BJP’s 2024 election campaign: Scripting a new tribal identity

The BJP has mounted its campaign to woo the over 10 crore Scheduled Tribe voters across the country on the creation, legitimisation, and dissemination of knowledge on Adivasi histories. The new narrative situates them as an inseparable part of Indian civilisation and culture while retelling stories of tribal heroes as people who fought oppressive regimes from ‘outside’

April 19, 2024 01:49 am | Updated 07:11 am IST

BJP flags put up at the entrance of a residential colony in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh, where more than 85% of the population belongs to the Scheduled Tribes and 65% of the area is covered with forests.

BJP flags put up at the entrance of a residential colony in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh, where more than 85% of the population belongs to the Scheduled Tribes and 65% of the area is covered with forests. | Photo Credit: AFP

This should not be the end. It has to be the beginning,” President of India Droupadi Murmu was saying within four months of taking the oath of office, in November 2022. Her statement came when she was being presented a book, Contributions of Tribal Leaders in the Freedom Struggle, at a National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) event.

The ‘beginning’ was made abundantly clear by the then NCST Chairperson Harsh Chouhan in his keynote address at the time: a project to compile knowledge on tribal histories and cultures based oral histories passed down in those communities in a bid to replace existing literature that is based on the knowledge created by colonising governments.

The book was being presented to the President at an event where over 70 Vice-Chancellors of universities from across the country, along with hundreds of anthropologists and sociologists working with tribal cultures, most themselves tribals, were being encouraged to pursue research methodologies that extracted historical knowledge from oral traditions like songs, hymns of these tribal communities.

Two years later, this project’s progress, along with the book launched by the NCST and the contents in it, have come together to become one of the key pillars on which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is mounting its strategy to woo the over 10 crore Scheduled Tribe population of India as the country heads into the 2024 Lok Sabha election, in which 47 seats out of 543 are reserved for ST candidates.

From Govindgiri Banjara of the Mangarh massacre to Madri Kalo of Odisha’s Sundargarh and to icons like Tilka Manjhi in Bihar and Haipou Jadonang and Rani Gaidinliu in Manipur, respectively, the histories of Adivasi resistance across India are taking centre stage in the BJP’s campaign to set its narrative around Adivasi identity.

A narrative that historically situates Adivasis as an inseparable part of “Bharatiya Sabhyata and Sanskriti (Indian civilisation and culture)” by choosing to push stories of their rebellions as resistance to just British and Islamic invaders. And what has been indispensable for the BJP in its mission to achieve this end is the decades worth of legwork put in by the Sangh Parivar’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams across north India to build its networks in the remotest of tribal villages — efforts that have culminated in the NCST book that President Murmu launched in November 2022. The contents in it, which originated in a publication first put out by the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (ABVKA), have now become the principal source being relied upon by government ministries to promote stories of Adivasi rebellions.

Tribal outreach

The BJP’s intent to reach out for tribal votes this election season was signalled three years ago in 2021, the moment it declared November 15 — the birth anniversary of Adivasi icon Birsa Munda — as ‘Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas’. This intent was only cemented when its ruling coalition, the National Democratic Alliance, nominated Murmu, a Santhal woman from Odisha and former Jharkhand Governor, for President, months later in 2022.

In the manifesto launched by the BJP on Sunday (April 14) for the 2024 general election, the first point under the party’s promises for the marginalised communities is to expand on the idea of ‘Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas’ and mark 2025 as ‘Janjatiya Gaurav Varsh’. It also happens to be Munda’s 150th birth anniversary year.

While congratulating Murmu on becoming President, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said, “India scripts history. At a time when 1.3 billion Indians are marking Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, a daughter of India hailing from a tribal community born in a remote part of eastern India has been elected our President!”

Since then, Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda has taken every opportunity in Parliament to credit his party and their government for scripting history by ensuring the appointment of a person from the Scheduled Tribe community to the highest constitutional post of the country – and so has Social Justice Minister Virendra Kumar inside and outside the House.

At each of these instances when the BJP has credited the Prime Minister’s “vision for social justice” for Murmu’s election as President, it has also attacked the Opposition Indian National Congress as a party without a similar vision for having opposed her candidature. This played out months ago too — during the campaign for the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, where 31% of the country’s tribal population lives, and where the BJP was able to add to its ST seat count.

By the time the Assembly election campaign for these States was under way at the fag end of 2023, another key plank was emerging: a poll rhetoric designed around building a nationalistic tribal identity by emphasising the government’s efforts to recognise the “deliberately forgotten and neglected” histories of tribal freedom fighters and their struggles.

In Chhattisgarh, M.P., and Rajasthan, the Prime Minister Modi had made it a point to mention the government’s recognition of November 15 as ‘Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas’, a day for the country to recognise the contributions of tribal leaders and icons in India’s centuries-long history of resistance to Islamic and British invaders.

Names of leaders like Tilka Manjhi, Sinagi Dai, Rani Durgavati, Rana Punja Bhil, and many others became a mainstay in his campaign speeches throughout, being invoked whenever he referred to Adivasis as the real protectors of “Bharatiya Sabhyata and Sanskriti”. The Tribal Affairs Ministry and the NCST had been working hard to have the country familiarised with these names in the past year through its book.

President Droupadi Murmu and then NCST Chairperson Harsh Chouhan at the launch of Contributions of Tribal Leaders in the Freedom Struggle.

President Droupadi Murmu and then NCST Chairperson Harsh Chouhan at the launch of Contributions of Tribal Leaders in the Freedom Struggle. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

A tale of two books

The origins of the contents in the NCST’s book on Contributions of Tribal Leaders in the Freedom Struggle lie in an e-book of the same name that was just months before released by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated ABVKA, an organisation that has a stated objective to build temples of Hindu gods and organise “cultural” events in tribal villages in order to encode the messaging of their motto, ‘Tu-MaiEk Rakt’ (You and I have the same blood).

The book gives short descriptions of Adivasi resistance movements led by about 50 leaders dating from the 16th century to the early 20th century and even after independence — much of it controversial and all of it unsourced and unattributed. Among the 50 leaders, at least two — Alluri Sitarama Raju (Andhra Pradesh) and ‘Thakur’ Ranmat Singh (Madhya Pradesh) — were not from tribal communities themselves, with the book showing Ranmat’s Baghel Kshatriya community as a “tribe”.

Further, the mention of Rana Punja Bhil from the 1576 Battle of Haldighati has led to a chain of consequences that has once again ignited a fierce battle over establishing his caste in 2024 — leading to a struggle of identity crises among the people of Panarwa, a small village in Rajasthan, known as Rana Punja’s home.

In most of the Adivasi rebellions it touches upon, the ABVKA book goes on to mention collaborations of Islamic rulers with the British administration while choosing not to highlight similar collaborations between Hindu rulers and local upper-caste landlords and colonial administrators that tribespeople were resisting.

Further, in descriptions of many leaders, the book leaves out their efforts to build their own sociocultural and religious movements, which, at times, were a direct response to the way they were being treated within the Hindu social structure —like that of Rajasthan’s Govindgiri Banjara — or to the expansion of Hinduism in certain parts of the country like that of Haipou Jadonang in Manipur, a Rongmei Naga spiritual leader and activist, who wanted to resist both Christian missionaries and expanding Vaishnavism into Naga territories in the early 20th century.

A comparison between the e-book first released by the ABVKA and the book released by the NCST showed that the contents on each of the 50 leaders mentioned in the two books were identical and so were the pictorial depictions of the leaders. The NCST had credited help from the ABVKA for compiling the material in it. Except for correcting the fact that Ranmat’s community was not a tribe, the NCST leaves the ABVKA material untouched.

At the time, the NCST was being headed by Chouhan, who, according to his resume, has been “working with Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram since 1992 as State Secretary and State President, Madhya Pradesh” and was member of the ABVKA national executive.

While senior NCST officials have not yet answered questions regarding what checks were applied to verify the information gathered by the ABVKA before republishing it, Pramod Pethkar of the ABVKA responded to The Hindu’s questions on sourcing.

“We were fortunate enough that our work throughout the tribal pockets of India allowed us access to these communities. So a large part of the content put up on these tribal heroes in the book has been meticulously gathered from oral sources of history within the communities themselves,” Pethkar said, explaining that these include community songs and anecdotes passed down through generations. “This is evidence that has been ignored for too long.”

NCST’s nudge

Chouhan was appointed as the Chairperson of NCST in February 2021, and one of the principal tasks the Commission had embarked upon since then was this project to highlight stories of Adivasi rebellions and celebrate the contributions of tribal leaders in India’s struggle for Independence, according to officials who worked with him during his tenure there.

In the months preceding the official presentation of its book on tribal freedom fighters to the President, the NCST had been leading a project to take the book on a tour of over 100 universities across the country, where panel discussions were organised along with researchers from Tribal Research Institutes on producing literature on tribal identity, tribal cultures, and tribal development from within these communities in a bid to replace the existing “colonial-era” literature on the subject. The tour had culminated in a two-day workshop in November 2022 when the book was presented to the President of India.

By this time, the Delhi University had already announced its plans to open a Centre for Tribal Studies, with a key objective of encouraging studies on defining “tribes” in an Indian context — an indication of the recognition that much of the political discourse around the inclusion and exclusion of tribes on the ST list had become chaotic because of problems that originated with how British administrators, Census commissioners, and anthropologists had defined these communities and their characteristics.

Other universities like the University of Mumbai and the Central University of Rajasthan soon followed suit and the NCST has since been nudging as many as 104 universities to lay out plans they had for setting up centres for research in this area. The other universities include a couple of IITs, IIMs, and NITs, Banaras Hindu University, Assam University, Birsa Munda Tribal University in Gujarat, Central University of Odisha, and several others.

Once the book had been presented to President Murmu, the NCST released versions of it on its website. Then began the work from government channels to push this content out in as many forms and through as many platforms as possible. It began with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs using the book’s contents, as is, to make posts on X (formerly Twitter); the same content was then being pushed by social media handles of Doordarshan, smaller, regional offices of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and the Press Information Bureau (PIB).

By the time campaigning was on for the Assembly elections in November 2023, the exact material had started appearing on campaign posts of the BJP’s Scheduled Tribe Morcha too. Now, even as the Model Code of Conduct is in place, government channels on social media like that of the Tribal Affairs Ministry and the PIB continue to post this same material on Adivasi leaders. As recently as April 4, when the Tribal Affairs Ministry used the content of the ABVKA e-book to make a video on the history of Siddo-Kanhu Murmu —leaders of the Hul revolt in the mid-19th century.

The content being posted does not anywhere mention the BJP or its positioning. But as the party proceeds to use this well-oiled pipeline designed for the creation, legitimisation, and dissemination of knowledge on Adivasi histories to woo Scheduled Tribe voters across the country, a battlefront has now been thrown open.

The most fierce opposition to the BJP’s attempt at filling the vacuum of information on histories of Adivasi resistance in India is coming from the respective tribal communities themselves on the ground — driven by small, independent parties like the Bharat Adivasi Party in Rajasthan, which rose on the promise of resisting the appropriation of Adivasi identity, and outfits such as the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Mahasabha, Kendriya Sarna Samiti in Jharkhand, and similar ones across the northern tribal belts of the country.

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