BJP is exploiting the conflict between Adivasis and Lambadas to grow its base in Telangana

On 9 December 2019 several thousand Adivasis held a protest at Delhi’s Ram Lila Maidan to declassify the Lambada community from Telangana’s list of Scheduled Tribes. The Adivasis and Lambadas in Telangana have frequently clashed since 2017 in a struggle to reclaim Adivasi land and resources. Rishi Kochhar For The Caravan
24 February, 2020

Soyam Bapu Rao, an Adivasi activist and a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party from Telangana, led a rally of thousands of Adivasis at the Ram Lila Maidan, in Delhi, on 9 December 2019. They had a singular demand—the declassification of the Lambada community from Telangana’s list of Scheduled Tribes. The Lambadas are a nomadic community spread across the sub-continent and known by a range of names, including Banjara and Sugali. The Adivasis and the Lambadas have been in a long-standing conflict over land and resources in Telangana. Bapu Rao’s victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election—he won from the Adilabad constituency—helped slingshot this historic but localised struggle onto the national stage. Since then, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have used the conflict as a springboard to increase their base among the Adivasi population in Telangana. They have absorbed leaders from key tribal organisations such as the Thudum Debba—an umbrella organisation of Adivasi communities, which translates to “beating of the drum” in Gondi—into the BJP’s fold.

The form of protest at the Ram Lila Maidan rally was dance, music and the assertion of Adivasi culture, unlike usual political rallies. Gussadi dancers—a Gondi dance form—dressed in traditional attire, wearing headgear made of peacock feathers, clothed with animal skins and traditional body paints, took to the stage to the beats of the thudums. Pardhans, who are traditional bards and carriers of oral history of the community, accompanied the dancers with musical instruments, their tunes overlapping with the Gussadi drummers. At one point during the protest, a group of Chenchu men and women—a particularly vulnerable tribal group—carrying bow and arrows, came to the stage, dancing to traditional drum beats. These forms of dance and music were not a showcase, but the people’s assertion of resistance, and pride for a stigmatised identity.

Kumra Bhimrao, a Pardhan musician from Adilabad who was present at the rally, said that Lambadas “become sarpanch, patwari, police, homeguards, teachers. Our education level is relatively lower, so they get the entire benefit of ST reservation.” For several years, Adivasi communities from nine tribes—Gond, Koya, Konda Reddi, Chenchu, Pardhan, Kolam, Naikpod, Thotti and Mannewars—have demanded the removal of the Lambada community from the ST list in Telangana, under the banner of Thudum Debba. Thudum Debba is also called the Adivasi Hakkulu Porata Samiti—or Adivasi Rights Protest Committee. These tribes argue that the Lambada’s inclusion in the ST list in 1976 took place against constitutional provisions and sidelined Adivasi communities.

According to Nageshwar Rao, a professor at Hyderabad’s Osmania University who was at the protest, the state chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao “has been favourable to the Lambadas, because with their migration and increasing population in the state, they have become a prominent vote bank for the current government.” Vivek Sidam, a lawyer from the Adivasi community of Adilabad, said, “Even for past many decades, Lambadas have been able to lobby for tickets with political parties because they have money, while most Adivasis are poor.” Sidam, who is also a member of the Thudum Debba’s student wing, the Adivasi Students Union, at Osmania University, added, “The Congress did not give tickets to Bapu Rao because he was not financially sound. While BJP not only offered him ticket, but also promised financial assistance for elections.”

The protest in Delhi follows a fractious struggle between Adivasis and Lambadas in Telangana, which heated up after 2017. On 5 October that year, a group of Adivasi men entered the Komaram Bheem tribal museum, in the Adilabad district’s Jodeghat village, and burnt a statue of Sanaki Mata, a deity of the Lambada community. The tribal museum was inaugurated in 2017, in memory of Komaram Bheem—a twentieth-century Gond leader from Adilabad. Sidam told me, “Adivasis had given their representation to the Komaram Bheem Asifabad district administration, demanding that Lambada idols should not be installed at the Jodeghat museum.” The Komaram Bheem district was earlier named Asifabad. T Naga Rao, the Thudum Debba’s district vice-president for Adilabad, said, “However, ignoring their plea, the administration went ahead. Sanaki Mata was nowhere related to Komaram Bheem. She is a Lambada, Bheem is a Gond; then why her statue was kept in the museum?”

Mypathi Arun Kumar, a PhD research scholar at Kakatiya University in Telangana’s Warangal district, wrote about the incident in a 2017 article in the Andhra Jyothi newspaper: “Police had filed FIR against 27 innocent Adivasis in the case of burning of Sanaki Mata’s effigy.” In response, on 9 December 2017, a public meeting was organised in Hyderabad, with over one lakh Adivasis in attendance. The article added, “The incident also resulted in an agitation by the Adivasis in villages, where they did not allow Lambada teachers in school.”

On 15 December 2017, in response to the incident at the museum at Jodeghat, a group of Lambadas desecrated a statue of Komaram Bheem in Sonapur village, in the same district. “After this, about 5,000 Adivasis went to Sonapur to perform rituals to purify the statue. While the group was returning, it was attacked by Lambadas in Sonapur,” Naga Rao told me. The next day, violent clashes ensued between the two communities, and Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure was imposed in the Komaram Bheem district’s headquarters. Section 144 prohibits the assembly of more than four people in an area, thereby preventing people from holding public meetings.

According to a June 2017 report by the New Indian Express, M Champalal, a Lambada collector of Komaram Bheem district, issued a circular “to revenue officials to include the names of Lambadas in the pahani, a revenue record in which the rights of ownership of lands pertaining to agriculturists are noted.” Adivasis saw the move as benefiting Lambadas, who had migrated to agency areas—Adivasi-dominated regions of the state that were given a degree of autonomy under the British.

In 2017, the district collector of Adilabad did not declare a holiday on Komaram Bheem Jayanthi, the anniversary of Komaram Bheem’s birth. Adivasis had also protested against the appointment of Prahlad Naik, the son of Chandu Lal—the then tribal welfare minister of Telangana—as the president of the organising committee of the Sammakka-Sarakka Jatara, regarded as Asia’s biggest tribal festival and celebrated annually in Warangal district. Referring to the rally in Hyderabad, a Scroll report in January 2018 quoted Bapu Rao, who said, “The agitation is not an impulsive act against the statue or the Lambada teachers alone. This is the pent-up anger of over 40 years and Adivasis are determined to get our rights back.”

The Adivasi protest at Ram Lila Maidan showed pride for a stigmatised identity. Telangana has had a long history of land alienation inflicted on the Adivasis. Lambada groups who could leverage their control over lower-rung administrative positions were able to buy up vast tracts of Adivasi land. Rishi Kochhar For The Caravan

The conflict between the Adivasi and Lambada community predated the formation of the Telangana state. The Adilabad region was under the rule of the Chanda Gond kingdom until the beginning of the eighteenth century. The region later came under British rule, which allowed the Nizams to rule their princely state of Hyderabad. In 1940, angered by the princely state’s exploitation of Adivasis, Komaram Bheem rebelled against the Nizam. He gave the struggle the slogan of “Jal, Jangal, Jameen”—Water, Forest, Land—which demanded the return of the Adivasi’s traditional rights over land and resources. The subsequent years saw Adivasis driven out of their land by dominant-caste and Lambada groups who leveraged their control over lower-rung administrative positions. In 1981, thousands of Adivasis gathered under the banner of the Rayuthu Kuli Sangham—a peasant-workers’ union—in Adilabad’s Indravelli village, to demand patta, or land-right documents, and oppose the inclusion of the Lambadas in the ST list. The police opened fire on the crowd, massacring over a hundred Adivasi attendees. Adivasis remember the massacre as the second Jallianwala Bagh.

Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, an Austrian anthropologist who worked in Adilabad from 1942 till the mid-1980s, pointed out that Adivasi resistance to land encroachment and the Lambadas was discussed as early as April 1979. In his 1982 book, Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival, he wrote: “About six hundred tribals belonging to the Gond, Pardhan, Kolam and Naikpod community from twenty-seven villages gathered during the Keslapur jatra tribal festival, ‘to discuss the position of tribals created by recent developments and, in particular, the inclusion of the Banjaras among the scheduled tribes.’”

Haimendorf observed that the Lambadas continued to arrive in the area from 1900, and brought with them “sufficient cash” to buy land, going up to several hundred acres. The Gonds, who had previously cultivated this land, became lieges of the Lambada landowners. According to Haimendorf, the non-aboriginals easily could encroach upon a Gonds land with their influence on patwaris and revenue officers. The lack of pattas among Gonds was a general phenomenon in the entire region and therefore it was easy for affluent non-aboriginals to acquire “whole villages.”

Haimendorf argued that Gonds, Pardhans, and Kolams had a slight majority over other ethnic groups in the Adilabad region. However, the effect of the Lambadas’ inclusion in the ST list was reflected in electoral politics in the coming years. “From 1978 onwards the true tribals of Adilabad—in contrast to the Banjaras—have no longer been represented in the Legislative Assembly of Andhra Pradesh,” he wrote. He added, “In Utnur Taluk, where in the 1940s Gonds, Pardhans, and Kolams still formed the overwhelming majority of the population, in the years 1978 and 1979 alone some 20,000 acres of land were assigned on patta to Banjaras. This is more than the entire allocation of land to tribals in the previous twenty-five years, and can be explained only by the strong pressure Banjara political leaders and their allies in the ruling party were able to exert on the revenue authorities of the district ... this massive operation indicates that the Banjaras have suddenly become the most privileged community in the district. But the ability to acquire tribal land is only one of the privileges recently gained by Banjaras”—after their inclusion in ST list in 1976. Non-ST communities are legally barred from acquiring land that is registered as ancestrally tribal and areas covered under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.

Rupawat Amar Singh, the Adilabad district general-secretary of the Banjara Seva Sangh—a Lambada organisation—disagreed. He said, “We are also also moolnivasi”—original inhabitants—“of this place. Adivasis are saying that we are not indigenous. But we are not showing our history, our vanshavaliancestry“because we have been recognised by the state, then why do we need to?”

There have been glaring procedural as well as constitutional lapses in the inclusion of Lambadas in the ST list. A press note released by the Adivasi (Girijana) Employees Welfare and Cultural Association in 2019, argued that the inclusion of the Lambadas was in violation of Article 342 (1) and 342 (2) of the Constitution, which laid down the procedure for inclusions into the ST list. The press note quotes a right-to-information application of 2010, filed by the organisation, to the ministry of tribal affairs of Andhra Pradesh, which asked for information about Lambada inclusion in the ST list. The reply stated that as of 1950, “the ‘Lambada’ community has not been notified as Scheduled Tribe under Article 342 of the Constitution, in the state of Andhra Pradesh.” The press note stated that in 1956, the Lambadas were not classified as ST in the Adivasi-dominated areas of Andhra Pradesh. This region included Hyderabad, Mahbubnagar, Adilabad, Nizamabad, Medak, Karimnagar, Warangal, Khammam and Nalgonda. Modern day Telangana is largely comprised of these districts.

Jalam Singh, the Telangana state general secretary of the All India Banjara Seva Sangh—a Lambada caste organisation—told me, “The government gave Sugalis ST status in Andhra, while we were identified as denotified tribes in Telangana region. In 1960s, we started a movement asserting that Sugalis and Lambadas are same jati, we have one language and culture. I was also part of the movement. As a result of movement in 1976, Indira Gandhi government agreed to our demands and we were also included under ST list.”

The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Orders (Amendment) Act of 1976 was introduced during the Emergency, declared by the former prime minister Indira Gandhi. The bill was forcefully passed in September 1976 and changed the legal status of several communities, including the Lambadas in Telangana. It removed the area restriction in agency regions for the Lambadas, and therefore listed the community as ST across the state without any exceptions. In 1968, the KN Anantharaman Commission—tasked with identifying backward communities in Andhra Pradesh—identified the Lambadas as Other Backward Classes in Andhra Pradesh. As of today, in neighbouring Maharashtra too, they are categorised as OBCs, while in Karnataka, they are classified as Scheduled Castes and in Tamil Nadu they fall under the fold of the Backward Classes category. According to Haimendorf, too, the move for Lambada inclusion was politically motivated. Referring to the Congress’ role in the move he wrote, “Banjara leaders had been pressing for some time for their inclusion in the list of scheduled tribes, and as some 600,000 votes were at stake, the political party in power finally yielded to this pressure.”

Anil Kursenga is a government employee from Adilabad who is working closely with a legal case currently being heard in the Supreme Court to remove Lambadas from the ST list. The Adivasi (Girijana) Employees Welfare and Cultural Association filed the case in 2018. Kursenga pointed to the procedural lapses in the inclusion of the Lambadas. “There must be a proposal from the state government. There must be a governor’s report. There must be public notification from the president of India. Without the governor report, without state assembly’s approval, how can this move be considered legitimate?” In 2009, S Venkatramana, state general secretary of the Adivasi Samkshema Parishad—another Adivasi-rights organisation—filed an RTI with the tribal-welfare department of the Andhra Pradesh government. In its response, the state government claimed not to have any of the original records of the commission which recommended ST status to the Lambada community. “While we have documents from as far back as the nineteenth century, how can the ministry or departments not have any records?” Sudarshan, a Gond I met at the rally, said.

Adivasis at the Ram Lila Maidan protest argued that the inclusion of Lambadas in the ST list were procedurally and constitutionally illegal. Adivasis living in forests for generations are now lack basic representation in state institutions, universities, and jobs. Rishi Kochhar For The Caravan

The unequal social dynamics between the Lambadas and the Adivasis has also led to incidents of violence, such as the disappearance of Kayam Ramkrishna, an Adivasi from the Bhadrachalam district, in Telangana. In 2014, Sidam and Arem Pararao, another lawyer from the Adivasi community, wrote an article arguing that Kayam was kidnapped under orders from Lambada leaders—Kayam was ranked first in a job-recruitment exam, while a Lambada candidate was in second place. Kayam went missing when he had gone to appear for the Union Public Service Commission exam, in August 2015. His whereabouts are still unknown. The Adivasi community have often been vilified by the state, too. As recently as December 2019, the Hyderabad police claimed that 13 Adivasi groups were Maoist fronts, including the Adivasi Students Union and Thudum Debba.

“The consequence of this injustice has been such that Adivasis living in forests for generations are now deprived of basic representation in state institutions, universities, and jobs,” Kursenga told me. “In Hyderabad Metro Water Department itself, there has not been a single tribal person from the nine tribes, who are indigenous to the land, in over sixty years after independence and implementation of Indian constitution.” Similarly, in a 2017 Andhra Jyothi article, Myapathi wrote about the unequal representation of tribal groups in various government institutions: “According to the employment statistics of 2010—57 percent of seats under the ST category were occupied by Lambada, 26 percent by Erukala, 7 percent by Yanaadi, with a total of 90 percent occupied by these communities included in the ST list in 1976; whereas, the remaining 10 percent seats were taken by the rest of tribal groups combined together, in the state. There is also not a single non-Lambada Adivasi IAS or IPS from the entire combined state of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. However, in case of Lambadas, there are 27 IAS officers from the Nirmal region alone, and over 70 IAS officers from across the state.”

The article continued, “There are a total of 95 Lambada faculties in Osmania University itself with only 6 Adivasis from the rest of the tribes. In 2016 PhD recruitments there were 64 Lambadas and 6 Adivasis. In case of Kakatiya University, there are 15 Lambada professors and only one Adivasi Professor. They also have 44 Lambada PhD students, while only 4 Adivasi students in overall 22 departments.” The article pointed out that in every other state and central university in Telangana, including the Hyderabad Central University and the English and Foreign Languages University, both of which are in Hyderabad, there was not a single Adivasi faculty member or PhD student, with ST seats occupied mostly by Lambadas.

G Haragopal, a professor at the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, was in the group that tried to negotiate between the two communities last year, before the Lok Sabha elections. “We were pleading with the Lambadas that whatever percentage of reservation that was raised when they were made tribals, they could take that reservation but the rest of reservation they should leave to other tribal groups ... since they are occupying 80 percent of the share,” Haragopal told me. He argued that Lambada groups had repeatedly rehashed the same arguments of “merit” often deployed by upper-caste groups. During the dialogues, Haragopal and his team had cautioned that the Adivasis would demand the removal of the Lambadas from the list if there was no compromise.

Haragopal told me, “These internal inequalities are a larger issue in the country and its high time that we have internal classifications within the Schedule Tribe list—A, B, C, D. A being the most vulnerable and marginalised, D being the least—similar to the OBC list in Telangana and Andhra.” He continued, “Then, at least, it will ensure some sense of justice.”

In 2004, the Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes Commission published a biannual report about the socio-economic situation of Adivasis within and outside Fifth Schedule areas. The report, which discussed findings between 2002 and 2004, in its section about Andhra Pradesh stated, “Among the scheduled tribes, the bigger and economically stronger tribal groups like the Lambada have been taking over the land of the smaller and weaker tribes like the Koya and Chenchu.” The National Commission of Scheduled Tribes’ 2008 annual report noted that “most of the certificates in the state of Andhra Pradesh were obtained in the name of Yerukula, Konda Kapu, Kammara and Lambada communities.”

Adivasi organisations have alleged that large-scale migration of the Lambadas has taken place from neighbouring states—where they are identified as SC or OBC—as a result of their ST status in Telangana. In 1971, the population of Adivasis—including all nine tribes—was 5.5 lakh while the Lambada community was numbered at 1.3 lakh. In the latest census in 2011, Telangana’s Adivasis population was 11.3 lakh, while the Lambadas numbered 22 lakh. Rupawat, however, argued, “We were earlier in backward-castes list, while, Sugali or Lambada community in Andhra region was in scheduled tribe. Since the same community was identified differently in two regions, with the SC/ST amendment act, it was rectified and we were also included in the ST list. And so, our overall population increased.” Rupawat added “We don’t want to fight. It’s a problem of the government, they should answer it, but they have kept silent.”

Bhangya Bhukya, a professor at Hyderabad Central University from the Lambada community, was more circumspect. “The state is to be held responsible for it. People on both fronts are being used by the political groups and their agendas.” He added, “It is not to say that there is no problem, but the problems are being used by various groups for their own agendas. There are no concrete efforts towards addressing the real issue.” Bhukya also said that after the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, the ST population of Telangana increased by 11 percent but no organisation has fought to increase ST reservation and make it proportional as required by the Constitution. He added, “Now, they are playing out with the conflict. The ruling party is happy to sideline the real issue.”

The BJP and the Sangh Parivar have taken advantage of the current vulnerability of the Adivasi community, caused by their conflict with the Lambadas, to grow their base in Telangana. Bapu Rao got a BJP ticket in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections because the Congress had given a ticket to a Lambada candidate. The BJP sees Bapu Rao as an opportunity to not only gain an electoral base but also promote Hinduism in the Adivasi-dominated regions.

According to a lawyer from Adilabad who wished to remain anonymous, the Adivasi Employees Association in Adilabad is close to the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad—an organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that works among Adivasis—and its members act as advisors to Bapu Rao. The RSS has been able to reach Adivasis in both interior villages as well as urban centres. “RSS is conducting health camps in Adivasi villages, introducing new agricultural system in Adivasi villages such as organic farming,” Sidam told me. “Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram opened its first school in Adilabad in 2010. A month ago, they opened two new ones in Indravelli and Utnoor. They are also sending priests and pracharaks”—ideologues—“to the villages preaching Hinduism and teachings, such as to abstain from alcohol and meat.” In 1991, Venugopal Reddy, a senior leader of the state’s BJP, started the Komaram Bheem Study Circle in Hyderabad, a study center exclusively for Adivasi students. Reddy is a long time RSS pracharak and is widely known to be close to the vice president Venkaiah Naidu.

Speaking about the legal case against Lambada inclusion in the ST list, Kannaka Ramarao, of the Adivasi Employees Association, said at the rally, “Lawyers like Rajeev Dhavan are representing Lambadas in the case, but we don’t even have enough resources for legal battle and the lawyers fee itself exceeded one crore rupees.” In 2017, the Adivasi (Girijana) Employees Welfare and Cultural Association initiated a donation campaign, travelling village to village to collect any amount of money people could offer. Every Adivasi government employee they met donated Rs 10,000.

As the case is still being heard in the apex court, Adivasis have continued to protest in Telangana. The unequal share of representation has especially intensified anxieties among Adivasi youth, who struggle to gain admissions in institutions or find employment. “We have been subjugated by the British, Mughals, Nizams and now Indian state,” Santhosh, a young Adivasi student, told me at the rally. “We have not attained real independence yet.”