Special National

How delisting is a ticking political time bomb in northern Chhattisgarh  

The drive towards delisting of converted tribals may split the 32% tribal votes in the Chhattisgarh. File

The drive towards delisting of converted tribals may split the 32% tribal votes in the Chhattisgarh. File | Photo Credit: PTI

During a recent visit to Chhattisgarh’s Jashpur, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel was asked about the delisting of tribals who have converted to other religions, primarily Christianity - an issue that has been festering in the State since the beginning of this year. A number of rallies have been held in Jashpur in recent months to protest against tribals, who have converted, but still avail benefits of the Scheduled Tribe provisions.

Mr. Baghel sought to put the ball in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s court, saying that the campaign for delisting was being run by the BJP and since the party was in power at the Centre, it should initiate a constitutional amendment if it meant business rather than “hold rallies in Jashpur”.

While the issue of delisting of Christian tribals in order to deny them reservation benefits has gained momentum nationally since the beginning of this year, the question assumes greater significance in a district like Jashpur that has 67 per cent tribal population, most of whom hail from the Oraon tribe and a majority of whom are converts to Christianity from several generations ago.

The issue has assumed political significance in the light of the fact that the entire northern belt of Sarguja had voted en masse for the Congress in the 2018 assembly elections, forcing the BJP to draw a blank in all the 14 seats there. With the next Assembly elections just about a year away, the drive towards delisting of converted tribals may split the 32 per cent tribal votes in the State, which is not good news for the ruling Congress party, admit its leaders privately.

Bhagat, face of protests

Ganesh Ram Bhagat, a former State minister and the national convenor of Janjati Suraksha Manch (JSM), has emerged as the face of the delisting protests in the region. Founded in 2006, JSM is leading the delisting campaign in the country and is widely perceived to have the backing of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Jashpur, a district that shares borders with Jharkhand and Odisha, is Mr. Bhagat’s home turf and hence crucial from his individual standpoint too, according to those in the BJP.

“We will not sit quietly till the demands are met. If the Christians do not follow our tribal cultures and traditions, do not worship the gods that we do, how can they be counted as tribals and keep on taking the reservation benefits?” he asks.

However, such assertions have sparked fears among the Christians, says Yakub Kujur, a former college professor and member of the Jashpur Vikas Samiti that works for the rights of the tribals and the displaced. He also says that despite the conversion, his family and other fellow Christians follow many tribal customs and traditions. In his fifties now, Mr. Kujur says that his family converted three generations ago, around 1908. The history of conversions date back even earlier, as early as the 1860s, when the Christian missionaries first came to the region.

It is to be noted that it was also in Jashpur, where the first Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram was founded in 1952 by Ramakant Keshav Deshpande (also known as Balasaheb Deshpande), an official of the Orissa State Department of Tribal Welfare, with the support of the [then] State Government [led by Congress’ Ravi Shankar Shukla] and the RSS. Locals say that checking the growing influence of Christian missionaries in the forests was one of the prime reasons for setting up these Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams that gradually spread to all parts of the country.

Ghar Wapasi Abhiyaan

The turf-war over the years has only intensified. More recently, the region was the main hub of a Ghar Wapasi Abhiyaan in Chhattisgarh’s tribal hub, with the members of the Jashpur royal family, particularly the now deceased BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo playing a leading role in the campaign. During his lifetime, he had claimed to have reconverted thousands of Christian tribals back to Hinduism.

Since his death in 2013 and the subsequent death of his son Yudhvir Singh Judev last year, there has been a clamp down on such activities. The present delisting campaign can now fill this vacuum, believes a former BJP MLA from the region.

“It is common knowledge that the Christians do not vote for us and hence if they are delisted, it will only help us electorally. However, there is the larger question of other tribals being denied the benefits meant for them. Christians from the very beginning have been ahead of others in recognising and exploiting opportunities and can no longer be termed backward,” says an ex- MLA on condition of anonymity.

Far-reaching consequences

Kujur, however, feels that delisting will have far-reaching consequences and it does not merely concern reservation benefits. “This is a sensitive issue. Delisting may also mean that we won’t be counted as tribals and that means de-scheduling Fifth Schedule of the Constitution that deals with the administration and control of Scheduled Areas as well as of Scheduled Tribes residing in any State other than the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. This may result in tribals losing their rights such as reservation in local bodies or their special land rights, or obtaining a gram sabha’s consent before mining,” he says.

He also accuses the RSS of Hinduisation of tribals and emphasizes that tribals remain tribals irrespective of their religious persuation or the god they worship, a claim that finds backing from Congress state president Mohan Markam, a tribal himself.

Mr. Bhagat however says that the animist beliefs and worshipping of nature by the tribals are closer to Sanatana Dharma than Christianity.

Bhagat invokes 1968 Cong demand

On questions such as CM Baghel’s challenge on constitutional amendment being the only route, or court judgments establishing that tribal rights are independent of religion, or that the conversion logic also applies to those tribals who call themselves as Hindus, Mr. Bhagat gives a rather rhetorical reply and invokes a former Congress leader Kartik Oraon.

It was Mr. Oraon, who had made an unsuccessful attempt in 1968 to deschedule Christian tribals by introducing a Bill in Parliament. Decades later, it is his arguments in support of the demand that have now become the rallying point for the delisting campaign presently run nationally by the BJP.

“If Oraon had made such demands, they must be justified. We want to preserve his legacy and pay him a rightful tribute by making the delisting demand succeed,” Mr. Bhagat says.

After having organised several rallies at the district level, Mr. Bhagat’s JSM now wants to take the issue to each and every block of Sarguja and later Bastar, another tribal belt in South Chhattisgarh. He distances himself from his BJP party and says he is only working for tribal rights and “anyone was free to benefit from it”.

The Congress may for the time being refer to constitutional provisions and technicalities but they acknowledge that a political counter may not be easy to come by. “Avoiding any debate around the sensitive and divisive topic may be the best strategy for now but as the BJP intensifies its campaign, we will have to find new answers,” says a Raipur-based Congress leader.


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Printable version | Jul 2, 2022 12:25:54 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/how-delisting-is-a-ticking-political-time-bomb-in-northern-chhattisgarh/article65589202.ece