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Tribal factor at play ahead of crucial elections in India

More lip-service and tall poll promises await the nation’s tribal people

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (second from left) at the Hornbill Festival in Kohima, capital of north-eastern state of Nagaland

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (second from left) at the Hornbill Festival in Kohima, capital of north-eastern state of Nagaland. (Photo: PIB / AFP)

Published: January 26, 2023 12:29 PM GMT

Updated: January 26, 2023 12:30 PM GMT

For the first time, tribal people in India are a much sought-after community as nine Indian states face elections this year, ahead of the crucial general election next year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will seek a third term.

Tribal people can tilt the balance in seven of the nine states going to the polls this year, including Christian-majority tribal states of Meghalaya and Nagaland.

The other tribal heartland states that go to polls this year are Tripura and Mizoram along with Karnataka and Telangana. The term of legislatures in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan--the three other tribal stronghold states--are ending early next January and so elections are expected by the end of this year.

Never in the poll history of India have tribal people enjoyed such limelight. Of the 543 seats in the national parliament, 131 seats or close to 25 percent seats have been reserved for tribal and Dalit people since 2008. Tribal people alone get 84 seats.

Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nominated Droupadi Murmu — a woman from eastern India’s Santal tribe — as president last year, making her India’s first tribal president.

With the selection of 64-year-old Murmu, the BJP seeks wider acceptance for the party and its leader Modi among tribal people across India.

Keeping the general poll in mind, Modi has already inducted eight ministers in the cabinet who represent major tribal groups such as the Gond, Santal, Miji, Munda, Tea tribe, Kokana and Sonowal-Kachari. Some of them are from poll-bound Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

Though Christians make up more than 2 percent of the country’s population, there is no mainstream Christian group presence in Modi's current cabinet. But since tribal people are of vital importance to Modi for his third innings, there is a Christian from a tribal background — John Barla — in the cabinet.

Barla, a tea workers’ leader from the eastern state of West Bengal, found a place in Modi’s new cabinet following a major reshuffle in August 2021 and is in charge of minority affairs.

Muslims make up 15 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population, but there is no Muslim representation in the federal cabinet currently, which observes say reflects the anti-Muslim stand of the BJP leadership, likely a push to establish Hindu hegemony in India.

Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are the two largest tribal states in India with the indigenous population making up 26.8 percent and 30.6 percent, respectively, of their population.

A third term for Modi is crucial for his party as it would provide time for pro-Hindu groups and the BJP to steer closer to their goal of establishing India as a country of Hindus by pushing forward policies and laws.

Tribal people make up 8.6 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population. Tribal and socially poor Dalit people make up 60 percent of the country’s approximately 27 million Christians with tribal people alone making up nearly 33 percent of Indian Christians.

Tribal Christians dominate the population of two states in India — Meghalaya and Nagaland — which are holding polls next month.

Assembly elections in Nagaland and Meghalaya, along with another northeastern state of Tripura, will take place on Feb. 27 and the votes will be counted on March 2.

Modi’s party is eager to win power in Meghalaya and Nagaland to prove the right-wing party’s acceptance among India’s Christians and to make its ride to the general election smooth. Both assemblies have 60 seats each.

Currently, Nagaland is billed as the largest Baptist-concentrated place in the world with over 90 percent of its 2 million people following Christianity--most of them Baptists.

The Nagas of Nagaland are a group of several tribes who speak Tibeto-Burman languages. Many Naga tribes embraced Christianity by dropping their tribal customs and traditions and the practice of animism. The spread of English education has brought them into the mainstream.

In Nagaland, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, with Modi’s party as its ally, is in power.

The vexed issue in Nagaland is the Indo-Naga peace process. The Nagas are seeking to establish an independent "greater Nagaland" homeland for them, which also includes some portion of Myanmar.

Although the federal government signed two pacts with the warring Naga tribal people, a solution has not yet been arrived at owing to a row over a separate Naga flag and Naga constitution.

Rooted in sub-nationalism, regional geopolitics and counterinsurgency, the Naga issue has defied a lasting solution. Often, parties involved employ violence to get more bargaining power.

Modi’s party secured an unprecedented 12 seats in Nagaland during the last polls by campaigning on the “election for solution” to the longstanding Naga problem.

During the last polls, many political parties promised a solution. But they failed.

There are many civil societies and tribal bodies in Nagaland who are demanding a solution before the election takes place. On Jan. 10, nearly 15 tribal bodies asserted that they wanted a “solution, not an election.”

Meghalaya, known for its scenic waterfalls, mountain ranges, and plateaus, is India’s fifth-poorest state. Around 75 percent of its people are Christians. The Presbyterian and Catholic Churches are the two most dominant Christian denominations in the state.

The Catholic Church in Meghalaya has some 850,000 members, making it the largest Christian group in the state 3.28 million people.

The polls in Meghalaya and Nagaland are taking place as attacks on tribal Christians have increased in the country. Already, tribal Christians are paying a heavy price for their faith in Chhattisgarh, India’s largest tribal state.

According to a fact-finding panel, hundreds of Christians have been driven out of their homes in Chhattisgarh after a series of attacks in about 18 villages in Narayanpur district and 15 villages in Kondagaon district.

The attack on Christians in India is often blamed on the fringe elements of the parent organization of Modi’s party — Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — which has also started a reconversion program called GharVapsi (homecoming) to bring tribal people under Hinduism.

Modi and his saffron party are looking forward to the polls in Christian-majority Meghalaya and Nagaland to increase their global standing as a secular party to further its prospects ahead of the 2024 polls.

More lip-service and tall poll promises await tribal people in India.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.


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