In Uttar Pradesh, the state with the largest number of Lok Sabha seats, two arch-rivals for over two decades, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, declared that they would fight the upcoming elections together to defeat the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The exclusion of Congress from this alliance has been the focus of much debate. Akhilesh Yadav, the SP leader, said the Congress had been left out to “correct the poll arithmetic”—one that would ensure the defeat of the BJP.
In political calculations like these, a demographic that has always been overlooked is the Gond tribe of Uttar Pradesh. This is beginning to change. In the 2015 gram-panchayat elections of Ballia district—the district with the second-highest Gond population in the state—members of the Gond community won an unprecedented number of seats. Out of 954 seats in 17 blocks, 48 were elected to the post of gram pradhan, or village head. One was elected as a block head and another as a panchayat member. These elections, according to Rajeev Kumar, an associate professor at the Shri Murli Manohar Town Post Graduate College in Ballia, gave the community a “new direction and confidence,” allowing them to “think more about their representation and voice.”
The Indian Anthropological Society describes the Gonds as an agricultural community “belonging to the Dravidian group.” They constitute the largest tribal group in central India, including Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. For a long time, the presence of tribes in Uttar Pradesh received little attention. The increasing political assertion of the Gonds in Uttar Pradesh, according to activists I spoke to, owes to the Gondwana movement, which seeks to uplift the community and has been active in the state since the 1990s. Tribals in India continue to find it hard to live on their own terms. They frequently face insults, humiliation and the threat of violence, including sexual assault. In 2016, the houses of Gond families in the Shivpur Diyar Numbri village in Ballia district were burnt down. “We too want a permanent settlement but no one allow us to have own land so we are landless for generations,” Jagat Gond, a victim of that incident, told me.
The Gondwana movement was partly influenced by the Naxalbari uprising of 1967, which marked the start of the Naxalite movement, although it has not been violent. While the movement was fuelled by a demand for a separate state, its main issues are an attempt to tackle poverty, low levels of literacy and their landless status. Activists of the Gondwana movement have long worked to make the community aware of its political rights. “What is most important is the identity and that had to be established as tribes,” Chhiteshwar Gond, a popular veteran community leader in his eighties, told me, referring to the struggle to gain scheduled tribe status by the state. “Since 1966, I have been making efforts with different social and political groups as leader and worker,” Chitteshwar said, adding that the aims of the movement had only been partially fulfilled. “There is a long way to go.”
Chhiteshwar has been associated with the movement since its very first wave in 1990s. “Looking at our active participation in fight for people’s rights in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Gondwana movement got associated with us and they started visiting in the state,” he told me. Eventually, the movement took root in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district, which had the larges tribal population, followed by Ballia. “Now our youth are politically ambitious and they are trying to lead their community.” According to many activists I spoke to, the movement now enjoys support from the wider non-tribal community as well. The tribe, Kumar said, is working to gain “dignity and stability within the Indian democratic system.”