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?”