Huge row over tribal identity in Rajasthan spells trouble for BJP-RSS
Bharat Adivasi Party (BAP) leader Rajkumar Roat (right) said that Madan Dilawar’s (seen in the pic on the left) comments that tribals need to do DNA testing are an “insult to the tribal community”. Photos: X | @madandilawar| @roat_mla

Huge row over tribal identity in Rajasthan spells trouble for BJP-RSS

State minister Madan Dilawar stirs up a storm with 'DNA-testing for tribals' remark; question whether tribals are Hindus is being hotly debated in Rajasthan

In Rajasthan, a huge furore has erupted over the tricky issue of tribal identity. Known for making polarizing statements, education minister Madan Dilawar has ignited this storm by suggesting that tribals who don’t see themselves as Hindus should undergo DNA tests to verify their lineage.

While his comments thrust him into the spotlight, the public outrage suggests the minister may have bitten off more than he can chew. Most tribal leaders claim Dilawar’s remarks betray the faultlines that are deeply ingrained in the RSS approach towards tribals and are demanding the minister’s resignation.

DNA testing for tribals

The raging controversy began after Bharat Adivasi Party (BAP) leader Rajkumar Roat asserted that he belongs to a tribal community and follows a belief system distinct from all religions, including Hinduism. The comment from Roat, who won the tribal Banswara seat in the recent Lok Sabha elections, was in sync with remarks of most BAP leaders who often claim that tribals are not Hindus.

Roat’s remarks, however, inflamed minister Dilawar who retorted, “The question whether they are Hindus or not, will be asked from their ancestors. Genealogical experts will be consulted and if they (tribals) are not Hindus, we will get their DNA tested to determine if they are their fathers’ children.”

Further, he added, “If BAP leaders don’t consider themselves Hindus, their DNA must be tested.”

Inevitably, the minister’s colourful comments sparked a backlash. The sharpest response came from Roat who argued that Dilawar’s comments are an “insult to the tribal community”.

Roat said that Dilawar is implying that Adivasi party members need to undergo DNA tests to prove their parentage. This statement is a challenge to tribals across the country and will cost the BJP dearly, he pointed out.

The Congress slammed Dilawar as ‘mentally ill’ and state chief Govind Dotasra argued that “his remarks on DNA testing of tribals are highly condemnable and reflect his mental disability”.

Massive protests

Beyond verbal sparring, Dilawar’s remarks have triggered massive protests in districts like Banswara, Dungarpur, Sirohi and Pratapgarh where the minister’s remarks were denounced and his effigies burnt. The BAP has major plans lined up for the protests – in the first phase, MP Roat and BAP leaders will give blood samples to Dilawar. In the second phase, the BAP will collect samples from Adivasi homes and send blood, hair, or nail samples with names and addresses to the minister so that he can conduct DNA tests about tribal lineage.

Tribal leaders and supporters have also protested strongly on social media. As the issue got traction, hashtags like #MadanDilawarApologize and #ResignMadanDilawar began trending on social media; a campaign was also started with the hashtag 'Adivasi Hindu Nahin Hai'.

Besides planning a huge protest in Jaipur, the BAP is exploring legal options to avenge what it calls the ‘humiliation of tribals’.

Alarmed at the protests and the potential damage to its prospects in south Rajasthan, the state BJP has directed party leaders to exercise caution in public utterances. On the backfoot, the minister is backtracking and claiming that his comments were ‘misconstrued’.

But angry tribals and BAP leaders insist that Dilawar must resign or else they will intensify their agitation.

RSS influence in tribal areas

The roots of Dilawar’s incendiary comments, however, lie in the RSS-BJP discomfiture over a larger churn in tribal-dominated areas of south Rajasthan. Called the ‘Vagad’ region, it comprises Banswara, Dungarpur, Pratapgarh and parts of Udaipur districts that account for 15 tribal seats in the state assembly.

Traditionally a Congress bastion, in recent times the BJP started doing well in this tribal belt, thanks to intense saffronisation over the past three decades. The region gradually became a citadel of the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad (VKP), an RSS affiliate which pushes a Hindutva agenda through schools, cultural groups and even medical camps.

The Sangh Parivar's strategy to establish Hindutva in this tribal region has seen an array of Hindu symbols springing up across Vagad.

The ‘Vanvasis’ in their view were the true bearers of the Hindu essence, who preserved and practised Hindu traditions in the forest. In reality, as most scholars argue, Adivasi religious life is built around animism and nature worship, and is quite distinct from dominant Hindu traditions. As a beneficiary of this RSS effort, the BJP began dominating electoral politics in the area over the past two decades.

Tribal parties emerge

Despite these cultural campaigns, there has been little improvement in the poverty-stricken lives of tribals. Politically, Vagad region saw only Congress-BJP contests like most of Rajasthan. But rumblings of discontent began a few years ago, as tribals felt neither party represented their interests adequately.

An outfit named ‘Adivasi Parivar’ came up and took the political plunge in 2018. Gujarat-based Chottubhai Vasava's Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) became the electoral vehicle for Adivasi Parivar and bagged two seats in the 2018 elections.

In mid-2023, due to internal differences, the BAP or Bharat Adivasi Party was formed and despite being a new entity, it put up a strong show in the Assembly elections last year. In Dungarpur and Banswara districts, where all nine assembly constituencies are reserved ST seats, the BAP won three seats while the Congress bagged four. In contrast, though the BJP regained power in Rajasthan, it won just two of the nine seats in these tribal districts.

Under BTP-BAP inspiration, a new tribal self-assertion is gripping the region in recent years. This contrasts sharply with RSS-led saffronisation of tribal Rajasthan where appropriation of Adivasi identity has been an integral feature. But now, most tribals insist that they are not Hindus and have a religio-cultural heritage that’s vastly different from dominant Hinduism.

‘Tribals are only tribals’

Not surprisingly, debates on whether or not tribals are Hindus have exploded in Rajasthan in recent years. In March 2021, a tribal MLA of the Congress, Ganesh Ghogra asserted in the state assembly that tribals are not Hindus and follow a different culture. His statement was attacked by the BJP and its MLA Gopi Meena, who said tribals had always been Hindus and will remain so.

Though many BJP-RSS leaders call tribals as ‘Sanatani Hindus’ and list examples of their customs similar to those of Hindus, BAP leaders often quote the Supreme Court to claim that tribals are not Hindus. Recently, BAP state president Mohanlal Roat asserted, “The customs, deities and worship methods of tribals are all different. Even the Hindu Marriage Act does not apply to us. Tribals are only tribals, not Hindus.”

In this context, the recent defeat in the Banswara Lok Sabha constituency has been a huge shock for the saffron brigade, as BAP’s Rajkumar Roat trounced BJP’s Mahendrajeet Malviya by nearly 2.5 lakh votes.

Respecting India’s religio-cultural diversity

Political circles in Rajasthan are abuzz that Dilawar’s demand for DNA tests on tribals reflects the BJP-RSS frustration over the setback in the tribal belt. As BAP claims of a special tribal identity resonate with voters in south Rajasthan, the RSS-BJP suspect their decades of work to assimilate tribals under the Hindutva fold may now be in grave danger.

As the slugfest between Rajasthan minister Dilawar and MP Roat escalates, the debate is not just between two combative leaders but also the mindsets dominating their parties.

While the BAP insists on the tribals’ right to self-identity and cultural autonomy, the RSS-BJP approach often seeks to submerge tribal identities under a homogenized Hindutva framework. But in the crossfire over tribal identity in Rajasthan, at stake is the broader challenge to respect and preserve India's religio-cultural diversity.

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