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Why is Gujarat’s lone Christian legislator a worried man?

Protestant assemblyman Punaji Gamit is fretting over the demand to remove converts from the Scheduled Tribes list

Why is Gujarat’s lone Christian legislator a worried man?

Punaji Gamit, a Protestant Christian and tribal leader, is the only Christian Member of the Legislative Assembly in the Indian state of Gujarat. (Photo: supplied)

Published: July 01, 2022 06:25 AM GMT

Updated: July 01, 2022 06:31 AM GMT

Not many people outside Gujarat and even within this western Indian state itself know that there is a Christian Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in the Hindutva laboratory — one who has won four terms in a row. And that is perhaps because of his common tribal identity.

Punaji Gamit, 56, a Protestant, represents Vyara, a constituency in the tribal-dominated Tapi district of South Gujarat. He happens to be a convert — like 30 percent of others in his constituency.    

So not many people know that these days Gujarat’s sole Christian assemblyman is losing sleep over an issue — the demand for delisting converts like him from the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list — which has serious ramifications for him and other converts. This demand is being pushed by Janjati Suraksha Manch (JSM), an outfit backed by the powerful right-wing Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

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Despite being the only Christian MLA, Gamit has not emerged as the voice and face of the Christian community. The Dalit community, which accounts for 7.5 percent of the population, has an iconic figure in the outspoken Jignesh Mevani.

Though about 60 Christian organizations in South Gujarat have come together to form a common platform to counter what they describe as Hindu groups' controversial move, the community so far does not have a prominent face to spearhead the cause. 

In fact, the Christian community does not even have a leader of the stature of Chhotu Vasava — an MLA known across the whole tribal belt. 

"As a beneficiary of tribal status, Gamit understands that with de-listing he will not be able to contest elections and represent the tribal community"

Interestingly, even this lone Christian MLA, who is a member of the Congress Party, is not part of the Christian group that has been formed to combat the JSM’s campaign which Christians fear is likely to reach its logical conclusion in the Monsoon session of Indian parliament expected to start on July 18.

The Scheduled Tribes (ST) status entitles indigenous communities to reservations in jobs, education and legislative bodies.  

As a beneficiary of tribal status, Gamit understands that with de-listing he will not be able to contest elections and represent the tribal community.

“I will not be able to contest an ST reserved seat,” Gamit told UCA News. The only faint hope, he said, is that if the opposition Congress party "comes to power, we will be able to protect our rights as tribals.” 

The entire Christian community in South Gujarat’s tribal belt is in panic mode, unable to figure out how to counter the move that will deprive them of the benefits that they are entitled to as tribals.

Of the 27 tribal seats in the 182-member House, at least eight seats are predominantly Christian-dominated, though as a token gesture Congress has fielded only one Christian candidate for years. 

 "South Gujarat’s Christian community believe that the BJP is going to reintroduce the old bill, underlining the old demand to de-list converted tribal people"

Officially Christians form 0.50 percent of Gujarat’s 63 million people. However, the actual number of church-going and practicing Christians is estimated at over 30 percent — and that is the cause of heartburn among right-wing Hindu outfits like JSM which was floated just for the very purpose of delisting converted tribals.

Ironically, this RSS-backed outfit is pushing a demand first raised in the 1960s by Congress MP Karthik Oraon who flagged the issue claiming that ST converts were getting a major chunk of reservation benefits.

After this, a joint parliamentary committee was formed in 1968 to examine the issue. Parliament finally dropped it, but the issue has now found resonance with the Hindu outfit which the Christian community sees as determined to “Hinduize” tribals.

Arguing that a section of tribals who have adopted other religions are getting double benefits — educating their children in Christian schools while taking jobs meant for tribal people — the JSM has organized several rallies in South Gujarat and other states where there is a sizable tribal population. BJP's national leaders and MPs have supported it. 

And that makes South Gujarat’s Christian community believe that the BJP is going to reintroduce the old bill, underlining the old demand to de-list converted tribal people.

“We can only stop it if Congress comes to power in the center. Or else we have no chance,” Gamit said.

"The JSM wants a headcount to be carried out in churches and check records to find out the number of people who have been baptized"

The Christian community in South Gujarat had planned a protest in Vyara to counter the move for de-listing, but permission was not granted. “We will be meeting again next week to plan a further course of action,” said Gamit, who is spearheading the Christian group.

Tribal people, who are not sympathetic to the Hindu outfits, conversion cannot change tribal status. “Culturally, a tribal is always a tribal no matter what religion he practices,” said Sunil Gamit, a Congress MLA from Nizar in Tapi district, a Christian-dominated constituency.

The JSM wants a headcount to be carried out in churches and check records to find out the number of people who have been baptized.

With state elections due in December this year, the issue of de-listing and identifying “fake STs” — a euphemism for converts — is likely to heat up.

After all, it is a good election-winning recipe that can help polarize the tribal belt between tribals and converts — a win-win situation for the BJP which has already emerged as the dominant force replacing Congress in the tribal belt of South Gujarat that was once the Congress Party’s last bastion, which has started to crumble.

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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