The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tribal votes worry VHP leaders in sensitive belt

Khedbrahma (Sabarkantha), Dec. 8: Raghu Santram falls quiet when Milan Patel comes over to ask what’s up. By the well in Vartol village, in this north-east corner of Gujarat, a small crowd has gathered and after much coaxing, the discussion turns to the elections. Getting on with life is more important.

“We have little to give or take in these elections. Yes, both the Congress and the BJP wallahs come. What do I know what will happen'” Raghu was asking before Milan butted in.

Raghu is from Chikli village, a cluster of 40 households of mostly Bhils and Thakores. He owns five bighas that give him a crop of maize and another of pulses in a year if it rains well. The monsoon has been poor for the better part of five years. So Raghu works as wage labour in the cotton fields owned by some of Vartol’s Patels.

“The adivasis are all Congress,” says Milan. “We are for the BJP.” “We” meaning “Patels”. If he is to be taken for his word, the dissent among Patels in Saurashtra on supporting the BJP this time is not reflected here.

But how the tribal voters will behave is more pertinent as they are more in number here. When the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express was burnt in Godhra on February 27, two of the 58 killed were tribal youths from Khedbrahma. Khedbrahma, a seat reserved for Scheduled Tribe candidates, is former Gujarat chief minister and sitting Congress MLA Amarsinh Chaudhury’s constituency.

In the riots that followed the Godhra burnings, political workers and sociologists alike wondered at the VHP’s mobilisation of tribals. Here, in Sabarkantha, just as in Banaskantha and in much of Gujarat’s eastern border with Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh,the tribals were cannon fodder for Hindutva.

“I have also heard but those boys were not from here,” Raghu gets in a word edgeways. “They were from Khedbrahma.”

The town is just 7 km away on a metalled, if narrow, road. Raghu’s insistence that something that should happen to two fellow tribals in Khedbrahma where word of mouth travels fast was a distant event is more a measure of the political distance from the VHP than the physical distance to the town.

This is the picture across Assembly constituencies where the adivasi vote can make a difference. Despite its much vaunted mobilisation of tribals for the riots, the VHP cannot be sure that support will translate into votes for the BJP.

From Banaskantha, to the north of Sabarkantha, and through the border constituencies of Panchmahal, Vadodara and Bharuch, the VHP is synonymous with the BJP. The party’s brains trust for these elections has concluded that it is in this belt, part of north and central Gujarat, that it must make up for possible reverses in Saurashtra.

“There are about 35 constituencies where the adivasi vote matters,” says Lalji Desai, president of the BJP’s Sabarkantha district committee. “Of these, the tribals are dominant in 20. In 1998, we had won in 14 of these 20. Now we hope to gain a substantial number of the 35.”

Predictably, many of these constituencies are among the 79 identified by the Election Commission as extra sensitive because they were severely riot-hit. Among them are all eight constituencies in Sabarkantha district — Khedbrahma, Idar, Bhiloda, Himmatnagar, Prantij, Modasa and Bayad. These were split 6-2 in favour of the BJP in the 1998 Assembly polls, largely because Vaghela’s RJP then made it a triangular contest. In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress took the lead in some of the segments. The upshot: riots, vitriol and a vigorous campaign by the Sangh parivar.

In Bhiloda constituencies, there are adivasi villages where Congress workers cannot enter. The BJP has put up Gujarati filmstar Upendra Trivendi here. Likewise, in Idar, there are tribal villages where entry is banned for BJP workers.

“That is a lie,” claims Lalji Desai. “The adivasis have realised they are Hindus who were being exploited by Muslim businessmen. They welcome us. And now that two of their boys have been martyred in Godhra, they want to avenge it.” But he can neither remember their names nor the villages they belonged to.

In Himmatnagar, the district headquarters that saw some of the worst violence, the “Bombay Hotel” has been rebuilt. “They came right till here,” says Abdullah Jalaluddin, the owner, and points to the doorstep. “Armed with bows and arrows, they burnt down the place. They were tribals from Khedbrahma.”

In what passed off as a crackdown under Centre-appointed observer Gill, many tribals were held and are still behind bars. Their VHP leaders are scot free.

The tribal mobilisation is part of the Sangh parivar’s grand strategy to fragmentise the Kham — as the social-political alliance that saw the Congress in power in Gujarat till 1990 was called (Kshatriya, Harijan, adivasi and Muslim). It is here that its remnants are still visible.

The battle for Khedbrahma is the latest and could possibly be its last test. The Congress’ Amarsinh is away today in Vyara near Surat, where his son Tushar is contesting and where Sonia Gandhi is to address a rally later today. (Vyara had also elected Amarsinh when he was chief minister from 1985-89. That was some credit for Gujarat, a predominantly non-tribal state which got in Amarsinh a tribal chief minister).

In 1998, Amarsinh won with a margin of 26,000 votes in an electorate of 1.76 lakh. This time, says Dharmendra Desai, district Congress leader, “saheb should win by 40,000”.

That is optimistic. Ask Raghu, the tribal from Chikli, who says “Humko kya!”

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