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.