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Resistance that began long ago survives in poll boycott

Laxman Valvi has never voted for any political party. This time, too, he will not vote, although he likes Narendra Modi and thinks he is a “good man”.

Valvi, a 79-year-old Bhil in tribal-dominated Tapi district in south Gujarat, is not the only one belonging to the Satipati sect to have boycotted elections. The followers of this sect don’t recognise the existing concept of a state or the system of governance.

The Satipati movement began in Dhulia, Maharashtra, before it spread to south Gujarat in the late 1950s under the leadership of Kunvar Kesari Singh, a rich farmer and gifted speaker who condemned drinking liquor and eating meat.

Eventually, Kesari Singh turned his attention to the plight of tribal people. He blamed the non-tribal people and asked his followers not to pay land revenue and boycott schools, elections, government offices, courts and currency.

Tribal activists maintain that it essentially began as a resistance movement propelled by the exploitation of tribals by non-tribals and believe that all natural resources are a gift of nature to which they have a right.

Valvi, father of five sons and five daughters, had joined the sect, which he found very “fascinating”, as a teenager. And he has stuck to its tenets: elections mean nothing to him.

Gujarat tribal development minister Ganpat Vasava, however, says the followers of the Satipati sect no longer exist. All the followers, he claims, have joined the mainstream. “Now nobody boycotts elections as they have started availing themselves of the benefits of social welfare schemes which they used to boycott.”

District authorities in Dangs and Valsad contradict the minister’s claim.

I.J. Malli, additional collector, Valsad, says the followers of the sect are very much there, though they are concentrated in Tapi district.

Lalu Vasava, a Dang-based Bhil activist who runs a tribal research centre, puts the number of the sect’s followers at 60,000, mainly in Dangs, Tapi, Navsari and Valsad, a tribal belt that has traditionally been a Congress stronghold, though the BJP has made inroads.

Malli said a team led by collector Vikrant Pandey would visit Kaprada taluka where the authorities had identified 2,000 followers of the sect who were yet to register themselves as voters and had no identity proof like voter or ration cards that could help them access government schemes.

Dang district collector G.K. Chaudhary, however, says only 166 “hardcore” followers of the sect in the district will not be able to vote this time as they have no voter cards. “We cannot do anything about it this time.”

But a perceptible change has been taking place, confirms Shivram. His sister Sevantaben is a follower of the sect and has never voted for any party. But her two sons now go to a college.

Her husband, Kashiram, a graduate, had refused a government job because of his belief but now works as a midday meal coordinator.

Still, Kashiram and Sevantaben will boycott the elections, Shivram says. Like Laxman Valvi.

Gujarat votes on April 30