In the run up to the Chhattisgarh election, both the principal parties in the state, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have made grand promises about representing Adivasi interests. While campaigning in the Adivasi-majority district of Surajpur on 7 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Congress never cared about you, never thought about your children. In contrast, the BJP has always given top priority to tribal welfare.” Modi also pointed to the BJP’s support for Droupadi Murmu, an Adivasi leader, being made the president of India, as proof of his party’s support of Adivasi communities.
On the other end of the campaign, the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi told voters near the state capital of Raipur, “We introduced PESA in Chhattisgarh for tribals, and the Congress wants every young tribal person to start dreaming and fulfilling their dreams by involving themselves in all sectors of work.” The full implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act—enacted to allow self-governance through traditional gram sabhas for people living in scheduled areas—has been a core demand of Adivasi activists in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere. Despite Gandhi and Modi’s high-minded rhetoric, the implementation of PESA in Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi regions has been poor, and both parties have weakened key laws that were created to enshrine Adivasi autonomy and accessibility to forests. Not only have both parties failed to make forest- and land-rights an election issue, laws made to protect these rights have been misused to target Adivasi Christians. This is a process that the BJP has seemingly encouraged and the Congress has failed to prevent.
Roughly thirty-four percent of Chhattisgarh is Adivasi and 29 of the state’s 90 assembly seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribe communities. One of the primary reasons for the creation of the state was a bid to better the representation of Adivasis in the region. Yet, the issues of farmers and Other Backward Classes communities in the plains often become prominent prominence in state elections. Major political parties frequently sideline the immediate issues faced by Adivasis in the northern and southern parts of the state.
BS Rawate, the state president of Sarva Adivasi Samaj, an umbrella body of Adivasi organisations, told me as much. The SAS recently launched an electoral outfit called Hamar Raj, which drew in Adivasi civil servants and Adivasi politicians disillusioned by both major parties. “We have been working with different parties till now, but our issues have been ignored all this while,” Rawate told me. “So, we’ve launched our own party. We won’t be able to form a government, but they won’t have our help in forming the government.” Rawate is contesting in the Patan seat, against sitting chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, of the Congress.
At the centre, the Modi government has consistently whittled away safeguards on the conservation of forests and rights of Adivasis over the land. In July 2023, amid opposition protests demanding that Modi address the issue of the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Manipur, the Parliament passed an amendment to the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, that excluded several categories of forests from protections guaranteed under the original act till then. For example, the amendment removes protections from “0.10 hectares of land alongside a rail track or a public road and land that is proposed to be used for setting up security-related infrastructure and up to five hectares of land in an area affected by left-wing extremism.”