Concern Over Saffronising Tribals as Gujarat Govt Announces Aid for Ayodhya Ram Temple Site Visit

Amidst debate over whether Gujarat's tribal population is Hindu or not, Congress has criticised the move, which comes just before the assembly polls.

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The Gujarat government has decided to give special financial aid to the state’s tribal population for a trip to the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya. A tribal person in Gujarat can claim Rs 5,000 for the trip to Ayodhya, provided she can show evidence of ‘Ram Lalla darshan’.

This is a part of the tribal development and welfare programme of the  Gujarat government.

Bharatiya Janata Party sources have claimed that the scheme could be replicated in other BJP-ruled states as well. 

“After all, tribals constitute over 11 crore people in India and we are all descendants of Shabri, the mythological forest dweller Adivasi lady who fondly fed Lord Ram sweet berries in the Ramayan,” a BJP tribal leader said.

Not only will Dussehra Mahotsava will be held across Gujarat, special functions will be held in tribal areas at all pilgrimage places associated with the deity, Ram.

“Since we, one crore of people of Gujarat, are direct descendants of Mata Shabri who was a Ram devotee, all tribals will be given a special assistance of Rs 5,000 per person to visit Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya,” announced Purnesh Modi, Gujarat’s tourism and pilgrimage development minister, at an impressive tribal gathering at Shabri Dham in the Dangs on Dussehra.

Why is BJP wooing tribals so aggressively in Gujarat? 

The assembly elections are due in Gujarat in December next year. This Ayodhya freebie is a part of BJP’s tribal appeasement programme, masked as a development and welfare initiative.

Tribals make up nearly 15% of Gujarat’s population, higher than the national tribal population share of 8.6%. Hence, with an eye on the 2022 elections in Gujarat, the BJP has a consolidated plan to woo the tribals.

Recently, Union home minister Amit Shah had lunch at a tribal person’s house in Chhota Udepur.

Photo: Twitter/@ashishaminNGS

Tribal arithmetic in Gujarat

As many as 27 of the 182 seats in the Gujarat assembly are reserved for tribals. The tribal vote is significant in another 14 constituencies. Apart from these, Chhota Udepur, Dahod, Bardoli and Valsad are four parliamentary (Lok Sabha) seats reserved for tribals.

It must be noted that for the first time in the history of Gujarat since Independence, the Congress failed to win any of these tribal seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The grand old party did not win a single seat in Gujarat in that election.

Tribals’ political preferences

Until the assassination of Indira Gandhi, tribal people in Gujarat did not vote for anyone but the Congress. Most could not read or write but knew the Congress symbol. Many called Indira Gandhi ‘Maa’.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s experiment of wooing tribal people for BJP’s electoral gain was first tried and tested in the Hindutva laboratory of Gujarat. This had little to do with Narendra Modi and was a combined effort of the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal.

Swami Aseemanand – later accused and acquitted in three blast cases – was anointed to develop the tribal outreach and be a project manager. From 1990, myriad schools with saffron leanings came up under mysterious entities, and thereafter under the aegis of the Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra.

After the BJP won Gujarat for the first time with a majority vote in 1995, RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and Vanvasi Kalyan Kendras consolidated further.

Also read: J&K: How the BJP U-Turned on Tribal Empowerment After Article 370 was Read Down

Before Muslims, Christians were the saffron target

In 1998, the saffron brigade led a targeted campaign against Christians and blamed them for luring and converting tribal people in Gujarat.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister then and BJP is believed to have indirectly supported these attacks. Then Congress president Sonia Gandhi came to Gujarat and the Dangs but was not allowed to visit the sites where Christian tribals and their buildings were torched.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) had reported that from December 25, 1988, to January 3, 1999, at least 20 prayer halls and churches were damaged or burnt down and Christians and Christian institutions were attacked in the Dangs and its surrounding districts. At least 25 villages had reported incidents of burning and damages to prayer halls and churches all over Gujarat.

BJP’s 2017 wound and eye on tribals

In Gujarat, the 2017 assembly elections upset the party’s applecart. Out of the 27 assembly seats reserved for tribal people, Congress won 15. The BTP won two tribal seats and the BJP won just nine. In the present scenario, the Congress has 13 tribal MLAs and the BJP has caught up with 11 MLAs. One Congress MLA, Jitu Chaudhry, defected to the BJP. The BJP also recently won the Morwa Hadaf seat that was vacated following the Congress MLA’s death. Now, the BJP is aiming at a higher strike rate for the 2022 elections.

The BJP has to be credited for its hawk-like vision, execution and delivery. To woo tribals, the Gujarat government and its state unit (the Sangathan) have already put in place a year-long, sustained drive with a proposed Rs 1 lakh crore Van Bandhu KalyanYojana-II.

The second phase of this ambitious project was strategically launched in Gujarat by BJP on World Tribal Day on August 9.

Are tribal people Hindus?

It is debatable whether the tribal population are Hindus. Most tribal communities worship nature and objects associated with nature such as fire, wood, water. The saffron brigade has been steadily brainwashing them into believing that they are Hindus and all their objects of worship from Vandevi to Annapurna are actually Hindu deities.

However, not all agree. For example, in Jharkhand (which had been under the BJP for long till the Sorens’ Jharkhand Mukti Morcha swept it out of power last year), a renewed agitation is taking shape among tribals who want their Sarna code as a religion in the census.

“We are indigenous people. However, the BJP is once again trying to saffronise us,” Sukhram Rathwa, a Congress MLA from Chhota Udepur, said.

In Gujarat, large percentages of the tribal population live below the poverty line – 40% in Dahod, 34% in Narmada, 31.5% in the Dangs and 28.36% in Tapi.

A Rs 5,000 Ayodhya freebie is a big amount for most, therefore. The BJP, however, refuses to see it as a dole.

Also read: Fact Check: Is Modi Really the Guardian of Tribal Rights in Jharkhand?

“Tribals are descendants of Shabari Mata who met Lord Ram during his 14 year exile. It is our duty to do this for our tribal brothers and sisters,” asserted minister Purnesh Modi.

Senior Congress leader Arjun Modhvadia, however, said that the BJP’s “dirty tricks department” was working overtime again. Gujarat Congress president Amit Chavda has also called the Ayodhya dole “a blatantly shameless act of polarisation”.

“Tribals need better health facilities. They need schools, they need empowerment. The tribals in Gujarat are fighting for their forest rights. They want employment. And instead of doing what it should, the ruling BJP government is trying to divide them on religious grounds by giving greedy tourism offers,” Chavda said.

Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani also criticised the Ayodhya dole.

“This is a distortion and disrespect to Adivasi culture to send them to Ayodhya,” Mevani said. “I suggest if the BJP wants to help, give them Rs 5,000 but what’s the need for a Ayodhya pilgrimage? Let Adivasis look up to Jaipal Singh Munda and Birsa Munda. The BJP should empower them by Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996. The BJP’s idea to convert Adivasis into Vanvasis is sinister.”

BJP leader and Valsad MP K.C. Patel said at Shabri Dham: “Our Narendrabhai and his government has ensured the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya and the Union and Uttar Pradesh governments are working to finish the temple construction soon.”

The crowd, mostly tribals, applauded and some of them chanted “Jai Shri Ram.”

(Inputs by Janvi Sonaiya)

Deepal Trivedi is the CEO and founder editor of www.vibesofindia.com.

This article first appeared on Vibes of India.