A new chapter of political empowerment is being scripted in the non-descript Kukshi tehsil, around 360 kilometres away from Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. Gathered in a room were around 40 people, drawn from five of the six tribal-dominated parliamentary constituencies in the state. The job on hand was to select three candidates for the Lok Sabha seats. They weighed in on each candidate and finally chose the best three. There was no party high command, no big leaders and no tantrums, as thrown by big parties. The decision was taken through consensus.
With this, the new battle cry of the JAYS (Jai Adivasi Yuva Sangthan) has been sounded for its maiden battle in parliamentary elections. This is a determined assertion of its members’ right to be recognised as an equally important partner in the affairs of the State and the refusal to stay on the margins anymore.
The candidates being fielded are Mahendra Kannouj from Dhar, Kamlesh Dodiyar from Jhanbua and Pushpa Pendram from Betul Lok Sabha seats (all reserved) while a decision for the fourth seat of Khargone has been deferred to 6 May.
The Adivasis are a potent force with around 22 percent of the vote share in the state, thereby posing a threat to the two major political parties. Also, 47 Assembly seats were reserved for the ST community and Bhil, Bhilada, Gonds, Sahariya, Baiga, Korku, Bhariya, Halba, Kaul and Mariya have a sizable presence across the state. According to a rough estimate, their population ranges from 40,000 to 50,000 in other non-reserved seats.
JAYS, formed in 2012 by tribal youths, has now spread to five states including Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, with over 12 lakh members. It was formed after the educated unemployed youths among the tribes realised that most political parties have only been paying lip service to their major demands. They have been gaining political and electoral advantage by garnering support over the decades. The organisation caught people’s attention when it had held the country’s first-ever Facebook panchayat in Alirajpur district in 2013, followed by a similar event in Barwani, in 2014.
They made their presence felt in student politics, when in 2017, a total of 162 candidates backed by the organisation won the student union polls in Dhar, Jhabua, Alirajpur and Barwani districts, defeating candidates from the RSS-backed ABVP and Congress backed NSUI.
Setting the agenda
“Both the BJP and Congress have been paying lip service about the Fifth Schedule (forest dwellers rights under the Forest Act), jobs for unemployed youths, health facilities, drinking water, stopping police atrocities and channeling funds for the development of our areas for many decades. We have come to realise that instead of supporting other political parties in the mainstream elections, we need to field our own candidates,” says Dr Hiralal Alawa (MD-Medicine) and MLA from Manavar seat in Dhar district, and one of the founder members of the JAYS. He left his well-paid job at AIIMS, New Delhi, as associate professor of rheumatology to contest the election in 2017 and also won the seat as a Congress candidate.
“The JAYS had urged the Congress to field its 80 candidates, especially in the Malwa-Nimar area, in the Assembly polls. It had agreed to declare seven members of JAYS as its candidates. But it just fielded me from Manawar Assembly constituency in Dhar district,” the former associate professor says.
JAYS finally realised that it made sense to accept the Congress offer of a seat rather than to send its own man to the state Assembly to raise its voice. In the ongoing Lok Sabha election too, JAYS had demanded six tickets from the reserved seats and held a meeting with Chief Minister Kamal Nath, but nothing came of it. Now the Congress candidates will be pitted against JAYS candidates in four seats. The reserved seats for Scheduled Tribes are Dhar, Jhabua, , Khargone, Betul, Mandla and Shahdol.
Antim Mujhalda, state president of JAYS says that around 4,000 youths are ready to spread to each of the four Lok Sabha constituencies. In each Assembly segment, a team of 100 JAYS workers are being sent to canvass for their candidates. “Those who join the campaigning share our objective of having our representation in the state as well at the Centre,” he adds.
Countering the campaign blitzkrieg unleashed by both the BJP and Congress, which are flushed with funds, JAYS members have devised a unique strategy to knock at every door of the village and town and ask for a Rs 10 note and one kilogram of grain to create a poll fund.
Apprehending a serious shift in their vote bank, both the major political parties tried to woo the JAYS by offering some bargains, but these were rejected. The Congress, in its manifesto, included the promise of implementing the Fifth Schedule in its true spirit and the BJP went a step further and offered the Dhar Lok Sabha seat to Alawa, but he declined. “It is good that the BJP has finally accepted our political clout and importance. There was no chance of accepting their (BJP) offer of the Dhar seat as I have just won an Assembly seat as a Congress candidate. If I jump ship and fight as a BJP Lok Sabha candidate, what message will it send to my people? Our fight is not for a seat by bargain, but for respect as stakeholders of our land,” he adds.
The fight is a really big deal for them. Tribal areas are facing an exodus and people suffer from diseases like Fluorosis and Silicosis, making their lives miserable. “Every fourth tribal is suffering from one or another of these diseases. Silicosis has destroyed village after village in Alirajpur. The government should have conducted screening camps and provided treatment to the suffering tribals, but nothing is being done,” laments Alawa.
In Meghnagar of Jhabua, the big power plant has created massive pollution, turning a large number of boys and girls sterile, claims Alawa.
Owing to a severe water problem and lack of gainful employment, hundreds of tribal families have migrated to Gujarat to work either in factories or as farm labourers. Mahesh Baghel of Ghadala village has just returned from Gujarat after working in a farmland for eight months. He has a family of eight who cannot survive on the land measuring a mere 1.5 acres in addition to the serious water shortage they face. “We are 40 people from this village and the and neighbouring ones who go to Gujarat in search for work. We are paid Rs 100 to 150 per day. There is no option but to leave our home for most of the year,” says Mahesh.
Madhav Singh, Jawan Singh and many others of Malpura village in Kukshi also leave their homes in search of employment. There is palpable anger among tribals. Everyone is unhappy with political dispensations and reels out facts and figures to support his or her argument. The major grouse (other than health, water, electricity etc) of Dhar’s indigenous people is that the BJP government took 90 hectares of their land for a cement factory against their wishes and in return, gave them just seven jobs in the factory.
Gendalal Randa holds an M Ed, but has no job. He is now fully devoted to the cause of JAYS as its state general secretary. He is busy galvanising the youth to support their stir. “We have been deprived for a long time and our state will not change if we do not take affairs in our hands,” he says.
JAYS has a very ambitious political roadmap. In February 2020, tribal leaders from 15 states are scheduled to meet and chalk out their strategy for panchayat, madi and municipality elections. After finding their feet in local governing bodies, they will think about the respective state Assemblies. “If all goes as per plan, in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, we will field at least 100 candidates in different states,” declares Antim. This may sound like a dream, but Alawa, Antim, Gendalal and others are quite optimistic about it.
The indigenous leaders are busy deciding on the name, symbol and flag of their political party. Names like Rashtriya Loktantrik Party or Rashtriya Jantantrik Party are being considered. “We need to have a name that echoes our broader vision and we will need the support of all in our struggle. If we find a good non-tribal candidate who stands with us, we can surely field him in the coming elections,” explains Alawa.
Political analyst Girja Shankar, who has been keenly watching the political awakening in the state, feels that their big dreams may not come true as there are serious divisions among various tribes. “We seriously err in thinking that all tribals vote en bloc. The Gonds of Mandla for instance do not go with the Bhils and Bhilada of Dhar, since each tribe has its own agenda. These divisions benefit mainstream political parties, he opines.
However, the fact is undeniable that JAYS can turn into a BSP-like outfit in the elections, if it plays its cards right. It may not win a single seat in the current Lok Sabha election, but can surely be a force to reckon with and an outfit to watch out for.