Degree Prasad Chouhan is president of the Chhattisgarh unit of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). With the state set to elect its new government this month, Chouhan, in an email interview with FORWARD Press, answers questions on the what role Adivasis, Dalits, OBCs and religious minorities will play in the polls and the promises being doled out by different political parties to the electorate. His answers have been lightly edited to enhance readability.
You lead the Chhattisgarh unit of PUCL. You have also led many social protests in the state. In your view, which Adivasi-related issues will play a decisive role in the elections?
In Chhattisgarh, the government and the Adivasis as a community are at loggerheads on the issues of implementation of the PESA Act, drafting of rules under it and the demand for local self-governance. The reservation guidelines of 2012, which accord priority to the local Adivasis in employment and as beneficiaries of various government schemes in the Fifth Schedule areas, were rendered ineffectual during the regime of Bhupesh Baghel. Forcible eviction of Adivasis from their homes and illegal loot of their land for the implementation of government and private projects are key issues in north Chhattisgarh. In south Chhattisgarh, branding of thousands of Adivasis as naxalites, registration of false cases against them and throwing them behind bars are the key issues.
What are the concerns of the Dalits in Chhattisgarh?
As always, the twin issues of self-respect and social justice are the focus of the struggle by the Dalits. When the government machinery was busy laying the foundation stones for the building of Ram Van Gaman Path and in organizing yatras, the Dalit-dominated areas of Chhattisgarh were in the grip of communal and casteist violence. In Panchayats in Sakti (till recently Janjgir-Champa) district, the government’s Ramayan Mandali events were used to remind the Dalits of their status in the rural social setup; in Mahasamund, diktats were painted on walls asking Dalits not to use water from public ponds for bathing, washing, etc and warning them to remain within their limits, and in Rama Dharampura, Jaitkhambs, which are revered and treasured by the Dalits, were consigned to flames. In the garb of Pauni Pasari, Charmashilp and Nai Peti schemes, Varnashrama-based traditional occupations are being thrust upon the people by the government. In the name of implementation of Gothaan and Godhan Nyaya Yojana, the landless labourers, living on the margins of society are being deprived of the land in their possession. Instead of encouraging these communities, who have been without land for centuries, to collect cow dung, it would have been better to allot land to them under land reform schemes.
Do you think these elections could inaugurate an era of Dalit-Adivasi unity in the state, especially given the differences that have emerged over the issue of reservations?
The Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have decided to contest elections together in Chhattisgarh. The list of candidates of the Hamar Raj Party also shows some degree of coordination between the Sarva Adivasi Samaj and the Dalit communities. But despite that, I feel that there is a lack of coordination and dialogue between the two communities. If they plan to forge a long-term strategy, they need to resolve these issues without delay. Until society at large is convinced that Dalit-Adivasi unity and coordination are not limited to elections, this strategy won’t work. There was clearly a lack of coordination and dialogue between the two communities on the issue of the restoration of 16 per cent reservation for the Dalits.
What is the state of OBC politics? Do you think the Bhupesh Baghel government has fulfilled the expectations of the OBCs? Caste census is now on the national agenda. Will it bring the OBCs together?
Chhattisgarh’s OBCs are still drunk on Ramdhun [Ram chant]. In most villages, the OBCs are landowners and the landowner-priest nexus is age-old. Bhupesh Baghel and his supporters are peddling Hindutva in the hope that they would be able to polarize the voters. The OBCs are happy that the ruling Congress party kept its poll promise of purchasing paddy at MSP (Minimum Support Price) and of paying bonus for every acre of produce. But they are happier that the Congress is enforcing Hindutva agenda in Chhattisgarh. The OBCs are so engrossed in chanting the Ramdhun that they cannot see that on the one hand, the government has announced 27 per cent reservations to the OBCs, while on the other hand it keeps quiet as more than 50 petitions against the decision are filed by its rank and file.
Data on caste surveys and OBC population in other states are coming to fore and that has triggered a nationwide debate on the need for the share in jobs to be in proportion to the population. The forces that had taken to the streets against the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations, driven by their political interests, are now rooting for a caste census. These developments will probably stir the OBCs from their slumber and they will understand the real import of social justice.
Chhattisgarh has always been in the news vis-à-vis its religious minorities, especially Christians – most of whom are Adivasis. Are the political parties alive to their concerns and issues in these elections?
It is ironic that both the major political parties are competing with each other to target religious minorities, who form a tiny two per cent of the population, with the sole aim of polarizing the votes of the majority community in their favour. Rule of law is all but absent. The Adivasi Christians are being driven out from their villages and settlements; they are facing social and economic boycott; they are being stopped from burying their dead – there is no end to their miseries. In Kabirdham, a controversy was kicked up over hoisting of a flag. At sponsored events in Jagdalpur, Bastar and in Lundra (a tehsil in Surguja district), people collectively took a pledge to economically and socially boycott the religious minorities. In Beeranpur, the government machinery discriminated against the minorities in providing relief and arranging rehabilitation of the victims of communal riots. Thus, the minorities are being terrorized and victimized, and justice is being denied to them. They can hope little from this festival of democracy.
Questions are being raised on the implementation of the PESA Act in the state. Then, implementation (or lack thereof) of provisions related to the Fifth Schedule and Forest Rights and Land Acquisition Acts are also being talked about. Would these be issues in the elections?
Regarding the PESA Act, I would like to reiterate that in Chhattisgarh, with state patronage, the Hindu fascist forces have made deep inroads into the Adivasi community by raising slogans demanding village republics, protection of jal-jangal-zameen and ecological preservation. The PESA Act is mainly aimed at ensuring that in the traditional villages falling under Fifth Schedule, the local Adivasis should have a say in the management of natural resources and have the right to self-governance. However, in the name of the Act, non-Hindu minority communities are being targeted and driven out of villages.
The Chhattisgarh government claims it is second to none in distributing forest rights documents. But data shows that the state is second to none in distributing forest rights documents to non-Adivasis. The government is more interested in giving rights to communities than to individuals. Throwing rules to the wind, forest rights documents have been cancelled in areas where private industrial and mining projects are located. And the number of rejected claims is much higher than the number of pattas issued.
On the pretext of land acquisition, Adivasis are being illegally deprived of their land. The laws and rules that have been put in place to preserve the land rights of the Adivasis and curb the loot of their land and transfer of the ownership of their land to non-Adivasis have been rendered impotent. Selective implementation of the land revenue laws in place to prevent non-Adivasis from usurping the land of the Adivasis by deceit or fraud is there for all to see. In the northern parts of the state, the administrative machinery is not fulfilling its mandate of protecting the Adivasis from being dispossessed of their land by mining and thermal power companies and restoring the land already usurped by these companies to the Adivasis. At the same time, the laws are being used with great alacrity against churches being established by missionaries.
In the present political scenario, the real issues are bound to be sidelined. Like in the past, the politicians will once again visit villages and towns, make hollow promises, give lollipops to the people and get their votes. This is one of the deleterious effects of the Poona Pact. The MLAs and other people’s representatives are accountable more to their parties and their leaders than to the people. The nexus of the landowners, moneylenders, religious leaders and casteist and patriarchal forces will continue to reign. This is the Indian version of a sham democracy.
What will be the role of the different social and people’s organizations in the polls?
I would like to answer this question by quoting two instances. And these are not isolated examples. They typify what has been happening in the entire Chhattisgarh. The last government had proposed a Bill to curb social boycott and “honour”-related crimes in the state. But most of the social organizations in the state unanimously opposed it. That was because they feared that it would end the hold of caste and patriarchy on individuals. The second instance relates to the Fifth Schedule areas, where the social organizations are using the PESA Act as an instrument to fulfil their agenda in the name of Adivasi self-governance.
The way Adivasi Christians are being persecuted in parts of Bastar, Surguja and Jashpur for converting, with the demand that they be delisted, it seems that the Hindu fascist forces have managed to secure a firm foothold in the region through the so-called social and people’s organizations whose avowed objectives are to build village republics, protect jal-jangal-zameen and preserve ecology. These forces are outspoken against the religious practices of non-Hindus and oppose the construction of their religious places. At the same time, they are mysteriously silent on the distribution of translations of Hindu scriptures, the building of the Ram Van Gaman Path and the conversion of Pendgudias [places set aside for remembering ancestors] into Devgudias [places set aside for worshiping Aryan deities].
It is clear that like an average Indian, the social organizations, too, are neither democratic, nor honest, nor just. Pressure groups play a key role in democracies but for the past several decades, we have been witness to many social organizations and their umbrella bodies lobbying in favour of certain political parties. They play second fiddle to the powers that be and are constantly trying to co-opt the leaders of people’s movements as tools of state power. Their unscrupulous stratagems did trigger protests and that led to strained ties between many such organizations. With the Savarna-dominated social organizations in the mainstream, it is difficult for the people of an Adivasi-dominated state to believe that their real issues, the issues that concern the local people, will ever become mainstream issues.
Given the present scenario, do you envisage Adivasis, Dalits and OBCs coming together to oppose oppression and persecution?
Yes. And that is because there is no other option. And that can become possible only as part of a long-term strategy. Adivasis, Dalits and OBCs are distinct cultural groups and the different parties are trying to woo them by exploiting emotive issues. But the game of pandering to their emotive issues won’t last. With the growth in materialism, the level of political consciousness of the common people will also grow and they will begin prioritizing education, health, roads, drinking water, economic prosperity and a better future for the coming generations. They will embark on the path to social justice.
(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)
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