‘We belong to Bharat, not Hindustan’

Adivasis from south Gujarat assert their their distinct religio-cultural identity and press for their rights

On November 4, 2001 about 400 trucks, mini–trucks, jeeps, cars, and carts made a bee–line for Dev Mogra, off the Dediapada–Sagbara state highway, the holiest of the Adivasi shrines dedicated to Ya Mogi and located in Narmada District, Gujarat. A pandal was erected in the vicinity of the shrine to accommodate about 30,000 people.

The meeting or rally was scheduled for 11.00 a.m. Every inch of the pandal was occupied and there were people standing in the blazing sun too. About 35,000 tribals converged at this holy place from all over the eastern highlands of Gujarat, from southern Rajasthan and northern Maharashtra.

Half a kilometre from the pandal ,about a thousand youth volunteers, both boys and girls, lined up on both sides of the road. Girls were dressed in their traditional dress but the boys wore pants and white T–shirts. The T–shirts had a printed picture of Ya Mogi and the Jai Adivasi (Hail Adivasi) greeting. The volunteers wore a blue head–band that read, Jai Adivasi.

These volunteers directed the incoming vehicles to the parking area, and led people to their seats. The pandal itself was decorated with buntings, flowers and Jai Adivasi slogans. A large picture of Ya Mogi graced the colourful rostrum. On one side of the rostrum chairs were arranged for the press and government, taluka and district level tribal officials. On the other side of the pandal, there was a makeshift kitchen cooking dal bhaat for all those present. Until the official programme began, a group of singers entertained the crowd with songs of tribal asmita (nationalism).

At 11.30 a.m., the function began with tribal MLAs and other key tribal dignitaries taking the stage. They were introduced and garlanded one by one. Then, the key organiser of the rally, Amarsinh Vasava, the MLA of the Dediapada constituency, uncovered a large picture of Ya Mogi and then presented an enlarged photo of Ya Mogi to each of those on the dais. Key persons on the dais included PD Vasava, Raman Chaudhry, Dalpat Vasava, Barjul Patel, Raman Rathod, Nagarbhai Vasava and Amarsinh Vasava, all tribal MLAs. Then there were Professor Valu, Shrimati Jermaben (Narmada district president), the tribal king of Sagbara who is also the trusty of Dev Mogra shrine and so on. Also present was Uttam Parmar, a Dalit leader from neighbouring Surat district.

The speeches over, the volunteers organised the crowd in the mandap into orderly lines and served daal bhaat. The meeting was over by 4.30 p.m. The posse of police had no place there, nor any work. The organisation of the rally was disciplined and impeccable.

The contents of the speeches made on the occasion could be summarised as follows:

1. We are all moolnivasis (original inhabitants) of this land and that is why we are called Adivasis. Indian civilisation is the oldest in the world but ours is older still. We belong to Bharat, not Hindustan. We should call ourselves moolnivasis, Adivasis, Bharatvasis.

2. We have been ousted from fertile plains to the hills and today we are even chased out of these hills. Our land, forests, water and quarries are exploited and on our poverty the non–tribals stand tall. Our land is taken away for industry, dams are built mostly in tribal areas leading to submergence of hundreds of villages, thereby forcing us to migrate to hostile plains. Our forests are classified as reserved and protected and we can’t touch even a branch for fuel without permission. We have no place to live peacefully.

3. Fifty years have passed since Independence but we have not yet tasted the fruits of that Independence. We still do not have educational facilities. We have not had a revolution of intellect and thought. Not many of our Adivasis have become doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, businessmen. It is only because of missionaries that we have got some education. It is they who found diamonds in the dirt.

4. We are fragmented today by the different religious sects that seek our membership. We have our own religion. We are fragmented by different political parties. We need to become one. Religion is a private matter. We need to come together as Adivasis and not as Hindu or Christian, or Muslim tribals. We should do away with the division between Mota Chaudhry, and Nana Chaudhry, Dhanka Tadvi and Teteria Tadvi, Dungaria and Kathalia Vasava and re– establish our original identity as Bhils and remove the high and low differences that have crept among us of late. It is only through unity that we can break our shackles. If we stand united, those who exploit us will come begging to us. Otherwise we have to go to them as beggars as is now the case.

5. We are still gulam (slaves). We are reduced to the status of casual labourers who have to migrate and look for work in far away plains or cities. We are still made to walk like goats, looking down all the time and have never been able to look up and stand tall. We have in us inner resources to stand up like lions and catch the snakes by their heads. We only need to get organised.

6. The BJP government in Gujarat has minimised our reservations and lifted the eight–kilometre regulation for purchase of land. This has facilitated the alienation of tribal land in Gujarat.

7. The Hindutva forces have misled us. They have not just thrived on our poverty but also sought their own development on the destruction of our resources like land, water and forests. The biggest conspiracy of Hindutva is to hide our real identity by calling us Vanvasis. Those who live in the jungle are Vanvasis, they say. They have made us carry bricks for Ramshilapujan, taken contributions from us, asked us to put tilak, play the garbha, celebrate Diwali and Ganesh festival which are not ours. But, most importantly, they do not pay attention to our real problems of education, unemployment, human rights, culture, transfer of resources, our very existence. Ayodhya is not our problem nor is Ram. The BJP has trapped us like fish in the net by misleading us on Ayodhya. We must greet each other not with ‘Ram, Ram’ or ‘Good Morning’ but with ‘Jai Adivasi’.

8. We have lived here for centuries before non–tribals came here. If non–tribals want to interact with us they should attend to our most important problems and not just sell us their religion. We have our own religion. We worship nature, fields, grain, elders and ancestors and have our own deities. Ram is not ours, Sita is not ours. But our shrines are taken away and Hinduised. Ambaji and Shamlaji in the north were our shrines years ago but they are gone. Today we have only one shrine of Ya Mogi which too was in the process of being taken over by Hindutvavaadis.

9. We have symbolically gathered here at the feet of Ya Mogi, our mother, to begin our revolution: to assert our identity and our rights. This is not a political rally. This is a Jai Adivasi rally. All, whatever be their political or religious affiliation, must come together as Adivasis. We have 75 lakh Adivasis in nine districts making a total of 15 percent of the 50 million population of Gujarat. We have 30 tribal MLAs. Whenever our interests are in danger we must fight as Adivasis.

10. Referring to a tribe called dubla, which means weak/poor the speaker said, "We are not dubla but takatwala (strong)." The outsiders cannot keep us as bonded or casual labourers forever. We are not goats but lions. We can become doctors, lawyers, officers. We have among us people of courage who can stand up to anyone. It is time to stand up and unite. Anyone who attempts to fragment and divide the Adivasis should be defeated. We should identify our enemies and friends.

11. We Adivasis have inner resources. But like rain water, we have let it flow down the drain allowing non–tribals to dominate us. We need to build check–dams and conserve our resources.

After 50 years of Independence a small creamy layer has surfaced among tribals that dabble in politics, corners reservations and developmental schemes. The leaders from this creamy layer have been co–opted by non–tribals; they have ignored their own people. Adivasi self–assertion is not new in Gujarat. There have been leaders from among the masses who have risen from time to time during the last 15 years (See Lobo 1994: 82–83). This kind of leadership was feared by non–tribals and hated by leaders from their own creamy layer. A series of such leaders were murdered by vested interests. Chhotubhai Vasava was one such leader who continued the line of indigenous assertion for tribal identity and nationalism. He was anti-Congress and opposed outside exploiters. He was MLA of the Janata Party for a long time. However, even a leader of Chhotubhai Vasava’s stature was co–opted by the BJP a few years ago. After withstanding all manner of harassment and atrocities on him by the state, he finally succumbed to the vile of the BJP and thereby lost his credibility.

After a lull of two years, Amarsingh Vasava has picked up from where Chhotubhai left off. Amarsingh, with his Jai Adivasi Samiti, has yet again resurrected hope for an indigenous leadership and a movement that may be called their own. Today, the Jai Adivasi slogan is visible in many places and people utter it with pride when they meet each other, in many districts.

This assertion has put the Hindutva clan on the back foot. As the BJP received a big setback in the district panchayat elections in July 2001, the state government postponed the village panchayat elections.

Three years ago, there were just seven Hindu shrines in the Dangs, a tribal predominant district. But in the last three years the Hindutvavaadis have built 35 new Hindu shrines, most of them dedicated to Hanuman. During the same period, the Dangs have been subjected to traumatic experience. Churches and Christian prayer halls have been burnt, Christians harassed, Christian tribals have been discriminated against by the state in developmental projects, the state machinery such as the police, district development officers and collectors have been hostile to Christians, presumably at the behest of the BJP government.

In tribal areas, Hindutvavaadis are still demonising Christian missionaries and harassing Tribal Christians. They have now started surveillance of Christians and missionaries in each of the tribal villages. Four educated but unemployed youth from each village have been recruited and each paid an honorarium of Rs 250 per month to tail the missionaries, to take note of their words and deeds and their projects. They are also supposed to identify Christian tribals and local leaders and report this to the group head of 20 villages. These units gather intelligence that is then used to harass missionaries and Christians and haul them to law courts to answer fabricated cases.

Before Christmas every December, they create problems, commit atrocities and create law and order problems. Earlier, the Congress had a strong hold among the tribals. But Rajput politicians who exploited the tribals dominated the leadership. With the people’s sheer disgust for these Congress leaders and the sustained wily propaganda of Hindutva, the BJP managed to wrest a few parliamentary seats in tribal areas in the last elections. But today the BJP stands exposed and the anti-incumbency factor favours the Congress. The mood in the Congress is upbeat. So much so that Amarsinh Chaudhry, who is the Congress president and leader of the opposition in the Assembly, did not turn up for the Jai Adivasi rally despite confirming his participation.

The indigenous assertion of tribals has a history, with Chhotubhai Vasava as its most illustrious star. But then he too has fallen by the wayside. His mantle is now likely to be appropriated by Amarsinh Vasava, a forceful speaker who wants to keep a safe distance from party politics and concentrate on Adivasis and their problems. (But despite the rhetoric one could notice a pro–Congress stance in the speeches made from the rostrum on November 4, 2001. This is partly because the Congress is seen to be on the winning side in the next election).

The MLAs were taken to the Ya Mogi shrine for a darshan to pledge their commitment to the tribal cause. About ten years ago this shrine was in the process of getting Hinduised. A Hindu pujari had taken charge, pictures of Hindu deities had been installed and the location for the blood sacrifice was shifted to just outside the shrine.

But this process was reversed and a pucca shrine has been built by tribals in the last three years. Today, this shrine has become symbolic of tribal identity and nationalism. It is to be hoped that this shrine and the ‘Jai Adivasi’ venture retains its momentum and the never–ending hope of a subjugated people is realised to form the kind of society that they envision for themselves. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, January-February 2002 Year 8  No. 75-76, Forum



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