Rajasthan government’s violent crackdown on protests an attempt to silence Adivasi assertion

A man from the Adivasi community waves a flag that says “Long live the Bhil country,” at a protest site in Kankari Dungari, in Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district, in mid-September. In the last week of September, the Rajasthan police cracked down on the protesters and two youth were killed in the police action. Vikram Adivasi
30 December, 2020

In the last week of September, the Rajasthan police conducted a two-day violent crackdown on protesters of the Adivasi community who were camped at Kankari Dungari, a hilltop in the Dungarpur district, since 7 September. The protesters were agitating for recruitment of Adivasis in government schools in areas where the community comprises a majority. Two Adivasi protesters were shot and killed during the police action and over 205 Adivasis were arrested. It is unclear how many have been released since. In addition, the Rajasthan police registered over twenty cases against more than six thousand Adivasis. Several of those named in the first information reports told me that they were not present at the protests. A perusal of the FIRs revealed that the police have even registered cases against Adivasis, from villages in Dungarpur, who died over two years ago.

The protests first began in July 2018 following a decision by the state’s education department to restrict the recruitment of Adivasis to teaching positions under the general category, in Adivasi-majority areas of the state. This prompted several Adivasi organisations to organise under the banner of the Bhil Pradesh Aarakshan Samanavy Samiti—an organisation that works on affirmative action for Adivasis—to seek legal recourse and hold peaceful protests. Over the next two years the movement witnessed several highs and lows, between July and September 2019, the district court in Jodhpur gave two contradictory judgements, which sparked intermittent protests. Then in December 2019, the state government was forced to intervene and a committee was formed to resolve the BPASS’s demands. However, over nine months later, the committee failed to come up with a solution.

In September 2020, distrustful of the state machinery after two years of seeking administrative resolutions, the protesters decided to hold an indefinite protest. The protests escalated to blocking a highway after state ministers and members of Rajasthan’s legislative assembly cancelled parleys with the protesters. This culminated in the violent clampdown by the Rajasthan police which attacked protesters and nearby villages, indiscriminately. Adivasi leaders have said that the arrested individuals are being kept in horrid conditions and subjected to custodial violence. All protesters I spoke to denied all allegations against them. No senior police official I contacted responded to any queries. Notably, the protests occurred in the backdrop of major Adivasi mobilisation in the state over the past three years that propped the Bharatiya Tribal Party—Rajasthan’s largest Adivasi political party—as an electoral force. Many Adivasi leaders told me that the police action was an attempt by the Congress-led state government to undermine Adivasi mobilisation, while several leaders of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party accused the protesters of being “Naxals.”

The vacancies for the teaching posts were first notified in April 2018. That month, the Rajasthan government announced the Rajasthan Education Eligibility for Teachers test for recruitment of teachers to government schools. The state notified a total of 5,431 vacancies in schools in Tribal Sub Plan areas. TSP areas are administrative divisions of blocks where more than half the population is from Adivasi communities, and have special funds earmarked for developmental activities targeting these communities. Many TSP areas in Rajasthan are also under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which provides legal protections such as increased Adivasi control over land rights as well as more self-governance. According to the 2011 Census, 70.43 percent of Rajasthan’s tribal population reside in TSP areas.

On 1 June 2018, after the recruitment process was completed, 1,167 seats within the general category were left vacant. The government’s reasoning for not filling these seats was that many candidates from the Scheduled Tribes did not meet the cut-offs the government had set: 60 percent for general category and 36 percent for the ST category. Several Adivasi activists, including those from BPASS, told me these cut-offs were “arbitrary,” and that they had demanded that the unoccupied seats be given to Adivasi applicants. Organised protests against the move started in December 2018, when the last set of recruitments were formalised.

In March 2019, Kamlesh Kalasua, an Adivasi student, filed a petition in the Jodhpur district court, which requested that the 1,167 seats be filled by ST applicants from the TSP area. That month, a single bench of the Jodhpur district court ruled in favour of the Adivasi students, arguing that a 2012 order given by Margaret Alva, an ex-governor of the state, allowed for ST applicants from TSP areas to get this relaxation in accordance with the Fifth Schedule. On 6 September 2019, a division bench of the same court overturned the July decision and argued that it did not respect the principle that “only those candidates can migrate to General category, who have higher marks than the last cut-off of the General category.” The September court order largely ignored Alva’s order and said the single-bench decision would support those who were “low in merit.”

Protests against the court’s decision started almost immediately. Umesh Dindor, a BTP worker, told me that in early October, more than a hundred activists associated with the BPASS organised a sit-in outside the Dungarpur collectorate and demanded that the vacant seats be filled with Adivasi candidates. “We sat there for 22 days until the government had to respond to us,” he said. “Finally, on 8 November, a delegation of BTP and BPASS leaders met with Ashok Gehlot”—Rajasthan’s chief minister—“and he agreed to resolve the problem.” Dindor told me that little happened after that and, in early December, Adivasi organisations began the first protests at Kankari Dungari. The protests ended on 10 December, after the government formed a committee to oversee the filling of seats. The government had asked the committee to submit a report in three months. However, nine months later, the committee had not made a decision, sparking further protests.

On 7 September 2020, over two hundred Adivasi youth assembled at Kankari Dungari, under the banner of BPASS, to protest the government’s inaction. Several Adivasi youth told me this was meant to be an indefinite protest, hence they gathered at an isolated hilltop near the National Highway 8. On the second day of the protest, more Adivasis from the surrounding districts joined and the number of protesters rose to around five hundred. “We knew the protest would continue for a while so many of us had brought rations from our villages,” an Adivasi advocate, who participated in the protest, told me. He wished to remain anonymous. “All of us stayed in tents we had placed at the top of the rugged terrain, though we had to frequently go down to a dam on the other side of the hill for water.”

On 9 September, the police filed two cases against several protesters under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which stated that the protesters were violating COVID-19 guidelines. However, the police did not arrest any protesters that day. In the second week of September, as the protests continued, the government announced that the committee overseeing the filling of seats was going to meet on 14 September. However, 14 September passed without any meeting, and more people joined the protest at Kankari Dungari. On the same day, the police attempted to forcefully remove protesters from the hilltop, but reportedly stopped when several female activists tied nooses around their necks and warned the police that they would take their own lives. Seven more cases were filed against the protesters on 16 September.

As the protests continued to swell, Arjun Singh Bamaniya, the tribal areas development minister of Rajasthan agreed to meet with protesters at secretariat in Udaipur on 24 September. He also promised that all 17 Adivasi members of the state legislative assembly representing Udaipur division would join him in meeting with representatives from the protest at the government secretariat in Udaipur. On 23 September, the advocate told me that Neha Giri, the joint secretary of the government of Rajasthan, released a circular that was widely shared among the protesters, which announced that Bamaniya would not meet them. No further meeting was scheduled. Bamaniya did not respond to multiple emails and calls asking about lack of communication with protesters.

The protesters had by this point grown indignant. The protest had also taken its toll on the Adivasis. The advocate told me that living conditions at the protest site were poor after weeks of camping in simple tents without easy access to fresh water and sanitation facilities. “Many of the protesters had also been bitten by snakes and scorpions on the hill,” he told me. “And at the same time while we sat there, the government seemed in no mood to even discuss the issue.” He told me a group of about five hundred protesters argued that they would need to escalate the protest for the government to respond, which led them to walk down the hill and peacefully blockade the highway. The majority of protesters, however, continued to camp atop the hill.

The advocate told me that the police grew violent as soon as protesters settled on the highway. The police initially tried to evacuate the roads by carrying away protesters, but were unable to because of the sheer size of the protest. “After they couldn’t move us, the police took a jeep and tried to run us over at speed,” Atul Meena, a member of the Joint Action Front for Kankari Dungari—a solidarity organisation created at the protest—said. “We moved out of the way quickly, but everyone got very angry and started throwing stones at the police. As protesters were in majority around twenty policemen were injured including the ASP”—additional superintendent of police. He added, “After that the police started firing tear gas and lathi charging us. This led to Adivasis flooding the highway over ten kilometers, arriving from the protest site and other parts of the district. The police began arriving in force and violently attacking us wherever they found us.”

On 27 September, Bhupendra Singh, Rajasthan’s director general of police told the media that amid the violence the police also used live fire, killing two young Adivasi protesters, Arun Ahiri and Kuldeep Kalasua. The next day, the Business Standard reported that two companies of the Rapid Action Force and six companies of Rajasthan Armed Constabulary—both are paramilitary units—were deployed in Dungarpur. The advocate told me that the police had systematically attacked nearby Adivasi hamlets, too. He said that Adivasis began to flee the nearby villages fearing police attacks, which left nobody to feed and water their cattle. On 4 October, the Hindi daily, Dainik Bhaskar reported  that the police searched several surrounding villages, including Pahara, Ranaagar, Siddi, Kherwada, Bharda, Udarda, Vassi and Dovda.

Several people I spoke to in the surrounding villages, including Atul, told me that the police had destroyed property and beat people at random. On 19 October, the Hindustan Times reported that over 125 Adivasis were arrested in Dungarpur district and 80 more in Udaipur district. The report also stated that the number of cases registered against protesters had risen to 44.

Atul said that following the police crackdown, the Rajasthan police filed over 20 first information reports in the cases, against 6,019 people—1,219 people had been named while the rest were unnamed. Cases were filed against many prominent voices within the Adivasi community, including more than 300 government employees, as well as Adivasi sarpanches. The Caravan is in possession of copies of some of the FIRs and they suggest several lacunae. A perusal of the complaints and interviews with those named revealed that several of those accused by the police were not present at protests. Others named in FIRs told me they were not present at the Kankari Dungari protest, but had participated in previous protests like the Bharat Bandh in April 2018 against the dilution of the Prevention of Atrocities Act. The FIRs even name Adivasis who died over two years ago.

Many protesters told me that in the crackdown following the protest, the police tried to frame leaders of the BTP, and make the grassroots movement at Kankari Dungari seem like a political project of the BTP alone. This was despite the protest enjoying widespread support from Adivasi leaders of the Congress and BJP who had visited the protest site. The protest at Kankari Dungari followed a pattern of Adivasi mobilisation over the past three years in Rajasthan. In 2017, Chhotubhai Vasava, a former member of the Janata Dal (United) formed the BTP after several large gatherings of Adivasi communities in Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat that year. Vasava belongs to the Bhil community of Gujarat, one of the largest Adivasi communities in the country. A core demand of the party is the formation of the state of Bhilistan, which would unite Adivasi-dominant regions of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. The party quickly gained popularity and won two seats in the Gujarat assembly and a slew of student elections in Rajasthan. In Rajasthan’s assembly election in 2018, the BTP won two seats in Dungarpur district. The party’s election plank included demands for the Fifth Schedule to be implemented across Adivasi-dominant regions in southern Rajasthan.

The rise of the BTP is a threat to the electoral prospects of both, the Congress that now rules the state and the BJP. This has meant that leaders of both parties have needed to join major protests so they do not lose the faith of Adivasi voters. Harendra Ninama and Sushil Katara, MLAs of the BJP, had visited the Kankari Dungari protest site and given speeches there. Ramila Khadiya, an MLA from the Congress, had also joined the protests. Khadiya did not respond to questions about his views on the Rajasthan government’s actions.

One case that highlights the crackdown against the BTP is the arrest of Umesh Dindor, the BTP worker. Dindor had contested the 2018 assembly elections from the Aspur constituency, in Dungarpur district. On 5 October, Dindor said he was staying with relatives in Pratapgarh town when he learnt that the police in Dungarpur were searching for him. “I immediately called Chandmal Singariya, the circle inspector of Sadar police station in Dungarpur, near my home, and asked him why they were searching for me,” Dindor said. “He told me to come there for an enquiry and then leave, so I immediately travelled to the station.”

Dindor said he reached the station at midnight between 5 and 6 October, but was kept there till 3 pm the second day. He said he fully cooperated with the enquiry. “At 3 pm on 6 October, I was arrested, with the CI informing me that I had given inflammatory speeches that led to violence at the protest on 24 September,” Dindor said. “This is a false charge. On 23 September my grandfather passed away at Dungarpur, and we remained at home the whole next day in mourning, I wasn’t even at Kankari Dungari. They arrested me simply for being a BTP member. That was the only reason they felt they needed.” Acquaintances of the family confirmed Dindor’s presence at the family home on the said date. When contacted, Singariya denied that he had arrested Dindor and cut the call. He did not pick up further calls and did not respond to messages. On 23 October, the Rajasthan high court ordered that Dindor be given bail. Dindor also told me that the police had filed FIRs naming several BTP leaders and cadre, though he did not have an exact number. This included senior leaders, such as Velaram Ghoghra, the BTP’s Rajasthan chief. 

The case against Banwari Lal Meena, a founding member of the Adivasi Ekta Manch Rajasthan—an Adivasi-rights organisation—follows a similar pattern to Dindor’s. Banwari is also employed as a technician in Rajasthan’s electricity department. “The first FIR was filed against me on 24 September claiming that at 6 pm I had set fire to a four-wheeler at Kankari Dungari,” Banwari told me. “The moment I was taken to court I showed them my cell phone which had tracked my location and showed I was nowhere near where the police claimed.” Banwari told me that on the morning of 24 September, he had been at the protest site, but had left for work that afternoon.

On 28 September, the police filed another case against Banwari which claimed that on 26 September he had thrown stones at a hotel in Dungarpur district. At the time Banwari had been on government duty overseeing panchayat elections in Bandikui Dausa district, nearly 500 kilometres from Dungarpur. Hearings are continuing in the both cases against Banwari. “I had given a speech at the protest which had been circulated by the media. The police wanted to brand me as a Naxal after that, which was why they kept foisting these cases against me,” Banwari told me.

Several Adivasi leaders I spoke to said that the arrested Adivasi youth had faced custodial violence. Rajkumar Roat, an MLA of the BTP, claimed that arrested people were brutally beaten by police, and told me that he had demanded the government hand over medical reports of every arrested Adivasi. Kirodilal Meena, a Rajya Sabha member from Rajasthan, who is from an Adivasi community and also a member of the BJP, said he had visited the protest site, the villages the police had attacked and the arrested Adivasi youth, between 12 and 16 October. “At Kherwada Police station”—where many of the Adivasi protesters were kept—“I saw that in one barrack there were 16 people in a half-naked condition,” Kirodilal told me. “They cannot even sleep in the night, there were no masks and no physical distancing.”

Kirodilal said that he had seen evidence of police brutality by the Kherwada police. “From last few days there was a viral video of two youths, the police were beating them,” he told me, referring to an incident in Mothali bridge, near Kherwada. “Both were beaten ruthlessly. As a result, Rupchand Damore one of the two has fractures in his hands including multiple fingers. Balaji Damore, the other person who was beaten, has fractures in both legs including multiple fractures in different parts of the body. When Jashoda Damore”—a relative of one of the youth—“tried to intercede between them, the police also hit her with lathis and broke her hand.” On 5 October, Kana Ram, the collector Dungarpur, and Jay Yadav, the superintendent of police were both transferred. Neither Ram or Yadav responded to questions about police violence in the district.

Roat added that in similar protests by the Gurjar community to get reservation, the Rajasthan government communicated with protesters and did not indulge in attacks against protesters or custodial violence. He said this showed the Rajasthan government’s anti-Adivasi attitude. NL Meena, the home secretary of Rajasthan, who belongs to an Adivasi community and was appointed to handle the aftermath of the police crackdown told me, “The main reason for the Dungarpur violence was the lack of communication between protesters and the government.”

Several Adivasi leaders told me that both the BJP and Congress, after initially showing support for the Kankari Dungari protest, had attempted to delegitimise it by linking it to Naxalism. On 29 September, Madan Dilawar, the general secretary of BJP’s Rajasthan wing, spoke to News18 Rajasthan, claimed that several top leaders of the BTP were Naxals. Speaking of the role of the BTP in the Kankari Dungari protest, he said, “According to me some people are affiliated to Naxals and terrorists and they came after taking training from Naxals and terrorists. They go to Jharkhand and Naxals came here to give training. Velaram Ghoghra”—the Rajasthan chief of the BTP—“abets people to do this.”

Dilawar then went a step further and questioned Adivasi identity itself. “For instance, they say do not worship lord Ram and Krishna and say speak Jai Johar.” Johar is greeting of solidarity commonly used by Adivasi communities. Dilawar did not respond to questions about his allegations. Arjun Mehar, a member of the Joint Action Front for Kankari Dungari, called Dilawar’s claims absurd. “The government, other political parties and the media are all trying to portray us as Naxals,” he told me. “They know nothing about what Johar means, they think it is a crime to visit Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh. Can any of them define what Naxalism is?” He said that the media in Rajasthan had consistently failed in their duty to accurately portray the demands of the protesters in Kankari Dungari. “The media has completely failed us which is why we have to conduct press conferences for people to know about the atrocities against our people.”

“There is nothing like Naxalism in Rajasthan as portrayed,” Kirodilal told me. “The assertion for our rights is not surprising, it is obviously because of our pathetic condition.” Roat echoed Kirodilal’s view. In an interview with JAN TV, a local channel, Roat said, “Our entire movement is to implement Fifth Schedule and struggle for forest and land rights including other natural resources.” He continued, “In schedule areas, most of the mining is owned by senior leaders of the Congress and the BJP and when Adivasis assert for their rights over land, forest, and other natural resources they are tagged as Naxals. Tribals in Rajasthan do not even know what a Naxal is, that is a totally new word and concept for Adivasis of Rajasthan.”

Banwari told me that for young Adivasi youth arrested after the protests, the future prospects seem bleak. Few have expert legal counsel, and even those that manage to get released will face an uphill battle to gain employment. “Even after 70 year of independence, attitude of democratic government is similar to Britishers,” he told me. “After violent incidents, the administration acts hostile towards the entire community, youth, small children and even elders. This is how we are all treated. This is exactly like the criminal tribes act where they demonised an entire community for the actions of a few.”