We are ready for the struggle for Bhil Pradesh: Bharatiya Tribal Party leader Kantilal Roat

Kantilal Roat (right), the BTP’s candidate from Banswara, and Rajkumar Roat (left), Chorasi’s MLA from the party, celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti on 14 April 2019 in Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district. Tushar Dhara for The Caravan
27 April, 2019

This year, the Bharatiya Tribal Party will contest its first Lok Sabha elections, from four constituencies in Rajasthan—Banswara, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Chittorgarh. In 2017, Chhotubhai Vasava, a former member of the Janata Dal (United), founded the party in Gujarat, and in the two years since its formation, the BTP has seen multiple electoral victories. Barely a month after it was created, the BTP won two seats in the state’s assembly elections, with the support of the Congress. In December last year, the party made its political debut in Rajasthan, fielding 11 candidates for the state’s assembly elections. It won the seats of Chorasi and Sagwara, which fall under Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district.

The BTP’s quick success surprised political commentators and is expected to pose a threat to the national parties it had defeated in Rajasthan. Its victories in the state can be attributed to the support of the Bhil community, one of the largest Adivasi groups of the country. The Bhils helped the BTP gain a strong foothold in the tribal-dominated districts of southern Rajasthan—Dungarpur, Banswara, Udaipur and Pratapgarh—as well as in Chittorgarh.

The party has fielded Kantilal Roat, a 38-year-old from the Bhil community, for the upcoming election in the Banswara Lok Sabha constituency, which also includes the assembly segments it won in December last year. In April 2019, Tushar Dhara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, interviewed Roat at his home in Dungarpur district. Roat said that the party’s agenda consists of demands for a separate Bhil state, and proper implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the constitution, which gives special protections to tribal communities with respect to land rights. Roat was highly critical of the national parties’ stance on tribal issues, noting, “The Congress is the hidden enemy, while the BJP is the open enemy.”

Tushar Dhara: Can you describe the social churn in the Bhil-majority areas of southern Rajasthan that led to the emergence of the BTP in 2017?
Kantilal Roat:There were a lot of Adivasi organisations working in Rajasthan before the BTP was founded. For instance, organisations such as the Rajasthan Adivasi Sangh, Bhil Mahasabha, Adivasi Sangamam, and the Adivasi Ekta Parishad [social organisations that work towards preserving tribal rights and identity] were trying to [transform] the tribals, according to the norms of non-tribal cultures. Despite being Bhils, they did not understand who or what Adivasis are, what our root identity is or how we live. In Bhil culture, there is a lot of singing and dancing, but these social organisations tried to stop this because of the influence of non-tribals—they wanted Bhils to imitate the general population.

But as the tribal youth got educated, they realised the need to preserve critical aspects of our culture. Then BAMCEF [the All India Backward (SC, ST, OBC) And Minority Communities Employees Federation is an organisation which works on socio-political issues of minority communities] came to this area, in 2007 or 2008, but they did not speak too much about Fifth Schedule areas. They spoke mainly about Scheduled Castes and backward castes. Hence, BAMCEF did not gain widespread acceptance among tribals.

Then, we, Rajasthani Bhils, met up with the Bhils of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. We understood the importance of Rami Reddy and Samata judgements of the Supreme Court [which pertain to the transfer of land in Scheduled Areas,] that emphasised tribal rights. Tribals in states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha celebrate their cultural identity with pride, while the Bhils in Rajasthan have got left behind. In Jodhpur, there is not much awareness among Bhils about Adivasi culture. Here, in Dungarpur, we slowly raised awareness about tribal identity.

The next step was to form our own organisation, but the existing tribal organisations had divided tribals. For instance, the Congress and the BJP have tribal cells, and the community has got split politically. At the same time, Hindu organisations belonging to the Sangh Parivar, Gayatri Parivar [a spiritual organisation], et cetera,were converting tribals to a Hindu identity. We want to purify ourselves culturally, and unite all tribals.

TD: How did the party win two seats in the Rajasthan assembly in such a short span of time?
KR: We [a group of Rajasthan’s Bhils] held eight meetings with Chhotubhai Vasava and told him that we want to contest on the BTP symbol in Rajasthan, but he would neither remote control us, nor would he impose his decisions on us, and that our decision-making body will be based out of Rajasthan. We said that we will work for tribals, Dalits and minorities. We finished this process just one month before the Rajasthan assembly elections, and selected 11 candidates to fight the elections. The party agreed to give us a free hand, and let us campaign in Rajasthan on local issues. Two candidates won and became MLAs.

All our office bearers are activists who have worked on the ground. Bhil social-organisations—Bhil Yuva Morcha, Bhil Vidyarthi Morcha—lent us support, but they have not been assimilated in the BTP. That’s why the BTP has been able to establish a base among the Bhil tribals so fast.

TD: How does the BTP raise money for campaigning?
KR: Our supporters raise the money for our campaigns. The established political parties have lots of money, and can bring in truckloads of people. But the support that the BTP has among tribals means that, in every booth, our supporters themselves spend money and organise meetings and rallies.

TD: Tribal residents of Dungarpur told me that while the BTP claims to not have funds, the MLAs from party, after getting elected, started travelling in expensive vehicles and now live in big houses.
KR:This is nonsense. [Their] homes are just as they were before. As for vehicles, they have been donated by friends and well-wishers. Rajkumar [the BTP’s MLA from Chorasi] purchased his SUV through loans. The Congress, the BJP and other organisations, such as the RSS, are losing ground to us and they are alleging this to discredit us.

TD: What are the issues that the BTP is raising in its campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
KR: There are two sets of issues: local and national. Regarding the local issues, Bhil Raj, or a Bhil state, is on our agenda. One of our demands is that we want a separate Bhil Pradesh carved out of the tribal areas of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

The second issue is water—there have been large dams built on rivers in Banswara, such as the Mahi dam, in which tribals have lost their lands and they did not get compensation. The water from these dams is going to Gujarat, while the people who live right next to these dams get nothing. Our second demand is that water should be provided to every household in the districts of Dungarpur, Banswara, Udaipur, Sirohi and Pratapgarh for drinking and irrigation.

Our third demand is that the Fifth Schedule of the constitution granting special privileges to tribal areas should be fully implemented in such areas of Rajasthan. Fourthly, there is a rail line being built from Dungarpur to Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh. We are not anti-development, but we oppose this rail line because it will be used to transport natural resources, such as marble and minerals, out of the Adivasi areas.

TD: How practical is the demand for a separate Bhil state? Will the existing states be willing to give up their land for a tribal homeland?
KR: It will be very difficult and there will be a lot of struggle involved. State governments will not want a Bhil Pradesh, because it will mean a reduction in their budgets. None of these states—Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat—will agree. But the tribals, who are the owners of this land, are demanding a state of their own. We are ready for the struggle.

TD: The terrain in southern Rajasthan is predominantly hilly and unproductive, so people from the area tend to migrate for better economic opportunities. How does the BTP plan to address this issue?
KR: The Samata judgement is clear that tribals can use the mineral resources in Scheduled Areas, and that people and companies from outside who operate on tribal lands have certain financial obligations towards tribals. But tribals in the Scheduled Areas of Rajasthan have lost all their lands because people from outside have purchased them. We do not have problems with the non-tribals who have been living among us for generations, but we will not give our lands to outsiders. Adivasi lands should not be sold. If the Samata judgement is implemented fully, our land will be protected.

Migration happens for livelihoods. Every Adivasi family has a small parcel of land, and if water for irrigation can be arranged for all these families, then agriculture will become productive. They can grow crops for their own use as well as to sell in the market.

TD: Last year, the Supreme Court diluted the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, but the move was later reversed. What are your views on this?
KR: Even though this is an Adivasi-majority area, there are instances where we have been called names, and our women have been harassed. The SC/ST Act should not be weakened because it is only then that the general castes will have some fear that if they abuse us, we have legal recourse.

TD: In February this year, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of tribals whose claims to forest land had been rejected. The order was later suspended.
KR: Adivasis have been living on forest lands for thousands of years. The Forest Rights Act [referring to the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006] and the forest department came later. The Supreme Court order to evict eleven lakh Adivasi families is totally wrong. If need be, in the future, we will come out to the streets to protest and drive forest officials out.

TD: How does the BTP plan to unite Dalits, tribals, backward classes and minorities?
KR:The Atrocities Act is for SCs and STs. Dalits are discriminated upon in general areas, but not in Adivasi areas. At BTP, we have made a Dalit the general secretary. When it comes to Muslims, both the Congress and the BJP treat them as a vote bank. We wanted a Dalit as our candidate from [Chittorgarh], which is not a reserved seat, but no one stepped forward. Similarly, we wanted a Muslim candidate from Sawai Madhopur or Tonk, but we could not find anyone. The reason they are not coming is because the BTP has no money.

TD: A political researcher in Rajasthan told me that the BTP is largely male dominated, and that tribal women have not got the same leadership roles. There is more gender equality in tribal societies, so why is it not reflected in the political sphere?
KR:Politics is a dirty business—please print this for sure—women who want to do politics can come forward, but once they come into politics, no matter how clean the woman, she gets defiled. Women are like mothers or sisters. They should join politics, but women who aspire for positions are exploited. Our women are safe, and if needed, will pick up weapons and stand with us. During the marriage rituals, women are ahead. If needed, women will step up, [as] they are equal stake holders.

TD: Do you support women’s reservation in politics?
KR:Yes, we want women to be safe. Women should get a 51-percent reservation.

TD: In your campaign, you said that you want to protect the constitution from the BJP. But as tribals in the area have traditionally sided with the Congress, you might end up reducing its votes. Do you think this will indirectly help the BJP?
KR:We are not cutting the votes of any party. We had no option [but to participate in the elections.] Adivasis are a majority here, and because there was no other option, they were voting for the Congress and the BJP. The Congress ruled for 70 years and did not really help the tribals. The Congress is the hidden enemy, while the BJP is the open enemy. Both are against us.

This interview has been edited and condensed.