The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Gondwana jitters for Congress in tribal hub

Mandla, Nov. 26: As darkness envelops Chaurapattha, a village about 200 km from Jabalpur, the headquarters of the Mahakoshal region, there isn’t even the flicker of a kerosene lamp, forget electric lights, which are practically non-existent in this area. You’d expect the residents to retire in their homes and wake up to another morning of desolation. But it is this feeling of barrenness that animates their spirits as the Congress fights with its back to the wall to salvage the Khiwlari Assembly seat it presently holds.

The issue is not the BJP but a new political entity called the Gondwana Ganatantra Party that has ignited the imagination and passion of the tribals of the Mandla-Seoni belt, adjoining Jabalpur.

Dalvir Singh Mashran, Gawani Salivad and Laxmi Bai are Congress workers desperately making a pitch for the Rajput candidate, Thakur Harbans Singh. They tell the tribals how he is their devta (god), how much vikas (development) he has done for them, how they benefited from reservations, etc. “Congress is your backbone,” shrieks Laxmi Bai.

The tribals are not impressed and tell her this time they will vote lock, stock, barrel for the Gondwana, as the party is called. Satilal Batti echoes the popular mood in these words: “For 50 years, the Congress has fooled us, only a chosen few have profited from its schemes. The majority of us had nothing forward to look to until Gondwana came.”

The Gondwana party was formed in 1991 by Hira Singh Markam, a former BJP MLA of Chhattisgarh who left the party because “he was not allowed to speak in the Assembly by the upper-caste leaders”.

In the last Assembly elections, it contested 50 seats, polled 3.5 per cent votes and won a seat. This time, the Gondwana is contesting 81 seats in the tribal-dominated Mahakoshal region where the Congress won 32 of the 51 seats in 1998, thanks to the tribal-vote consolidation.

Gondwana came into the limelight after it held a rally in Bhopal on January 7, 2002, where Markam only spoke of how tribal land and properties were “forcibly usurped” by successive governments and that it was high time they fought for its reclamation. Hari Singh Marawi, the party’s general secretary, said: “We are nature’s children in a true sense. We never hurt anybody, plant, animal or humankind. This was seen as weakness by others.”

This rally, Markam claimed, forced chief minister Digvijay Singh to announce his land for the landless scheme.

Sahdev Prasad Tomar, a member of the village development committee in Ramteela (Mandla), said bolstered by the “success” of the Bhopal rally, the Gondwana held meetings in every village in the district. “It was a spontaneous wave because there was no organisation, only villagers took the lead,” he said.

But the passions it unleashed led to the formation of a socio-cultural front, the Gondwana Mahasabha, whose one-point agenda was to highlight how the Gonds (tribals) were different from the Hindus. Markam said the Gonds had their own language and script, buried their dead instead of cremating them and conferred equal property rights on men and women.

“The mother is the mukhiya (head) in our culture, not the father,” he said.

This year, during the festive season, the Mahasabha spread the word that no festival should be celebrated with ostentation, no idol should be worshipped and Ram should be treated as another “Aryan king” and not deified. The result was even the majority of the Sanskritised Gonds did away with Durga Puja and worshipped trees and plants with diyas instead of Lakshmi on Diwali.

The party also put an end to the recitation of “Ram paths” in some villages.

Despite its anti-Hindutva outlook even Congressmen admitted that Gondwana would cut away as much as 70 per cent of their votes and not impact the BJP substantially. The projection was that the party with the kulhadi (axe) symbol could pick up at least five or six seats in Mahakoshal, if not more.

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