At noon on October 25, the highway near Mosali in South Gujarat’s Surat district began to fill up with young men – and some women – with bright green flags draped around their necks. These were members of the Bhilistan Tiger Sena, a non-political wing of the Janata Dal (United) that claims to advocate for the rights of Scheduled Tribes. They were demanding that the Adivasi belt along Gujarat’s eastern border, home to Bhils and other tribal communities, be declared a separate state named Bhilistan.

Largely invisible in the popular representation of Gujarat, the state’s 9 million Adivasis make up at least 15% of its voters. The Adivasis have long been considered an assured Congress vote bank – particularly the Christian Adivasis. In the past decade, however, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has made inroads into this belt. The saffron party now holds 11 of the 27 Assembly constituencies reserved for Scheduled Tribes. Gujarat has a total of 182 Assembly seats.

With Assembly elections to be held on December 9 and 14, the BJP is believed to be aggressively wooing Adivasis to compensate for possible losses among the Patil community and other backward caste groups that have been loudly expressing discontent with the party. It is a tough proposition, though, given the strong anti-incumbency sentiment towards a party that has been in power since 1998. In South Gujarat, the Adivasis despair over their struggles with unemployment, water shortage, their land being acquired for projects and hurt community pride.

Credit: Anand Katakam

In rural Surat’s Mangrol block, for instance, the Bhilistan Tiger Sena has emerged as a challenger to the ruling party. It was founded three years ago by Chhotubhai Vasava, the Janata Dal (United)’s lone legislator in Gujarat, who represents Jhagadiya in Bharuch district. He was in the news in August when he claimed to have voted for Congress leader Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha election, despite his party having entered into an alliance with the BJP in Bihar. “For 22 years the BJP has looted the state,” he told reporters then. “How can I side with them?”

Known for its aggressive approach, the Sena has attracted hundreds of young Adivasi men from rural Bharuch, Surat and other districts. The group has been organising small rallies and protests across the region, but an incident at a BJP rally on October 14 has given it the opportunity to intensify its anti-BJP campaign in Mangrol taluka.

That day, at the BJP’s Adivasi Vikas Gaurav Yatra in his Mangrol constituency, Tribal Development Minister Ganpat Vasava allegedly ordered his supporters to beat up a group of six Sena members protesting against him. On October 25, the Sena organised a rally in Mangrol’s Mosali town in honour of the six men. More than 500 people showed up for the rally, feeling betrayed by the Adivasi MLA for whom they had voted.

“We went to protest at Ganpat Vasava’s rally because we Adivasis are always being denied our Constitutional right to jal, jameen and jungle [water, land and forests],” said Balubhai Gamit, 37, a farmer from Mangrol’s Dungri village who sustained an eye injury in the assault by the minister’s supporters. “I have always voted for BJP, but what have they done for us? We are not getting water for farming, our land holdings are getting smaller, there are no skilled jobs in our towns and even well-educated Adivasi boys are only getting labour jobs.”

Vinod Gamit, a 22-year-old Sena member attending the October 25 rally, claimed that in his Degadhia village in Mangrol, some 1,500 educated youth have been unable to get jobs within their region – not even with the state-run Gujarat Industries Power Company Limited five kilometres away. “When we went to Ganpat Vasava to ask him to create jobs, he told us that if people in his village could travel far away for jobs, why can’t we?” said Gamit. “If our own MLA could tell us that and have his fellow Adivasis beaten up, how can we continue to support him?”

In Umarpada taluka’s Mandanpada village, Nirmalbhai Vasava has not heard of the Bhilistan Tiger Sena but is frustrated with the BJP government because of the perennial scarcity of irrigation water. “The Ukai dam is not far from here and we are always being promised irrigation water, but it never comes,” said Nirmalbhai, a farm labourer who supports a family of seven on less than Rs 6,000 a month.

Despite his anger, Vasava may yet vote for the BJP. “I don’t know how to vote in this election because Ganpat Vasava is from our tribe and in our village we have always voted for him out of community pride,” he said.

Bhilistan Tiger Sena workers prepare for a rally. Photo credit: Facebook/BTS

Making the Adivasi voice heard

Further east, across the forested villages of Dangs and Tapi districts, where Assembly seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes, most Adivasi voters echo a similar sentiment: whom to vote for is a collective decision taken by leaders of their communities. Local leaders, on their part, claim they are being wooed by both the Congress and the BJP, even though active political campaigning has not yet begun.

Jivliyabhai Gamit, a farmer from Shravaniya village in Tapi’s Songadh taluka, said: “The sangathan decides whom we should vote for and whatever they say is final.” He was referring to the taluka sangathan, a collective of the heads of Adivasi gram sabhas in over 50 villages. Separate from the panchayat gram sabhas elected under local self-government laws, the Adivasi gram sabhas are larger, informal forums of villagers who take collective decisions about local matters. With the election drawing close, the Songadh taluka sangathan has been meeting every Saturday to assess the political atmosphere.

Jayaram Gamit from Shravaniya village, which falls in Nizar constituency, is a member of the sangathan. Despite his unassuming appearance, the 40-year-old is one of the “big people” in Songadh, well aware of his influence over voters across the taluka. Since 2007, Jayaram has been mobilising the Adivasis in his region to fight for their right, under the Constitution’s fifth schedule, to cultivate land within Reserved Forest Areas. In 2010, he started a six-year fight to retain a kabaddi ground that the villagers had created after clearing a patch of the forest.

“As Adivasis we are the original owners of the land and under the PESA Act [Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996], our gram sabhas have the right to decide if we can have a sports ground in the forest,” said Jayaram Gamit, who has been arrested on several occasions for organising protests against forest officials. “But our rights under the PESA Act have always been violated and no one cares about implementing it.”

Jayaram Gamit is aware that the unofficial community-based voting norms go against the spirit of a democratic election but insists that the gram sabhas and sangathans consider the “mood” of the village while making their decision. “I know that voting should be individual but if we don’t make a collective choice, how will our voice as Adivasis be heard?” he said. He is considering standing for the election himself. “I am getting offers from both Congress and BJP. But I am still thinking about it, so let’s see.”

‘Boycott is the only option’

While other Adivasi voters are weighing their options, those in Valsad district’s Sonwada and Rola villages have taken a dramatic approach. On October 26, the two villages put up banners announcing a boycott of the election to protest against the government’s failure to crack down on a resin factory in Rola that has allegedly been contaminating groundwater for three years.

“We live close to the Srisol factory and the water in our bore wells has become dirty and undrinkable,” said Bharat Patel, an Adivasi in Rola. Patel earns Rs 100 a day as a farm labourer and has to spend Rs 20 a day to buy mineral water. He claims he feels itchy when he bathes in the bore well water, but points out that the Adivasi women of Rola have been affected the most because they stand and wash clothes in the local canal running by the factory. “They have rashes all over their skin, and despite our complaints to the Collector and our BJP MLA, no one is doing anything.”

An Adivasi resident of Rola shows the rashes caused by contaminated creek water near the Srisol factory. Photo credit: Priyank Patel

The sarpanches of Rola and Sonwada have publicly supported the villagers’ decision to boycott the election, but the villagers are aware that it may not yield any significant change. “Everyone here knows the sarpanch of Rola is an unofficial party worker for the BJP and good friends with the former sarpanch who granted permissions to the resin factory,” said Ajay Patel, a farmer from Sonwada. “Everyone knows all this but we have been BJP supporters for a long time. So right now, boycott seems like our only option, because we don’t know whom to vote for.”

Elsewhere, in the forested hills of Tapi district, Guliben Gamit, 50, was grazing her cattle on October 26. An illiterate farmer from the Gamit tribe in Songadh block, the election is unconnected to her daily life. “I don’t know who my MLA is; I don’t know about the election,” said Guliben, who survives on an income of Rs 2,000 a month. “Our village sarpanch is from Congress, so I guess I will vote for Congress.”

Her husband Satabhai Gamit weighed in with a more tactful response. “All the parties are good, and we can vote either way,” he said. “I will vote for whoever the big people tell me to.”