Adivasis of Bom- Silent, Steadfast And Stoic
The adivasis of village Bom in the remote forests of Sonebhadra are like its sublime landscape
Village Bom in the remote forests of Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh is hidden in its transparent and serene beauty. The adivasis here are like this sublime landscape, silent, steadfast and stoic. Their organic reality becomes a symphony with nature, their faces are resolute, their laughter easy, their body language full of collective confidence. Especially women.
The women are the scaffolding, the anchors, the vanguard, the fighters and the thinkers. They are also the dreamers. Their intense faces speak this language, as much of decades of suffering and hard labour, and they know that, along with men, they are the protagonists of a historical and radical change not witnessed in this region since decades in post-Independence India.
It is a picturesque village, like a classical painting, sketched with easy, trained, flexible strokes, moving and still at the same time, drawn with great balance and symmetry. As if everything has been measured by the magical symphony of human life and nature, and their mutual respect and deep love for each other.
The mustard flower fields sway like a Van Gogh masterpiece, amidst endless expanse of sensuous yellow, the huge Mohua trees stand as eternal protectors of this vast landscape, their flowers consumed in all kinds of innovative manner in the adivasi heartland. The hilly landscape goes up and down like a childhood poem, and the magnificent meadow moves into the green foothills, beyond which the dense forests begin, meeting these silent mountains which ancient tribal civilisations in the Central Provinces of India have nurtured and cherished for thousands of years.
It takes a long walk through little by-lanes and cultivated land, across neat mud huts with open-to-sky courtyards, to reach the big tree where the adivasis have gathered, yet again, with the overwhelming presence of women – silent and strong. They are all absorbing every bit of the dialogue, reasserting their primordial right to the forest and community land, unafraid of the police or the state establishment.
This reporter remembers the words of Sokalo Gond, leader of the Kaimur Kisan Mahila Sangharsh Samiti, in Birsa Nagar near Majhauli, the epicenter of this peaceful revolution. “The women seem shy and silent, reluctant to speak out. But never underestimate them. You should see them when they are in their elements in the struggle. They are the vanguard of the peaceful resistance – and they fear nobody, not the police, not the Forest Department, not the district administration. They have gone to prison, face lathis and guns. They are ready to sacrifice anything for the greater common good, for our forests and land. They have no fear.”
As this reporter walks with a small procession of men along with young Phooleshwari in a little village lane, she laughs and says out aloud: “It’s like we are going to a thana (police station)!” Why, are you scared of going to the police station? “No. Not at all! Not anymore,” she laughs yet again, dismissing all such fears, and at once reflects the collective resilience and fearlessness of this unique village, among other tribal villages in Sonebhadra.
This village, Bom, has also carved its name in oral history in the region as one of the bravest examples of totally non-violent and protracted struggle, which has led to a decisive victory. Well, partial victory, yes, but they have tasted it, and now they want a total and final solution.
They want their fundamental constitutional right to the forest, their agricultural land and community resources, their right to forest produce, water bodies, rivers, their fishing rights, their dignity and democratic freedoms, and a quality of life which is not relentlessly trapped in eternal exploitation and oppression. “The struggle is on, and it’s a long way, but we are not going back anymore. We want a new life,” says a wiry Amrawati, in a saree, her eyes sparkling and full of a certain resolute defiance.
In a realm where most women are silent and intense, Amrawati laughs easily. She is their natural leader. She has faced the cops with her bare hands, stopping their vehicles peacefully as they picked up the village elders some years ago during the reclamation of land struggle. She did not let them get away. She tells a story of life-affirmation and resurrection, using Gandhian tactics, invisible and incredible non-violent collective action, far away from the eyes and ears of the mainstream media.
After the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was enacted by the UPA-1 government, under the pressure of the forest rights movement, and the constitutional sovereignty and absolute of the ‘Gram Sabha’ at the micro level with women playing a significant role was restored, the adivasis in this village, comprising various tribal communities, Gonds, Kols, Cherus, among others, decided to challenge the unnecessary and oppressive power structure of the Forest Department, which, often, seemed worse than what it used to be during the British times.
Under the FRA and with the sanction of the united Gram Sabha, they demanded total and unrestricted access to forest and community land and resources, and their right to reclaim what has been their indigenous habitat for centuries.
In a departure from other villages, they gave a notice to the district administration and the forest department that they will collectively reclaim their ancient land which has been meaninglessly and arbitrarily denied to them by the authorities. The elders marked the land, allotted it to individual families in a democratic manner and sanctioned by the Gram Sabha, and reclaimed and claimed their land.
The police, led by top police and district officials, surrounded the village, and, according to the locals, attacked the peaceful gathering. The villagers did not relent. The reclamation continued even while the police tried to pick up the leaders.
“One village elder was saved from the clutches of the police, because I physically blocked the police jeep. He escaped. The women joined me. Kill us, but we will die for our ancient forests and land. Kill us, but we will not accept the denial of our community rights to the forests, the women said in chorus,” said Amrawati.
After a protracted clash, when they saw that they adivasis will not retreat, and that they are not afraid of lathis, detention or police cases, the administration and police retreated, narrate the locals. The village is in the interiors, so the local information system is immediately activated once the police are seen in the distance. Hence, the villagers immediately gather on a war-footing, peaceful, silent and strong, and as dedicated to their peaceful resistance as always.
Since then, they have been left in peace, albeit with no electricity, no water, no official land rights, no toilets, no primary school or health centre, among other legitimate benefits. Their original village is in a walking distance, but on paltry land.
Over the many decades, the families have expanded, and, hence, the shared land for cultivation has become less and less. And with the Forest Department restricting their entry into the forests earlier, they were in dire straits.
However, this brave village has defied the authorities and dug up a tube well/hand pump and created a small water pond which is collectively shared. However, despite this reclamation of their inherited land and forest resources, which they share in an egalitarian and equal manner, most of the young men are migrating to distant towns and cities for menial jobs and as manual labourers in the construction and other industries.
Education level, among both girls and boys is in an abysmal condition, and the nearest doctor is always a quack, ‘jhola chaap’ as the locals call him, who charges exorbitant amounts for simple ailments cough and cold and stomach upsets. The nearest government hospital is far away – in Dudhi and Robertsganj. The private hospitals, almost always, leaves them in debt in the case of a serious ailment.
However, despite the hard work and apparent absence of basic facilities in their social life, they have started to dream of a better world. “So that our daughters too can study in big cities and foreign lands, so that they too can fly aeroplanes, play cricket and hockey at the national level, and reach high pinnacles of success,” said a young mother, holding her baby, leaning against a huge Mahua tree.
An old bearded man, wearing a tattered shirt, his withered face mapped by a thousand years of memories, said: “We want our children to study. Go for higher studies. Shiksha, hamare baccho ka adhikar hai. Yahan shiksha ki bohot kami hai.”
Others are now in a hurry. They have given meticulously documented papers, duly sanctioned by the Gram Sabha, seeking official authorization of their reclaimed lands. It’s been some years, but the administration is sitting on their ‘daawa’, their claim.
“This is a brazen violation of the constitutional provisions of the FRA. They are denying us our legitimate right to the forests – but, for how long? If the original, indigenous communities cannot own their own, inherited past, then we will be patient, we will peacefully struggle and reclaim our fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India and the FRA. And no one can stop us,” says Amrawati, smiling, full of confidence, leading the men and women of Bom, in this magically sublime and serene landscape, like a quiet painting drawn by invisible hands, with simple, easy strokes.
PHOTOS by AMIT SENGUPTA