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Saffronisation, Adivasis And
The Politics Of South Gujarat

By Dionne Bunsha

17 April, 2004
The Hindu

Danubhai Vasava is one of the lucky few in Kadvali village of Bharuch, south Gujarat. He will be able to vote during this election. Many others will not be there on polling day. More than half of Kadvali's residents have locked up their homes and have migrated to the cities for work. They will be back in the monsoon to work on their farms.

"When the crop is harvested, people sell it and spend all the money. Then, they have to leave for the cities in search of work," says Danubhai. Subsistence is the overriding concern in this hilly Adivasi region. But politics here does little to address these issues. The little social development that exists here was initiated by Christian missionaries. But their work has diminished of late.

Over the last 15 years, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has been trying to get the largely Christian Adivasi population here to embrace Hinduism.

"The VHP says it is doing religious work. But if you go for any of their big meetings, you will realise that they are political rallies. Politicians are present. In their religious sammelans, they spread hatred about Christians and Muslims. Even their social work is one-sided," said Raisinh Vasava from nearby Umerkhadi.

Raisinh has run through the entire gamut of religious outfits — from the missionaries to the VHP. He left the VHP a few years ago to join an Adivasi rights organisation. Explaining the VHP's modus operandi, he says: "They recruit the more educated people in the village and try to get a hold of the community through them. They break the unity in a village."

"Initially, the missionaries did a lot of work here. They built schools and community centres. But later, they became like politicians," says Kuvarji Vasava, whose son Mansinh runs a VHP creche here. "The Ayodhya campaign started at a time when we were disgusted with the missionaries. So, many of us were drawn to Hinduism." The Ram temple campaign awakened a `Hindu' identity among people who had never even known what an aarti was. That was when the BJP/VHP struck roots in the Adivasi areas.

Most Adivasi areas were Congress strongholds. But over the years, the BJP managed to establish a hold. In the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won all the four reserved Scheduled Tribe seats. "People were united during the Congress rule. But they didn't do much. That really angered people," says Danubhai. Even now, the Congress presence is minimal, compared to the Sangh Parivar's active network.

In the 1980s, the Congress had gained popularity using the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) formula. Its policies were geared towards the downtrodden. However, over the years, the BJP has cut into the Congress vote bank, not only in Adivasi areas but also among the OBCs and Dalits.

"Yes, the BJP has got Dalit support. But it is mainly in urban areas. That is because the impact is largely confined to the cities. Moreover, the BJP has many wings of the Sangh Parivar working for it. The Congress is not as organised," says Praveen Rashtrapal, a Congress MP from Patan, a constituency reserved for Scheduled Castes. Of the two reserved SC seats, the BJP won one last time.

Even in the cities, some Dalits have seen through the BJP's plan. "Because of the riots, we voted for the BJP. But we won't make the same mistake again. They fooled us. They were the ones who started the riots. But they made us believe that they would save us. They have done nothing. This time, we won't vote for them," says Mehru Vaghela, a resident of Gomtipur, Ahmedabad's mill area. A large chunk of Dalit mill workers live here. Most mills shut down. Many unemployed are just hanging around the streets.

Mehru used to work in the Ramkrishna Mill earning Rs. 75 daily. The mill closed in 1986. For many years, he was without work. Now he works in a spinning factory for Rs. 50 a day.

"See how we have fallen. I don't have money to shave. In every house here, people are unemployed. Their wives have become ragpickers. They scrape together only one meal," he says.

But many youth have not yet seen through the BJP's game plan. "The BJP has protected Hindus. The Congress supported Muslims," says Kanu Macwana, a local BJP supporter. However, the older generation are still traditional Congress loyalists.

Unlike in other States, Dalits in Gujarat haven't been able to mobilise an alternative political force. Mainly because they constitute only 7 per cent of the population, unlike in States such as Maharashtra where they are 27 per cent.

"Poorer sections tend to move from one party to another because they try to get the benefits of power. That is maybe why some of them support the BJP. However, you can't generalise on a Dalit vote or Adivasi vote," says Ramesh Parmar, a Dalit activist.

It is because political parties have deflected attention from development that many voters may not turn up to vote. Not in disgust. But simply because many villages such as Kadvali are empty. Migrants cannot afford to vote.