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Home > Election > Report

Swaying to the Hindutva beat

Amberish Kathewad Diwanji in Baroda | December 10, 2002 02:25 IST

Journalists and psephologists in the habit of generalising have had a rule of thumb for long: Muslims, dalits, and adivasis vote for the Congress. So, if the party had not done anything to antagonise any of them, its success was assured. For many elections, both for the Lok Sabha and the assemblies, this rule was applied, and for years, it seemed to work.

But things really are not that simple. Not any longer. Dalits moved away from the Congress over a decade ago, refusing to back a party that took their votes and imposed upper-caste leaders upon them. Muslims, shattered by the Babri Masjid demolition, too looked askance and questioned their loyalty to a party that treated them merely as a vote bank. And in Gujarat, it is clear that the blind support of the adivasis can also no longer be counted upon by the Congress.

While the current election in Gujarat looks like a neck-and-neck race between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the saffronites have made deep inroads into the state's adivasi belt, and the results are showing.

During the recent riots, young adivasi men and teenage boys in large groups swooped down upon Muslim establishments, attacking them with a vigour and fervour that shocked many. This was the first time that adivasis were taking part in a Hindu-Muslim riot, something they had avoided doing all along despite Gujarat's history of communal discord.

"I believe it is because of Islamic terrorism," claimed Vasantbhai Salat, who owns a ramshackle shop made up of tin sheets in Pavi village, near Jetpur town. The town lies on State Highway 11 that links Vadodara to Chhota Udepur. "We Hindus have tolerated Islamic terrorism for so long that sometimes the patience gives way."

He admitted that cadres of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were active in his village, though they did not have any branch office in the village. He, however, did not attribute the rise of Hindu consciousness just to the VHP's presence.

Perhaps, it has more to do with the easy availability of information. "For years we have been reading and hearing about Islamic terrorism, so I think that this time people were affected," said Narsibhai Rathva. Narsibhai works with the schools midday meal programme.

Asked who he and his friends would vote for, he said he was not sure, but added that he was impressed by caretaker Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Muslims see it differently. They blame the attacks by adivasis on their houses and establishments on incitement and mobilisation by Hindutva forces.  "Adivasis," says Haroonbhai Khatri, who owns a small shop in Tejgadh village, east of Chhota Udepur, "are simple folk who can be fooled easily. They also drink a lot, and once you provide them with alcohol, they will do anything. That is what happened during the riots."

Tejgadh, incidentally, was one of the worst affected villages and behind Haroonbhai's shop, the Islami Relief Coordination Committee is busy rebuilding burnt down houses.

Opposite Haroonbhai's shop are a line of small shops, all owned by Muslims, and all of them bear the surname Khatri, indicating not just a common religion, but also a common caste origin.

Mohammadbhai Khatri, an elderly person, said he was sure the Congress would come to power simply because the riots affected the Hindus very badly too.  "We shopkeepers, after all, get our products from the Hindu whole sellers; and when the riots occurred, they too suffered badly. My Sindhi friend told me that his business was badly hit because we were unable to lift his products."

Mohammadbhai insisted that adivasis and Muslims live in complete harmony now. "The adivasis work in our shops, they live nearby. For years there was no problem; suddenly why would they attack us unless incited or bribed to do so by others?" he asked.

North of Chhota Udepur, a town that is just a few kilometres from the Madhya Pradesh border, in the Kamvat subdistrict, lie the adivasi villages of Raipur and Moregna.

Rajubhai Rathva, a young adivasi, works in Surat as a gem polisher. He believes the adivasis turned upon the Muslims because for years the Muslims in the villages, prosperous traders mostly, had grown arrogant.

"Whenever we went to them for work or to sell or buy stuff, they would behave badly. They'd hit us, they'd mistreat our womenfolk. Whenever we hire their jeeps for travel, they'd insist that the women sit in the front next to the (male Muslim) driver. So we adivasi men wanted to take revenge for the years of humiliation that we have suffered," claimed Rajubhai.

When Godhra happened, Rajubhai said the adivasis were more than willing to take part in the attacks. He claimed that the apparent bonhomie at present between the adivasis and Muslims is just on the surface.

In a sense, this communal battle between Hindus and Muslims also reveals a deep class divide between the poor and the traders. Unlike north India, where Muslims are not so well off, in Gujarat a huge numbers of them are traders.

When Rajubhai was asked if Hindus do not exploit the adivasis, he said they do, but in his part of Gujarat, the dominant trading class are the Khatri Muslims.

Economics too is at work. Rajubhai pointed to the owner of the farm where we were standing. It was just two small plots, which could barely provide a month's meal. On one plot, cotton was growing, on the other toor dal (pulse).  These crops are seasonal and were sowed since the Dhamni river that runs through the village still had water. Once the almost dried river finally dries up completely, probably in a couple of weeks, the adivasi villagers would be forced to migrate to the nearby towns to work as labourers in shops and other business establishments. This happens every year; it has been happening for decades now.

Rajubhai's friend, Dilipbhai Rathva, revealed his utter frustration and despair with his future. "We Rathvas are bright people, even though most people think that adivasis an ignorant lot. We can do anything if only we get the chance. But where is that chance? I wanted to get a Bachelor of Education degree (a degree required to become a school teacher), but the college asked for Rs 100,000 in donation. Where will a poor person like me bring so much money from?" asked Dilipbhai bitterly.

Rajubhai concurred. "We have no money. Higher studies are out of question. And because we do not study, we do not get good jobs and are stuck doing jobs as gem polishers in Surat or as industrial apprentice in Vadodara," he said.

Rajubhai said all adivasis in the surrounding villages considered themselves Hindus, even though the adivasi hamlets were almost always a little distance away from the main village.  He admitted that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers were active in his village, Raipur, but insisted that it would not affect his voting behaviour.

Dilipbhai was carrying posters of an independent candidate, but said that he had been given the job of pasting them in the village; it had little to do with his vote.

"These elections are very close. We will all decide on the day of voting," Rajubhai concluded.

 


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