Amid protests by hundreds of Adivasis at their not being able to meet Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president interacted with women tendu leaf gatherers in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandla district on Saturday.

Thousands of Gond and Baiga tribals along with several non-tribals from Dindori and Seoni, more than 100 km away, had gathered to meet Mr. Gandhi. The Congress leader had a meeting scheduled with around 100 women from Patpara Raiyat Panchayat, 476 km east of Bhopal.

However, Congress leaders, including Dindori MLA and Lok Sabha candidate from Mandla Omkar Singh Markam, asked other Adivasis to come for the event. In addition to them, hundreds of people from neighbouring villages had gathered due to the fanfare surrounding Mr. Gandhi's visit. Police pushed them away from the venue after which they started shouting slogans.

Attempts by the crowd to march towards the venue failed due to deployment of nearly 500 personnel of the MP Police, Central Industrial Security Force and the Special Protection Group. Several persons were also stopped at checkpoints outside the 8 km cordon.

Shambhu Dohre from Patpara said that police had searched every home in the village and interrogated every resident during the past week. “They selected a few women who have both ration cards and electors photo identity cards. He has come for our votes and we want to meet him. We can't understand why he won't meet us as it is the government's fault that we don't have both these identity cards.”

Semvatibai, who had walked with 15 other women from Kindri village, more than 7 km away, said they had come in the hope of Mr. Gandhi solving their problems. “Our sarpanch told us to go with our ration cards to ask Rahul ji to start MNREGA work in our village. But police won't even let us see him,” she told The Hindu.

The women Mr. Gandhi spoke to, told him about their problems including inflated power bills, denial of forest rights and rations and, cheating by Tendu contractors. Mr. Gandhi also visited a Tendu forest behind the village. He then flew too Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh to address a rally. Anusuya Munna, who spoke to Mr. Gandhi said he assured them of help.

“He understood everything. We told him that daily wages are not enough and we need land pattas to farm. He said that the Delhi government has passed laws to give us land,” she said.

In a hut just beside the Tendu Forest, Anitabai lay in pain due to a complicated pregnancy. “The doctors could not help. I ate pomegranate for relief from the pain. They said that a big leader has come to help us. But he did not come to my hut. He only went to pluck Tendu leaves,” she told this reporter.

A senior Congress leader told this paper that this meet should have ideally been organised much before elections when demands of people are fewer. “Omkar has wasted two days organising this function and now he has to deal with people who could not meet Rahul,” he said.

Mandla, which is considered the cultural heartland of the Gond tribe, is a seat reserved for scheduled tribes. Tendu leaf gathering is the spine of the economy in these parts and it employs several tribal women.

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