"So, Did You Dance All Night Too?" - Tribals Reject Oppression
Reclaiming The Forests in Sonebhadra
On a cold December night, in a tribal village named after legendary adivasi rebel and martyr, Birsa Munda, killed quickly by the British in jail when he was in his early 20s, Birsa Nagar is far away from the original homeland of Birsa Munda in Jharkhand. On this moonshine night with a crisp, chilly wind flowing in from the North called 'Purbaiya', the darkness is resonating with the sound of drums and human voices in solo and chorus echoing across the vast, nocturnal landscape of forests and mountains.
The moon and the stars shine so close by, and it is all so luminescent and magical, that it is almost like you can touch them with your fingers. The dancing and songs go on all night till the early hours of the freezing dawn, with women and men joining in robust unity.
It's an old convention, a time to take a break after a hard season on the fields, a ritualistic catharsis observed for hundreds of years, a night of heady celebration. This is because it is Chathi, the sixth day after a baby's birth. In the morning, Pankanwar is neither groggy nor tired. She makes a hot cup of sweet tea with jaggery and is radiating with joy.
"So, did you dance all night too?" She smiles and walks away into the warm kitchen of the mud hut with its little chulha where she will bake thick 'makki ki rotis', broken into big pieces, and served along with a hot veggie delicacy that will fill the stomach till dinner time.
This Gond village is home to a simple, uncomplicated, beautiful, hard working, dignified and magnanimous community. The Gond are perhaps one of the largest and most ancient adivasi communities in India. Birsa Nagar is located on the foothills of the forests and mountains near Majhauli far away from the district town of Robertsganj (Sonbhadra) in Uttar Pradesh near which the river Son moves zigzag with a huge shore between the hills.
It has taken this reporter more than 40 hours across long distance trains running many hours late, inside packed, rickety private buses, equally packed tempos with passengers hanging on the board, and, finally, a ride on a TVS scooty into the zigzag of the freezing forests, to find this lovely, green village in the deep interiors. A sublime fire was glowing in the dark surrounded by adivasis sitting in a circle, talking softly, as a thick, nocturnal darkness enveloped the landscape.
So what about Birsa Nagar, so far away from Jharkhand, and why have they named this village in the memory of an icon, in a land stretching across miles of emptiness and green, amidst thatched mud homes and agricultural land and forests? This is because this is one of the epical starting points of a peaceful, non-violent, unprecedented revolution led by the adivasis in modern India.>The adivasis have been ravaged, oppressed and brutalised for centuries, especially in post-Independence India. Their inherited land and landscape has been captured over the decades. They have been banned from entering the very forests where their ancestors have lived.
They have been treated with disdain and brutality by the Forest Department, backed by powerful political forces and the upper castes, mostly 'outsiders'. They have been abused and humiliated; they have been pushed to the edge, often homeless and landless in their own inherited homeland.
In other cases, these simple and honest people have been turned into slave labourers or bonded labourers, or daily wage workers on pathetic wages, in their own, ancestral land. The land and forests had been hitherto captured by sinister and shrewd 'outsiders' of the 'upper castes' in nexus with corrupt and cold-blooded lobbies in various power establishments who have taken the uneducated and gentle adivasis for a ride. This is a tragic and sickening pattern across the tribal hinterland in what were called the Central Provinces during the British empire.
Now, no more. Not anymore. At least not in the endless adivasi strongholds of Chitrakoot and Sonebhadra in UP, where, across the mountains, forests and water bodies, starts the original and primordial adivasi homeland of Madhya Pradesh, with Gonds, Kols, Cherus, among other tribes living a collective community life since centuries.
This is deep in the interiors but close to Allahabad, Varanasi, Mughal Sarai, Mirzapur and Manikpur. Across the forest is the Panna Tiger Reserve where a pristine river called Ken flows through the core tiger area.
The adivasis too therefore reflect a confluence of cultures and traditions, food habits and clothing, while they remain dedicated nature-worshippers and lovers of forests. In one village they are worshippers of Bholenath – Shiva. Do you believe in Hindu gods? "Yes, Bholelath," said the adivasi women in chorus, wearing their best sarees, in Kodvania.
Hindu temples are rare and far-between. The festivals are mostly around harvest season with many days of dancing and singing. Most of them have been left untouched by mainstream cinema, television and culture. A television set is rarely found, and mobile signals are distant and difficult.
Besides, they are deeply secular and share strong ties within their own communities. In many instances, different tribal communities share the same community resources collectively and along with other working classes such as the Yadavs.>
However, the adivasis remain aloof from the other castes, especially the 'upper castes', because of the unhappy and unsavoury experiences of exploitative interactions with them. In certain cases, the OBCs, many of them backing the BJP, have aligned with the upper castes against the adivasis.
Most women wear sarees and blouses. Some put sindoor as a thick, long line of red on their foreheads. They speak various, delicate dialects of Bundelkhandi, Bhojpuri, Awadhi and their own adivasi language, such as the Gondi dialectic. Across UP and MP, these are borderline districts. Often, the sweet and lilting language is a mix of Gondi and Hindustani.
They speak gently, carry themselves with great dignity and poise, walk long distances, work very hard, preserve and love their inheritance and identity, and they are totally unafraid, brave, resilient and defiant, despite being trapped by a ruthless political economy and an insensitive bureaucracy. In village after village, women would be first to sing collective songs of their right to forests, followed by slogans of 'Inquilab zindabad' and 'Jo zameen sarkari hain, woh zameen hamari hai'. And thereby hangs a tale!
Indeed, the world is changing fast for the Gond adivasis in the Sonebhadra forests. They refuse to crawl and bend and become subjects of abuse, humiliation and bondage anymore. They refuse to accept injustice and oppression at the hands of outsiders and a state machinery which has marginalised them further from their constitutional rights.
Says Vijay Singh Gond, Samajwadi Party leader, and seven times MLA from the region, "They are nice and simple folks, that is why they have been cheated and dehumanised. They have been pushed into backwardness and not allowed an inch of the fruits of development. They have been crushed and pushed into the margins.
"A forest guard will come and threaten them saying why have you picked up an old branch of a tree from the ground? Political parties are only interested in vote banks. They are not interested in the upliftment and rights of adivasis who are suffering for years. That is why they are not implementing the Forest Rights Act (FRA)."
But the tribals are no longer ready to accept the old discourse of oppression. They are now not only reclaiming their land and forests, they are reclaiming their identity and history. It's at once a political, cultural and social struggle, non-violent, organised, and unionised. And they seem to be in a hurry to turn their history of oppression upside down.
Birsa Nagar is a transparent example of this restless urge to transform their lives. This is also because they have tasted the sublime taste of victories, despite the sacrifices and the struggles. And the various cases put against many of them. "Mukaddama, they used to threaten us with that word. Jail, they used to threaten us with that word. We are not afraid of these words. We are facing them every day," say the women in a meeting at Birsa Nagar.
Next to the sprawling, and original, village of Majhauli, where people were compelled to live and cultivate in little pieces of land with big families while doing exploitative daily wage labour in nearby places, Birsa Nagar was founded after a protracted movement for reclaiming their original land and forests.
The movement has currently spread across indigenous communities all over India and the world, from Brazil and New Zealand to Bolivia, Mexico, to Canada and the US. among all native communities who have been oppressed, colonised, turned into slaves and whose ancient land had been usurped by hook or crook.
The movement in the far-flung and zigzag terrain surrounded by forests started in the 1990s. It was led by the formidable social activists Roma Malik, Sokalo Gond, among others.
An inspirational Roma is remembered with deep love and affection across the nooks and corners of this vast land, because she would walk, traversing miles on foot, to reach out to the distant villages and mobilise the adivasis. "Romaji led from the front," says a seasoned Sokalo Gond, president of the Kaimur Kisan Mahila Sangharsh Samiti.
Sokalo Gond is a leader vastly respected in the region by all concerned, and who has made her share of huge sacrifices. The political and administrative establishment knows about her popularity in the region. She is also president of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP).
She says, "They used police atrocities. The Forest Department was relentless in harassing and hounding us. They put us in jail twice for long terms Romaji and me, among other adivasis. They even did police firing on peaceful protesters near a village where they are building a big dam.
"Even now, five adivasis are languishing in jail on fake charges only because they were cultivating in their own, community land. But, we were never afraid. Romaji was an inspiration. She showed us the way forward.
"We believe in the Indian Constitution. We want the FRA implemented and the supremacy of the Gram Sabha. The collective strength is an inspiration. I was never afraid and I did not care for my life. I don't feel fear.
"The adivasi women might seem shy and silent. But they are not afraid of the police. They can be exceptionally brave. And they have proved it time and again amidst police atrocities. We had to reclaim our land and forests and we did exactly that. And we will not let it go away."
Birsa Nagar is the headquarters of the movement and the adivasi Union. Women are the protagonists of the movement. According to Sokalo Gond, the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006 by the UPA government in Delhi and the sovereign powers given to the Gram Sabha of the village collective gave them the strength.
The 'Van Vibhag' and the administrative machinery used all kinds of tactics and intimidations to stop the Act being implemented on the ground. According to the Act, all communities, including the tribals, who have lived in the forests and who continue to live in the forests have every right to the natural and other resources of the forest, including, food, fruits, wood and grass, among other things.
Also, the Gram Sabha is the final and absolute body with sizable representation of women who would decide the land allotted among villagers, and also the collective sharing of community and forest resources. Besides, as tribals all across India reassert, is that they never cut trees, nor hunt wildlife and animals.
Instead, they are the original protectors of the forests and the landscape and share a peaceful coexistence with other creatures in the wild. Indeed, in every sense, whatever remains of the forests in Central India, it is because the adivasis have protected them.
And wherever there are denuded or young forests, it is visible that vast areas of expensive and precious trees like oak have been ruthlessly cut by vested interests, 'dabangs', as they are popularly called. In one instance in Kodvania, women blocked several trucks loaded with wood, cut illegally, physically. The adivasis point their fingers at the Forest Department and other powerful entities for the destruction of the forests.>"Look at those young forests," says Sokalo Gond. "There are hundreds of varieties of trees, perhaps in thousands. There are herbs and flora and fauna, and we know all of them. There are so many wild fruits we have known since our childhood which we eat.
"The forest is our mother. The forest gives us everything. We feel secure and strong with the forests. We love this gift of nature. Our ancestors have protected the forest, but they were brutalised and their land was captured and usurped.
"We decided that we will not accept it anymore. Romaji showed us the way. The Indian Constitution and the FRA showed us the way. We have reclaimed our land and they will have to officially accept it sooner or later. This is because, come what may, bullets, jail or lathis, we are not afraid and we will not move."
The people had to pay heavy consequences for their right to reclaim the forests peacefully. Women had to fight as they faced police lathis, say the locals. They would come and destroy their humble mud and thatched homes. So the entire community would wake up in the night and make homes for their community members collectively.
"They can kill us but we will not move. They can again bring their bulldozers and try to destroy our cultivated land and homes – we will lie down peacefully before the bulldozers. We will grow our vegetables and our rice, corn, dhan and pulses here, because this is our land and forest for centuries. We will protect our land with our lives," says a young Gond woman.
Hence, they don't have land documents despite the legal and legitimate claims they have made with official and meticulous documentation under the FRA and which are duly sanctioned by the Gram Sabha, which not the local authorities, nor the state or central government, can overrule. It is their Constitutional right, say the locals.
So how has the district administration reacted? They have reacted predictably, and this is a pattern repeated in village after village where adivasis have reclaimed land or are doing collective cultivation in community forest and agricultural land.
There is no electricity in the village. There is not an iota of development. There is no drinking water in the village. The school for kids is far away and badly run often with only one teacher. The mid-day meal is without eggs or nourishment.
There is no health centre or doctor in the neighbourhood. Villagers have to rely on quacks who charge exorbitantly, a few tablets of Paracetamol or Crocin could cost Rs 500. The nearest hospital is in Duddhi or Robertsganj, many hours away.
There is no public transport in the village, and walking for miles is the norm. So, in times of emergency, they rush to private doctors and clinics. And again the same cycle of debt-trap, helplessness and poverty comes back.
The tribals of Birsa Nagar have tried to dig up a well. But the Forest Department would come and fill it up with mud, say the women. They cannot even put up a hand pump or tube well because that will be termed illegal – besides, they don't have the money. Women carry pitchers of water on their heads over long distances.
It's a hard and difficult daily life. But they are not complaining.
This entire terrain of what used to be dense forests, has been ravaged and plundered across many areas, across decades in post and pre-Independence India, by powerful forces, for its extremely rich and refined wood worth millions, mineral and natural resources, among others.
For instance, Birsa Nagar is surrounded by young and raw forests, a biodiversity which is so young, that it seems surprising that these green mountains and landscape are actually thousands of years old.
"We are not able to make two ends meet with our meager resources, the forest department does not allow us to gather even wood or fruits from the forests, so we have to work in the fields of the landlords, the Banias, Thakurs and Brahimins," said the women of Kodvania. The wages are very low, even for, surprisingly, 'NREGA' work in private land, and in that of the landlords, just about Rs 213.
Several villagers have complained that they have not been paid for months under NREGA despite many weeks of hard labour on the ground. Migration of able-bodied men and youngsters to the cities and towns looking for daily wage labour is rampant.
And yet, Birsa Nagar stands as testimony to the story of several villagers of adivasis in this remote terrain, across river Son in Sonebhadra, where a peaceful revolution is underway, far away from the eyes and years of the mainstream media.
A life-affirming and liberating story of victory snatched from the jaws of decades of brutality and oppression. A primordial story of great bravery and beauty in modern times, against all odds.
All Photographs Amit Sengupta