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Jobs, Forest Rights, Hindutva: Tribal Youth in Rajasthan Seek Political Change

As the elections draw close, a new generation of tribals in Rajasthan are looking to ditch both Congress and BJP.

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Heeralal Katara, 25, is an educator at a government school in south Rajasthan's Dungarpur district. After school hours, Katara, who comes from the Bhil adivasi community, doubles up as a member of the Bharat Adivasi Party (BAP) — a breakaway faction of the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) which won two seats in the 2018 Rajasthan Assembly elections.

"For decades we had no option but to trust the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) or Congress to raise issues of the adivasis. Now we don't want to rely on them anymore. We want to become our own voice," Katara said as he stopped to catch a break while campaigning for his party on a rather pleasant October evening.

Formed in 2017, the BTP was floated by Gujarat-based tribal leader and former member of Janata Dal (United), Chhotubhai Vasava. Barely a few months later, with support from the Bhil community, one of India's largest adivasi groups, BTP won two seats in the Gujarat state Assembly elections.

In 2018, it contested on 11 seats in Rajasthan and won from Chorasi and Sagwara, both in Dungarpur district.

Five years on, in 2023, Rajasthan-based adivasi groups, previously associated with the BTP, floated the BAP. Chorasi and Sagwara MLAs — elected on BTP ticket — also joined the new party.

As the elections draw close, a new generation of tribals in Rajasthan are looking to ditch both Congress and BJP.

Heeralal Katara, 25, is an educator at a government school in Dungarpur.

(Photo: Himanshi Dahiya/The Quint)

As per the 2011 census, 13.48 percent of Rajasthan's population belong to the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category. They are mostly concentrated in the districts of Dungarpur, Banswara, Udaipur, and Pratapgarh in southern Rajasthan, and Chittorgarh in western Rajasthan.

Over the past decades, tribal issues such as implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), demand for the tribal state of Bhil Pradesh, and food security have remained key issues among the tribals as they voted for either the Congress or BJP, two main political parties in the state.

"Both Congress and BJP took us for granted. They are indifferent towards our issues. For instance, when a Kanhaiya Lal case happens, both these parties rush to help the family and provide financial relief to them. Case is also fast-tracked. But in cases such as that of Kartik Bhil's, they go completely silent," Katara said as he explained the political vacuum that led to the formation of BAP.

On 19 November 2022, Kartik Bhil, an Adivasi social activist from Sheoganj tehsil in Rajasthan's Sirohi district was assaulted on his way back home after meeting local police over an issue. Kartik succumbed to his injuries in a Gujarat hospital on 1 December.

Unhappy with the progress of investigation in the case, at the time of publishing this story, Kartik's family was still protesting outside the Collectorate at Sirohi district headquarters.

The Quint travelled across tribal districts in Rajasthan to understand how cases of atrocities, lack of job opportunities, BJP's Hindutva politics, and Congress' welfare schemes shaped the need for a homegrown adivasi political identity in India's largest state.

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  1. BJP's Saffronisation Attempts in Adivasi Heartland

    80-year-old Johra Gamar has always been a Congress supporter. "They fought against the British and then stood by us during famines and droughts," he declared as a group of men in Udaipur's Kotra village sat to discuss the upcoming state Assembly elections. Some of them, mostly the younger ones, wore a saffron gamcha.

    "...but kaka these are things from the past. What is the Congress doing now?" asked Lalu Ram, 45, who sat next to Gamar.

    "I am old now. I don't know many things but even now pension reaches in time. This is because of the Congress," Gamar responded promptly.

    Hela Ram, who was also present at the gathering, then told Gamar that the pension scheme is not being offered by the Congress but by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. "The Congress is fooling you kaka. It is Modi who is paying for these scheme," 34-year-old Hela Ram said.

    Nobody countered and the discussion switched to something else.

    As the elections draw close, a new generation of tribals in Rajasthan are looking to ditch both Congress and BJP.

    Hela Ram (L) and Johra Gamar (R) seated next to each other at a village gathering in Kotra.

    (Photo: Himanshi Dahiya/The Quint)

    For context, Rajasthan's old age pension scheme was launched by Ashok Gehlot during his previous stint as chief minister between 2008 and 2013.

    Back then, the scheme ensured a pension amount of Rs 500 per month for the elderly. The amount was recently raised to Rs 1,000 per month and the scheme currently covers around 1 crore people in the state. Recently, Gehlot announced that the amount will be raised from Rs 1,000 to 1,500 if the Congress is voted back to power.

    Dharamchand, 55, a social worker active in the village explained that several people from the community double up as BJP pracharaks and engage with the community on a regular basis. "People such as Hela Ram are products of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. They spread the message of the BJP and RSS on ground. On one hand they try to saffronise tribals and on the other they spread disinformation about BJP's work on the ground. But where are Congress workers? They should be on ground to counter this," he told The Quint.

    The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram is a social welfare organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It focuses on the welfare activities of members of Scheduled Tribes in remote areas.

    Dharamchand added, "When the RSS set-up these ashrams 30-40 years ago, nobody knew what would happen. But over the years they helped RSS-BJP gain ground in tribal areas. Today, you won't find a single adivasi household which does not have photos of Hindu deities on their walls."

    In July 2021, Rajasthan's capital Jaipur reached a flashpoint after Yuva Shakti Manch, a Hindutva organisation associated with the VHP, hoisted a saffron flag with the words ‘Jai Shri Ram’ inscribed on it, on an electric pole in the premises of the Ambagarh garrison fort.

    The Meenas consider this fort sacred as it houses the temple of Amba Maata, a clan goddess of the community.

    Several members of the Meena community then gathered at the fort and took down the saffron flag.

    "That case made it to national headlines because it happened in Rajasthan's capital. Several such attempts are made to 'saffronise' or 'Hinduise' adivasi lives on a daily basis and they go unreported," Dharamchand said as he explained why BJP might have an upper hand over other parties including the newly-formed BAP in the upcoming state elections.

    As the elections draw close, a new generation of tribals in Rajasthan are looking to ditch both Congress and BJP.

    Dharamchand, a social activist based out of Udaipur in Rajasthan.

    (Photo: Himanshi Dahiya/The Quint)

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  1. Are Congress' Welfare Schemes Enough?

    In Dungarpur, 40-year-old Anutosh Roat and 42-year-old Mukesh Kalasua operate out of the second floor of an old two-storey building resembling an election war room.

    Inside, there were no computers or laptops but a few men who sat with paper and pen, on mattresses spread across two rooms, taking notes from each other.

    "The Congress is boasting about its welfare schemes launched on the heels of the elections. Wherever you go, you see these huge posters of Ashok Gehlot publicising these schemes. But does the Congress know if those schemes reached our remote tribal hamlets?" questioned Roat.

    A BAP ticket aspirant himself when The Quint met him, Roat claimed that the Congress is 'a lion in sheep's clothing'. "We have ideological differences with BJP and that is not hidden. The Congress, however, pretends to be our ally and then stabs us in the back," he said.

    Roat was referring to the Zila Parishad elections held in Dungarpur in December 2020. In the 27 Zila Parishad seats in Dungarpur, 13 independent candidates supported by the BTP had emerged victorious, while the BJP and the Congress had won eight and six seats, respectively.
    As the elections draw close, a new generation of tribals in Rajasthan are looking to ditch both Congress and BJP.

    Mukesh Kalasua (L), Anutosh Roat (R) are members of the Bharat Adivasi Party (BAP) in Dungarpur.

    (Photo: Himanshi Dahiya/The Quint)

    After the results, the BJP and Congress joined hands to elect BJP's Surya Ahari as the Zila Pramukh as opposed to a candidate supported by the BTP.

    "When it comes to tribal issues, both BJP and Congress are on the same side," said Kalasua.

    He added, "When the Congress wants our votes, they become our biggest sympathisers but on other days Gehlot's police labels us as naxals."

    In September 2020, hundreds of tribal youth blocked the Udaipur-Ahmedabad national highway over their demand for recruitment to vacant posts of teachers in the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP) area. Following the protest violence broke out in several areas of Dungarpur and Udaipur districts.

    In an intelligence report prepared by the Rajasthan Police, several BTP leaders were held responsible for the violence along with 'extremist elements from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh'.

    "What is extreme about demanding jobs?" questioned Roat. "We have no job opportunities here. Our youth is forced to migrate to other states to find work. Least we can do is protest when vacancies to government jobs are not filled. How are we at fault there?" he added.

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  1. Increasing Cases of Atrocities and State Inaction

    According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 2021 after Kerala, Rajasthan recorded the second highest crime rate of 22.7 against STs as the state recorded 2,101 cases of atrocities against the community. This is in sharp contrast to a national average of 8.1.

    Over the years Rajasthan has prominently featured on top in this NCRB list.

    BAP workers such as Heeralal Katara and others make it a point to remind the voters in tribal areas of the inaction by both BJP and Congress in cases related to SC/ST atrocities.

    "Delays in investigation, refusal to file FIRs, and long wait on compensation in cases of SC/ST atrocities aside, the state government has actively participated in violence against tribals," alleged Katara.

    He was referring to the police crackdown on adivasi youth protesting in Dungarpur's Kakri-Dungri Hills demanding recruitment for 1,167 vacant posts reserved for tribals. There were reports of lathi charge and firing allegedly by the police.

    "How can a state police that opens fire on its own people be trusted to protect them?" questioned Anutosh Roat.

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  1. Will a Social Movement Translate to Electoral Gains?

    On his phone, Heeralal Katara showed The Quint scores of videos with a sea of supporters for his party. "This is organic crowd. We don't bribe people with money and alcohol to attend our rallies," he said.

    Dharamchand, however, claimed that big turnout at rallies does not mean that the party will triumph Congress and BJP in the election.

    "We must not forget that this is a new party. BJP and Congress have age old machinery and loyal voters. Sometimes when we go to a tribal household, we can see a difference of opinion between voters from different generations. While the youth is more inclined towards the BAP, older generations prefer BJP and Congress over this new party," he said.

    Gains or no gains, with their plans to contest approximately 17 seats in Udaipur, Banswara, Dungarpur, Pratapgarh and Sirohi, including the constituencies of Udaipur Rural, Jhadol, Salumber, Dungarpur, Sagwara, Chorasi, Aspur, Banswara, Kushalgarh, Bagidora, Ghatol, Pratapgarh, and Dhariyawad, this new adivasi party has opened the doors for a three-way contest in south Rajasthan.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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