Assembly elections

Gujarat Adivasi protests over ‘misuse of quota benefits’ could hurt BJP's election arithmetic

The ruling party is counting on the tribal vote to compensate for the expected erosion in Patidar support.

Adding to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s anxiety in election-bound Gujarat, anti-government protests have erupted in the Adivasi belt over the alleged misuse of reservation benefits meant for Scheduled Tribes.

The ruling party has been trying hard to win over Adivasis ahead of next month’s Assembly election to make up for the expected erosion of support among Patidars, a community who have traditionally been the party’s core constituency. But for the better part of the last two years, the Patidars have been agitating against the BJP government to demand reservations in education and employment.

The Adivasi protests are related to the large number of Scheduled Tribe certificates allegedly distributed by the state government over the last decade to members of Rabri, Bharwad and Charan communities whose forefathers lived in the Gir forest and had been granted Scheduled Tribe status in 1956, said Pradip Garashiya, president of Samast Adivasi Samaj, who is at the forefront of the agitation.

However, he contended that the policy grants reservations only to members of the Gir communities still living in the forest and not to Rabris, Bharwads or Charanas who have moved out. These communities, he said, were not Adivasis but nomadic pastoralists.

“There was nothing wrong with the 1956 order,” Garashiya said. “It became problematic only when Gujarat government issued notifications – first in 2007 and then in January 2017 – allowing descendants of the forest-dwellers anywhere to obtain ST certificates, thereby threatening to dilute reservation benefits meant for tribals.”

The notifications did not attract much attention until about three months ago, when the state recruited 68 deputy superintendents of police and deputy collectors to posts reserved for the Scheduled Tribes. It turned out that 35 of them belonged to Rabri, Bharwad and Charan communities.

As soon as the news spread, the Adivasis launched a series of protests, forcing the government on October 11 to cancel both notifications, of 2007 and 2017.

But the protests have continued, with the Adivasis demanding that Scheduled Tribe certificates given to the descendants of Gir communities who no longer live in the forest be invalidated.

Now, 116-odd Scheduled Caste groups have jointly called a state-level Adivasi convention on November 18 to decide the “future course of action” as well as their “political approach” to the upcoming election.

“Besides representatives of 116 tribal organisations, the convention at Vyra [in Tapi district] will be attended by presidents of all 29 tribal sub-castes in Gujarat as well as office-bearers of district-level tribal bodies,” said Garashiya.

Shifting ground

The growing Adivasi unrest bodes ill for the BJP. The party’s MP from Bharuch, Mansukh Vasava, suggested as much. “It is true that the benefits of reservation for tribals are being misused by others,” the former minister of state for tribal affairs said. “Elected representatives of both the Congress and the BJP are responsible for this mess because the misuse is happening since 1956. If something is not done quickly, the agitation may engulf the entire tribal belt.”

The ruling party has been trying to cobble together a new electoral coalition ever since the Patidars took to the streets in July 2015, to demand reservations. Adivasis, who form nearly 15% of Gujarat’s population and have the decisive vote in 27 reserved constituencies, are central to the BJP’s social arithmetic.

In the last Assembly election, 16 of these 27 seats went to the Congress and 10 to the BJP. The other elected the Janata Dal (United)’s Chhotubhai Vasava. This was a near repeat of 2007, when the Congress won 16 of the 26 seats reserved then, BJP nine and the Janata Dal (United) one.

This election, the BJP is confident of taking a much bigger chunk of the reserved seats. Its confidence stems mainly from the work that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the party’s parent organisation, and its so-called cultural affiliates have done in the tribal belt since RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat addressed a meeting of swayamsevaks and pracharaks from the region at Vansda in Navsari district last December.

Meanwhile, sensing an opportunity to corner the ruling party, the Congress has thrown its weight behind the “traditional Scheduled Tribes”. “The unrestrained distribution of ST certificates by the BJP government over the past few years is at the root of this problem,” the party’s Gujarat Working President Tushar Choudhary claimed. “If this is not corrected, these cardholders will end up diluting the benefits that the genuine tribals should get.”

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