Jaipur: On 17 July, about 15,000 of India’s most disadvantaged community, tribals or Adivasis, from the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra gathered at the Mangarh Dham, a concrete obelisk on a hilltop in the southern Rajasthan district of Banswara.
The men, most with a traditional white tauliya or towel wrapped around their neck or head, enthusiastically shouted slogans:
“Jai Johar ka nara hai, bharat desh hamara hai (Jai Johar is our slogan, India is our country).”
“Ek teer ek kamaan adivasi ek samaan (One arrow, one bow, tribals are alike).”
“Maan rahe sammaan rahe Bhil Pradesh ka naam rahe (May there be respect, may there be dignity, may the name of Bhil Pradesh remain).”
“Leke rahenge leke rahenge Bhil Pradesh hum leke rahenge (We will take our Bhil Pradesh).”
They had gathered to demand “Bhil Pradesh”, a contiguous, imagined state for more than 30 million tribals who inhabit swathes of land in Rajasthan, where they make up 13.48 % of the population, Gujarat (14.8%), Madhya Pradesh (21.1%) and Maharashtra (9.35%).
There are about 110 million Indians officially categorised as “scheduled tribes” requiring special assistance and representation. They are scattered across 25 states and five union territories, including the northeast, but about 4.4% of India’s Adivasis, almost all from the Bhil tribe and its sub tribes, who routinely occupy the bottom rung of development indices (here, here and here), live in these four states.
Adivasis in these four states are the poorest, most ill-educated and live the shortest and sickliest lives of any community. They are lower, said experts, on the ladder than even Dalits, lowest of Hindu castes, an assertion borne out by a series of studies over the years (here, here and here).
The proximate cause of protest for the tribals who had gathered in Rajasthan was what they described as the cooption of their cause by organisations allied with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which seeks to categorise Adivasis as lapsed Hindus, although many follow animist traditions, worshipping as they do natural elements, such as land, sun and moon.
Adivasi leaders said they opposed “politicisation” of what they considered a “holy place”, where hundreds of tribals were killed 109 years ago.
On 17 November 1913, over 1,500 Bhil tribal followers of social reformer and spiritual leader Govind Guru of the nomadic Banjara tribe were killed by British colonial forces at the Mangarh hills on the Rajasthan-Gujarat Border. The killings, which occurred six years before the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Punjab, are also referred to as the “Adivasi Jallianwala”.
Mangarh has since been revered as a sacred place by tribals. It was here, also in 1913, that Govind Guru made the first demand for a tribal state.
On 3 July, the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, hoisted a bhagwa dhwaj or Hindu saffron flag at a dharm sabha, or meeting of the faithful, and organised a vehicle rally at Mangarh as a part of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, nationwide celebrations by the union government to commemorate 75 years of India’s independence.
Political Parties Attempt To Woo Tribals
The Bhil Pradesh movement has moved tribals to the forefront of politics and gained the attention of mainstream political parties in the four states in question.
On 9 August, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot celebrated World Tribal Day at Mangarh Dham, inaugurating and laying the foundation stone for a slew of projects, such as digital monographs of freedom fighters, new portal of forest rights and the new system of evaluation for tribal students among others, worth Rs 399 crore.
BJP president JP Nadda began the party's 2023 Rajasthan election campaign from tribal-dominated Sawai Madhopur in April. The BJP also wants Mangarh Dham to be recognised as a national monument. In July, National Monument Authority chairman Tarun Vijay presented a report saying “it will be a tribute to the tribal freedom fighters who lost their lives” to Union culture minister Arjun Ram Meghwal.
In Gujarat, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal toured the state’s tribal regions in May and August respectively, while BJP meetings and chintin shivirs have focused on tribals. In June, Modi launched water-supply projects for 174 villages and a medical college, an investment of Rs 3,050 crore, in tribal-dominated south Gujarat.
In Madhya Pradesh, the ruling BJP administration has renamed railway stations, bus stops, and universities after tribal icons and set up memorials and museums honouring the contribution of tribal leaders in the freedom struggle.
In November 2021, the Madhya Pradesh government even legalised mahua, a liquor that tribals brew from Mahua flowers, announcing that it would be sold as “heritage liquor”. These sops, as we found, are a reaction to a growing tribal assertion and springs from a strengthening identity, a part of it expressed as the demand for a new homeland.
‘Why Not A Bhil Pradesh For Tribals?’
The demand for Bhil Pradesh is led by Bhils, tribals mostly found in the hills of central India in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tripura in the northeast.
The Bhils are India’s second-most populous tribe after the Gonds, and their name is derived from the word billu, which means bow, and, so, are popularly known as the bowmen of Rajasthan. They are known to be excellent archers with a deep knowledge of local geography.
Unlike most other tribals whose languages appear to be of Dravidian origin, the Bhils speak an Indo-Aryan language called Bhili, which is based on Gujarati but draws in elements of other languages in the region across its many dialects, including Wagdi (Rajasthan), Dungri (Gujarat) and Mavchi (Maharashtra).
The demand for a Bhil homeland has, over the years, been also called “Bhilistan”, “Bhilkhand”, and “Jhabhukhand”. The most-recent proposal for Bhil Pradesh consists of the 39 districts (16 in Gujarat; 10 in Rajasthan; seven in Madhya Pradesh; and six in Maharashtra, occupying about 90 assembly constituencies and 11 Lok Sabha constituencies in a region that was once a contiguous tribal region, Jitendra Meena, an Adivasi and assistant professor of history at Delhi University told Article 14.
“After independence, Gujarat was formed for Gujaratis, Maharashtra for Marathis, Tamil Nadu for Tamilians, and likewise other such states were formed, then why not Bhil Pradesh for tribals?” said Kanti Lal Roat, co-founder of Adivasi Parivar, a pressure group.
“Even recently, a new state of Telangana has been formed (in 2014),” said Roat. “So why can’t we demand our state, comprising the geographical area that was there for us before independence?”
The demand for Bhil Pradesh, brewing for more than a decade in the tribal belts of these states, is gradually taking the shape of a “movement”, as the locals called it, with dozens of local Bhil groups, many newly formed, mobilising tribals socially and politically.
Young, vocal Bhil leaders are replacing older leaders, organising awareness programmes, gram sabhas (public meetings at village level), chintan shivirs (brainstorming sessions), and other local meetings through the year, intensifying as state elections approach: 2022 in Gujarat and 2023 in Rajasthan and MP.
Vikas Pathak, senior journalist, author, and professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, told Article 14, that "trends showed that over the past five to 10 years, the century-old demand for Bhil Pradesh gained momentum before every election in these states".
Protection Afforded By The Constitution
“The roots of the demand for Bhil Pradesh lie in the Indian Constitution, which has several special provisions for tribals, mostly ignored or violated”, Hansraj Meena, founder of Tribal Army, an advocacy, told Article 14. “Earlier our people weren’t aware of our constitutional power, now it is our power weapon as we are learning about it”.
The 5th Schedule or Article 244 (1) of the Constitution deals with the administration and control of “scheduled areas” and scheduled tribes from any state other than Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram. The 5th Schedule empowers a state governor “to direct, by public notification, that any particular Act of Parliament or the State Legislature shall not apply to the Scheduled Area of that state, or shall apply subject to exceptions and modifications”.
For mineral-rich scheduled areas, section 5 of the Forest Right Act (FRA) 2006 empowers a gram sabha to regulate access to community forest resources and stop activities that adversely affect local wildlife, forests and the biodiversity.
“Illegal mining is the biggest fraud happening on the ground in the scheduled areas, the gram sabha process is violated openly, as in most cases mining leases and ownership are in the names of the local tribals, who aren’t even aware of it with fraudulent signatures of gram sabha members or by other illegal means,” said Jitendra Meena, the Delhi University professor. “Our resources are being used with law violations and we are even not getting the benefit of it”.
Half of India’s top mining areas are in tribal lands, IndiaSpend reported in January 2017. The average proportion of forests in India’s mineral-producing districts is 28%, more than the national average of 20.9%, and mining invariably leads to their depletion and displacement.
This mineral wealth has sparked numerous conflicts, as Article 14 has previously reported (here, here and here).
Samir Damor, a social activist from Bhiloda in the Aravalli district of eastern Gujarat, said that every time a senior leader, minister, or VIP was due to visit the district, police picked up tribal activists and detained them or placed them under house arrest.
“We can't even protest to be heard,” said Damor. Off the record, police officials admitted the detentions and said this was because of “pressure” from their governments.
“Give us our state,” said Damor. “We'll be happy and free."
The Illegal Exploitation Of Tribal Land
An officer with the Rajasthan government’s department of mines, speaking on condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to speak to the media, confirmed the role of corporate lobbying to acquire mining leases in tribal areas.
“We are aware of what’s happening on the ground and why,” said the officer. “We also know who is doing it, they are the ones who are regulars in our chambers, we can’t afford to upset them. Lobbying plays a very vital role in the mining industry [and] the illegal proportion (of mines) is higher than those that are legal.”
Traditionally nature worshippers, as we said, tribals complained about the exploitation of their natural resources and their own exploitation as labourers in mines on tribal land by non-tribal mine owners.
“By harming nature, the mines are doing no good for us either, as only 50% of labourers are local, that too in low positions,” Rajkumar Roat, Bharatiya Tribal Party member of legislative assembly (MLA) from Chorasi in south Rajasthan told Article 14.
He said silicosis (a lung disease caused by inhaling tiny crystalline dust particles) was very common among area mine workers. Employers did not ensure health checks, as the law requires, and most are not aware of the disease, said Rajkumar Roat, who supports the demand for Bhil Pradesh.
“We want to save the forests of Aravalis, Satkunda, and our people from exploitation,” said Rajkumar Roat.
Under the Right to fair compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (RFCTLARR Act) no acquisition of land is normally allowed in “scheduled areas”, except as a “demonstrable last resort” and only with prior consent from the local gram sabha, panchayat or autonomous district council.
The Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Area (PESA) Act of 1996 also requires local consultation and consent before takeover of tribal land and rehabilitation of those affected.
This consent, said experts, is often obtained under duress or faked signatures, as previous reporting and studies have extensively documented (here and here).
Threats To Water & Cultural Identity
The illegal takeovers of tribal land and the decimation of forests not only violates the fifth schedule but threatens, said many experts and tribals, local water resources and cultural identity
“Tribals are deeply tied to nature and culture, so when they are taken away, our survival is threatened,” said Jitendra Meena, the Delhi university professor.
Despite dams in their areas, Rajasthan and Gujarat tribals now face water shortages. Rajasthan was ranked lowest in the union government’s think tank, Niti Aayog’s Water Management index released in 2018. Locals alleged water from their dams was transferred to nearby states under various agreements.
“Water is one of the main reasons we're split today,” said Kanti Lal, the Tribal Army founder. “If our state is founded, the water war would end because we'll fulfil our demands first… abundant water would boost our crops, finances, and education.”
He argued that since Bhils were scattered across states, a tribal state would also protect cultural identity and language. “Our Bhili language is in danger,” he said. “It's misnamed in several regions: some call it Mewari, Vagadi, Gujarati, Marathi or Malvi. This is because we are divided,”
Jitendra Meena said tribals were also converting to other religions “at a rapid pace, putting our tribal status in peril and weakening us from within”.
The Internet Revolution
In recent months, the demand for a separate state surfaced politically in Rajasthan during the Rajya Sabha elections in May 2022, when the Adivasi Parivar, a pressure group, and BTP demanded at least one tribal be sent to the upper house of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha. Up to 84 seats are reserved in the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, for scheduled tribes, but none in the Rajya Sabha.
“The BJP and the Congress used us for votes, but no one understood our issues,” said Kanti Lal of the Adivasi Parivar. “We were easy vote targets because we were ignorant and poor.”
The new wave of local tribal organisations sense the political space created by this disenchantment, starting after the 2010 internet revolution. Tribal activists and leaders campaigning for Bhil Pradesh said social media was the "breath" of their movement since it helped mobilise support, spread opinions and knowledge about ancestors, issues and leaders.
This has been apparent in the hills of southern Rajasthan.
"As children, we heard elders demand a Bhil Pradesh, but as I grew up, I couldn't find it anywhere because our history is just in bhajans and folk songs,” said Rajkumar Roat, the MLA.
He said he listened, learned, and then shared information with his people. "I've felt everything from the beginning,” he said, echoing the experiences of others. “Our efforts to be heard, being exploited, and I want to speak up ever since."
Jitendra Meena, the professor, said as tribals moved to cities, they realised how badly off they were and began keeping in touch with one another. The first formal step at organising themselves came in the form of the Adivasi Anusuchit Sangharsh Morcha or Tribal Scheduled Sangharsh Morcha, a social organisation, established by Kanti Lal and others in 2012.
Tribal Entry Into Rajasthan Politics
As the 2013 assembly elections neared, former Meghalaya chief minister P A Sangma, a tribal, traveled to Rajasthan with his newly established National People's Party (NPP) and fought the elections under the leadership of tribal member of Parliament Kirodi Lal Meena. NPP campaigned in helicopters and spent crores of rupees, running a campaign locals had never seen, and, as it turned out, did not appreciate. The party won no seats.
That was when those like Rajkumar Roat tried to bring many local organisations together in the form of a “family” or parivar, much like, he said, the RSS parivar, the umbrella organisation of Hindu organisation.
The Adivasi Parivar’s public awareness campaigns around tribal history, traditions,and rights helped in carving out a deep base in tribal south Rajasthan, with various outfits and wings added on, starting with the student wing, Bhil Pradesh Vidhyarthi Morcha, in 2015, regarded as a success.
“By the 2018 assembly elections, we were ready for politics but lacked a party and resources,” said Kanti Lal. “Months before the election we met Chhotubhai Vasava, who had formed the Bharatiya Tribal Party, and we shared a common vision.”
“Since our people started awakening us, we only see the image of the Bhil Pradesh logo on the ballot as our eyes have stopped identifying other signs. We are very well understood now that only our people can get our land back and not the outsiders (BJP and Congress)”, said Ajay Dindor, a farmer and resident of Jhadol in south Rajasthan.
In the 2018 elections, the Adivasi Parivar fought alongside BTP on nine state assembly seats. It won 2 seats, Sagwara and Chorasi, came second in another and marked its presence in six seats in south Rajasthan.
This political impact of the movement is profound in certain parts of south Rajasthan, as we observed during our reporting. Local enthusiasm centred on Adivasi ideology and was not limited to a political party. Tribal activists and leaders said their campaigns ran on community finance.
“During elections, unlike the general trend, I didn't have to organise anything or spend on refreshments,” said Rajkumar Roat, for whose campaign locals supplied chai (tea) and bhujia (a savoury deep-fried snack). His campaign car was borrowed from his sister.
In Gujarat, A Rising Movement. In MP, The RSS Holds Sway
The movement for a separate Bhil state is strongest in Rajasthan and Gujarat because of local faces, organisations and politics. In Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, it is being led by the BTP; in Gujarat, by the Adivasi Parivar.
In Gujarat, the proposed area of Bhil Pradesh spans Banaskantha in the northeast to Valsad in the south. The movement’s strong influence in these areas, observers said, is due to seven-time BTP MLA Chhotubhai Vasava.
Emerging in 2017 with Bhilistan as a major priority, the BTP contested the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections with the Congress as an ally in six constituencies, in which it won two with Chhotubhai Vasava and his son Maheshbhai Vasava winning from Jhagadia and Dediapada respectively.
Vasava's first attempt at Bhil Pradesh through an organisation was the Bhilistan Vikas Morcha formed in 2009. Vasava, a prominent tribal figure in Gujarat and adjacent regions, has attracted many Adivasis, with his party simply known as the "Vasava ji ki party" or Vasava’s party in tribal areas.
“Chhotubhai's decade-long work is paying off,” Maheshbhai Vasava told Article 14. “We were the first to voice the demand, and it has since spread across India and would be the biggest tribal demand in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.”
The movement's intensity appeared low in Madhya Pradesh, the state with the largest tribal population of the four states in question, because of the dominance of the 70-year-old Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the RSS's tribal unit, in Jhabua-Alirajpur, the state's most prominent tribal region, is the key to it.
As Article 14 reported in February 2022, several local tribal organisations are allied with the larger Hindu cause, resisting, for instance, conversion to Christianity. But most tribal leaders here have roots in the RSS, which has always opposed Bhil Pradesh, and calls tribals "Vanvasi" or forest-dwellers, who they say are Hindu.
"Here, people don’t want Bhil Pradesh as we are strong in the area,” a senior tribal leader associated with the RSS, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We've locked it so tight that these demands won't reach our people in the next 100 years."
In Maharashtra, the tribal region lies from Nandurbar in the North to Thane in the West. "Here, the tribals are comparatively fewer than in other states and are dispersed,” said Pathak, the journalist. “And where they are in sizable numbers, the demand for (a separate) Vidarbha (state) is already going on… they are already engaged in that struggle.”
The Visible Rise Of Tribal Identity
"Our people have started embracing their caste, customs and culture because of our initiative,” said Damor, the Gujarati tribal activist. “Today, every third vehicle in our region displays Jai Johar or Jai Adivasi slogans. You can now clearly identify a tribe member in a crowd by his white tauliya.”
“During the Covid lockdown, when physical travel was restricted across the country, our [people] working in neighbouring states, using their identity to get passage and were dropped home,” said Rajkumar Roat”. “This was magical for us.”
It is now common to see Adivasis proudly carry bow and arrows and greet each with the Jai Johar slogan, which roughly means glory to nature (which helps everyone). It was the slogan India’s new President Draupadi Murmu used after taking her oath on 25 July 2022.
The irony has not been lost on many tribals, who see her ascension as vindication of their struggle. “We fought for years to say Jai Johar out loud, but the BJP called us Naxalites, and we faced many problems. Now the President, a former BJP leader, is using it.
The rise of a collective tribal identity has paid some dividends. For instance, tribal pressure prompted the Rajasthan government in July 2020 to declare a public holiday on World Tribal Day. Rajasthan now has, like Maharashtra a separate budget head for scheduled caste, scheduled tribe welfare.
In 2021, the Rajasthan government launched a programme named after Kali Bai, a tribal girl who saved her teacher’s life. The Kali Bai Scooty Yojana gifts scooters to tribal school students who excel in academics.
“These tiny acts enhance morale and raise awareness,” said Rajkumar Roat.
(Devendra Pratap Singh Shekhawat is an independent journalist based in Rajasthan, covering issues related to caste, politics, governance, hate, religion and minorities.)