Salumbar: Tribal Struggles Come Of Age

N ational Highway No . 8 (NH8) that runs from Delhi to Mumbai and cuts a wide swathe through Rajasthan. This modern superhighway cuts right through the southern tribal areas of this state, including Salumbar. Its total lack of connection with or consideration for the lives of the poor tribals and peasants who live on either side of it, and its ostentation that is almost vulgar symbolised the BJP’s ‘India Shining’ Campaign as well as the violence and insensitivity of India’s development. Enormous steel scaffolding straddle the highway at regular intervals and carried glossy pictures of Vajpayee informing the world that his ‘dream for India was to complete the quadrilateral highways around the country’! After the results on 13 th May, there is just empty scaffolding, the costly ads have quietly disappeared along with the BJP government, while super-contractors behind this mega-project are busy striking deals with the new government.

One of the constituencies of the South Rajasthan tribal (adivasi) area is the Salumbar Lok Sabha Constituency and is reserved for tribal candidates. It must be one of the largest constituencies, area-wise, in the country. It stretches from the Gujarat border in the northwest right up to the Madhya Pradesh border in the southeast and covers part of three districts. It is almost 400 kms. long and crosses some of the most backward, tribal regions of South Rajasthan. The eight segments of this constituency are Phalasia, Gogunda, Sarada, Kherwada, Salumbar, Lasadia (all in Udaipur district), Aspur (Dungarpur district) and Pratapgarh (Chittorgarh district).

The population of this whole area is almost 70-80% tribal dotted by islands of urban towns of non-tribals – mostly moneylenders, traders, feudal classes, mine owners and government officials who live by exploiting the vast hinterland which surrounds them. The adivasis are mainly marginal peasants eking out a precarious below-subsistence level of livelihood. Things have not changed much for them in the past 50 years except to worsen. For instance, the forests have almost disappeared and with them fuel, food, fodder, and medicinal herbs. The adivasis farm enough to eat for 4-5 months in a year if there is a good monsoon and for the rest of the year they try to find manual labour work often by migrating to other areas or the cities. NH8 cuts right through Kherwara and Sarada tehsils of this constituency and its handiwork has been to bring syphilis and other STDs (not of the modern telecommunications kind but sexually transmitted diseases) to every village of this area. The trucks that ply this route day and night are also responsible for a thriving flesh trade and adivasi women are lured away by the promise of a sari or a full meal only to be sold into the brothels of Ahmedabad, Baroda, Surat and Mumbai.

We have been active in parts of this area for over twenty years and initially formed a wing of the Rajasthan Kisan Sangathan (RKS) and some of our most militant struggles have been fought here. Initially, RKS work in Salumbar and Lasadia tehsils of Udaipur District began in the ’80s around the issues of land, forests, moneylending, corrupt and vicious practices of police, forest officials, land settlement officers etc. Minimum wages and the right to work was another important issue taken up as, even today, this is one of the lowest paid areas in Rajasthan with the daily wage for labour being a mere 25 to 30 rupees. In the soapstone and marble mines that this area is famous for, the plight of labour rivals the condition of slaves in ancient times with low wages, long hours and no compensation for accidents or deaths which are common everyday occurrences. Moneylenders take a very high rate of interest and, in the Kotda tehsil of this constituency, were known to take as much as 300% interest per annum during the last drought period (1999-2003)!

In the late ’80s a sustained struggle for the re-possession of over 2,000 acres of land which had been taken over by various moneylenders, forest officials and local feudal lords. In many villages RKS organised adivasis, conducted struggles and the land was reclaimed and redistributed to the original tribal owners. In 1990 a sustained struggle was waged against moneylenders, usurious rates of interest and the tendency never to return mortgaged lands and jewellery. During this struggle when taking out a procession, adivasis were fired upon by a combination of police and feudal lords and over 35 men and women were wounded - all shot in the back as they tried to flee this murderous assault. In another instance moneylenders, with backing from both Congress and BJP, burnt down over 70 adivasi huts in a village that was spearheading the anti-moneylenders agitation. The BJP was in power and its Chief Minister who is now India’s Vice-President withdrew all the cases that were filed against the police, moneylenders and feudal lords for all these illegal and violent attacks. In this area RKS also freed bonded labour and launched a movement for creating an autonomous tribal area. Many struggles were also waged against corruption in government schemes.

All these struggles gave the adivasis a tremendous amount of self-confidence and pride in their culture and this was the basis for the appeal of our movement. We have fought elections from this constituency for the past four general elections. In 1996 we fought for the first time under the banner of IPF. Then again in 1998 and 1999 under the banner of CPI(ML). But our votes were few – 1,479, 2007 and 1573 respectively. One of the biggest problems has been to change the perception of our movement among the adivasis as well as our activists, from that of a mass organisation like RKS to that of a political party. Hence, the present election is a watershed as the 22,029 votes we harvested represent the fact that we have not only come of age politically, subjectively, but have been accepted as a political force, objectively.

Our party is also recognised for its consistent pro-people stand and its uncompromising opposition and exposure of Congress and BJP exploitation and politics. This is the advantage that we had over the CPI candidate who also fought from this constituency. Another point that must be remembered is that although he polled 10,000 more votes than we did (32,293), he was the joint candidate of the CPI, CPM, SP, JD(S) along with a number of NGOs while we fought alone! The ordinary adivasi knows that there is no difference between the Congress and the BJP when it comes to economic policies and corruption and they appreciated our stand of equidistance and opposition to both these parties.

In spite of a serious dearth of manpower, resources and money (Rs.50,000/- was spent overall!), the detailed planning, coordination and enthusiasm with which our party comrades fought this election was remarkable. The wide distribution of a highly effective pamphlet that exposed the corrupt, opportunistic and exploitative BJP/Congress rule and gave our political alternative along with effective use of the media was another plus point. All this coupled with our correct political analyses of the national and international situation attracted many intellectuals from the city (mainly Udaipur) to join our campaign and further the positive impact of our work. Definitely, a good foundation has been laid for future work in this area.

-- Srilata Swaminatha