Dangs, Gujarat: Irony is an integral part of Dhanraj Shinhan’s life. He is a king but lives in a hut. His flashy Lancer is parked outside his thatched hut but the water required to wash the car comes from a well that’s 1km away, and power supply is erratic. And while privy purses for royalty were banned by Parliament almost four decades ago, Shinhan continues to enjoy special privileges.
He is one of the five kings of Dangs, a district in south Gujarat that is dominated by tribals. The 52-year-old king belongs to the Bhil tribe that ruled these parts till independence.
Located along the Saputara hills, adjoining the borders of Maharashtra, Dangs is home to 186,729 people, as per the 2001 census. Covered by dense forests rich in timber, honey and wax, 90% of the population, made up of the Koknas, the Bhils and the Kunbis, are tribals.
Modi supporter: Dhanraj Shinhan poses in front of his Lancer. He says the BJP government has taken care of religion as well as development. KP Narayana Kumar / Mint
“Dangs was one of the few places that the British were unable to take over as the Bhil fighters were too ferocious and knew the lay of the dense forest better. So the British came to an agreement with the Bhils, who leased out the land to them and in return were paid compensation,” says S.K. Nanda, a bureaucrat with the state government, who has worked in these parts for many years. Nanda holds the informal title of guardian secretary of the district as part of a tradition in the state bureaucracy, where every officer adopts a district.
When India gained independence, these tribal kings demanded, and got, the continuance of special allowances, given that there was almost no government presence in the dense forests of Dangs. Successive state governments in Gujarat have continued the practice of keeping the kings happy, partly in order to garner their support for elections.
The Bhil population, as per the 2001 census, was estimated at 45,901. Dangs, which has an estimated 100,000 voters, is part of the Valsad Lok Sabha constituency that has an estimated voter base of 1.4 million.
The area has also seen communal clashes between Christian and Hindu activists over the contentious issue of conversion. Christian activists have consistently maintained that the Shabri Kumbh Mela, organized by Hindu right–wing organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Dangs in 2006 was aimed at intimidating the minorities in the district, who comprise around 8% of the population.
The activists here also say that a massive reconversion effort, supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, is under way in the district. The RSS, on the other hand, blames the missionaries for forcing tribals to convert to Christianity.
In 1998, communal violence broke out in the Dangs region with Hindu extremists attacking and burning down several churches and Christian prayer halls across 25 villages in the area.
“They (the BJP) have handed out all activities in the spheres of health and education in the district to the Sangh Parivar (the RSS) outfits who are working towards a specific agenda of reconversion,” says the Congress candidate from Valsad, Kishanbhai Vestabhai Patel.
The Gujarat government pays Shinhan and four other kings in the district an annual grant apart from a political pension which, Shinhan says, amounts to Rs3,900 per month. The annual payout, which is given during the Dang Durbar festival, five days before Holi, is said to be around Rs1 lakh; but Shinhan is unwilling to disclose the amount. The kings are also allowed to cut more teak trees than others.
According to Shinhan, whose “province” is Vasurna, he belongs to the 52nd generation of royalty in these parts. Shinhan has five children, including two daughters. “They are all married into the families of the other royal families in the area,” he says.
“The Bhil kings also form an important channel in the interaction between the state administration and the government. They help us get information and support from the local population,” said a forest department official who did not want to be identified.
Budhiya, a 62-year-old resident of the area, says that until around three decades ago, the wives of the Bhil kings were prohibited from leaving their homes and interacting with the villagers. “But now all that has changed. The kings are almost living like ordinary folk except for the fact that they make more money,” said Budhiya, who uses only one name.
The five kings are also politically active.
“During elections, we do provide support to political parties. When a candidate comes to our area, we take him around and introduce him to the villagers. I am a supporter of (state chief minister) Narendra Modi. He has done so much to protect our religion,” says Shinhan, adjusting his turban while posing for a photograph. According to Shinhan, the holding of Kumbh Mela at the Shabri temple here was the most important work done by the BJP government in Dangs.
Shinhan says that Modi is bound to win this elections given that he has “taken care of religion as well as development”.
Here, like in most of the states, it is largely a direct contest between the BJP and the Congress party. The BJP won the Dangs assembly seat in 2007 while the Lok Sabha seat is held by the Congress. The BJP candidate here is D.C. Patel, a physician who has specialized in treating snakebite victims, the most common affliction in this part of the state. The sitting member of Parliament from Valsad is Kishanbhai Vestabhai Patel, an agriculturist.
Since the BJP won five out of the seven assembly segments here in 2007, it is considered a favourite in the elections scheduled for 30 April. The Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Aadivasi Sena Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) have also put up candidates.
The king’s house is 45km from the nearest town— Ahwa. A water pipeline is being laid and is expected to be completed next year. The road connecting Vasurna with the main road was tarred three years ago and two new schools have come up here.
“Development is happening. It’s taking some time but it is happening. I am all for democracy,” says Shinhan.
So long as it doesn’t mean an end to the state’s benevolence, which is responsible for his sedan.