“Enough is enough. If forest department people don’t mend ways, we (tribals) will take up arms.” This was how Congress leader Jamuna Devi was shown exhorting tribals in a film screened at the Academy of Administration on September 11. Some overzealous officers had arranged the film show for Forest Minister Himmat Kothari at the conservators’ meet.
The idea must have been to get the minister’s pat for the ‘difficult dutifulness’ of the department’s field officers in the face of such ‘dangerous call to arms’ by a senior politician. Kothari was not impressed though. Neither was Principal Secretary, Forest, Avani Vaish. “Let politicians do their work. Don’t get dragged into such disputes” they told forest officers.
However, at heart Jamuna Devi must have thanked the officials who arranged the film showing her aggression. This suits well the angry woman’s combative image.
Expression of such combativeness, however, has done little to address the tribals’ real issues in MP after its formation 50 years ago. Successive CMs have deliberately let tribal politicians verbalise “the tribals’ inalienable right to forest” in varying degrees of revolutionary zeal but shrewdly denied them the requisite powers to actualise the rights. Tribal leaders too readily reconciled to the manipulation, having realised the futility of aggressive posturing.
They, instead, settled for softer options; a privilege to make reasonably harmless noises about government policies on tribals and and fashionable assertion about tribals’ cultural identity. The political ‘mainstream’ subsumed them. This happened with almost all tribal leaders who rose to prominence -- from Shivbhanu Singh Solanki and Basant Rao Uike to Kanti lal Bhuria and Faggan Singh Kulaste. Jamuna Devi is a bit difficult to categorise though. Ajit Jogi’s dubious tribal identity and IAS background put him in a different class.
Till 1980, tribal leaders were not so distinctly marked out for their identity as they are today. A chance anointment of
Raja Naresh Chandra as CM for a few days passed off as a brief footnote in State’s political history.
His only achievement was that he presided over the liquidation of the first non-Congress government born out of an ego clash between DP Mishra and Vijayaraje Scindia. A miasma of illiteracy and exploitation pervaded the State’s tribal world but the tribals were reasonably happy that way. Their exposure to the outside world was slow.
Tribal versus non-tribal clashes were few and far between. CM DP Mishra took the first major step towards bringing the tribals into mainstream politics by nationalising the tendu patta. This paved the way for official recognition of tribals’ right to the forest produce, much to the consternation of the contractors and middlemen. But feudal forces coupled with dynastic tradition in the Congress saw to it that tribal leaders remained their lackeys.
The 1980 assembly poll changed it all. Shivbhanu Singh Solanki missed the post by a whisker. Arjun Singh and Kamal Nath conspired to deny Solanki the post despite a huge majority favouring the tribal leader. Solanki acquiesced in high command’s dictate to become deputy CM under Arjun Singh. He didn’t seem to mind the denial.
In fact, he preferred to project himself more as a pliant than a combative tribal. He did so deliberately. Once, Mukesh Nayak, then first time member in the assembly, asked Shivbhanu Singh Solanki the secret of his political longevity. The deputy CM’s counsel was: “make sure that you are seen as a simpleton. Otherwise, you may be heading for doom in politics”. The comment summed up the political reality of the Congress rule under Arjun Singh.
The CM would deliberately promote soft and semi-literate tribal leaders to preempt any threat from mass leaders. His machinations killed many a promising political career. Jamuna Devi is the lone survivor.
Shivbhanu may have been tricked out of the chief ministerial race, but his fate kindled aspirations among tribals. For the first time, they realised that they can bargain rather than beseech for power. As time passed, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 began to pose an existential crisis before millions of tribals. They grew restless as the threat of eviction stared at their face.
Arjun Singh capitalised the situation to project himself as a messiah of the tribals. His political management also took care of the burgeoning protests from NGOs. His successor Motilal Vora was too cagey and shaky to tinker with the populism of the Arjun Singh regime.
When Arjun Singh returned for a second time in 1988, the Kharasia by-poll turned out to be a watershed in tribal politics. BJP leader and biggest tendu patta trader Lakhi Ram Agrawal was the financier of party candidate Dilip Singh Ju Deo against Arjun Singh in Kharasia by-poll. The CM scrapped through. He then brought tendu patta trade under cooperatives. This was seen as a retaliation against Lakhi Ram Agrawal. Arjun hailed the policy as revolutionary, in keeping with Indira Gandhi’s promise to tribals.
His successor Sundarlal Patwa changed the policy. He was not too bothered about welfare of tribals who were till then loyal to the Congress. BJP focussed on its vote bank, which largely comprised traders.
Some tribal leaders in the BJP like Baliram Kashyap raised a revolt but that didn’t alarm the party. BJP’s concern for tribals was conversion to Christianity. The Government assigned tribal welfare to RSS outfits like Vasnwasi Kalyan Parish and Sewa Bharati.
Meanwhile, the eviction threat to tribals from the encroached forestland became more menacing. Clashes between forest staff and tribals became more frequent. As a result, tribals looked desperate to wield political clouts. The tribal votes were a major contributor in the Congress victory in the 1993 assembly polls.
Digvijay Singh, therefore, was forced to appoint a tribal leader as deputy CM to scotch any threat to him. If Patwa had assigned the RSS outfits the task of tribals ‘emancipation’, Digvijay Singh banked upon NGOs for the task. He sweet-talked into believing that he really sees the NGOs as true saviour of tribals. Initially, the policy worked.
But the NGOs understood the CM’s game plan. NGO activists like Medha Patkar, Chitrupa Palit , Alok Agrawal, Madhuri Ben, Anurag Modi , Dr Sunilam, among others, mounted pressure on the Digvijay Government to do something concrete for tribals’ welfare.
His Government resorted to repression. Digvijay’s tussle with Jamuna Devi and Subhash Yadav also had a spin-off effect on the government’s attitude vis-à-vis NGOs. Jamuna hates NBA and Medha and Subhash Yadav saw in Madhuri Ben of Jagrit Majdoor Sangthan (Khargone) his political nemesis. Both the deputy CMs suspected that Digvijay Singh was using the NGOs to spoil their politics. Articulate Jamuna Devi paid the price for that. The neglect drove her to say she is burning in Digvijay’s ‘tandoor’.
The present BJP Government has reverted to the Patwa regime’s conversion-fixation with greater vigour. None of the three CMs in as many years has shown any inclination to look into tribals’ problems. Despite the fact that tribals have for the first time reposed their faith in the BJP so overwhelmingly, their existential crisis due to threat of eviction from encroached land has only deepened.