The Gujarat government has announced a financial aid of Rs 5,000 to each tribal who undertakes the pilgrimage to ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ in Ayodhya. While making the announcement at Shabari Dham at Subir village, Dang district, State Tourism Minister Purnesh Modi said that the financial aid would be in line with similar assistance doled out for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, Sindhu Darshan and Shravan Tirth Yatra.
“Since we, one crore people of Gujarat, are direct descendants of Mata Shabri who was a Ram devotee, all tribals will be given a financial aid of Rs 5,000 per person to visit Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya,” stated Modi at a Dussehra gathering at Shabri Dham.
Noticeably, tribals account for about 15 per cent of Gujarat’s population. 27 out of 182 assembly seats reserved for scheduled tribes. Apart from this tribal population spread across South and Central Gujarat, they also form a decisive vote bank in 14 unreserved constituencies.
As an electoral population, the tribal belt has traditionally not supported the saffron party. In the 2017 assembly polls, out of the 27 reserved seats, Congress won 15, the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) won two and the BJP won nine.
Currently, Congress has been reduced to 13 tribal MLAs and the BJP has 11 MLAs. Jitu Chaudhry, a tribal Congress MLA from Kaprada seat, Valsad defected to the BJP and later the party won the Morwa Hadaf by-poll that was necessitated following the Congress MLA’s demise.
“The tribal belt has been a weak zone for the BJP electorally. However, the party has for years depended on the systematic process of political infiltration carried out by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other right-wing affiliated organisations. Tribals are worshipers of nature, they worship their ancestors by laying a stone in their memory. For the past few years, these stones are being painted saffron and temples are being built around these stones. There has been a sudden rise in visits by Hindu godmen and events like Ram Katha in the tribal-dominated districts. Apart from these, the right-wing has established multiple dharamshalas and ashrams for poor tribal children where they are indoctrinated. Eklavya Schools, a vast network of schools that is guided by the VHP also has a role to play in this,” Romel Sutariya, a tribal rights activist told the Newsclick.
“The measures have helped BJP make inroads into tribal belts of the state. In the recent taluka local body polls, the party for the first time won seats in Tapi and Dang, the districts that were traditionally Congress bastion and stronghold of its senior leader Amarsinh Choudhary and his son Tushar Choudhary,” added Sutariya.
Noticeably, last month BJP held its first meeting of the newly formed Scheduled Tribe Morcha at the party’s headquarters in Gandhinagar.
The meeting was attended by party president C R Patil, chief minister Bhupendra Patel, national general secretary Tarun Chug, ministers Naresh Patel and Nimisha Suthar, former minister Ganpat Vasava, party general secretaries Rajni Patel and Bhargav Bhatt and president of the Scheduled Tribe Morcha Harshad Vasava, among others.
Earlier this year in August, former chief minister Vijay Rupani had announced to open five new medical colleges in tribal areas of the state. Rupani in his speech on the occasion of the International Day of the World's Indigenous People stated that the government will spend Rs 1,00,000 crore under the 'Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojna-2' during the next five years for the welfare of tribals.
Right-wing crusade against Christianity in tribal regions
Dang is a district in South Gujarat where tribals form 100 per cent of the population, 80 per cent of whom are Christians. In 1998, this district witnessed anti-Christian riots where churches were attacked and burned by agitating right-wing mobs to avenge the conversion programmes by missionaries.
The riots were followed by ‘ghar wapsi’ programmes organised by VHP and Swami Aseemanand to ‘reconvert’ the tribals to Hinduism.
Swami Aseemanand who was accused in the Ajmer Dargah blast of 2007, and later acquitted, founded the Shabri Dham in Subir Taluka of Dang, and organised a massive Shabri Kumbh Mela in 2006. Shabri dham is now listed as a pilgrimage destination on the official Gujarat Tourism website as the place where Lord Ram is believed to have eaten berries from the hands of Shabri when looking for Sita.
In 2008, the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act came into force making it mandatory for a person to obtain prior approval from the district authority for consensual conversion.
“The act came into force primarily as a countermeasure to stop conversions in tribal belts of Gujarat. It was the time when BJP and its sister organisations like VHP used terms like ‘ghar wapsi’ to stop tribals from converting to Christianity. The law was enforced in retrospect and was called Gujarat Freedom of Religion 2003 so that any conversion dating back to the year 2003 stands to be null and void as the Collector’s permission was not taken prior to the conversion,” Advocate Shamshad Pathan told the Newsclick.
“However, post-2014, right-wing organisations began using the word ‘love jihad’ and the law began to be used for targeting Muslims,” added Pathan.
In July this year, Valsad district police were set into probing a baptism ritual after the local unit of VHP sought “strict action” in the matter.
Piyush Shah, president of VHP Valsad district unit and Rakesh Rana, general secretary of Valsad unit met Valsad collector Kshipriya Agre and handed a memorandum alleging that Christian priests visit interior villages in Umargam, Kaprada and Pardi talukas in the district and convert tribal Hindus.
Lack of basic amenities in tribal dominated districts
Every week, Jainaben Gamit, a tribal woman from Jhakri village of Tapi district in South Gujarat, walks about 3 kilometres towards the forested area surrounding her village to chop wood. After she is done chopping, she carries one bhara - about 20 to 25 kilograms of chopped wood back to her village to be used for cooking in her earthen chulha. Jainaben like most women of the village cannot afford LPG cylinders and buys only one or two cylinders a year.
Gujarat government’s much-touted ‘model of development’ eludes the tribal villages of South Gujarat where people are still waiting for basic amenities, source of employment and a patch of land to call their own.
In assembly polls of 2017, two villages of Valsad district boycotted the polls. In 2020, tribals of Tarmaliya village in Pardi taluka of Valsad district boycotted the by-elections after their long-standing demand of mobile tower weren’t met. In the absence of a mobile tower, the students of the village had to travel around three kilometres to avail internet connection, essential for attending classes online during the coronavirus pandemic.
In March this year, Kesar village in Bharuch boycotted the local body polls after their demand for a bridge over river Kim wasn’t met for years. In absence of the bridge, locals, including children cross the river on foot to avail school, PDS shops, etc in the next village.
In the same month, local tribals of Targol and Kathiyari of Chota Udepur also boycotted the local body polls as there were no proper roads in the villages. The locals of the village had threatened to boycott the poll in the last local body polls unless their demand for a proper road was met.