We visited one of these schools in Dharampur, which was established in 1979. The walls are painted with mythological figures, there is a resident pandit who conducts hawans every day and children are even taught how to make idols. Bhupendra Chaudhary of the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, a national movement for tribal welfare, has opened his own school 60 kilometers from Dharampur.

He said that the emphasis on primary education is in remote tribal areas is skewed. There are no exams till Class 8 and in Class 9, many children are still learning how to spell. He feels that the tribal communities haven’t benefited one bit from the necessity of modern education.

Tribals of South Gujarat have problems, but they don't expect political parties to solve them. Old loyalties seem to be fading away and a lack of young and substantial representation has only further alienated them this election season.

Updated Date: Nov 25, 2017 20:11:48 IST