Who wants the angry tribal vote?

Shiv Karan Singh
Bicchiya, April 20 : Jadu-dekho, jadu-dekho rang the call in Mandla district’s Bhanpur kheda, a village in interior southeastern Madhya Pradesh bordering Kanha National Park. A jeep canvassing for four-time Mandla MP and BJP Lok Sabha candidate Mr Faggan Singh Kulaste beckoned the Baiga of Bhanpur to the neighbouring village to watch a magic show. Not one Baiga stirred.
The Baiga of Bhanpur are angry. These shy people, one of three primitive tribes in Madhya Pradesh, feel cheated by the government and the forest department. Despite their having practiced shifting cultivation and lived inside forests with wild animals for millennia, Project Tiger in the early 1970’s deemed such co-existence unfeasible. Memories of Indira Gandhi’s visit, lies by elected representatives, and physical coercion by forest officials haunt their bleak present reality: an existence de-linked from the forest which is most dear to them.
“The land inside was four times as fertile; even a poor Baiga had at least twenty cows inside the forest”, reminisces village elder Mohbal Singh Moqqaddam. Today, none of the seventy displaced Baiga families of Bhanpur have more than two-three cows: a result of infertile land, very limited water, and an inaccessible forest.
Their knowledge of traditional medicine has been rendered useless. “I know at least one hundred fifty Baiga-Baigin who have died because we couldn’t enter the forest to bring back herbs when they were sick”, said Ms. Renubai, a middle aged woman with traditional tattoos across her forehead. Dependent on PDS rations and a corrupt Employment Guarantee Scheme for survival in a market economy, the Baiga feel trapped and frustrated.
How this frustration will affect the Congress and BJP, the only two serious contenders for the Mandla Lok Sabha seat, is not uniform.
Bhanpur’s Mr Ramdas Sonwani gritted his teeth when Mr Kulaste’s magic show jeep drove by. “Kulaste’s magic tricks won’t work; he is fail; our whole village will vote for panja (Congress),” said Mr Sonwani to two other Baiga. “I will accept money from nobody. I will cycle fifty kilometers and get six-seven thousand votes for Congress”, averred Mr Sonwani. Upon being asked if the Congress had visited his village to seek votes, Mr. Sonwani answered in the negative: “Congress doesn’t know they have supporters here.” Mr Mangal Singh Dibaria, a tall, thin Baiga living in the adjoining village is no less angry. However, it is the Congress party that is the target of his wrath. A BJP poster is one of the limited possessions that adorn his hut. “BJP will get my vote only because it is the Congress that has made the forest laws more strict about ten-fifteen years ago”, said Mr Dibaria. His rationale flies in the face of UPA’s attempt to take credit for the Forest Rights Act (2006). Speaking in support of the Congress candidate Basori Singh Masram, in a rally in Mandla last week, Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s highlighted her party’s role in bringing the Act into fruition. The reality is that the Forest Rights has brought no changes to the life of the thousands of Baiga clutching to their way of life outside the Kanha Park.
In village Mohgaon Moala, residents give recent news of a young man caught by guards and imprisoned in Mandla for collecting bamboo and grass for his hut from the forest. A Baigin of the village presented an even bleaker perspective on the elections. “For whom will I vote? The noose just gets tighter and there is no use. We will all just die here”, she said.