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Despite Tribal Outreach, Why Is BJP Struggling in Madhya Pradesh's Adivasi Belt?

In 2018, BJP's tally reduced by half in tribal districts. Now, the party has gone into overdrive to woo tribals.

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In Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district, a gust of celebrations marked the lives of most of the Adivasi or tribal farmers in November last year.

The Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA that had been passed in the parliament back in 1996 was finally being implemented in Madhya Pradesh. “We had been waiting for this for 26 years, so it felt great to know that it is finally a reality,” says Kamlesh Kharte, an Adivasi farmer in Bomnali village of Barwani district.

This combined with the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led-BJP government’s move of renaming railway stations and universities after tribal icons, inaugurating memorials in honor of tribal leaders who served as freedom fighters, and making it a point to hat-tip the state’s tribal culture at every opportunity, gave the Adivasi farmers much to celebrate. “It felt like our voice was now being heard and valued,” Kharte says.

In 2018, BJP's tally reduced by half in tribal districts. Now, the party has gone into overdrive to woo tribals.

Kamlesh Kharte had high hopes from PESA. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

But Kharte’s happiness was short-lived. He and many around him soon realised that much of this was merely symbolic.

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PESA, A Landmark, But Implementation 'Shoddy'

PESA, as conceived as a law back in 1996, is meant to empower the gram sabhas (local village governments) to take all the decisions regarding the natural resources of the forest areas, where they reside, and to give more autonomy to the villagers and their local representatives. PESA was supposed to be implemented in all areas listed under the fifth schedule. The fifth schedule areas largely lie within the districts with a large population of Adivasi communities. A total of 10 states have areas listed under the fifth schedule, but most, including Madhya Pradesh, dragged their feet in the implementation of PESA.

However, in November 2022, the Madhya Pradesh government enacted the rules of PESA in the state, thus giving a go-ahead to its implementation.

But locals insist that what is on paper is significantly different from what is transpiring on ground.

“Ideally, the gram sabha’s agenda is supposed to be decided locally, but that is also coming from the government. Moreover, the gram sabha adhyaksh (president) is supposed to be decided as per the village consensus. But the adhyaksh too is being chosen and propped up by the authorities. Those that are being chosen by villagers don’t have much freedom anyway,” says Tukaram Alawa, member of the Jagrut Adivasi Sanstha.

Interestingly, the gram sabha adhyaksh or presidents too seem to agree that their autonomy is limited.

Kailash Chauhan, who is the adhyaksh for the Aoli village gram sabha in Barwani, says that since the implementation of PESA, his powers have remained negligible.

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In 2018, BJP's tally reduced by half in tribal districts. Now, the party has gone into overdrive to woo tribals.

Kailash Chauhan, adhyaksh of the Aoli village gram sabha. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

“I have effectively no power. In fact, PESA has led to more fights in the village. Because people think I suddenly have the power to bring about change, but I don’t. So their expectations have risen, but my powers have remained the same,” Chauhan says.

Chuahan says that even if there is a proposition to get a pond constructed in the village, he cannot singlehandedly sign off on that. “Even if I think that a pond will be good for the village and I want to go ahead and get it done, I will have to go to the panchyat sachiv (secretary) who can simply say no to me,” he says.

Worry Over 'Capitalists' Taking Over Tribal Land

When CM Chouhan announced the implementation of PESA, he had said that it will curb “conversions” and marriages done by “alluring” tribal women to get hold of their tribal land.

But Adivasi leaders say this was misleading messaging. “If the point of PESA is to protect Adivasi land from being stolen or encroached, that is clearly not happening,” says Harsing, a tribal activist.

Rule number 17 of PESA states that the patwari is responsible for updating the latest land records and for the rectification of any error in private/government land holding, as per information received by the gram sabha. However, villagers say that the gram sabha’s word holds no value.

Paternal cousins Kailash and Sakharam have been taking care of their familial land for the last few years, one that has been passed down to them across four generations. However, earlier this year, while they were tilling their land, a few government officers showed up with bulldozers, they say.

In 2018, BJP's tally reduced by half in tribal districts. Now, the party has gone into overdrive to woo tribals.

Kailash and Sakharam, cousins, are worried about their land being taken away by the government. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

“They said this is government land and so they can do as they wish. When I stopped them, they detained me. Since then, they keep returning to the land claiming it’s the government, even when I have all the documents showing that it is our family land,” says Kailash.

The brothers say that despite the gram sabha repeatedly affirming that this is their family land, the official records haven’t been rectified.

There is also heightened fear around the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill 2023 which was passed by the parliament earlier this year, which states that diversion of forests for construction of roads, railway lines or other projects of 'strategic nature' would no longer require official clearance. This has led to many tribal activists expressing concern over their lands being taken away from them. "We don't know which capitalist will decide to start a company in any of our forests, and we could just be kicked out," says Kailash.

Renaming Railway Stations To Building Memorials, BJP's Tribal Outreach

Tribal groups account for 21 per cent of Madhya Pradesh’s population, thus making them an influential voter-base. In the 2018 assembly elections, of the 47 reserved ST seats, the BJP managed to win 16 seats, a significant drop from the 31 ST seats the party had won in 2013. Congress, on the other hand, doubled its tally from 15 ST seats in 2013 to 30 ST seats in 2018.

Realising its downfall in the tribal constituencies, the BJP has left no stone unturned in its attempt to woo the tribal population.

The western districts of MP, such as Barwani, are dominated by the Bhil tribal community. Tantya Bhil, a freedom fighter against the British, has been a revered figure in the Bhil community but has only recently begun to be recognised and acknowledged vociferously by political parties. The BJP government last year renamed four important locations in Indore after Tantya Bhil: the Patalpani railway station, the Manpur primary health center, the Bhanwar Kuan intersection and MR 10 bus stand.

In Chhindwara district, where the Gond tribal community constitute a significant population, the Chhindwara university war renamed as ‘Raja Shankar Shah University’ after Gond tribal leaders Sumer Shah and his son Shankar Shah.

In 2018, BJP's tally reduced by half in tribal districts. Now, the party has gone into overdrive to woo tribals.

Tukaram (in pink shirt) and other tribal activists. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

“Earlier no leader of either Congress or BJP was particularly keen on acknowledging our tribal icons. But now they realise they cannot take our votes for granted. After every speech, Congress and BJP leaders are compelled to say ‘Jai Tantya Bhil’. As tribal activists, we know that it is our hard work of decades that has forced the politicians to take note of our contribution to this state and the country,” says Tukaram.
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Not Just Gestures, Tribal Communities Say They Want Recognition Too

While these gestures don’t go unappreciated, many point out that empowering the Adivasi communities needs to go beyond that. For instance, while the government has announced a Bhima Nayak memorial in Barwani district— after the tribal warrior Bhima Nayak —the members of the Nayak community are still fighting to be given Scheduled Tribe (STs) status.

Lakha Nayak and his wife Gurmi Nayak have seven children, and live in a small shack in Aoli village. The two say they have heard about the memorials being inaugurated after Bhima Nayak.

In 2018, BJP's tally reduced by half in tribal districts. Now, the party has gone into overdrive to woo tribals.

Lakha and wife Gurmi are members of the Nayak tribal community. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

“Our families have been in reverence of Bhima Nayak for generations now. It is good he is being recognised by the government. But what about his people, his community? We are still struggling,” Lakha says.

“We don’t get access to clean water or electricity here. Our children cannot study.”

The Nayak community is one of the most oppressed and impoverished in the tribal belts of MP. “Within tribals too, there are hierarchies. Nayaks are natives to this region, and yet don’t have ST status. They have OBC status but have been demanding ST status for some time now,” says Jagdish Chauhan, a tribal activist with Jagrut Adivasi Sanstha.

Protests Over Manipur Violence Reach MP

9 August is celebrated as World Tribal Day every year, and while Adivasis of Madhya Pradesh too join in the celebrations, 2023 was the first year when they chose to sit in a protest instead. Besides the shoddy implementation of PESA, the other reason was the continued violent crisis in Manipur since May.

"We identify with our Adivasi brethren everywhere in the country. If they are suffering, if their murder and rape videos are being circulated, it will effect us too," says Harsing.

In 2018, BJP's tally reduced by half in tribal districts. Now, the party has gone into overdrive to woo tribals.

Tribal communities participated in protests over the Manipur violence on World Tribal Day.

In 2018, BJP's tally reduced by half in tribal districts. Now, the party has gone into overdrive to woo tribals.

Tribal communities participated in protests over the Manipur violence on World Tribal Day.

As per the CSDS-Lokniti survey from earlier this month, 36 per cent tribals seem to be supporting the BJP, while 53 per cent of them support the Congress.

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