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Friday, Dec 02, 2022

MP Tribal leader Hiralal Alawa interview: ‘By calling us STs, Constitution undermined our identity. By saying Vanvasi, RSS wants to obliterate it’

Hiralal Alawa, who is also a first-time Congress MLA, speaks on the debate over calling tribals Adivasi vs Vanvasi, claims of conversion of tribals, introduction of the PESA Act 1996 in MP, and the need to develop tribal leadership among other issues.

Hiralal Alawa, Founder/National Convenor, Jay Yuva Adivasi Shakti (File)

An Assistant Professor of Rheumatology at AIIMS Delhi, Dr. Hiralal Alawa (38) is also a young tribal leader and national conveyor of Jay Yuva Adivasi Shakti (JAYS), a social organisation of tribals in Madhya Pradesh. Alawa had started JAYS in 2011 to develop young tribal leadership in Madhya Pradesh. JAYS, which took off as a social media platform, now boasts of five lakh members across MP.

Alawa, who is also a first-time Congress MLA, speaks on the debate over calling tribals Adivasi vs Vanvasi, claims of conversion of tribals, introduction of the PESA Act 1996 in MP, the need to develop tribal leadership and float a party ahead of the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections to fight for jal, jangal aur zameen. Excerpts:

* Rahul Gandhi has questioned the BJP terming tribals as Vanvasi, saying they were actually Adivasi. How do you see it?

Over the past decade, our organisation JAYS has been fighting for us to be identified as ‘Adivasi’. Our understanding is that ‘Adi’ in ‘Adivasi’ means ancient, while ‘Vasi’ mean the habitants of India. ‘Vanvasi’ is a word used by the RSS, which has always tried to hide the origin of Adivasis to suit their agenda. Vanvasi means those living in jungles, which include everything and anything from wild animals like tigers, bears to even goats. Jaipal Singh Munda, a tall leader of the Adivasi community, had back then argued before the Constituent Assembly that we should be referred to as ‘Adivasi’ in the Constitution, and that by calling us tribals, our basic identity had been endangered. And this is exactly what has happened. Because we were identified as ‘Scheduled Tribes’, we did not get a permanent identity. I have also opposed the use of the term ‘Vanvasi’ any time any leader in Madhya Pradesh has used it, including in the Assembly.

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* Rahul Gandhi has also mentioned laws like Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) (PESA) Act, 1996, as well as the UPA giving tribal communities forest rights and land rights. Do you feel these acts have been effective?

ALAWA: As far as the Forest Rights Act or PESA are concerned, they have given Adivasis some rights, but a lot more needs to be done. Schedule 5 of the Constitution advocates for the rights of Adivasis. It is applicable in 10 states of the country, but these states have not formulated its rules and regulations, so it is not implemented on the ground. Whether it is the Congress or the BJP, neither of them have taken any serious efforts to implement Schedule 5 and Schedule 6.

Also, when the PESA Act was passed in Parliament in 1996, it was envisioned that it should be implemented on the lines of provision of the Sixth Schedule. But none of the governments have made any effort to implement the PESA Act like the provision of the Sixth Schedule. (Fifth Schedule has provision for creating tribal advisory councils. Sixth Schedule talks of district and regional councils that have certain legislative and judicial powers that are more powerful than those under Fifth Schedule. The 10 states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Telangana come under Fifth Schedule, while Sixth Schedule has Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram)

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The central idea of the PESA Act is to give villages rights, develop them and facilitate self-governance among Adivasis. But as PESA rules were not formulated on the lines of the provisions of Schedule 6, it is very weak and does not give the rights the Adivasis should enjoy.

* The MP government has recently formulated rules under PESA that were announced in the presence of President Droupadi Murmu. How effective will these be in giving tribals their rights?

ALAWA: The PESA Act was passed in Parliament in 1996. It took Madhya Pradesh 26 years to formulate the regulations. Even when implemented, the PESA Act has failed to give gram sabhas the control over resources coming under their boundaries. The PESA Act enforced in Odisha gave the gram panchayat the power to make the final decision, which is why the Vedanta project could not be implemented, as the tribal gram panchayat did not give the permission to dig Niyamgiri hills. But the PESA enforced in MP says if the gram panchayat is not able to reach a conclusion in 2-3 meetings, it will be the chairperson who will single-handedly take the final decision. How can power be vested in a single person?

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Also, the MP government mentioned giving financial powers to these gram sabhas on the lines of Schedule 6, but it was not executed. Neither was the financial structure for the gram sabhas defined, specifying salaries of the chairman, secretary and other members of the gram sabha. We have asked the MP government to explain, how these gram sabhas can function without their finances being defined? There are several scheduled areas in which there is a sizable population of non-Adivasis. How much will their role be, in these gram sabha? There are various tribal villages that already have gram panchayats. What will the role of gram sabhas be in such villages? We have made a presentation before the government, saying neither will this PESA be able to develop villages by giving them self-governance, nor will they stop migration. Looking at the forthcoming Assembly elections, and the Lok Sabha elections the year after, the state government, in a rush, has enforced these rules, but these need to be withdrawn and reformulated to truly empower and develop the Adivasi communities. Adivasis have been fighting for these rights not only since Independence, but even with the Britishers before Independence.

Another important element is that governments have formulated several acts like the Land Acquisition Act that go against the basics of PESA, but the PESA rules in MP do not specify how these acts will work in scheduled areas with PESA being enforced.

* The Supreme Court has said forced conversions can affect national security, while CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan has also expressed concerns over conversion and the urgent need to stop them. Religious conversion of tribals, especially in tribal-dominated districts of Alirajpur and Jhabua, has always been a fraught topic.

ALAWA: Religious conversion is a concern for Adivasis across the country. The Constitution, while defining the Adivasis as Scheduled Tribes, gave them an identity originating from their customs, beliefs, culture and the fact that they were nature worshippers, not tied to any religion. Tribal in different states have followed their own customs to worship their own gods. Now they are talking about conversions. Even we want the Adivasis to be able to preserve their identity. But in the past 70 years, what have the governments, of Gujarat or Maharashtra done to help Adivasis preserve their culture? When you talk about distorting Adivasi roots or foundations, it is the government whose role comes under the spotlight. It is political leaders who attribute Adivasis to one religion or another, but has the Constitution defined the religion of Adivasis? The issue of religion is only a political issue. In MP, it is the BJP itself which is interfering with the customs and beliefs of the Adivasis. In fact, the government has played a major role in pushing the Adivasis away from their own customs. They have never made any efforts to preserve Adivasi culture.

* You have also spoken about floating a political party to increase Adivasi presence in the state Assembly…

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ALAWA: It is the need of the hour. Adivasis have their own demands and issues. In the past 70 years, neither the BJP nor the Congress have been serious about them. In such a situation, we need Adivasi leaders. We have said, “We want leaders.” Now, whether these leaders go on to form a party, get elected to become MLAs or MPs, is a different issue. But we need leaders who will fight for Adivasi demands of jal, jangal aur zameen, the for core issues of Adivasis. Leaders like Birsa Munda, Tantya Bhil who can fight. Whether they fight through means of a political party or independently, is not an issue.

* You are a sitting Congress MLA, but when you talk of developing Adivasi leadership, does it also mean that in future you would break away from the Congress?

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ALAWA: Whether I fight another election or not is a decision that our organisation will take. The organisation is not just Hiralal Alawa alone. We have 15-20 lakh members across India and nearly five lakh in Madhya Pradesh. The entire body will take a decision on whether we will fight the election with our own political party or with any political party. As of now, we are preparing to raise our own leadership.

First published on: 24-11-2022 at 04:20:36 pm
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