New Delhi: Madhya Pradesh Forest Minister Kunwar Vijay Shah has blamed tribals for deforestation in Burhanpur.
His remarks come at a time when his party, the ruling BJP, is scaling up tribal outreach in several poll-bound states, including Madhya Pradesh.
“Do you want us to point our guns at our own people? You want us to shoot India’s tribals. We do not want this and also, this should never happen,” Shah said Wednesday. The seven-time BJP MLA from Harsud was in Burhanpur to attend an Ashwathama Shiv Mahapuran katha.
Speaking on complaints regarding the cutting of trees in Burhanpur, Shah said, “People are not coming here from overseas to cut trees. Our own people, subjugated by their greed for land, are causing harm to the jungle; trying to capture the jungle. When someone tries to stop, they become eager to kill or be killed. In such circumstances, we also need the people’s support.”
“Tell me, where are we going wrong? They (tribals) are hurling stones. They are firing guns. They looted our guns once. We brought them back with firmness. I hope not but if something big happens, the press and society will hold the government accountable,” he added.
This was the first time Shah made public remarks on the axing of forests in Burhanpur. “Do not test the government’s tolerance. In a democracy, safety and defence are our responsibility,” he told tribals.
Shah went further to add that the “subject of protecting forests by the force of a gun” was beyond his comprehension, adding, “a country is defended by the force of a gun.”
Speaking to ThePrint, the minister said: “I am only telling people and the media about my concern that forests are being cut and our own people are cutting them; they need to be saved but we cannot point a gun at them, we have to find a middle ground.”
For the last several months, large-scale deforestation has been rampant in a number of villages in Nepanagar tehsil of Burhanpur district, including Navra, Siwal and Bakdi. This has also led to instances of clashes between forest officials and villagers. Just the day before Shah made the remarks in Burhanpur, tribals had gheraoed the office of the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) in Nepanagar, demanding patta (land deed).
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‘Not a tribal leader, but hard to ignore him’
In MP, where tribals make up 21 per cent of the total population, the BJP won only 16 of the 47 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the 2018 assembly elections. This was a dip from 2013 when it won 31 of those seats.
Sensing that the tribal vote is key to its electoral prospects in MP and elsewhere, the BJP announced a number of steps such as implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, the annual celebration of tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary, and the development of a museum in the names of Gond freedom fighters Shankar Shah and Raghunath Shah.
In 2021, the party even renamed the Habibganj railway station in Bhopal after Gond queen Rani Kamlapati.
A vice-president of the Madhya Pradesh BJP told ThePrint on condition of anonymity, “Vijay Shah hails from a family of Gond kings but his strong grip on the region and influence among tribals is why he has been useful to the party. Though he is not a tribal leader, it is difficult to ignore him.”
“The party has advised him many times to avoid making such remarks but this time, more than his threat, his remarks depict the political situation about the threat to jungles,” said the BJP functionary.
However, a BJP MP from the state said “blaming tribals at the time of elections could make matters worse, even if the remarks were made out of concern”.
“Strengthening tribals who have limited resources is the need of the hour, not accusing them,” the MP remarked.
Shah, who has represented Harsud assembly constituency since 1990, is a prominent face of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. He started his political career with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and has been a part of the council of ministers during the tenure of all BJP governments.
His first stint as a minister was during the Uma Bharti administration in 2004. Shah’s brother Sanjay is also an MLA and his wife has been a municipal president. He is now looking for a ticket for his son, according to sources in Madhya Pradesh BJP.
No stranger to controversies
Accusing tribals of deforestation is not the first time Shah made headlines with his controversial statements.
In September last year, while participating in the Chief Minister’s Jan Seva Abhiyan, Shah had belittled previous prime ministers while praising PM Narendra Modi and the central government for rolling out the Ayushman Bharat scheme. “Seventy-five years have passed since the country attained Independence but Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the first leader who is improving the lives of the poor. Before him, all prime ministers were ghoda, ghada aur haathi chhaap. None of them cared for the poor,” he had said.
The very next month, Shah’s comments on the Congress party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra and former party president Rahul Gandhi went viral. Taking a jibe at Gandhi, Shah had said, “There is only one person who roams around in an air-conditioned car but starts walking when he enters a village.”
Shah even delivered remarks on Gandhi’s marital status, saying, “He is 55-56-years-old and is not getting married.” Adding that he got his own son married as soon as the son turned 25, Shah said that neighbours “start talking” if there is someone at home who isn’t married by the age of 25.
“Women also talk in whispers. People ask, is pappu ill? He isn’t getting married, is there any deficiency? I don’t say there is any deficiency in your pappu. People say that,” he had said, in an apparent dig at Gandhi.
Cut to November 2022 and Shah made headlines again after a Gypsy ferrying actor Raveena Tandon was seen moving ‘too close’ to a tiger at the Satpura Tiger Reserve. After a probe into the incident turned up inconclusive, forest officials clarified that Tandon was the brand ambassador of the Madhya Pradesh wildlife department. Days later, Tandon was spotted taking a walk in the tiger reserve along with Shah and his family.
Shah also courted the ire of the transgender community when on the occasion of Teacher’s Day (5 September) in 2018, he made a remark suggesting that those who don’t clap in honour of their teachers will have to go clapping door-to-door in the next life.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan sacked Shah from his cabinet in 2013 over controversial remarks he made about Chouhan’s wife at a tribal camp in Jhabua. The opposition Congress had even taunted the BJP at the time with placards that read, “Sadhna ke sammaan mein, Congress hai maidan mein (Congress on the field in Sadhna’s honour).”
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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