Urvashi Gamit, 25, is studying to become an electrical engineer. Every week, she travels 12 hours by bus to her college in Khedbrahma of Sabarkantha district of north Gujarat, from her village Sara in Navsari district, returning home for the weekend. Around 50 km away, Esther Gamit, 19, of village Uchhamala in Tapi district, a nursing student at a government college in Surat, has almost the same weekly routine.
This Assembly election will be Urvashi’s first as a voter, while Esther might have to give it a miss as her voter enrolment is in process. The two tribal students, who speak the Gameti dialect at home, are keenly aware, though, of the churning Adivasi vs Vanvasi debate, in an election where all the three main parties are fighting for the 14% tribal vote. Both also underline the pointlessness of it, a debate as removed from their lives as most political discourse.
“Adivasi or Vanvasi, what difference does it make?” says Urvashi, for whom it is clear that “Adivasis are the ones living from adi kaal (ancient times)”. She is as comfortable with other cross-identities; her family “follows the Hindu way of life”, “worships tribal traditional deities”, and the highlight of Urvashi’s annual calendar is the Christmas “dance party” at their village church.
“We celebrate all festivals. Now when Christmas comes, we will go to the church functions. They dance, they set up the nativity scene… it’s nice,” she says.
The government, for her, means more basic things. Urvashi’s father passed away eight years ago, and her mother and one of her two brothers are sharecroppers who grow sugarcane, paddy and okra. The family that lives in a mud-plastered hut has been trying to get a house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, in vain. “For so many years we have been in the queue, but they demand saat-baar dakhlo (rural land records). We don’t have such records,” Urvashi says, adding that they have applied at the panchayat office, hoping to get the papers.
Esther’s father Hasmukhbhai Gamit, 42, makes a living farming – the family has sugarcane farms – plus working as a driver at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station (KAPS), located 3 km from their village. The Dungri Falia area of Uchhamala where they live is entirely populated by the Gamit tribe, a majority of whom are Christians, and relatively well-off, with pucca houses with gardens.
Esther’s family is Christian too, having adopted the faith when Hasmukhbhai was just a young child. His reasoning is simple, like that of others here in the tribal belt. “I was very ill, we started going to church and I recovered. That’s when we became believers,” he says.
It’s a Sunday and women in crisply ironed sarees, white scarves on their heads, are heading home after the service at the Pentecostal church that stands in the middle of the village. A plain grey building with a cross at the top, the church sports a bench on its premises with the name of Tapi district panchayat member Dilipbhai Chaudhary, a “Hindu”, points out Surjibhai Gamit.
A farmer who lives next to the church, Surjibhai adds that the church became a pucca structure only a few months ago, and that Dilipbhai, who gave the money for the bench, was earlier with the Congress and is now with the BJP.
Vyara in Tapi district, under which Esther’s village falls, is, in fact, the only constituency in the Gujarat Assembly that has a Christian MLA. Congress candidate Punaji Gamit has been winning the ST reserved seat since 2007. In a first, the BJP has given a ticket to a Christian too this time, Mohanbhai Kokni. Also in the race is the Bharatiya Tribal Party’s (BTP) Sunil Nagajibhai Gamit (a Christian) and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Bipin Chaudhary (a Hindu tribal).
While the Gamits, at 75,000, are a majority in Vyara, the Chaudharys follow at 68,000. As Kokni’s election Rakesh Shah points out, the BJP is also banking on another 18,000 votes, of Kokni tribals.
Employed with KAPS as a mason earning Rs 7,000-8,000 a month, Divyeshbhai Gamit, 28, from Dungri Faliya brushes away the Vanvasi tag, saying: “Adivasi etle Adivasi (Adivasi means Adivasi)”. A father of two, he would rather talk about KAPS, or “Anumathak (atomic power plant)” as the locals call it, pointing out that it has meant employment for nearly 100 men from the village.
Vipulbhai Dodhia, 42, and wife Hansaben, 36, of Kurelia village in Vansda taluka of Navsari district also have livelihood concerns on their mind. The family of seven, including their children and Dodhia’s parents, ekes out a living selling vegetables grown on their small farm. “There is no improvement in our lives since the last time we voted in 2017,” says Dodhia, predicting that votes will be divided “between three-four people”.
From Vansda, also an ST reserved constituency, the Congress’s sitting MLA, Anant Patel, will take on the BJP’s Piyush Patel and AAP’s Pankaj Patel, all from the Dodhia tribe.
Ashok Chaudhary, a 42-year-old farmer from Khodtalav village of Vyara taluka, is among those who doesn’t want any ambiguity about his identity. His family members have been enrolled at educational institutions as ‘Adivasi Chaudhary’, “not followers of Hinduism or any other religion”, he says. “Adivasi exists since the beginning of the written word, Vanvasi has been imposed on us,” Ashok adds. “It is a conspiracy to make the word Adivasi disappear.”
Kokni, who has been with the BJP since 1995, insists it is no debate at all. “Adivasi is Adivasi. Our Adivasi belt is mostly connected to forests, thus those living in forests become vanbandhu.”
He also dismisses religious conversion among Adivasis as “no big thing”, despite the BJP government’s noise over it. “My village Haripura is 100% Christian, I was born into a Christian family… There is no uproar about conversion in our Adivasi community,” says Kokni.
Dipakbhai Gamit, secretary of the Samast Christi Samaj, Tapi, however, talks of another inflection point – increasing calls by Hindu organisations in the district to delist tribal Christians from the list of STs. Calling this “unconstitutional”, Dipakbhai says: “Gamit is my social identity.” The Adivasi culture “predates religion”, he adds. “Fifty-100 years ago, we worshipped nature. In my village (Nana Tarpada), there is no temple. If they claim we were Hindus 1,000 years ago, then there should be some proof in the village, of a temple, something… my dada (grandfather) did not even know who Lord Ram was.”
Dipakbhai lists the advantages of being associated with the church, saying followers have shunned the vices and addictions common to the area. “Their moral lives have improved. Now they are educated, able to earn.”
The president of the Samaj, Harishbhai Gamit, adds: “How can the identity of those who are born Adivasis change just because they convert to another religion?”
Having triggered the debate, the BJP is trying to make amends. Of the 27 ST reserved seats, the Congress had won 17 in 2017, but five of them later crossed to the BJP. If in 2007, the BJP Gujarat government led by Narendra Modi launched a Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana, for “the speedy development of tribal areas” (later adopted as a Central scheme after Modi became Prime Minister), recently in the tribal constituency of Kaprada, Modi said pointedly that, for him, ‘A’ was for Adivasi.