A relatively new grassroots movement that aims to rewrite Madhya Pradesh’s political calculus is gathering momentum as the state heads into next month’s Assembly election. A generation of young, educated Adivasis is mobilising in the southwestern Malwa-Nimar region, demanding that their constitutional rights be meaningfully recognised, and protected. These Adivasis, who populate some of India’s poorest districts, feel they have been failed by both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. So, they now want to create a “leadership of Adivasis, for Adivasis”.

Their political consciousness is being harnessed by Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti, or JAYS as it is better known, an organisation that grew out of a Facebook page launched in 2009. “Politicians come to us during elections, promise us the moon,” said Raviraj Baghel, Indore City president of JAYS. “But as soon as they reach the Assembly or Parliament, they never raise the issues that plague our society. They are not the representatives of Adivasis but of their political masters. It has been the same since independence. But this ‘I am king and my son will be king after me’ attitude will no longer work.”

The organisation has already achieved some political success. JAYS-backed Adivasi Chatra Sangh and Gondwana Student Union hold 162 of the 250 elected seats in the student bodies of the region’s two universities, Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya and Rani Durgavati University.

Now, JAYS is seeking to contest 28 of the 66 Assembly seats in the Malwa-Nimar region. Of these 28 seats, 22 are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. Since JAYS is not yet registered as a political party, its candidates will contest as independents – with the Congress’s support if ongoing talks for an alliance fructify.

JAYS is the product of a historical process that has seen the share of Madhya Pradesh’s Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes in higher education rise steadily since the 1990s, mainly thanks to reservation. Their growing numbers have enabled the youth to organise, speak out against the discrimination they have long suffered, and even agitate for their rights.

Most of the JAYS members Scroll.in spoke to recounted “bitter experiences” with “general category people” after moving out of their villages to pursue a career or higher studies. They were constantly reminded of their Adivasi identity, they said, and how reservation had provided them an “undue advantage” over their general category colleagues.

On top of this, they alleged, successive governments have never bothered about ensuring the welfare of Adivasis even though they constitute around 22% of the state’s population.

Madhya Pradesh's districts where Adivasis make up the majority of the population.

To express their angst at this state of affairs, a group of Adivasi students started a Facebook page, Yuva Shakti Bhilala, in 2009 which was renamed Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti in 2011. “Most of the students in this group came from the Bhilala community. Their families had benefited from reservation but they would not even call themselves Adivasi,” said Baghel. “Hiralal Alawa found it very disturbing and began writing posts about Adivasi pride, our rich culture and heritage. He also pitched for creating a leadership structure that was Adivasi and catered to the needs of Adivasis.” Alawa was a student from Kukshi, studying medicine in Rewa.

Alawa’s posts struck a chord and, encouraged by the response, he decided to employ social media to bring together disparate Adivasi groups. In 2013, Alawa organised a “Facebook Panchayat”, a meeting in Barwani of over 2,000 people he had mobilised through Facebook. A few months later, a “Facebook Mahapanchayat” in Indore attracted young Adivasi activists from six states. “We owe 90% of our success to Facebook,” said Baghel. “If it was not for Facebook, there would have been no JAYS. It is for this reason that we later formed IT cells in each block that send out our message to people across the region.”

By then, Alawa was a senior resident in Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi. Realising that organising Adivasis into a political force required more than “internet activism”, Alawa returned home in 2017, said Baghel, who has been associated with Alawa since 2009.

“The first step was to organise the main Adivasi communities such as Bhil, Bhilala, Barela and Pateliya into a cohesive unit in the Malwa-Nimar region,” Baghel added. “The next step was to sensitise these educated Adivasis about the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, Forests Rights Act, Panchayats Act through meetings and coaching classes. Like Alawa, several people quit their cushy jobs to join the movement and teach these coaching classes, which also prepared students for competitive exams.”

They also frequently organised Adivasi panchayats that often witnessed charged discussions on migration, displacement, rehabilitation and resettlement, welfare.

Getting a foothold

All this helped JAYS gain popularity across the Adivasi region. “I don’t know anything about Panchayat law, Fifth Schedule, but my 17-year-old son does and he keeps telling us why we must vote for own rather than these moneybags who represent mainstream parties,” said Mangu Damor, 55, a farm labourer from Devigarh village in Jhabhua. “I am grateful to these boys [of JAYS] and pray they succeed in bringing about change.”

Rajesh Dodiar of Dulatpur village in Jhabua said JAYS gives Adivasis hope. “He does what he says and we have not had anyone talking about our rights in this manner,” Dodiar said, referring to Alawa.

Hiralal Alawa and Anand Rai, in sunglasses, at a public meeting. Photo courtesy JAYS

Anand Rai, the whistleblower in the Madhya Pradesh medical admissions scam known as Vyapam, is described as JAYS’ political strategist. He said the party’s leaders gained public trust in part by keeping their promises, however small. When, for example, they announced that filmstar Govinda was coming to a JAYS rally, few believed them. “They thought we would get some duplicate,” Rai explained. “But when they saw Govinda, their faith in us strengthened. Now, if we say we will get Kangana Ranaut, they will believe us.”

But who pays for organising the panchayats and bringing in filmstars? Rai claimed they do not need “the kind of money other parties do”. “Govinda was promoting his film. We approached him and told him about our movement,” he said. “He agreed and we paid only for his travel. Similarly, if Kangana Ranaut is promoting her film, we may approach her. If she comes, it will make national news. These small things make a major difference in establishing trust.”

Initially, JAYS received financial support from serving and retired government officials from the Adivasi community. It did not last long, however, because the officials wanted to dictate policy, leading to a confrontation, said Rai. “They would pay Rs 1,000 and tell us to work like they desired. We refused. Now we raise funds from the public.”

They go door to door, asking every household for Rs 10 and some grain. If they can, they readily give, said Rai. “This way we are also reaching out to people in far-flung areas and creating awareness about JAYS and Adivasi rights,” he added. “The response has been phenomenal. We have our meetings at some mandis that has a concrete floor, a stage or a tin shed. So, all we need is an LED screen, loudspeakers and some decoration. The cost comes to around Rs 50,000.”

Long way to go

It has not always been a smooth journey, though. In recent weeks, JAYS was riven with factionalism after a group led by Arvind Kumar Muzalda, Madhya Pradesh president of Birsa Brigade who was working with Alawa in Dhar, questioned the organisation’s decision to fight elections.

Muzalda, a former policeman and land revenue officer, ran coaching classes for Adivasi youth in Dhar and wanted JAYS to remain a social movement. “Muzalda and JAYS have now decided to work separately,” said CS Bhadoria, a senior journalist in Jhabua. “While Alawa wanted political power, Muzalda argued for JAYS to remain a social movement. Since Muzalda has limited influence, he had to back down. But eventually, they went their separate ways.”

Alawa holds sway among the Bhilalas, the region’s dominant Adivasi community, while Muzalda represents the Bhils.

The infighting, however, does not seem to have weakened the movement. In fact, few outside the organisation are even aware of it.

As the BJP launched the Jan Ashirwad Yatra in July to mobilise its voters ahead of the election, JAYS countered with its own Adivasi Adhikar Yatra in the Malwa-Nimar area on 29 July. It unnerved the ruling party enough for Shivraj Singh Chouhan to call the JAYS leadership for a meeting on August 3. “We asked him to set up medical and engineering colleges in Malwa-Nimar region and return the lands of the Adivasi people displaced by the government,” said Rajesh Maida, JAYS block president in Thandla, Jhabua district, who attended the meeting. “He remained non-committal. We did not expect him to act on our demands anyway. After all, he has been chief minister for 15 years and he hasn’t done anything.”

Still, the meeting with the chief minister in itself was a coup. “For the first time, we felt we could negotiate with these bigwigs of politics,” said Subhash Damor, a JAYS activist from Kakanwani village, Jhabua. “It was a matter of pride that Alawa was negotiating with the country’s top leadership on our own terms.”

JAYS supporters at a protest demanding implementation of the Fifth Schedule. Photo courtesy JAYS

Damor said JAYS has given young Adivasis like him a platform to express their disenchantment with the state. “If it was not for JAYS, I would not have had the confidence to speak to you,” he said. “This is what JAYS has done. It has empowered us and made us believe that we can change our destiny. It’s more than just a political movement.”

JAYS has even stopped the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from conducting its daily shakhas in some Adivasi areas, Damor claimed. “RSS usually targets Adivasi hostels where young girls and boys stay,” he added. “We stopped that. The JAYS leadership was of the view that the youth had to be freed from RSS’s control and used for our own political outreach programme.”

In Madhya Pradesh’s Adivasi region, each tehsil has multiple hostels for Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe students pursuing higher education. JAYS claims to have made significant inroads into this demographic. “They are our cadre,” said Rai, adding that “these boys and girls” go back to their own villages and spread the message.

The JAYS leadership is mindful that they cannot take on the BJP and the Congress simultaneously. They are, therefore, trying to partner with the Congress and have deployed Rai to speak with the opposition party.

Why the Congress, though?

Ramesh Katara, also from Kakanwani, explained that most young members of JAYS have only ever known a BJP government (the saffron party has ruled the state since 2003) and see the Congress as an acceptable alternative. “My own understanding of politics has revolved around the constant criticism of the BJP government,” he said. “Also, our aim is to ensure development of our region, not communalism. BJP is an anti-Dalit, anti-Adivasi, anti-minority party. Aligning with them would be political suicide.”

Talks to form an alliance, though, have hit a wall as the Congress seems reluctant to concede JAYS’ demand to let Alawa contest from Kuksi constituency, a stronghold of the opposition party. Kuksi is currently held by Surendra Singh Baghel, a confidante of the Congress grandee Digvijaya Singh.

“We want Kukshi and that is the bottom line,” Rai said, adding that it’s Alawa’s home ground and he has already held “massive rallies” in the area. “All negotiations mean nothing if the Congress doesn’t give us this seat.”

Rai noted that the Congress had allowed “outsiders” Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor to contest from its strongholds in Gujarat last year. “Why can’t they do it here?” he asked. “For us, it is about self-respect. If Alawa doesn’t contest from Kukshi, the people will feel he has abandoned his core supporters for political gains. We have one lakh Adivasi votes in Kukshi and more than 5,000 workers. If we do not reach an understanding, we will show the Congress our strength.”

Rai said JAYS enjoys considerable presence in Alirajpur, Ratlam, Jhabua, Dhar, Khargon, Burhanpur, Khandwa, Dewas and Badwani districts, all of which are dominated by Adivasis. Of the 22 reserved seats JAYS plans to contest in the region, the Congress holds only five of them.

Bhadoria said the Congress is unlikely to give JAYS more than four seats, including one for Muzalda. The Congress has backed JAYS from the beginning, he added, just as it had Mevani, Thakor and Hardik Patel in Gujarat. “Whoever wins the most number of seats from this region will form the government,” Bhadoria claimed.

Congress chief Rahul Gandhi is holding a public meeting in Jhabua on Monday and the JAYS leadership is hoping to persuade him to reach a seat-sharing arrangement before November 9, the last day for filing nominations.

Bhadoria advised Gandhi not to waste the opportunity. “For the first time in last 15 years, Congress looks to be in a commanding position here,” he said. “It should not antagonise this crucial vote bank which could be the kingmaker in this election.”