Tribal villagers in Mewar recall Sonia Gandhi visiting Dhanola with the then PM in 1985

PMO received a telegram in 1985 inviting the Prime Minister to visit the area and see the tribals' plight. Rajiv Gandhi went to Dhanola and on his instructions no policeman in uniform accompanied him

File Photo
File Photo

Prakash Bhandari

Sonia Gandhi on Monday will visit Beneshwar, a tribal village in Rajasthan and inaugurate a Rs 112 Crore bridge designed to improve connectivity in the tribal region. She had first visited the region 37 years ago with the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and her interest in tribal life and culture has sustained.

In 1985, the Prime Minister’s Office had received a telegram from a tribal villager Somaram Pargi. The villager from Dhanola in Dungarpur district of Rajasthan had requested the Prime Minister to visit the tribal belt to see for himself the poor plight of the Adivasis.

The telegram must have been one of the hundreds of such telegrams that the PMO would receive every day. But Pargi’s telegram was apparently given due importance and was shown to late Rajiv Gandhi. The then PM accepted the invitation and decided to visit Dhanola, which did not have a single pucca house then but merely huts made of mud, wood and dried leaves. He was accompanied by the late Chief Minister Harideo Joshi, who himself came from the tribal belt of Banswara.

Rajiv Gandhi covered two-kilometre long mud track to reach the village. No police officer accompanied him to the village on his instruction. In the village he went into the hut of Kura Meena and other villagers before holding an open house discussion on the problems faced by the tribal villagers, with the then CM late Harideo Joshi acting as the interpreter.

Sonia Gandhi spent a long time with Kura Meena’s wife who was busy grinding grain in the manual stone grinder (chakki). Sonia Gandhi, villagers remember, had tried her hand in rotating the slab and had enquired why the villagers crushed their own grain when flour mills could do the job. The grain was not wheat, but a cheaper local grain called Kagni Kuree that tribal villagers used to make chapati. The tribals could not afford wheat.

Both Rajivji and Soniaji tasted the thick chapatis. Villagers were vastly amused when the Prime Minister asked them why they did not eat bread made of wheat. When villagers told him that they could not afford wheat, Rajiv Ji held an on the spot discussion with Rajasthan Government officials and directed them to extend the Public Distribution System to the villages around Dhanola.

Rajiv Ji took notes himself and on his return to Delhi, convened a meeting of the officials and made several announcements by way of tribal welfare measures.

“Rajivji announced a slew of packages for not only tribal villagers in Rajasthan but for all the tribals of the country. Many of the current tribal welfare schemess were initiated by his Government. The then Prime Minister visited Dhanola on August 8,1985, recall the villagers and the day is marked as red letter day in the village. "We learnt of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi Ji's visit to Udaipur to attend the Chintan Shivir of the Congress and have sent her an invitation," for the Chintan Shivir we sent them an invitation to revisit Dhanola village” said Laxmi Narayan Pandya, a Gandhian and a former Zila Parishad Up Pramukh.

Rajiv Gandhi again visited the tribal belt of Udaipur in 1987 when the state was hit by a severe drought. Once again Sonia Ji accompanied him. Rajivji and Soniaji spent the night in a tribal village and moved from one village to another to learn about the plight of the tribals.

He was also accompanied by Ghulam Nabi Azad, who noticed an infant on a makeshift swing made out of a long piece cloth the ends of which were tied to two trees. Rajiv Ji and Sonia Ji played with the child for some time, recall villagers.

Rajiv Gandhi announced a special package for the tribals to combat the severe drought faced by the state in 1987.

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