Over the past three weeks, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s busy tour schedule has shown an enduring theme: an outreach to tribal communities. From promoting existing government schemes to announcing new ones, as well as more obvious attempts to appear ‘tribal friendly’, such as an announcement that November 15, the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda, a freedom fighter from the Munda tribe, would henceforth be celebrated as ‘tribal pride day’, Chouhan’s outreach makes it clear that this demographic has become increasingly important to the saffron party’s political calculations.
While there are many explanations for this pro-tribal blitz, one data point is particularly revealing. In the state’s 14th Vidhan Sabha election in 2013, the BJP had won 31 of the 47 seats reserved for scheduled tribes (STs). In the following election in 2018, the Congress had won 30 of the 47. More pertinently, it was the defection of Jyotiraditya Scindia and his loyalists that replaced the Congress’s Kamal Nath government with the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan administration, not an electoral victory. Highlighting the BJP’s political weakness among tribal communities in the state is the fact that of the 25 Congress MLAs who defected to the BJP, only two held ST seats; 13 held general seats while eight held scheduled caste seats.
Tribal communities comprise about 21 per cent of Madhya Pradesh’s population, and are concentrated in the state’s western, eastern and northeastern districts. Based on the 2011 census, at 15.2 million, MP has the largest tribal population of any Indian state. Aside from the 47 assembly seats (of the state’s 230) reserved for these communities, six of the state’s 29 Lok Sabha seats are also reserved for them. Sources in the Sangh Parivar, the BJP’s ideological parent, also suggest that the Chouhan government’s outreach is being driven by the political realities of its electoral prospects.
The long view is that the drift of tribal communities away from the BJP comes from the fact that they have never really been considered part of its core ‘Hindu voter’ base. This has manifested as a spontaneous social movement appealing to members of tribal communities not to identify as ‘Hindu’ in the next census. Sources in the Sangh worry that this will further weaken the BJP’s electoral prospects in MP, if the BJP is ‘the party of the Hindus’ and tribals choose not to identify under that banner, that will have consequences at the polls. “We have seen similar movements in Kashmir and in the Northeast,” says a member of the Sangh, asking to remain anonymous. “It is imperative that this drift of tribal communities away from the Hindu fold be addressed directly.”
Similar developments are visible in neighbouring states too. On November 11, the Jharkhand assembly unanimously passed a resolution seeking the inclusion of Sarna as a separate religion in Census 2021. Religion is a touchy topic in the state, where 26.3 per cent of the population is tribal and over a third (28 of 81) of the assembly seats are reserved for STs. And in Chhattisgarh, appeals are circulating on social media asking members of tribal communities to revitalise their own traditions. Praneeth, a social activist in Dantewada, says, “Many appeals are being made for tribal communities to worship their own deities instead of celebrating, say, Ganesh puja, which is something new in tribal society. It seems to be an organic movement, it doesn’t seem to be coming from any one source.”
On the other side of the identity-politics aisle, Muslim groups are also seeking to channel this social current. Sources say that the PFI (Popular Front of India) and its political arm, the SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India), groups that many consider extremist, are using this issue to make political inroads among tribal communities in western MP’s Jhabua and Alirajpur districts. There are also reports that the AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen), fresh from its good performance in the Bihar election, is working to create new alliances in cities like Indore and Ujjain. This could lead to the formation of new Muslim-Tribal voting blocs on the lines of existing Muslim-Dalit alliances, especially in eastern MP’s Seoni district, which has pockets of substantial Muslim populations.
Tribal identity politics already appear to be producing electoral results. In the run-up to the 2018 assembly election in Madhya Pradesh, the Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS), a party representing tribal communities, won several student elections in the state’s Dhar, Barwani and Alirajpur districts. And in the assembly election itself, Dr Hiralal Alawa, a former JAYS member, won the Dhar seat on a Congress ticket.
At an academic level, the subject of tribal identity has been a point of contention for many years. One section of historians and anthropologists does not see tribal communities as Hindus, arguing that their presence in the subcontinent predates the arrival of the Aryans. Sangh-affiliated academics argue to the contrary, saying that Hindu religious texts speak of tribal groups as well. They also take issue with the term ‘adivasi’, which loosely translates to ‘earlier dwellers’, preferring the term ‘vanvasi’, or ‘forest dwellers’. “In fact, it is the Dalits and vanvasis that are the repository of Indian culture,” says a Sangh functionary. “Most city-bred people, irrespective of their background, have diluted their culture. It is imperative not to allow tribal communities to be swayed by the drift away from the Hindu fold.”
In terms of political developments, the Chouhan government has launched a slew of outreach efforts, some largely cosmetic, others more concrete. The former include renaming the state’s tribal welfare department from Aadim Jati Kalyan (primitive caste welfare) to Jan Jati Kalyan (tribal caste welfare) and announcing that November 15, the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda, would henceforth be commemorated as ‘tribal pride day’. Similarly, the CM announced memorials for tribal leaders from MP who participated in the freedom struggle, such as Shankar Shah and Raghunath Shah, who were part of the revolt of 1857, as well as cultural films to be made about the lives of such leaders.
In terms of concrete proposals, on November 15, Chouhan announced that ‘samrasta (harmony)’ hostels would be built across the state for students from tribal communities, and that a percentage of accommodation would be reserved for general category students to promote social cohesion. He also announced that his administration would continue the Kamal Nath government’s scheme to write off loans taken by members of tribal communities from moneylenders. When asked by INDIA TODAY about the reasons for his tribal-welfare activities, Chouhan said, “I am working toward ensuring samrasta in society. I will not let anyone come in the way.” Apart from other interpretations, this highlights the BJP’s fears that the drift toward a ‘non-Hindu’ religious identity among tribal communities may well be gathering steam. What adds to the party’s worries is the efforts by Muslim organisations to create new voting blocs based on Muslim-Tribal alliances.
This perspective, that his initiatives are aimed toward ‘social cohesion’, is one that Chouhan has frequently argued. On November 25, at an event in eastern MP’s Umaria district, while distributing pattas (land ownership papers) under the Forest Rights Act and announcing development works and support prices for goods classified as minor forest produce, Chouhan said, “All measures will be taken to protect tribal culture and traditions. There are some who are trying to destroy social cohesion through coercion and inducement. Such elements will be dealt with strictly.” Similarly, on November 27, at an event in western MP’s Barwani district, a tribal stronghold where the Bhils and Bhilalas are prominent communities, Chouhan’s address, which invoked leaders like Birsa Munda, Tantya Bhil and Bheema Nayak, repeated the social cohesion narrative. He also connected it to a BJP bogeyman, ‘love jihad’, claiming that attempts were being made to destroy tribal culture and traditions.
“For the BJP, working with tribals is part of both its cultural and political agenda,” says political analyst Girija Shankar. “Any perceived attack on their culture will be resisted by the BJP and the Sangh. It is also interesting to note that the Sangh, which has always referred to tribal communities as ‘vanvasis’ are now referring to them simply as ‘janjatis’.”
A similar script is playing out in West Bengal, where assembly polls are due in the next few months. In that state, STs make up about 4.4 million of the population. Both the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP are going all out to win over these communities, with sometimes embarrassingly revealing results.
As it happens, Birsa Munda is a tribal icon with pan-Indian appeal. On November 5, home minister Amit Shah was in West Bengal’s Bankura district as part of a two-day visit to kick off the BJP’s election campaign. Per reports, he was scheduled to garland a statue of the freedom fighter; but at the very last moment, it was left to tribal leaders attending the event to point out that the statue the home minister was about to garland was of a generic tribal hunter, not the legendary freedom fighter. While a portrait of Birsa Munda was quickly placed at the foot of the statue, and then garlanded and showered with petals for good measure, the TMC was quick to describe the event as an example of the home minister’s “ignorance”, going on to announce state holidays on Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary and that of Rajbanshi leader Panchanan Barma (Rajbanshis are indigenous tribes in Bengal’s Cooch Behar district).
In the past decades, the state’s tribal areas have already seen major changes in political alignment. When the Left Front government was in power, the tribal belt (Bankura, Purulia, parts of Birbhum and what is now West Medinipur) were Communist bastions. In 2011, when the TMC came to power, it won many assembly segments in the region. In recent years, the area appears to be sprouting saffron shoots, in the 2018 panchayat elections, the BJP was a close second in Purulia and Jhargram districts, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the party won five of the eight seats in these districts.
The fact is that tribal districts across India face a major threat from weakening environmental laws. Their growing political relevance may offer some hope for the future.
with Romita Datta and Amitabh Srivastava