Maharashtra: Activists Slam Govt For 'Polarising' Probe Into Non-Hindu ST Students

Maharashtra: Activists Slam Govt For 'Polarising' Probe Into Non-Hindu ST Students

Inquiry is an attempt by the ruling alliance to polarise people on religious lines and consolidate tribal votes ahead of general elections

Musab QaziUpdated: Tuesday, March 05, 2024, 01:04 AM IST
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Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde (M), State Deputy CMs Devendra Fadnavis(L) and Ajit Pawar(R) | ANI

Activists have slammed the Maharashtra government for probing a claim about students being admitted to Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) under the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category despite their ‘conversion’ to Islam, Christianity and other non-Hindu religions.

Underscoring that a person’s ST status isn’t contingent on their faith, the activists claimed that the inquiry is an attempt by the ruling alliance to polarise people on religious lines and consolidate tribal votes ahead of general elections.

The inquiry was launched in December by the state government’s Department of Skills, Employment, Entrepreneurship and Innovation after three BJP MLCs, Niranjan Davkhare, Praveen Darekar and Prasad Lad raised the issue of ‘converted’ students availing the benefits meant for tribals in the legislative council. The trio, in a calling attention notice, had also demanded that the tribals converting to non-Hindu faiths should be delisted and not be provided reservation.

An interim report, submitted by the Skill Development Minister Mangal Prabhat Lodha in the state legislature last week, shows that 257 out of 13,856 ST students who were admitted to ITIs in 2023 had marked religions other than Hinduism in their admission forms. Calling it a 'serious issue' the probe committee said that it will acquire more details about these students by enquiring the concerned ITIs, Integrated Tribal Development Project officials and Gram Sabhas.

However, members of non-Hindu tribes believe that they are being targeted unfairly. “The constitution provides reservation to tribals based on their tribe, and not their religion. Adivasis originally didn’t have a religion as such – they are nature worshipers. Hence, there is no question of ‘converting’ to Christian or Muslim faiths. By this definition, even those tribals who profess Hinduism are also converts,” said Arifa Tadvi, a Thane-based lawyer and founder of Sanaziya Adivasi Foundation, which works for the welfare of tribal communities.

Tadvi belongs to the Muslim Tadvi Bhil tribal community, which is largely concentrated on the foothills of Satpuda mountain range across Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. According to 2011 census, the state is home to over one crore tribals, accounting for 9.35% of the total population. These include a sizeable number of Muslim and Christian tribal communities. As many as 7.5% of seats in educational institutes in the state are reserved under the ST category.

While a 1950 presidential order limits the scheduled caste (SC) status to only Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, there's no such provision for ST status.

Priyadarshi Telang, convenor, Dalit Adivasi Adhikar Andolan, a Pune-based non-governmental organisation, alleged that the government is trying to score political brownie points through this probe. “The constitution doesn’t allow the states to include or exclude any group from the listed tribes – only the president and the parliament have these powers. This is merely an attempt to polarise and appeal to tribals before the elections,” he said.

However, Murlidhar Chandekar, former vice chancellor of Sant Gadge Baba Amravati University, who is heading the four-member inquiry committee claims that there’s no malicious intention behind the probe. “We are just looking at the instances where someone might be getting dual benefits as ST as well as religious minorities due to their conversion, thereby depriving actual tribals. The 257 ST students who marked themselves as non-Hindus aren’t all necessarily fake claimants. The probe is still underway,” he said.

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