Despite platitudes, the BJP and INC sidestep Adivasi land rights in Chhattisgarh campaign

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an event in Bijapur, in Chhattisgarh, in April 2018. Raman Singh, then the chief minister of the state, and JP Nadda, then the union health minister, are to his right and left, respectively. Press Information Bureau
14 November, 2023

In the run up to the Chhattisgarh election, both the principal parties in the state, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have made grand promises about representing Adivasi interests. While campaigning in the Adivasi-majority district of Surajpur on 7 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Congress never cared about you, never thought about your children. In contrast, the BJP has always given top priority to tribal welfare.” Modi also pointed to the BJP’s support for Droupadi Murmu, an Adivasi leader, being made the president of India, as proof of his party’s support of Adivasi communities.

On the other end of the campaign, the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi told voters near the state capital of Raipur, “We introduced PESA in Chhattisgarh for tribals, and the Congress wants every young tribal person to start dreaming and fulfilling their dreams by involving themselves in all sectors of work.” The full implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act—enacted to allow self-governance through traditional gram sabhas for people living in scheduled areas—has been a core demand of Adivasi activists in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere. Despite Gandhi and Modi’s high-minded rhetoric, the implementation of PESA in Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi regions has been poor, and both parties have weakened key laws that were created to enshrine Adivasi autonomy and accessibility to forests. Not only have both parties failed to make forest- and land-rights an election issue, laws made to protect these rights have been misused to target Adivasi Christians. This is a process that the BJP has seemingly encouraged and the Congress has failed to prevent.

Roughly thirty-four percent of Chhattisgarh is Adivasi and 29 of the state’s 90 assembly seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribe communities. One of the primary reasons for the creation of the state was a bid to better the representation of Adivasis in the region. Yet, the issues of farmers and Other Backward Classes communities in the plains often become prominent prominence in state elections. Major political parties frequently sideline the immediate issues faced by Adivasis in the northern and southern parts of the state.

BS Rawate, the state president of Sarva Adivasi Samaj, an umbrella body of Adivasi organisations, told me as much. The SAS recently launched an electoral outfit called Hamar Raj, which drew in Adivasi civil servants and Adivasi politicians disillusioned by both major parties. “We have been working with different parties till now, but our issues have been ignored all this while,” Rawate told me. “So, we’ve launched our own party. We won’t be able to form a government, but they won’t have our help in forming the government.” Rawate is contesting in the Patan seat, against sitting chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, of the Congress.

At the centre, the Modi government has consistently whittled away safeguards on the conservation of forests and rights of Adivasis over the land. In July 2023, amid opposition protests demanding that Modi address the issue of the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Manipur, the Parliament passed an amendment to the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, that excluded several categories of forests from protections guaranteed under the original act till then. For example, the amendment removes protections from “0.10 hectares of land alongside a rail track or a public road and land that is proposed to be used for setting up security-related infrastructure and up to five hectares of land in an area affected by left-wing extremism.”

Even without an exaggeration of the Maoist threat, the amendment would impact about twenty-eight percent of the forest cover in India, which lies outside the category of recorded forest area, including 13,250 square kilometres of land in Chhattisgarh. The amendment was rammed through Parliament, without being referred to the standing committee that oversees forests. Instead, it was put before a joint parliamentary committee which suggested no changes to the draft despite dissenting notes from six members. Alongside previous legislation, the amendment also weakened the oversight of Adivasi gram sabhas over forest use, with Bhupender Yadav, the minister of environment telling Parliament that the Maoist presence hinders “development as no permissions are cleared.” In effect, the Maoist presence was used to do away with the rights of Adivasi communities.

It was while citing similar concerns about the loss of Adivasi land-rights that the Baghel government came to power in 2018, overthrowing a fifteen-year-long tenure of the BJP in the state. Despite the PESA act being passed in 1996, few states had implemented rules for it. Andhra Pradesh was the first to, in 2011. The three-term tenure of the BJP saw no moves to formalise rules for it. Meanwhile, Adivasi organisations were agitating for its full implementation in the state. Consequently, the Congress made the formalisation of PESA rules one of its foremost promises in its 2018 election manifesto, reaping a major electoral dividend. It won all 14 seats in the northern Adivasi-dominant region of Chhattisgarh and all but one seat in the southern Bastar region.

Despite these promises, the Baghel government did not frame the rules in 2018 or 2019. In mid-2020, TS Singh Deo—a senior Congress leader and titular king of the erstwhile kingdom of Surguja—organised consultations with various Adivasi communities and forest-rights activist to frame the rules. But when the bill laying out PESA rules was passed there were several aspects which circumvented the powers granted to gram sabhas under the act. A crucial clause which said that the “consent” of gram sabha was needed for land acquisition, was replaced by “consultation” with the gram sabha, taking away the right over forest land guaranteed by PESA. Smaller parties, such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which pointed out the inconsistency. Sanjay Parate, a CPI(M) leader, told a press conference that the “implementation of the Forest Rights Act is abysmal and the PESA rules are designed in such a way that they go against the spirit of the original Act.”

These changes have occurred amidst an internal leadership crisis of the Congress. Deo, who was reportedly one of the chief architects of the manifesto, had designed the rules in his capacity as the minister for panchayati raj. In July 2022, he resigned from the ministry, citing among other things, the Baghel government’s opposition to a fair set of PESA rules. “The department forwarded the draft to the cabinet committee,” Deo’s resignation letter said. “But crucial points pertaining to Jal, Jungle, Jameen”—water, forest and land, a common Adivasi slogan outlining the community’s basic demands—“were found to be changed in the precis for the cabinet.” Around the same time, Deo began to be approached by other parties who hoped he would switch sides. The Congress in a recent compromise has elevated Deo to the deputy chief minister post, and no movement has occurred on re-framing PESA rules to respect Adivasi claims of rights over forests, since. Alongside this, while the Baghel government has claimed to have recognised individual forest rights of 500,000 families with pattas, a report by the online news portal IndiaSpend has suggested the regime gave far less land than it had publicly claimed.

“This will deprive us of our rights,” Rawate told me, referring to the amendment. “Our powers will be cut down at the source itself. The rights of Adivasis who are dependent on the forests need to be protected.” Multiple Adivasi leaders told me that the PESA, worryingly, have been used to further attacks against Adivasi Christians in the state, an issue that Baghel’s government have shown little interest in tackling. A clause in PESA says, “Every Gram Sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution.” Abusing such clauses, Hindu extremist groups have made gram sabhas banish more than a thousand Adivasi Christians from their villages because they refused to embrace Hinduism, according to a fact-finding report by the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan—an umbrella body of activist organisations in the state. The BJP-backed Janjaati Suraksha Manch—whose meetings are frequently led by BJP functionaries—has been demanding the de‐listing of “converted Adivasis” from the ST category, according to another report by the CBA.

Degree Prasad Chouhan, the convenor of Adivasi Dalit Majdoor Kisan Sangharsh—a Raigarh-based land-rights organisation—told me that these measures were essentially attempting to instil puritanical ideas of Hinduism onto Adivasi communities. He told me the PESA Act is being used to mobilise the non-Christian Adivasis against the Christian Adivasis by instilling ideas like purity and pollution and the fear of contamination, by giving a caste-based complexion to their traditional and customary social fabric. “It is part of a well-thought-out strategy—the RSS is on a mission to portray the Christian Adivasis as outsiders and enemies.”

Referring to this, Manish Kunjam, a candidate from the Communist Party of India for the Konda constituency, told me. “This is what they do everywhere.” This is at least true of Madhya Pradesh, which too goes to the polls alongside Chhattisgarh. Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, announced that “gramsabhas will intervene when land is taken away” through “deception, trickery, marriages done by means of allurement to our tribal sisters’ daughters, land is given in their name and called tribal lands.” He did so in a meeting where his state’s PESA rules were announced, in the presence of President Murmu.

The most tangible evidence of the Bhagel government’s striking down of Adivasi land rights, is the refusal to address the issue of the Parsa and Hasdeo Arand coal blocks. In 2016, the Raman Singh government had cancelled the community rights of the residents of Ghatbarra village over 811 hectares of forest land, to facilitate mining at the PEKB and Parsa coal mines, by the Adani group. After coming to power, the Bhagel government, too went ahead with the clearances, backtracking its election promise to protect the rights of Adivasi communities and stop further mining. While the government has worked to delist 49 coal blocks from auction, it has not withdrawn the consent given to Adani to mine the Parsa coal block or to extend the Parsa East and Kanta Basan coal blocks, against which protests are still ongoing. It is a power company, backed by the Congress-led Rajasthan government, that is operating joint ventures with the Adani group to mine the coal blocks in Hasdeo Arand, despite the Chhattisgarh assembly passing a resolution against mining in the block. The income-tax department and the Central Bureau of Investigation under the central government, as well as the state police, have gone after activists protesting against Adani-mined blocks. Speaking in the state in September, Gandhi had said “When BJP presses a remote, the public sector gets privatised and jal-jungle-zameen goes to Adani.” This seems a farcical claim given the decisions of the Chhattisgarh government on whose behalf he was campaigning.

“Diversion of forest land for mining, land rights and other constitutional rights of Adivasis are not major issues in the election campaigns of major political parties,” Umeshwar Singh Armo, an activist with the CBA, told me. Alok Shukla, the convenor of the CBA, agreed. “I think, Congress could have said in his manifesto that irrespective of Modi government’s policies on forest diversions, Chhattisgarh government will ensure compliance of the Forest Rights Act,” he said. “Simply nobody is talking about this.”