Earlier this month, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Gujarat announced financial assistance of Rs 5000 per person for people from the tribal community to visit the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya.
“Since we, one crore of (tribal) people of Gujarat, are direct descendants of mata Shabri who was a devotee of Lord Ram, all tribals will be given a special assistance of Rs 5000 per person to visit Ayodhya,” announced the state's tourism and pilgrimage development minister, Purnesh Modi, at a fairly packed gathering in the Shabari Dham — a pilgrim site associated with Lord Ram — on the occasion of Dussehra.
It is pertinent to note that according to the 2011 census, Gujarat has a tribal population of close to 1 crore which comprises 14.75 percent of the total state population. Gujarat also accounts for 8.1 percent of the Scheduled Tribe population of the entire country.
And with the move coming ahead of the state Assembly elections scheduled for next year, several critics are calling it an attempt to "saffronise" the tribal population for electoral gains.
The Quint spoke to tribal activists and scholars in the state to decode the political, social and cultural impact of BJP's strategy.
'It's a Project Which Dates Back to The 80s'
The tribal belt in Gujarat mainly consists of the districts of Dang, Valsad, Bharuch, Surat, Vadodara, Panchmahals and Sabarkantha. Bhils and related tribes are the most numerous among Gujarat's Adivasis.
Scholars and tribal activists working in these regions say that the RSS project to "saffronise" or "Hinduise" the tribal population is almost 40 years old now.
"When I was at a university in Surat in early 80s, I observed that some of my tribal students were skipping classes on Thursdays," recollects Gujarat-based scholar and academic Dr Gaurang Jani.
He further adds that when he asked his students about their whereabouts on Thursdays, they told him that they take off to listen to cassettes with the sermons of Pandurang Athavale.
Athavale was an activist and spiritual leader who founded the Swadhyaya Parivar, a mid-20th century Brahmin movement with influence in the western states, particularly Maharashtra and Gujarat. "The message of the Swadhyaya Parivar was that the tribals must steer clear of non-vegetarian food and alcohol as they were considered as 'vices' in the Brahmin culture," Dr Jani added.
After the Swadhyaya Parivar, the Swaminarayan Sect gained prominence among the tribal population of Gujarat. Several temples of Swaminarayan were set up in the tribal belt and the sect still enjoys a sizeable influence.
It was then, that the BJP in 2004 set up the Shabri Dham in Dang district. According to popular Hindu folklore and mythology, it is believed that the temple is the located at the place where lord Ram met Shabri — a tribal girl who had been worshipping lord Ram for long time with extreme devotion in order to meet him.
From Gandhi to Ram: How Tribal Votes in Gujarat Shifted From Congress To BJP
To decode the electoral arithmetic behind the BJP's move, one must understand how the tribal population of Gujarat has traditionally voted. Till the 1980s, tribals were a critical part of the Congress' KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) alliance.
The Congress also gave Gujarat its only tribal CM - Amarsinh Chaudhary from 1985 to 1989.
The Congress' hold among Adivasis was partly due to the influence of Gandhian ashrams.
Dr Jani points out that under the Congress government in the state, there were several Gandhi ashrams where these tribals would work, hence they were influenced by the ideology. However, with time as organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) gained prominence, the impact of Gandhian ideas started fading.
"The Congress Party had a stronghold on forest cooperatives. However, with time as these cooperatives disbanded, the tribals lost touch with the Gandhian principals and were exposed to the ideas of right-wing outfits like RSS and VHP. In the last two decades, they (BJP) have completely sidelined Gandhi and have brought in Ram in the tribal belt."Dr Gaurang Jani, Scholar and Academic
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP's sweep in Gujarat included a strong performance in the tribal belt. According to Lokniti-CSDS' survey, BJP secured as much as 61 percent of the Adivasi vote in the state.
A Nationwide Strategy
Financial assistance for a trip to the Ram Janmabhoomi is not an isolated incident of alleged saffronisation/hinduisation of the tribal community by the BJP. Recently, the hoisting of a saffron flag at a fort in Jaipur, which houses the temple of Amba Mata, a goddess revered by the Meena community, a Scheduled Tribe in Rajasthan, became a cause of conflict in the state.
The Quint spoke to Hansraj Meena, a tribal rights activist and founder of Tribal Army — a social organisation working for Adivasi rights. Meena believes that the BJP's move to introduces doles for adivasis to visit the Ram Temple site is part of a well-planned nationwide strategy.
"Tribals are not Hindus or Muslims, we have a culture which pre-dates modern religions. What is the base for this saffronisation? Similar instances are being reported from Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and several other parts of the country."Hansraj Meena, Tribal Rights Activist
Meena says that the BJP is specially trying to co-opt and appropriate tribal communities which actively participated in the freedom struggle. "Every November, Adivasis go to Mangadh in the Banswara district of Rajasthan, where British troops had gunned down around 1,500 Adivasis, to mark martyrs’ day," he said.
"However, attempts are being regularly made to convert Mangadh into a Hindu heritage site. People are being brainwashed to worship Hindu gods and goddesses instead of adivasi deities."
Activists from the tribal community hint that steps like the one undertaken by the Gujarat government, are part of a larger political effort to slowly erode the tribal identity and keep the community devoid of their rights. Several tribes in Andaman and Nicobar like the Jarawa Tribe and in Gujarat, like the Rathwa tribe have faced this problem. "The Rathwa community was excluded from the list of identified scheduled tribes after they started worshipping Hindu deities," Meena said.