Dahod, Gujarat: The Bharatiya Janata Party hasn’t won in Gujarat’s three-fourths tribal Dahod district for over two decades. There’s a fierce fight underway, but this fight is not about winning Dahod in this month’s assembly election, but over faith.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is locked in combat with Christian missionaries over preventing new conversions and bringing back those tribals who’ve allegedly converted to Christianity, in a procedure called ghar wapsi (return to the fold).
The BJP blames the alleged conversion of tribals by Christian missionaries as the primary reason for their recurring defeat in the area. About 75 per cent of the population here, according to the voters’ list, is tribal.
“Dahod taluk has 70 churches. And it is increasing. Around 50 to 60 per cent of village families have now (over the past decade) converted,” claimed Naresh Bhai Mavi, the RSS in-charge of the dharma jagaran (religious awakening) in Dahod.
The RSS has flung itself to salvage this lost turf, first for faith and then elections. Much to its dismay, its local leaders concede, the idea of ghar wapsi or reconverting the tribals to Hinduism, isn’t making any headway.
The organisaton has devised some creative ideas to counter the alleged conversions. In its travels through villages and tribal hamlets of Dahod, ThePrint spoke to a wide cross-section of people and local leaders, and found that the RSS pushback is now through economic initiatives and not through a direct religious appeal.
Small savings schemes with four per cent interest and low-interest loans by cooperative societies run by RSS affiliates, conservation of farmland and programmes centered around Hindu rituals, like veej pujan (worshipping of seeds), vanavaaji mahostsav (a festival of tribal foods, promoting the culinary skills of tribal women), vana pujan (forest worship) and jal pujan (water worship), are some of the RSS prescriptions that the BJP-RSS combine is working on to slow down the pace of alleged conversions in the region.
ThePrint also reached the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India for comments on the alleged conversions, but received no response till the time of publication of this report. The copy will be updated once a comment is received.
Dahod district has six constituencies — Dahod, Fatepura, Jhalod, Limkheda, Gadbada, Devghadh Baria — of which five are reserved for scheduled tribes representatives. Bhil tribes are the dominant force here, comprising, according to the 2011 Census figures, 50 per cent of the population in the region. In the past 20 years, the BJP lost three consecutive assembly elections to Congress in Dahod.
For this year’s assembly polls, the district will vote in the second phase, on 5 December.
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RSS pushback on conversion
The RSS runs at least a dozen trusts in the region and three cooperative societies which help the tribals financially.
“We are not able to re-convert tribals who converted to Christianity. But we are trying to arrest the bleeding. And it is not through religion but tough economy. We help the tribal villages build their own business, plan their finances and savings and promote entrepreneurship,” said Dilip Singh Chauhan, RSS in-charge of grameen vikas (village development) for Dahod.
In addition to the RSS-run trusts, at least eight other organisations here are run by its functionaries or affiliates to work among the tribals. The cooperative societies function like banks, though not registered as such, and offer loans and collect cash for small savings and investments.
The facilities and the scheme are available for members only.
The largest cooperative society in Dahod according to Chauhan, Sri Ram Bank, has 13,000 tribal members. It has a seven-member board, headed by Chauhan as managing director. A group of 28 agents collects deposits from families. The society offers four per cent interest for its schemes, agents earn a commission of two per cent, he said.
Though covered under state government regulations, these cooperatives function autonomously, Chauhan added.
Still, according to Mavi, “The rate of ghar wapsi is very low here because they want the facilities (provided by Church). But they are officially listed as Hindus. We have been demanding that the government should delist them from ST category.”
Villagers who admitted to having converted to Christianity told ThePrint that it was a “survival strategy” for them as local churches treat their ailments, support them with medicines and help in providing their children with a good education.
Faith and politics
Even as the BJP blames the Congress for aiding the missionaries in “converting tribals” during its three consecutive terms of representing the district, the Congress on its part alleged that the BJP government in the state has failed in providing for the minimum needs of the tribal villagers.
Gujarat has been under BJP governance for the past 27 years, since 1995.
Congress leaders ThePrint spoke to termed migration, unemployment and acute water crisis as their primary concerns in Dahod.
Addressing a rally in tribal-dominated Mahuva (in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district) last week, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi stirred a controversy over the term used to refer to the tribal population. While the Congress uses the more common ‘adivasi’, the BJP-RSS often address them as “vanavasis” (forest dwellers), claimed the Congress MP.
Gandhi alleged that while his party stood for the rights of adivasis and treated them as the ‘first owners’, the BJP-RSS called them ‘vanavasis‘ and snatched their land.
Congress leaders refer to Dahod as a party fortress. In the past three elections, the Congress succeeded in maintaining its vote share at a steady 55 per cent or above, while the BJP’s has dwindled to between 25 and 35 per cent. In the past decade, the RSS has lent a helping hand to the BJP, which has always been struggling in the tribal belt in the state.
Talking to ThePrint, Kanhaiyalal Bachubhai Kishori, the BJP candidate in Dahod alleged “Conversion is a massive issue here. The Congress has made the way for the missionaries who continue to convert our tribal brothers. They get huge foreign funding for that. This needs to stop. Conversion is almost a national security threat and it is alienating our people from us.”
Kishori is a Congress turncoat who joined the BJP in 2014. He fought elections in 2017 on a BJP ticket, but lost. His father Bachhubhai Kishori was a four-term Congress MLA in the area.
In last year’s Dahod taluka panchayat elections, however, Kishori managed a win. The BJP won 32 of 38 seats in the taluka panchayat elections in 2021 and i four of six seats in the zilla parishad — its first win here in 20 years. It also won 34 of 36 seats in the nagar nigam.
Congress leaders, however, dismissed the BJP civic polls victory, claiming it did not have any base in the rural belt.
“Dahod suffers from acute water crisis. The villagers get water supply once in two or three days. A village with 200 houses depends on one pond. The area is witnessing an unprecedented migration. These are the issues here. But the BJP only knows how to polarise. Here they do not have Hindus and Muslims, so here they are playing tribals and Christians card,” said Congress candidate Harshadbhai Valchandbhai Ninama told ThePrint.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)
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