MP: Why Congress's Three Promises to Tribals Could Be a Game Changer in 47 ST Reserved Seats

Tribal votes are also decisive in nearly 40 general seats. There is a perception among tribals that the BJP government's attitude towards them has been condescending while Congress's approach has been that of empowerment.

Bhopal: The Congress is sounding reasonably confident of improving upon its tally of 31 in the 47 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs) it won in the 2018 assembly election out of a total of 230 seats in Madhya Pradesh, as the campaign gathers momentum for the voting slated on November 17.

Besides the reserved ST seats, tribal votes are decisive in nearly 40 general seats as well. This is the reason why both Congress and BJP parties are working hard to woo the tribal community.

In the 2018 assembly elections, Congress was successful in winning 31 tribal seats, while BJP could win only 16 seats. In 2013, BJP had won 31 tribal reserved seats and Congress 15, whereas in 2008 BJP won 29 and Congress 17 ST seats.

In 2003, tribal votes played an important role in BJP’s return to power in Madhya Pradesh. At that time, out of 41 reserved seats in the state, BJP could win 37 and Congress only two seats

Three big poll promises

This time around, the Congress’s confidence stems from the party’s three promises that seek to empower the tribals, who account for 21% of the MP’s population. One, implementation of the Sixth Schedule in the districts having more than 50% tribal population; two, enactment of the PESA (Panchayat, Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996); and three, hike in the rate of tendu patta from existing Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 per bag.

Madhya Pradesh Congress leaders at the release of the party manifesto on October 17, 2023. Photo: X (Twitter)/@OfficeOfKNath

What has further bolstered the Congress’s confidence is the pervasive anger in the tribal community against the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government for the perceived failure to ensure their security, dignity, and cultural mores.

The three Congress promises, articulated by its national general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in an election rally in Mandla on October 12 amid cheers of a large gathering in the predominantly tribal district, have the potential to transform the lot of the community.

The promised hike in the rate of Tendu leaf plucking is expected to benefit at least 45 lakh people in the tribal regions.

The Sixth Schedule vests the tribal region with substantial legal powers to protect their land and culture. It is in force in the northeast states such as Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, and Assam.

There are six districts in Madhya Pradesh with above 50% tribal population including Barwani, Alirajpur, Jhabua, Dhar, Dindori, and Mandla.

After the implementation of the Sixth Schedule, the tribal community will have the right to make and implement their own laws, not only on water, forests, and land but also on marriage and inheritance according to their customs. Also, the community will have the power to decide who will have mining and sand leases.

The PESA act will empower the tribal regions to hold their own village conference (Gram Sabhas) and make administrative decisions.

Although chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had announced the implementation of the Act in November last year on the occasion of the birth anniversary of tribal leader Birsa Munda, it did not come on the ground.

Also read: In MP, Tribal Villagers Pay a Heavy Price for Demanding Forest Rights, Protesting Tree Felling

This law empowers Gram Sabhas to administer the areas covered under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, under which the rights of local tribes over water, forests, and land, and the protection of culture are ensured.

Tribal demography in MP

There are 46 recognised Scheduled Tribes across the state’s 52 districts. Of these, six major tribal groups – Bhil, Gond, Kol, Kurku, Sahariya, and Baiga – account for more than 90% of the 1.53 crore tribal population.

Out of the 52 districts in MP, six are predominantly inhabited by tribals, and 15 have a significant tribal population. The Bhil community constitutes the largest share, comprising about 40% of the ST population in the state, followed by the Gonds at 34%.

The Shivraj government also implemented the Fifth Schedule in 89 tribal-dominated blocks of the state. These are the same areas that have been the stronghold of Congress.

Now, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi has promised to go one step further and implement the Sixth Schedule.

Also read: MP: Despite Their Electoral Clout, Atrocities Against Tribal Communities Are on the Rise

Cautious timing of the announcement

Significantly, the Congress patiently waited till the Model Code of Conduct kicked in to get its star campaigner Priyanka Gandhi to announce the three promises in Mandla, lest the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government might steal them and immediately implement the same.

Before the election schedule was notified, the chief minister had managed to appropriate six out of 11 pre-poll promises to the farmers and women made by Congress because the state government was vested with the power to do so. Now, at best, the BJP can incorporate similar or more lucrative promises to the tribals in its manifesto, and in doing so, expose itself to the allegation of being a copycat.

Tribal-centric campaign

The electoral significance of the place where Priyanka made the potential “game changer” promises is not lost on anyone. Mandla in Mahakoshal region is one of the predominantly tribal districts.

Priyanka Gandhi has so far held four public meetings in Madhya Pradesh, out of which three have been held in tribal-dominated areas. She started her election campaign in the state from Jabalpur in Mahakaushal, which is considered to be tribal-dominated. Then, she addressed rallies in Dhar district in Malwa and Mandla in the Mahakosal region.

In all the rallies she emphasised that the thinking of Congress has been to increase the respect, culture, and traditions of the tribals and that was why the Forest Rights Act was enacted.

Difference in BJP and Congress approaches

While the Congress is unsparing in its efforts to further broad-base its sway on the tribal belts, the BJP, too, is fiercely competing with its rival to regain the lost trust of the community in it.

However, a fundamental difference between the two parties in their approach towards tribals is discernible. The BJP appears condescending towards the community whereas the Congress is focused on their empowerment. The BJP tends to see and call the tribals “Vanvasi” (forest dwellers), the Congress acknowledges them as Adivasi (original inhabitants). The difference in nomenclature is just not semantic quibbling.

At a rally in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh’s Shahdol district on October 11, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s use of the term ‘Vanvasi’ to refer to the tribal community and claimed he forced the PM to use the word Adivasi.

“There is a difference between the words Adivasi and Vanvasi. Adivasi means those who came to Hindustan first and who are owners of this land while Vanvasis are those living in the forest,” Rahul said at the rally.

“Now, listen to Narendra Modi Ji’s speech – he no longer says Vanvasi, he says Adivasi. Adivasi is the word that comes out of the mouth, but Vanvasi is in the heart,” he added.

‘Vanvasi’, which means forest dwellers, is a term used by the BJP’s ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which works extensively in tribal areas, and claims “to protect them from the clutches of Christian missionaries”.

Tribal leadership crisis in BJP

Another glaring difference between the two parties vis-a-vis the tribals is visible in leadership. The Congress has appointed former Union minister Kantilal Bhuria as the head of its state election campaign committee. The 73-year-old Congress leader belongs to the Bhil tribe, the largest tribe in Madhya Pradesh.

He was a minister in the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre from 2004-2011. In contrast, the BJP has relegated its only important tribal leader and Union minister Faggan Singh Kulaste to fight in the Niwas seat in the Mandla district where the Congress had won by a margin of over 28,000 votes.

The Congress has many prominent tribal faces in the second line of leadership such as Umang Singhar and Bala Bachchan. The BJP sorely lacks a second line of tribal leaders.

Tribal welfare or event management

Owing to the glaring absence of powerful tribal voices within the BJP that would alert the state government to the real concerns of the community, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan virtually reduced the tribal welfare to event management.

Instead of empowering the tribals in the true sense with the provisions of the PESA and the Fifth Schedule, the chief minister has held extravagant tribal congregations across the state where he entertained the government-sponsored crowds with the announcements of emotion-filled tokenism such as naming a railway station after one tribal hero here and setting up a museum in the name of another tribal hero there.

Allowing tribals to brew their own Mahua and selling the product from government outlets as an exotic brand name has been widely publicised as the Shivraj government’s great achievement. Distribution of free ration in the 89 tribal blocks has been passed off as another big feat of the government.

Tribal outreach began in 2021  

The event management series to woo the tribals was launched in a big way in September 2021in Jabalpur with Union home minister Amit Shah participating in a function to mark the martyrdom of tribal king Shankar Shah and his son Raghunath Shah. The tribal royals were blown off with their bodies tied to a cannon by the British for their involvement in the 1857 mutiny.

The Jabalpur conclave was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi rechristening Bhopal’s Habibganj railway station after the name of Gond queen Rani Kamalapati on November 15, 2021 in Bhopal.  

Since then, a slew of tribal gatherings followed in various tribal regions across the state which witnessed chief minister Chouhan announcing a plethora of welfare schemes for the community.

Why are tribals aggrieved?  

However, these announcements have been more in the nature of tokenism and have failed to address the real worries of the tribals. They expected the government to ensure their security with dignity, without them having to jettison their culture and deities. The government has let them down on these counts.

Far from seeing the government as their saviour, the tribal community in the state has come to regard it as a collaborator of the upper caste exploiters.

The April 2023 protest by Burhanpur’s tribal villagers. Photo: By arrangement.

In the last 20 years, numerous cases have come to light where powerful people, aligned with the ruling party, forcibly grabbed tribals’ land. In one such case, veteran Congress leader Digvijay Singh accused the state BJP president V.D. Sharma of protecting a land-grabber in the Panna district.

Anger erupts

Tribals have in most cases endured atrocities against them with helplessness but there have been occasions when their pent-up anger erupted, causing embarrassment to the government. The latest in a series of the cases of brutality against tribals came to the fore in July this year when a video went viral showing a BJP worker urinating on a tribal. This incident caused a major furore in the community.

As the viral video outraged the nation, the chief minister called the victim of the despicable crime to his bungalow in Bhopal and dramatically washed his feet. From publicly apologising to the poor tribal and granting him financial aid, to razing the house of accused Pravesh Shukla and charging him under the National Security Act (NSA), chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan acted swiftly to contain the potential damage from the incident.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan washes the feet of Dashmat Rawat, the urination case victim, at CM House, in Bhopal. Photo: X (Twitter)/@ChouhanShivraj.

Pravesh Shukla was a representative of the BJP MLA from Siddhi, Kedarnath Shukla. The MLA has been denied a ticket by the BJP. He has announced to contest as an independent against the BJP’s candidate and Member of Parliament Riti Pathak.

But this move is unlikely to prompt the tribals to forgive and forget the BJP for the indignity one of their men underwent. For, atrocities against India’s tribal people are not new, especially in Madhya Pradesh.

Also read: Watch | MP Man Seen Urinating on Tribal Youth Arrested, Allegations of BJP Links

Cases of brutalities

On July 2, 2022, the internet was flooded with visuals of the public immolation of a tribal woman, Rampyari Bai, in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna district. Her family lives in Dhanoria village and belong to the Sahariya tribe.

A year earlier, in an incident in Dewas district, one Surendra Chauhan, with the help of his aides, killed five members of an Adivasi family over his relationship with an Adivasi woman that went wrong and buried their bodies in an eight-feet-deep pit. The bodies were found only after 45 days.

In August 2021, Kanhaiya Lal Bheel was beaten, tied up, and then dragged by a truck on a tarred road. He later died in the hospital. He was treated worse than an animal, on suspicion of theft in Neemuch district.

In May 2021, Sampatlal Batti and Dhansay Inwati, both tribal people, were beaten to death by alleged Bajrang Dal members on the mere suspicion of cow slaughter in Seoni district.

Horrifying statistics of crimes

While Madhya Pradesh is home to 13.6% of India’s tribal population, 23.5% of crimes against tribal people in India take place in MP. Almost 25% of all crimes against tribal people in India take place in the state.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau report Crime in India 2021, Madhya Pradesh reported 2,627 cases filed under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 2021. The number increased from 2,401 in 2020 and 1,922 in 2019.

The NCRB also reported that in the year 2021 itself, 52 cases of murder were reported in which the victims were Adivasi persons.

In the category of assault on tribal women with the intent to outrage their modesty, 308 cases were reported in 2021.

The NCRB also reported 376 cases of rape against Adivasi women in the state in 2021.

These numbers, however, don’t capture the pervasive violence the Adivasis, especially the ones who live inside or near forest areas, have to face at the hands of state agents such as forest officials.

Unresponsive BJP to their woes

Against this dismal backdrop of the tribals’ plight, the Congress and the BJP are fiercely competing to garner their votes.

On October 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in tribal-dominated Jabalpur where he laid the foundation stone of Gond warrior queen Rani Durgavati’s memorial.

On the same day, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was in another ST-dominated district, Dhar, where she unveiled the statue of tribal hero Tantya Mama, a Bhil revolutionary who fought the British.

The Prime Minister in his remarks at the election rally attacked the Congress but did not say a word about the condition of tribals in Madhya Pradesh, much less the state government’s steps for them.

Earlier, in September, Union home minister Amit Shah flagged off BJP’s third Jan Ashirwad Yatra in the predominantly tribal Mandla district, saying that while Congress was focused on minority appeasement, PM Narendra Modi was working for tribals, Dalits, and the poor.

He dwelt at length on the Modi government’s decisions in favour of the tribals but did not mention the state government’s performance towards the tribals. He only reminded that the BJP-led Centre has set up museums on Birsa Munda, Shankar Shah, Raghunath Shah, Rani Durgavati, and other tribal freedom fighters in various parts of the country.

Shivraj’s government achievements are conspicuously absent in the top BJP leaders’ speeches.

“These days (PM) Modi feels shy of even taking Shivraj’s name. He has started saying vote for me. Shivraj is not going to become your CM,” Priyanka Gandhi remarked in the Dhar election rally.

In July 2023, Amit Shah started a tribal outreach campaign from Balaghat to attract tribal votes.

BSP-GGP alliance

Amid competition between the two main rivals, an alliance between the predominantly Dalit party BSP and tribal-centric GGP has given an interesting twist to the electoral politics around tribals.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP) have formed an alliance for the first time ever to contest the polls in a state, which has traditionally been dominated by two parties, the BJP and the Congress.

As per their seat-sharing arrangement for the elections to the 230-member MP Assembly, the BSP will contest 178 constituencies while the GGP will field its candidates in 52 seats.

Formed in 1991, the GGP is concentrated in the Gondi people, a major tribal group in MP, championing the demand for a separate state of Gondwana in the region. The GGP’s traditional vote base is located in the Mahakaushal region, mainly in the districts of Balaghat, Mandla, Dindori, Seoni, Chhindwara, and Betul, which have a notable Gondi population.

Dalits make up about 16% of MP’s population, with 35 of the state’s total 230 Assembly seats reserved for the SCs. In the 2018 assembly elections, the BJP won 18 of these seats, with 17 going to the Congress.

The GGP had fielded 61 candidates in the 2003 state polls, of whom three were elected. However, it has since failed to win any seat in the assembly elections as the party has been beset by factionalism and infighting. It had formed an alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) in the 2018 polls, in which the SP managed to win one seat.

The GGP-BSP alliance is unlikely to significantly impact the voting outcome, according to opinion polls that have predicted a direct fight between the Congress and the BJP with other parties hardly reaching double digits.