How the Gond tribe could influence Uttar Pradesh’s caste arithmetic

The Gonds constitute the largest tribal group in central India, including Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. For a long time, their presence in Uttar Pradesh received little attention, but they are now on surer footing than they have ever been before to fight the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images
11 April, 2019

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.”

The movement gave birth to its own political party in 1991—the Gondwana Ganatantra Party. Organisational committees were formed at micro as well macro levels. Many youths from the community are now coming forward to lead by contesting the election. The Gonds are on surer footing than they have ever been before to fight the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. “They have local leaders and activists who are showing them a path to awaken and fight for their rights,” Kumar said.

Until the early 1970s, Uttar Pradesh, based on available data, seemingly did not have any Scheduled Tribes. According to the 2001 census, the Scheduled Tribe population of Uttar Pradesh was 1,07,963, constituting 0.1 percent of the total population of the state. By 2011, the population increased to 0.8 percent. According to activists such as Chhiteshwar, this data is incorrect with many discrepancies. There are between 50 and 60 lakh Gonds in UP, he told me. With the inclusion of other castes like Kharawar in UP, the total tribal population exceeds one crore.

“We are technically in 13 districts as listed in constitution. But in reality, we are in 62 districts. All those people feel as though they are one community and since Gondwana Movement in UP they have realised this strength. So with the trend and data from the census, in 2018, we alone are above 60 lakh,” Chhiteshwar said.

In 2002, the Gond community, along with others, was transferred from the Scheduled Castes list to Scheduled Tribes through the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Orders (Amendment) Act. Although this increased the overall count of Gonds in the state, it hobbled their electoral possibilities. They could no longer stand for elections from Scheduled Caste constituencies. Further, these tribes are recognised in only 13 districts, even though the community has a presence all over the state. In other districts of the state they remain in the SC category. If a tribal girl marries outside these districts, she can no longer claim her tribal identity. “Imagine if a Gondi girl in ST status district marries a Gondi boy of a SC district then her identity is changed,” Chitteshwar said. “This is a real question of missing identity and missing rights.”

Political parties, in association with people involved in the Gondwana movement, have been doing their own population surveys every year to show the government their numbers in reality. National president of GGP, Hira Singh Markam, argues that the total tribal population in much higher than what is reflected in the census. “In 13 districts, we are in ST category and the population is about two percent of the total population of UP,” Markam said. “But if we take our community in entire UP then it would be the double of that.”

Showing me government documents and lists, Chhiteshwar said that because some names of sub-castes within the Gond tribe were placed in the upper-caste category, they could not avail the facilities given to them through reservations. Titles such as Ojha and Nayak are also the surnames of Brahmin community in UP. Making use of this, there have been many incidents of non-tribal people manufacturing fraudulent certificates to avail of reservations in jobs, education and scholarships. According to a recent media report, that many such fake caste certificates have been made in Deoria Sadar and Rudrapur Tehsil.

According to the reports, state authorities have started investigations in some districts, including in Gorakhpur, Ballia, Azamgarh, Devaria and Mahrajganj. “Many cases are there in which the people from upper castes have made the ST certificate. This subject has triggered a strong opposition from the ambitious youth of our community,” Chhiteshwar said.

Activists said that the Gond community is working like an umbrella for other tribes in UP. Encouraged by the success of the Gond movement, many others tribes are campaigning to show their strength in the upcoming elections and raising demands for their own tribal status in UP. “We contest in election and that is for our pride and dignity,” Markam said. “We have planned for two or three places which have yet to be decided if alliance is not happened. But if there is an alliance with respect then we would think in a bit different way.”

The Gondwana movement has had a significant influence on politicising the youth of the community. The literacy rates of tribal communities in UP is the lowest compared to other castes. In order to tackle this, young members of the Gondwana movement have been carrying out programmes to raise awareness about literacy and education. It has had such an effect in the community that now the educated youth have joined hands together to represent their community at political level.

One such example is Arvind Gond, who has a masters in political science, and has fought elections on a GGP ticket in the past. “It was just a matter to show that we too are there, so I fought,” Arvind said. “I did not get much support because then the community were scattered. But now they have realised and the scenario has changed.”

Looking at the growing strength of the tribal constituencies, other parties, too, set up tribal wings before the Lok Sabha elections. “The tribal wings have been made just to deviate but I don’t see any deeper impact,” Arvind said. “People have understood that unity is strength and that we will show in coming elections.”

Gonds have tended to build their political alliance with parties that have a progressive approach. They have usually voted for the Samajwadi Party. The GGP president, Heera Singh Markam, said that the party is open to a coalition with SP and for that talks have been going on. He said they wanted a chance to contest for a seat from Sonbhadra. “If it happens,” Markam said, “then we will give them support in entire UP, and so the whole tribal community would support SP.”