Tharu Adivasis: Sentinels of the Forests
The adivasis opine that the colonial era was not as oppressive as the Forest Department in Independent India
It's getting late, darker and colder in Village Sariapara inside the core area of the forest, but the fire is burning bright, even as the buffalo in its nearby shelter is making happy sounds. "We usually sleep at 7 or 8 in the night, but today it is almost 11pm, and we are really enjoying ourselves," says a young woman, her eyes sparkling in the fire. Besides, November is a month of rest for the adivasis, as they prepare for the next season of crops.
Several women have collected after work and dinner to chat with this reporter about their life and times. They have few tiger stories because almost all of them have seen tigers since their childhood, who would look their way, or, choose to be totally indifferent, and walk away, even as the adivasis would move into the forest effortlessly, in synthesis with nature, since it is there inherited home and original homeland, which they love so deeply and intensely.
"The tigers or leopards have never harmed us. We know they are there and they know we are here. They have their freedoms and we have ours. They don't come to our homes, nor do we disturb them. We have no threat perception too, like the tigers have no threat perception," they say.
Indeed, in recent years, there has been no man-animal conflict in this dense forest, despite all the 46 villages being in the core area of the tiger reserve. With the Tharu adivasi community making their homes in the core area, certainly, the famous Dudhwa National Park, and its vast forests, rivers, water bodies and natural resources, is in safe hands.
Sahvaniya means "Van ke saathi," she says, "that is my name." Sahvaniya also represents radical change and resistance, which marks the empowered women of the Tharu adivasi women community. Like some other young women in the forest, she drives a motorcycle.
Many women and young girls use cycles, including when they go with their farming equipment to the field. It is not an uncommon sight to see a young woman, wearing salwar kameez, cycling alone in the forest with a 'kudaal' firmly placed on her shoulder.
Alone, in the forest? "Yes, what is there to fear," says Sahvaniya. "We love the jungle, the air we breathe, the green expanse, and the wildlife which live here, including tigers. I have grown up as a kid in the forest. I am almost always driving alone deep inside the forest from my home to other villages. There is no fear."
Sahvaniya is a bright, young Tharu woman leader, charged up, clued in on national and international politics, deeply involved with her community. She has travelled across India to campaign among other tribal communities, from Rajasthan to Wayanad in Kerala. She visited Brazil for a training and education programme in 2018.
She lives in a beautiful mud house at Surma village in the heart of the forest, surrounded by acres of fertile land shining in sharp sunshine flanked on all sides by the deep darkness of the forests. To enter her village, one has to wade through thick foliage and woods, across muddy by-lanes in the jungle.
She is deeply attached to the memory, idealism and sheer guts of her father, Jawahar Rana, who died recently during the lockdown, and who remains an iconic leader among this stoic and hardworking tribal community. Her father, along with others, such as veteran Ramchandra Rana and Dinesh, started the movement for forest rights in the early 1990s, consolidating it two decades later in the form of the Tharu Adivasi Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Manch, under the auspices of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP).
Jawahar Rana died much too young, and remains an inspiration and legend among the Tharu community. Indeed, Sahvaniya contested the last panchayat elections in Surma, but lost by a small margin. "My father was in hospital. I had to be with him. It was Covid time. I could not even campaign on the voting day, or earlier," she says.
Sahvaniya is well-known as a social activist in the area. She is doing her masters in sociology from IGNOU. She plans to do her PhD, perhaps in JNU. She has other plans too, and steadfast dreams, like empowering her community with enlightenment and knowledge, bringing in primary, secondary and higher education and health infrastructure, and good roads, abysmally absent in the area, especially for girls and women. She also wants that their fundamental rights should be restored to the adivasis.
But her deepest dream in the current scenario is different, "India has been ripped apart by polarisation and failed promises, especially in UP. I want a secular, peaceful, pluralist India, where women, Dalits, minorities, tribals and the economically backward get their rightful place in society. Once that is in place, nothing can stop us in reaching for the stars, especially for women and girls of my community, and all tribal communities in the country."
Her village, Surma, is deep inside the core tiger reserve area in the famous, or, infamous, Dudhwa National Park. Surma is one of the 46 villages in the forest, where darkness enters the day like magic among the infinity of tall trees and dense woods, next to Lakhimpur Kheri and Pilibhit in the fertile Terai area of Uttar Pradesh, with the border of Nepal touching across both land and river. From across the serene river Mohana, flowing zigzag like a silent prayer, there are lush green meadows across, with buffaloes grazing in Nepal.
Young Nepali girls on cycles cross the river, carrying the cycle on their shoulders in waist-deep water. They bike across the sandy river shore in happy groups, chatting away, to do 'shopping' in the colourful village market of 'Suda chauraha' – Suda crossroads. They too belong to the Tharu community and know the people across the river in India, sharing old friendships.
The bonding across the borders is beautiful, and so is this smooth, borderless, everyday movement of people across two countries with no fear or intimidation, no barbed wires, para-military check posts, and, of course, no passports or papers.
The Mohana arrives here originating from river Kali in Nepal, the locals tell us. It flows serene now, but in the fierce floods this summer, as is the norm during monsoon every year, it cut into vast swathes of agricultural fields across several villages, flooding forest and villages, and leaving behind huge damage and devastation. Suda, Kajaria, Bankati, Biriya, Dhakiya, Sohnah, Nijhota and Devrahi, the villages which suffered badly were all near the river.
The other norm is more sinister. It is what the locals call the predictable consequences of 'nadi ki kataan', the expanse which the river cuts into as it changes its trajectory again and again during the floods. The locals allege that the Forest Department, inevitably, declares the land which has been swamped by the waters, first rising, and then receding, as land which belongs to the government, though the land documents might declare it to be belonging to the villagers. This is a diabolical game, the villagers contend, to hound and harass the Tharus.
The forest officers and guards quickly mark the territory with poles and signposts, leading to huge conflict in the area, with the villagers adamant to reclaim what they call is their legitimate land. This eventually becomes a political struggle, as is the right to forest, and its resources, claimed by the indigenous communities.
Even near Suda, where Mohana changed its trajectory across a huge expanse, the land next to the turmeric fields was allegedly 'captured' by the Forest Department, say the locals. However, the villagers will have none of it.
And thereby hangs another long and sordid tale of the 'class struggle' between the indigenous communities who have lived here for hundreds of years, and the 'Van Bibhag', which operates like colonial masters – monarch of all it surveys, and who refuse to treat the adivasis as legitimate inheritors of the forests with their constitutionally-given fundamental rights.
The adivasis are of the opinion that during the colonial era, in contrast, the British were not as oppressive as the Forest Department in post-Independence India. "They would come, the British, stay in their luxury tents or rest houses, and hunt and enjoy. They would ask us to serve them, but they never told us to pay them in food products, or in terms of bribes. They never exploited us, or tried to crush us. They let us be, as rightful owners of the forests," the adivasis are unanimous.
Indeed, after Dudhwa was declared a National Park in 1977, the Forest Department took over, and thereby, according to the Tharus, their endless ordeal began. Villagers say that earlier every village household was ritualistically forced to pay a massive amount of wheat, rice (in quintals), garlic, vegetables, chicken etc, to the forest department, to survive in the forest. This stopped once they organised themselves, and led a peaceful and protracted struggle.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA), along with the supreme and legitimate powers of the Gram Sabha, enacted by the UPA1 government in Delhi in 2007, with sacrosanct constitutional provisions, and ratified by the Supreme Court, is constantly being denied to the adivasis, villagers across the tiger reserve complain. Under the FRA, the community forest land is universally accepted as integral to the civilisational inheritance of the adivasis, that all the produce and products of the forest belong to them, including the fish in the pond.
And under the Gram Sabha, the land allotted by it to every villager is a legal finality, the final document of their rightful possession of individual land, inherited or otherwise. The community land, and forest resources, are collective and shared. So, how come, they are being denied their constitutional right at Dudhwa, and under which law?
Since the last two decades, and especially after 2008, Sahvaniya and the Tharu women are integral to a social and political movement in this remote region, for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, and other rights of the adivasis. And along with her are the leading scaffolding and catalysts, mostly women of all ages, along with men and youngsters, waging a protracted, peaceful struggle, mostly invisible to the world, chasing dreams of transformation which the mainstream India just cannot comprehend.
The most enduring and enlightened dimension of this dream is that they will never ever leave their origins and history, their roots and rootedness, their architecture and aesthetics. They will never abandon their oral traditions, lyrical songs and dance forms. they will never stop their non-Hindu rituals and collective worshipping of nature.
They will never abandon their strong village community and their inherited bonding, their forests, water bodies, fertile agricultural fields and rivers, their time-tested herbs (jari-booti), flowers, flora and fauna, birds and wildlife, including tigers, leopards, elephants, peacocks and jungle fowls, cheetals, barking deer and barasinghas.
"Will they file an FIR against the river when it changes course during the monsoon? So why do they threaten us with notices and FIRs every time we enter the forest," asks Nevada, a young, popular leader of the Kisan Manch.
There is no scarcity of water in Dudhwa, though, for some inexplicable reason, the Forest Department has dammed another flowing river, Sohaila, leading to deforestation, trees dying and swamping of land with excess water. Apparently, the government has agreed to remove the dam, but the project, worth apparently a few crores, is lying in limbo for inexplicable reasons.
"Too much money is involved. Even the state government apparently wants the river to flow. Why the Van Bibhag is not allowing the river to flow seems impossible to explain?" said a local.
The hardworking villagers cultivate their legitimate land which is highly fertile. Once food-gatherers and hunters, totally dependent on the forest, now they are specialist agriculturalists, and very proud of it. They work hard, and during sowing and harvest season, start work from 3 am in the morning. "We grow everything here, except tea and salt," they claim, proudly.
They grow rice, wheat, pulses, turmeric, spices, mustard, organic vegetables, garlic, ginger, herbs for medical treatment, fruits such as mango, banana, papaya, galgal, among other things. They have cows, goats, buffaloes, hens and ducks. They are self-sufficient in terms of food and natural resources.
They have built huge containers with mud, the dried grass of a pulse (masoor) and other local material, in which they store foodgrain, "in case of calamities, drought, the seasons of scarcity". Indeed, due to this storage meant for exigencies, they did not suffer due to the Covid and lockdown so badly, despite official apathy, like many other communities, like the thousands of migrant and daily wage workers.
Covid and the lockdown, the locals allege, became yet another ploy to deny the tribals their legitimate rights to the forest. It's not that the adivasis are cutting trees and hunting wildlife. They can't even imagine cutting trees or hunting, because it is they who have for decades sustained and nourished the huge forest area, protecting and worshipping the forest, and sharing peaceful existence with the wildlife.
They don't worship Hindu gods, largely, though, certain influences have crept in, such as from the Radha Soami sect. They speak the Tharu dialect, but also speak Hindi which is sweetened as it mingles with Hindustani and Ganga-Jamuni cultures of nearby Shahjahanpur, Bareilly and Lucknow. In their marriages, they sing and dance, cook feasts, and worship trees, flowers and local deities made with mud. They eat meat, pork, mutton, chicken, and they love fishing in the rivers and ponds, once again, prohibited by the Forest Department.
During the lockdown they were banned from collecting forest produce by the forest officials. "We were told that we will spread the disease among animals," they say. The adivasis need the tall grass which grows in abundance for various purposes – fodder for cattle, building and strengthening their sparklingly clean and aesthetically-designed mud houses, often with no doors, to make roofs over the wooden, asbestos or tin roofs, for storage and other purposes. The 'ghas-phoos' is integral to their existence. Besides, it keeps their homes warm in winter and cool in summer.
They pick up the fallen wood and branches from the trees, for firewood, architectural reasons, and cattle-shelters. The wood they store, for the harsh winters. Sitting around a fire in a circle is a synthesis of their hearth and home; the community cherishes it.
Women sit around fires, chatting about their daily lives, telling forgotten stories to their kids, sharing their sorrows, difficulties and joys. And complaining about the 'van bibhag' since everyone has a story to tell, about harassment and injustice, as and when they enter the forest, as much as the struggles they have waged to reclaim their rights.
Like the struggle of Veermati of Kajaria village who was attacked along with her son. The entire village fought back. They were badly injured, including Veermati. But they stood their ground. Several FIRs were reportedly filed against Veermati and 24 others, including, locals say, against very old people who were nowhere near the forest. However, that struggle itself has become an epical narrative in the ongoing movement to reclaim the FRA and their right to the forest.
The Tharus love fishing. Villagers in Bhooda, among other villagers, tell the story of a militant Phoolmati, who died very young due to a serious ailment, and who was a role model for the young, especially women. She became an iconic figure of the peaceful movement, unafraid, resilient and brave.
Once, as the story goes, she collected several villagers from across many villages, and went fishing, defying the official orders. "As the forest guards stood with their guns in the forest, she went up to them and said, come, shoot me first," recall women in Bhooda village. "The forest guards had no option but to withdraw, while we went about with our fishing."
They pick up flowers, leaves, and similar forest produce to cook snacks and food, and for use as herbs. Pipli, for instance, is a ready-made solution from a plant, which cures acute cough, while Kaalmukti leaves, chewed on an empty stomach in the morning, are said to be a cure for diabetes.
Similar herbs are used for instant and long-term cure, especially in the context that the primary health centres in these remote forests simply do not exist, or are in a pathetic condition. Most people have to go to private doctors, or, to the nearby towns of Palia and Bareilly for treatment for serious ailments.
Besides, public transport and roads are in an abysmal condition. Inside the forest, people walk for miles, or use bikes and cycles – the mythical public transport bus never seems to arrive.
The dilemma is that the Forest Department seems to be denying even these basic forest products to the people. It is mostly the women who go to the forest to collect the forest produce, apart from working on the fields, though men too join in the work.
Indeed, while women do cook mostly, patriarchy, as in the oppressive and ossified feudal rural India is strikingly absent. And it is the women who are yet again the vanguard of the community's struggle and restoration of collective identity.
"Wherever we have our organisation, we are strong. They might have guns, FIRs, court notices, exorbitant fines, jail as their usual weapons. But, we have our collective, peaceful, democratic strength," said the women of Kajaria.
This is the same story in Suda, Bhoora, Surma and other villages, especially 22 villages which are the stronghold of the organisation. Women collect in huge groups from across several villages, sometimes as strong as 300 or more, and then move in a collective inside the forest to collect 'ghas phoos', grass, fallen wood, leaves, herbs, flowers, etc.
The women are unanimous: "The forest guards try to stop us with their threats and guns. However, we stand together and tell them the same thing: This forest belongs to our ancestors and us. We protect and love the forest. We have saved, nourished and cherished this endless green expanse. And we will collect forest produce for our home and hearth, as we have done for centuries. Today, tomorrow and every day. Come, try to stop us!"
Anarkali and Nirasho of Village Saraipara narrate how the forest guards snatch their sickles when they try to cut the grass, or break the fallen branches of the wood. "They stop our 'bailgaadi' – buffalo-carts, and block our path. How can we carry the fallen wood on our heads for such long distances, and how many times do we have to do it to get just enough for our home and hearth?"
Says tall and wiry Bhango, 70 plus, from village Suda, her face darkened by the sharp winter sun, "The oak forest out there gives us food, fruits, ghaas-phoos, wood, flowers, wind, rain, herbs, fish. The oak forest out there gives us 'chaaya' – shade and shelter. The oak forest out there is eternal and infinite, living inside our memories and folk tales, our skin, bodies and hearts. How can they ask us to disown it? How can they tell us that it does not belong to us?"
Calls to the Director of the Dudhwa National Park went unanswered. So did SMS messages seeking an appointment.