The people of the highlands in the east and south of Gujarat are almost wholly tribal and backward. They are simple, hardworking, carefree and have a world of their own.” That’s the two-line description of the state’s tribal community on a road guide.
<b1>It is this very world of the tribals that seems to be in the middle of a political conflict between the Congress and BJP in the elections. Neither Sonia Gandhi nor Narendra Modi lost the opportunity over the weekend of declaring their respective parties to be the sole custodian of the tribal soul and their votes. Both also claimed in high-voltage rhetoric that they were in favour of legalising the possession of forestland, which has been used by tribal families for many years.
But why is the allegiance of the tribes so important to the two parties? Their sheer numbers and influence in over 40 constituencies, say experts.
In the last election, the BJP had wrested majority of the tribal-dominated seats. Congress, however, had fared much better two years later in the Lok Sabha polls.
“There are 70 lakh tribals spread across nine districts of Gujarat. And in the last five elections, their voting percentages at 60 per cent have been very good. What is also important is the community seems to be open to canvassing,”' said G.V. Devi, the director of the Tejgad-based Tribal Academy and an expert on tribal affairs.
At the heart of the battle lies the Schedules Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill ratified by Parliament but still to be implemented.
The Bill envisages distributing documents to tribal families to legalise ownership of land. In Gujarat, there are 37,000 families waiting for land documents (or pattas) that would legalise their ownership of roughly 47,000 hectares of forest land. The implementation of the Bill, however, has run into trouble because of the opposition of the environment lobby worried about the fate of animals inhabiting the land in question.
“It was under the UPA that the Bill was ratified. But the rules of the Bill’s implementation are yet to be framed. So the process of distributing documents is yet to begin. But on October 2, Modi, without waiting for the rules, declared that he would anyway go ahead and begin distributing land deeds. Some groups promptly appealed to the Supreme Court, saying it was illegal and the Court put a stay on Modi’s efforts,” Professor Tridib Suhrud, a sociologist and author of Gandhi: My Father, told HT from Ahmedabad.
Both parties, it also seems, are under the misconception that tribals would vote en bloc. “Tribals occupy an area of 50,000 sq km in the state. How would they vote en bloc? Moreover, a large chunk of them migrate to cities after Dusshera in search of livelihood at the end of their agricultural cycle. Earlier, they returned to their villages to cast their vote. But this time, a large chunk might not return as a sense of disillusionment has set in over the lack of development and governance,” Devi said.