In 2023, which way will the Adivasi vote lean in the assembly elections?

The BJP was able to have a significant impact on the votes of Adivasis by doing well in the Adivasi-reserved seats in the 2019 General Elections and the following regional elections. Voting in five states (Mizoram, Telangana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh) is already underway. It would be fascinating to see whether the 2019 trend continues or if Adivasis will consider joining the recently established Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) bloc.

BJP leaders and ministers have stated time and again that since the formation of the Opposition coalition, the fight is now between Bharat, represented by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which comprises the BJP and 38 other parties, and INDIA, the Congress-led alliance of 26 regional parties. The general elections in 2024 will probably be significantly impacted by the results of these elections.

Adivasis will not be deterred from pursuing their claims for land, water, and forests by the current India vs. Bharat controversy, according to activist and writer Gladson Dungdung. According to Dungdung, the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act 2023, which the government enacted five years ago, significantly undermined the Forest Rights Act and caused great harm to the Adivasi population.

These problems could encourage the community to give the INDIA alliance another go. According to them, the dispute over rights to natural resources would be much more important than the one between India and Bharat, he continues.

He says that Jharkhand makes a good case study. The community chose for a regime change when the Raghubar Das-led BJP administration attempted to reform legislation that preserve Adivasi lands, such as the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act (CNT Act) and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act (SPT Act).

“Attempts are being made to change the Indian Constitution today. An effort is being made to deny the Adivasis their constitutional, legal, and customary rights via the Uniform Civil Code (UCC). As a result, the neighborhood will guarantee a shift in leadership at the Center as well, according to Dungdung.

In the 81-member Assembly of Jharkhand, the BJP could only get two of the 28 seats set aside for the Scheduled Tribes in the 2019 Assembly elections. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Congress, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) created an alliance that benefited from this. The JMM won 19 of the remaining 26 seats, while Congress took home six. But in the General Elections held only six months before, the BJP had taken 12 of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats, including three of the five seats set aside for STs. The most recent statistics available indicates that, out of 3.29 crore people, 87 lakh Adivasis live in Jharkhand.

According to the 2011 census, Adivasis make up around 8.6% of the country’s population, meaning that there are over 10 crore members of the 705 tribes. The majority of this population resides in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. The Northeast and the Southern states are home to the majority of the remaining population. There are 558 Assembly seats allotted to the STs across state boundaries, compared to 47 in the Lok Sabha. There is a sizable Adivasi community in fifteen states, and the Fifth and Sixth Schedules provide special treatment for the STs. The Fifth Schedule comprises Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Telangana; the Sixth Schedule includes Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, and Mizoram. There are also significant communities of Adivasis in a few other states.

Currently, voting is taking place in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh for the Assembly elections. Do the Adivasis in these states share Dungdung’s philosophy of thought? Hansraj Meena, the founder of Tribal Army and an Adivasi thinker, mostly concurs with the Jharkhandi scholar. “The outcome of the assembly elections in three states will also set the tone for Adivasis in other states,” he claims. In the past five years, there has been a lot of persecution against Adivasis. Laws that benefit them have been undermined. The biggest number of atrocities against the community have been reported in MP and Manipur.

“I can say that even Rajasthan may deviate from its historic trend of handing power to Congress and the BJP alternatively and Congress may form the government again,” he continues, drawing on his fifteen years of experience.

There are 1.53 crore Adivasis in MP, 92.39 lakh in Rajasthan, and 78.23 lakh in Chhattisgarh. Thirteen of the sixty-five Lok Sabha seats are allocated for the Adivasi group, while 101 of the 520 Assembly seats are designated for the STs.

The BJP’s representation in Adivasi seats decreased in all three states during the 2018 Assembly elections. Thirty of the forty-seven ST seats in MP were won by the Congress, while the BJP’s total fell to sixteen from thirty-one in 2013. In a similar vein, the Congress won 28 out of 29 ST seats in Chhattisgarh. The Congress won eleven of the twenty-five seats in Rajasthan, while the BJP won nine.

According to a study of the Assembly election results, the Adivasis in these states supported Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha but voted for the Congress in the state elections. Meena, however, thinks that Adivasis in these areas would probably support the same party or coalition in the state and the center this year.

Similar to how Dungdung and Meena depict the community’s ire against the BJP on matters like Manipur or UCC, activist and Madhya Pradesh MLA Hiralal Alawa likewise conveys the dissatisfaction among Adivasis towards the party. “Prominent issues among the Adivasis are what happened to the Adivasi women in Manipur, the incident where an Adivasi man was urinated upon in MP, and the bid to bring a UCC,” he adds. The BJP has greatly infuriated the community. There have been protests in every state district.

Alawa is the Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS) founding member. This community organization might support Congress once again, as it did in the last assembly election.

Adivasis throughout the nation fear that their traditions and culture will be threatened and their states’ sovereignty would be taken away if the UCC is put into effect. Since colonial times, the states included by the Fifth and Sixth schedules have had some autonomy. They were referred to as “excluded areas” at the time.

The provinces included in the Sixth Schedule were totally excluded, whereas the states included in the Fifth Schedule were identified as partly excluded zones. In the latter, self-governance systems that have been recognized by the constitution governed the Adivasi communities.

Adivasis in MP and Chhattisgarh, however, may not support the Congress-led coalition in unison. Conversion is a major problem in many states, dividing the population along religious lines, as several local journalists have noted. As a group, the Christian Adivasis might cast their votes for Congress, but it is hard to determine how many non-Christian Adivasis would vote for them. The correspondents note that the RSS has been active among the Adivasis in this area for a considerable amount of time, which has led to a significant portion of the non-Christian STs becoming BJP supporters.

Working with Adivasis all around the country is the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, an institution associated with the RSS. Many of its branches are operating in states where the Adivasi community predominates.

“It is difficult to judge how the Bharat vs. India debate would be reflected on the ground, but it is dominating the speeches,” says senior journalist and author Manimugdha Sharma. The Adivasis would be persuaded by the BJP and RSS that Bharat is their real country and that the term India was a creation of the British elite.

“The RSS has defined and identified Adivasis as Hindus for a long time,” he continues. For this reason, the locals refer to them as Vanvasi, or “forest dwellers.” When they acknowledge that they are the nation’s original residents and refer to themselves as Adivasis, a question will come up about the arrival date of Hindus: when did they arrive? They refuse to give them a distinct identity and persist on referring to them as forest inhabitants for this reason.

Senior Chhattisgarh writer Sunil Kumar claims that the INC may lose half of its ST seats in the Bastar and Surguja areas and that the state’s Adivasis are not satisfied with the Congress. For Kumar, it’s not India vs Bharat in the General Elections; rather, it’s India versus NDA. “The tribal people in the regions of Bastar and Surguja are divided,” he claims. The community has made it quite clear up to this point that they would support PM Modi nationally regardless of who they supported in the state elections. As a result, I don’t think any party would win the tribal vote in the general elections as a whole. Additionally, I believe that, unlike with the OBCs, India is not really attempting to elevate Adivasi problems to a national platform.

In addition, Kumar emphasizes that Adivasi concerns vary from state to state and notes that an issue that is significant to Adivasi populations in the Northeast may not be as essential to those in the Hindi belt or the South.

Sociology professor Suraj Gogoi of RV University, Bengaluru, concurs that the issues facing the Adivasis in the Northeast are substantially distinct from those facing people in other regions. According to him, the two main concerns facing the Adivasis in this area are development and autonomy. People in Arunachal Pradesh support the BJP because they think the party is in charge of building the 169 dams that are now under development. The Adivasis from the Chotanagpur area of Jharkhand who came to Assam as laborers have still not been given the ST classification. They now number over 70 lakh. Many BJP representatives are present in the group, and they have been successful in persuading them that the party would guarantee them tribal status. The scenario is similar in Tripura.

Thanks to the support of Meitei voters, the BJP is already well-established in Manipur. Numerous tribal groupings exist in the Northeast, and they do not unite around a common philosophy or in the name of Adivasi unity. Actually, demonstrations over the Manipur problem were not as widespread in Assam or other Northeastern states as they were in the Hindi tribal belt states.

According to Gogoi, the BJP can take advantage of and profit from problems like the NRC in the area before to the general elections. He claims that the tribal voter may support Bharat or the BJP based on the sentiment that is now present in the Northeast.

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