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Statue of Unity: What is behind tribal groups’ vehement opposition to PM Modi’s pet-project?

October 30, 2018

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Statue of Unity: What is behind tribal groups’ vehement opposition to PM Modi’s pet-project?

Kevadia: As the formal unveiling of the ‘Statue of Unity‘, a pet-project of PM Narendra Modi, is inching closer, protests by local tribals in his home-state Gujarat are getting stronger. Even some of the vocal supporters of the project in the community are now reluctant to attend the inauguration ceremony slated for October 31. Apart from open protests, there is a silent-wave of dissent among the tribals in the wake of the boycott call.

Engineering company Larsen and Toubro, which won the bid in Oct 2014 to build the 182-metre tall statue of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, is busy giving finishing touches to what is slated to be the tallest statue in the world. But the project is causing a divide within the tribal community, who are in an overwhelming majority in and around this central Gujarat district of Narmada. At Sadhu Bet, a river island of Narmada approximately 3.5 km south of Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadia, dissenting voices and protests from within the tribal community are getting louder, claiming the project violates rights guaranteed to them under the law.

During visits by BJP MPs and MLAs to the area in recent days, incidents of effigy burning and black-flag protests took place against the government-sponsored ‘Ekta Yatra’ pertaining to the project. Hoardings with PM Modi’s face have been torn down, blackened or smeared with cow-dung by protestors in the tribal-dominated areas of Pratapnagar, Bhacharwada, Sisodara, Mota Limdawala, and Rajpipala, the headquarters town of Narmada district. The administration later put up differently designed hoardings with large pictures of Adivasi gods and the most revered Adivasi leader, Birsa Munda. But many of these hoardings too were targeted by protestors, with the difference that they left undamaged the images of Munda and tribal deities.

At the forefront of the protests against the “statue of unity” is tribal leader Praful Vasava, former vice-president of Bhilistan Tiger Sena, an outfit which demanded a separate state for tribal people of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. He has now founded a non-political outfit named the Indigenous Army of India and has called for a bandh and boycott on the day of the event. “We have decided not to burn our cooking stoves (Cholho Bandh) on the day as we do to mourn a death in our community. Also, me and many more youths of the community will get ourselves tonsured on November 5 near the venue as per the tribal ritual of doing so after five days of the death of someone in the family,” he said.

Protests will continue even after the event, said Vasava. “We are not against Sardar Patel and his ideology but this ‘show-off’ project of Modi is bound to bring doom for the local tribal people. We have been opposing this since the day he first announced it in 2010. The people of 72 villages of Garudeshwar taluka, where Kevadia is situated, had handed over more than 100 memorandums since then but the government ignored them all.”

Protests against the statue of unity by tribal groups (Picture credit: Rajnish Mishra)

Vasava argues that the whole area is a schedule-V locality in the tribal reserve district of Narmada and as per the constitution, nothing that harms tribal interests can be done here. Their land cannot be acquired without the permission of their Gram Sabha. “But this has not been followed in this project, like the earlier Sardar Sarovar project,” alleged Vasava.

“The tribals of 13 villages and many others have been forcefully displaced from their lands without the provision of a proper alternative. The ruling BJP is putting up their paid supporters from the tribal community to show that all the tribals were supporting this project. This might lead to a clash between the two sides,” added Vasava, whose former mentor and tribal MLA from Jhagadia in neighbouring Bharuch district, Chhotu Vasava, is also openly opposing the event.

The state government argues that the project will bring development by attracting a large number of tourists. Five-star hotels, a valley of flowers, a tent city, a weir to supply water around the year and other facilities are being built. But local tribals see this as the biggest danger to their way of life. “Around 2 lakh trees, including over 50,000 big and old ones, have been cut for the project and related activities like making six-lane connect roads from Vadodara and Ankleshwar,” said Vasava.

“The large influx of outsiders and tourists will increase illegal activities like liquor smuggling in this bordering area of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. It will also cause human trafficking of our tribal girls. We don’t want such fake development which only benefits industrialists and politicians.” He added that the agitation would expand with participation from more than 10 million people from all 15 tribal districts in Eastern Gujarat from Banaskantha in the North to Dang in the South. “The agitation is mainly to save our land and forests,” Vasava emphasised. He cited the development of Saputara in Dang as a hill station and major tourist spot as an example of how such development is harming the tribals. “Today, many of them are begging for a living,” Vasava said. “We have learnt a lesson from this and won’t allow this to happen in Narmada district too.”

However, Vasava’s anti-statue agitation does not have the support of all the tribals in the area. Jiku Tadvi, for instance, a tribal displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam project and a prominent face in the year-long relay fast near the dam site, differs vehemently. “Why should we oppose the government which has kept most of its earlier promises and is ready to give us land, water, jobs and other facilities?” Tadvi asks. “Where were all these protestors, when the work on the statue of unity began three years back? At that time, I had asked the villagers of the three panchayats around the venue including Thavadia, Navagam Limdi and Gora, whether it should be opposed and they did not say anything then.”

Jiku Tadvi also rejects Vasava’s allegations that the tribal people in the area were offered money to support the project and the event. “It is true that the company has given compensation of sorts to those people whose houses were demolished to make way for the six-lane connecting road, but in no way can it be termed bribing. They also allege that I have taken money to speak for the government. Why don’t they give any proof? Check my bank account, but don’t question my integrity. I have fought for my people. In the meetings with the government, other people were present and what is discussed there is no secret,” he said.

“The project is for our prosperity and development. Those who are opposing it are doing it for political reasons. The government ended our relay fast in July last year with promises to fulfil all our 27 demands including better facilities for those displaced by the Narmada project. Many of the demands have already been fulfilled,” Tadvi adds. On the issue of tribals displaced during the construction of the statue, government circulars regarding land compensation have been issued and they have promised jobs to the local tribal and displaced on a priority basis, said Tadvi. He added that in all of the 72 villages situated in the Gadureshwar taluka, there was no resentment as being claimed by protestors.

However, while Tadvi says he supports the project and appreciates the steps that the government has taken for the displaced, he will not attend the unveiling ceremony. This is perhaps indicative of the intensifying protests and the sympathy of the locals for the same. And Vasava’s latest allegations are bound to sway tribal sentiment even further against the project. Vasava says that the island on which the statue has been erected, was the seat of a tribal temple and was called ‘Varta Baba Ni Tekri’ but the then-Modi government in Gujarat had changed its name to Sadhu Bet. To support this claim, he has issued a photo of the old temple and its then priest along with a local panchayat’s old letter which mention of the temple.

Police guarding hoardings advertising the Statue of Unity (Screengrab from video by Rajnish Mishra)

Narmada district Collector R S Ninama, giving final touches to the preparations for the event, rejects all allegations of the protesters. “All rules have been followed including taking permission of gram sabhas for land acquisition,” he insists. “Even those opposing the project have no particular issue to raise about displaced people. The government has already accepted many of the demands of project affected people.” Inquiry into the damaging of hoardings will begin after the unveiling, Ninama added. “Prima facie, those associated with political parties opposing the event were seemingly behind such incidents.” Narmada Superintendent of Police Mahendra Bagadiya said that no case on the damage of hoardings has been lodged anywhere in the district. He said that no prohibitory orders have been issued either.

Inevitably, the ruling BJP blames the Congress party for the protests and incidents. BJP spokesperson and former MLA Bharat Pandya said that the “Congress never respected Sardar Patel and now when his statue is to be dedicated to the nation, its jealousy has come to fore. All those opposing the project were just puppets of Congress which has pre-planned it all.” Congress spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil responded with “we are not for negative politics. But there should not be vote bank politics in Sardar Patel’s name.”

[Click here to read the story on NewsCentralx24 where it was first published.]