Madhya Pradesh election: Jhabua becomes site of tussle for the tribal vote | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Madhya Pradesh election: Jhabua becomes site of tussle for the tribal vote

Nov 16, 2023 03:42 PM IST

Jhabua district, which has three assembly constituencies, is the epicentre of a tussle over the crucial tribal vote in MP.

Prem Bhuria knows travelling from home is the only option if he has to keep the kitchen fires burning. In his forties, Bhuria is accustomed to leaving his village and family in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua district every year in search of work. His village Amliphaliya, which is about 10km from the district headquarters, offers little by way of work.

A Congress candidate reaches out to tribal voters in Jhabua assembly constituency. (PTI) PREMIUM
A Congress candidate reaches out to tribal voters in Jhabua assembly constituency. (PTI)

“We work as farm labour, mostly in Gujarat and Rajasthan, where they pay us more than what we get in MP,” he said. Like Bhuria, who hails from the Bhil tribal community, there are scores of young men who leave home every year in search of better remuneration and work. Counted among the backward districts in the country, Jhabua has limited avenues for employment, agriculture and industrial activities.

Although the state government runs several welfare schemes such as the Sekho Kamao Yojna, which pays a monthly stipend of between 8,000 to 10,000 during skills training; the DDU Antyodaya Upchar Yojna that provides financial assistance for medical treatment of SC, ST and below poverty line families; and the DDU Gokulgram Yojna aimed at improving basic infrastructure of villages, scarcity and deprivation remains endemic.

It is for this reason that men and even women opt for migrating to other states for work, returning home only for short durations.

Migration and debt

Bhuria’s wife, who has not yet been enrolled for the state government’s flagship scheme, the Ladli Behna Yojna, said the annual migration puts food on the plate but also exerts a toll on their health and family ties.

“He is away from home for months on end. It becomes worse when there are challenges like an illness in the family. The financial constraints make it hard for us to celebrate or even grieve together,” she said, declining to be named.

The couple barely showed interest in the poll promises that the two main parties, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, have made ahead of the November 17 polls. “The day we get work in the village or the nearby town, we will know that the sarkar (government) has done something,” Bhuaria said.

Jhabua district, which has three assembly constituencies, is the epicentre of a tussle over the crucial tribal vote in MP. Tribals in MP are 21.1% of the population, with Bhils being the largest group, followed by the Gonds and Kols. The district lags in amenities, education and healthcare, and is counted among the regions with the highest outflow of workers.

“There are several factors that are responsible for migration in large numbers. The forest cover is reducing, most people have small landholdings, getting loans from banks is difficult, they are forced to borrow on astronomical rates from private lenders and the quality of products offered here are substandard,” said a functionary of an organisation linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological mentor of the ruling BJP.

An average Bhil family spends a large part of their earnings on repaying loans, the functionary said, seeking anonymit. “It is a vicious cycle; they borrow small sums of money, which then throws them into the depths of debt, and they keep repaying,” he said.

Pitched battle

While the incumbent BJP claims it has changed the lives of the people living on the margins, the Congress, which won two of the three assembly seats in Jhabua and 31 in the state (of the total 47 ST seats) is fighting a pitched battle, from promising the implementation of Schedule VI in tribal areas to stepping up pressure on the BJP for failing to address the issues of security and employment for tribal communities.

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who has been on multiple visits to the state, has promised the implementation of Schedule VI, which allows tribal communities greater autonomy to make and implement laws on issues related to water, forests and land, and personal laws, including marriage and inheritance.

The Congress candidate from Jhabua assembly seat, Vikrant Bhuria, who lost the last election, is confident that the communities are rallying behind the party after being let down by the BJP. Speaking to HT, the doctor turned politician said a 20-day Akrosh Yatra (anger march) in the state covering 2200 km exposed the “anger on the ground.”

“People have not forgotten Siddhi (where a tribal was urinated on). There have been multiple cases of atrocities against STs. In Dewas, a family was buried (2022); in Neemuch, a Bhil was dragged by a car, accused of being a thief (2021); in Seoni, two tribes persons were killed on suspicion of cow slaughter (in 2022)… the list is long,” he said. “The BJP’s claims of working for the tribals stand exposed.”

The Congress also accuses the BJP of weakening the PESA, not allowing tribal communities to run their haats (local markets) and being arbitrary in giving land rights. PESA, or the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996, gives special powers to village councils in scheduled areas to manage natural resources.

The BJP, which has fielded Bhanu Bhuria from the seat, is quick to deny the allegations. The party points out that the state government implemented the PESA law to empower tribals by vesting powers in village councils to administer the areas covered under Schedule V of the Constitution. This allows rights of local tribal communities over water, forests and land.

“We are the only party that has worked for the economic, social and political empowerment of the STs. They have realised that illegal conversions were carried out to destroy their unique culture and traditions,” BJP spokesperson Govind Maloo said. “Which is why the BJP has been getting the support of the communities and not the Congress.”

While BJP’s Gumansingh Damor won the Jhabua assembly seat in 2018, bagging 37.81% of the votes, there has been a dip in the party’s vote share. In 2013, Shantilal Bilwal of the BJP had won the seat with 41.79% of the votes compared with Congress’ Jeviyar Meda, who bagged 30.08%. In 2018, Vikrant Bhuria lost to Damor, but his vote share was a little over 31%.

In the two other seats, Petlawad and Tandla, both won by the Congress in the 2018 assembly polls, the contest between the two major parties is equally tough. In Petlawad, the Congress and BJP have fielded old party loyalists, who have contested against each other in the previous elections as well. Wal Singh Meda of the Congress, who won the seat in 2008, is pitted against BJP’s Nirmala Bhuriya, who represented the seat in 2013.

In Tandla, the BJP had to face protests from its cadre over the decision to field Kalsingh Bhabar, who lost in 2018 against Congress’ Bhuriya Veersingh. “Bhabar had won as an independent in 2018. There was some opposition to his candidature, but that is not uncommon. Even in Jhabua, there were protests against Vikrant and Bhanu; incidentally both are dynasts,” said a BJP leader not wishing to be quoted.

While Vikrant Bhuriya is the son of former minister and Congress leader Kanti Lal Bhuria, Bhanu Bhuriya’s father has also been a local Congress leader.

Hindutva and political empowerment

Jhabua is nestled between Dahod and Chhota Udaipur districts of Gujarat and Banswara district of Rajasthan, and Alirajpur, Dhar and Ratlam districts of Madhya Pradesh. It is home to the Bhils, who congregate in the region annually. Their numbers and presence across states has accorded them political heft, but there is a growing concern over the lack of political representation.

Hansraj Meena, founder of the Tribal Army, an organisation that works for the empowerment of the STs, said both the Congress and BJP have paid lip service to the community. “Tickets are given to loyalists, not to voices within the community that matter,” he said. “How many STs are fielded from unreserved seats?”

Meena is critical of the mainstream parties and the state government for not ensuring the implementation of schemes on the ground. “In tribal areas of MP and Rajasthan, you will see the lags in delivery of schemes,” he said. The race between political parties to fete tribal icons, he said, was an “eyewash”.

Both the parties compete to appropriate tribal icons, and promise schemes and landmarks to hail their contributions. Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan recently promised to build a temple of local deity Shambumata in Jhabua in addition to upgrading a local hospital into a super specialty facility.

The BJP’s performance in 2018, when it failed to win the election, though it subsequently came to power in 2020 after defections from the Congress, was in part attributed to the indifference shown by the STs.

“The RSS has been working through several organisations such as Seva Bharati, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and Vidya Bharati, but their bid to check conversion to Christianity and proliferation of churches was read as an attempt to deny the tribal way of living,” said the BJP leader quoted above.

The RSS and BJP erred in not being able to “set the narrative” and did not invest in shaping leaders from the community, he said.

“In January 2002, a massive Hindu sangam (conclave) was held in Jhabua. About 60-70,000 tribals attended the meeting addressed by the then Sangh chief K Sudarshan and other leaders. By the end of the programme, the RSS and VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) set out to instal Hindu deities in the homes of tribal people, encourage them to identify as Hindus and not agree to conversions under fear or favour. Although the Sangh and BJP spoke about development and empowerment, there was little on the ground to show for it,” the leader said.

The RSS functionary cited above concurred that community leaders have little say in framing policy or in decision-making.

Both the Sangh and party are now resting hopes on central schemes tailored with an eye on the tribal vote bank to retain the support of the STs, who can swing the election in the state.

Commenting on the BJP’s tribal outreach, sociologist SS Jodhka of Jawaharlal Nehru University said the party has changed the language of politics and created a new vote bank of beneficiaries outside the Hindu fold.

“It has created paternalistic politics. Earlier, there was the language of rights, now it is patronage by the party and the supremo,” he said.

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    Smriti covers an intersection of politics and governance. Having spent over a decade in journalism, she combines old fashioned leg work with modern story telling tools.

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