In Gujarat’s tribal heartland, BJP & Sangh march out of step

The dismissal of a tribal BJP MLA from a temple trust In south Gujarat’s Dang district has revealed a faultline between the party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-backed organization in the state’s Adivasi heartland.

The Shabri Seva Samiti, which controls the Shabri Dham temple, is headed by Swami Asemanand who was among the accused in the Mecca Masjid, Samjhauta Express and Ajmer Dargah bombing cases. He has been acquitted of all the charges. Assemanand leads the RSS’s Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad and lives near the temple.

On June 8, BJP MLA Vijay Patel who represented Dang, a 100 per cent tribal constituency, was removed from the Samiti “because a photo that went viral showed him standing with BJP leaders, including two Christian leaders identified as Jagdish Gavit and BJP general secretary Rajesh Gamit, near the idols of Sabrimata and Lord Ram in the Shabri Dham temple in Subir on June 6”, the Samiti’s member Kishor Gavit told The Indian Express. Both Jagdish Gavit, who is the husband of BJP district panchayat vice-president Nirmala Gavit, and Rajesh Gamit belong to Adivasi communities.

This disccord between the BJP and the Sangh-backed temple trust comes at a time when the ruling party is going all out to reach out to Adivasis — they constitute 14 per cent of the population that lives in areas along the eastern part of the state, stretching from north to south Gujarat — in the run-up to the state elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a large public meeting in Navsari district’s Khudvel village on Friday where he praised the culture of the state’s tribal communities and inaugurated several development projects.

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But Kishor Gavit said, “The objective of the Samiti is to stop religious conversion of tribal Hindus to Christianity and bring back those converted back to Hinduism. Vijay Patel knows it very well as he worked with us on this agenda and now his act of standing with a group of BJP leaders, including Christians, near idols in the temple, is unacceptable.”

The Trust member said the organization decided to expel the MLA “by passing a resolution at a meeting chaired by Swami Asemanand at the temple premises” as he had “acted against the principle of our Samiti”.

According to Patel, the two Christian BJP leaders were part of a group of functions accompanying former Assembly Speaker and BJP MLA Ganpat Vasava on a political tour of Dang. “On the last day, I joined Vasava and other BJP leaders on their tour when we went to Shabrimata temple at Shabri Dham,” Patel told The Indian Express, adding, “I have no grudges and accept the decision taken by the Samiti. But they should have sought an explanation from me before taking such a decision.”

While the BJP is trying to reach out to Adivasis after by tribal groups forced the state government to scrap the Par Tapi Narmada river-linking project last month, a rightwing organization with links to the Sangh is campaigning to delist tribals who have converted to Christianity from Scheduled Tribes (ST) list. The Jan Jati Suraksha Samiti of Dang last month held two public meetings in Ahwa town. One such meeting was attended by, among others, BJP women’s wing district president Sumanben Davli and RSS south Gujarat sah karyavahak Vasant Gamit, who is the vice-principal of Vyara college in Tapi district.

In his speech, Gamit said, “Those Hindu tribals who converted to Christianity or Islam will not remain tribals and should not get the benefit of government schemes and they should be delisted. They follow Christianity and Islam but on birth certificates they show themselves as Hindu. We will demand that the government pass a law for the removal of those tribals from the ST converted category. They should not get government benefits and reservation.”

The videos of the speeches from these events alarmed Dang’s Christian community and its leaders, under the umbrella of the Samast Khristi Samaj, Bharat, met Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel and state BJP president CR Paatil in Gandhinagar on June 2. In a memorandum handed to the two leaders, the delegation accused some religious outfits of spreading false information in Dang and Tapi districts that Hindu tribals who had converted to Christianity would be delisted. The delegation’s members told Patel that such rallies and campaigns “made them fear for their lives”.

Both the CM and the state BJP chief assured the delegation that the rights of Christian tribals would remain intact and the government would not entertain any proposals of the sort being made by the right-wing outfits.

Former Dang district president of the BJP and Gujarat Tribal Development Corporation’s director Baburao Chaurya (52) said the ruling party’s agenda was to work for everyone irrespective of their caste, creed, and religion. “Christian tribals are turning towards the BJP and we have seen the results of the 2020 by-elections,” he went on to say. “It is because our workers have reached out to them and we have given them tickets for the taluka panchayat and district panchayat presidents’ posts and they won. There are some people who are against such steps, but we don’t give importance to them. Due to our work, we get support from them and this helps us in the elections.”

The district of Dang, which is on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border, has a 40 per cent Christian population. Patel was elected to the Assembly from Dang in a by-election in 2020 after incumbent Congress MLA Mangal Gavited and joined the BJP. During the bypoll campaign, Ganpat Vasava, who represents Surat’s Mangrol seat in the Assembly, held meetings with tribal Christians to seek support for Patel’s candidature. Tribal Christian voters in Dang have traditionally chosen the Congress over the BJP. In the south Gujarat districts of Valsad, Dang, Tapi, Navsari, and Surat there are 11 Assembly seats reserved for STs of which the BJP currently holds seven and the Congress four. Congress MLA Punaji Gamit from the constituency of Vyara in Tapi is the lone Christian in the Gujarat Assembly.

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