Gujarat Assembly elections | ‘Adivasi’ or ‘Vanvasi’? Row over title puts tribes in political spotlight

The conflict over nomenclature and what it says about the respective politics of both these strands flared up recently when Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi addressed political rallies in Gujarat

November 30, 2022 06:08 pm | Updated December 01, 2022 01:03 am IST - NEW DELHI

A life size cutouts of  Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal at a election material related store in Surat, Gujarat. File

A life size cutouts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal at a election material related store in Surat, Gujarat. File | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

Words are politically weighted, and an example of that is playing out between the BJP and the Congress’ war over just how to refer to India’s tribal communities, as “Adivasi” (original inhabitants) according to the Congress or “Vanvasi” (forest dwellers) as per the Sangh Parivar.

The conflict over nomenclature and what it says about the respective politics of both these strands flared up recently as Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi addressed a few political rallies in Gujarat, a State with 27 out its 182 Assembly seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The Congress has been a dominant force in the tribal belt in the eastern part of the State, and has regularly out-run the BJP there. In his rallies in Gujarat, and later at a rally in the tribal belt in nearby Madhya Pradesh, Mr. Gandhi clearly differentiated what he meant by ‘Adivasi’ and why he felt the word ‘Vanvasi’ had a connotation that was less than desirable.

“BJP calls you ‘Vanvasis’ (forest dwellers). The Congress says Adivasis are the rightful owners of the country’s resources. The differences between them and us is not just in the names we call the Adivasis by but also in our mentalities. We are for the empowerment of Adivasis while they are for torture,” Mr. Gandhi said, not just in his speeches but excerpts of it played out on his Twitter handle. Mr. Gandhi also said that the Sangh Parivar’s terming of tribal communities as “Vanvasis” was to confine the identity of tribals to forests and hand over those forests to industrialists, depriving them of their land and other rights, and of an imagination of tribals as urban dwellers with a robust middle class.

The response from the other side of the ideological spectrum has also been swift. Speaking to The Hindu, Harsh Chouhan, Chairperson of National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) said that the whole issue was a political gimmick and it was “dangerous” as it veered around the idea of certifying politically as to who was a “ mool niwasi” (original inhabitant). “That is a debate that is ongoing and this attempt to bring closure to it in this manner is political. The attempt by those who want the mool niwasi debate on is to make it like U.S. history, with Native Americans and European colonisation, which is not the case in India. That narrative needs to be understood,” Dr. Chouhan said.

He  added that the word “Adivasi” had been devised by the British to term tribal communities as aboriginals, whereas the Constituent Assembly had very carefully termed tribal communities as “Janjati”.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sources who spoke to The Hindu on condition of not being named, however, said that from Mr. Gandhi’s attempts to raise the issue and through his Bharat Jodo Yatra, it was clear that he was attempting a “back to basics” approach to drumming up support from communities that were traditionally aligned with the Congress.

The’ battle for the hearts, minds and nomenclature of tribal communities has now taken centrestage in India’s politics.

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