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The Hindu
The Hindu
Abhinay Lakshman, Ishita Mishra

Vying for the tribal vote in Rajasthan amid a changing idea of tribal identity

Like all the other residents of Kharni Tokri, a small village deep inside the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, Kishanlal Bhil has lived in the forest all his life. But unlike the others, he is one of just two people in the village who have been to college, the other being his elder brother, Dalpat Bhil, who is camped outside the village to prepare for his B.Ed exams.

“All we have known is the forest. But we’re sick of living inside it. Don’t get me wrong, the forest is important to who we are and we are proud of being Adivasi. But how much longer will we stay put in the jungle as our fellow Adivasis in other parts pass us by?” the 21-year-old asks.

Changing identity

Tribal identity in Rajasthan is increasingly detaching itself from the last decade’s focus on forest rights. Instead, both the Congress and the BJP are hoping to court the State’s tribal youth with promises of localised government job recruitment and urbanisation as Rajasthan heads to the polls this Saturday.

But mainstreaming is just one aspect of the changing tribal identity in the State; youth are also keen to ensure that they do not lose their Adivasi culture or the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution in the process. The Bharat Adivasi Party (BAP), a new entrant to the State’s political arena, is hoping to capitalise on this aspect, to which it says neither the Congress nor the BJP are giving attention.

According to the 2011 census, Scheduled Tribes make up 13.48% of Rajasthan’s population; 25 Assembly constituencies, where tribals comprise over half the population, have been reserved for them.

‘Need to move out’

Standing by the small stream that passes by Kharni Tokri, with a faint view of the Kumbhalgarh Fort in the background, Mr. Kishanlal Bhil lists out the villagers’ concerns: they keep losing cattle and crop to the wildlife regularly; the terrain is too dangerous to keep travelling in and out; and the rains box them inside the forest for months every year. The village has no power lines and most residents have not seen anything but the forest all their lives. “We know schools and hospitals will not come into the forest, and so we need to move out,” he says.

The village — with a population of about 60 to 70 people, most between the ages of 20 and 30 years — relies on farming for its own needs, in a testament to the kind of tribal politics that dominated the area a decade ago. “In 2009, we were given a Forest Rights Act patta to farm the land in the sanctuary, but only for our own needs. We are not allowed to sell the crop anywhere outside,” says 57-year-old Dudaram Bhil as he shows off the document. 

His 21-year-old son Prakash Kumar Bhil interjects, “What’s the point though? Ever since the walls of the sanctuary came up, the wildlife population has increased, our crops get destroyed and we have to rely on nature for irrigation. I’d leave tomorrow if I could.” 

Mainstreaming, with safeguards

Kishanlal agrees. “I’ll be voting for the first time this year. And my vote will be for whoever can pull us out of here while also ensuring our land is compensated for and that we are not alienated because of our identity. The BJP in the Centre has brought development for sure but every time PM Modi talks of making everyone equal, I am scared our reservation and benefits are under attack.” 

The Congress’ social justice plank, promising quotas as per share of the population, addresses this concern. However, the BAP says it is the only party whose poll promises reflect the real sentiments among larger populations of tribal youths in Pratapgarh, Dungarpur, and Banswara, and will help them come into the mainstream while also ensuring they are not forced to remain in the margins once they move out of the forests. 

Employment promises

Kharni Tokri comes under the Bali constituency of the Pali district, where all five Assembly seats have traditionally remained with the BJP since 2013. However, none of them are reserved constituencies and BJP candidates in this area have not specifically made any promises for their tribal populations. Congress candidates have ensured that they include at least one point promising jobs for the ST community, which comprises 7.8% of the population of the district. 

The BJP’s campaign rallies have focused on highlighting the fact that the Tribal Affairs Ministry came into existence only because of the Vajpayee government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stressed in multiple speeches that the BJP is the only party that has cared about tribal rights.

Deadly protest

About 200 km to the south, in Dungarpur, which is a reserved constituency, similar concerns of jobs and education are echoed by the tribal youth. There is significant anger against the incumbent Congress government for not keeping Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s 2019 promise to provide teaching jobs for people living in Tribal Sub-Plan areas.

Sitting in her two-room house in Bada Karcha village of Dungarpur, Ramila re-arranges the books and pens in her son Tarun’s tuition backpack and places it back in the almirah; this has been part of her daily routine since he was killed by the police during a 2020 protest that tribal youth had launched over the delay in the recruitment promised by the CM. Tarun was 19. 

All he wanted to do was shun the stereotypes about tribal people and become a teacher, says his mother. “His only fault was that he was standing at the protest site at Kakri Dungri, demanding recruitment for 1,167 vacant posts reserved for the community. He was killed for asking something that everyone deserves, that is to have a better life,” she says.

Ms. Ramila says she does not want her daughter and younger son to spend their lives rearing animals and farming. “I will educate them and make sure they get jobs,” she adds. 

Keeping anger alive

That protest ended with the police firing that resulted in the death of Tarun and one other tribal youth. However, the BAP has continued to protest the FIRs filed against the protesters in a weekly agitation held every Thursday for over 100 weeks now, in a bid to capitalise on the anger among the tribal youth in the area, and carry it forward into the polls. 

The BJP’s candidate for Dungarpur, Bansilal Katara, formerly of the Sangh Parivar’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, has focussed his poll plank on uniting tribals under Sanatan Dharma, along with promises of land redistribution under quotas. Congress candidate Ganesh Ghoghra, the incumbent MLA, has also made similar promises on land redistribution.

Adivasi alternatives

The BAP is trying to capture areas of tribal identity politics that it claims are being ignored by the Congress and the BJP, but it does not command uniform support from tribal communities. This is partly due to its origins as a breakaway from the Gujarat-based Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP), which contested Rajasthan polls for the first time in 2018 and bagged two seats, in Sagwara and Chorasi. 

This time, both the BTP and the BAP are positioning themselves as the homegrown Adivasi alternatives to the Congress and the BJP and are going up against each other in over 20 Assembly constituencies. 

“Tribal lives don’t matter to anyone. Be it any party. We need to fight our battles on our own through education,” says Sahil, another tribal teenager from Dungarpur who is currently studying science and wants to pursue studies in biotechnology.

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