From Close Quarters: Protecting an Adivasi Culture the State Wants to Destroy
The unrest in and around Bastar is fundamentally about respect, dignity and trust in our behaviour towards other people.
Seed collection in the forest during summer. Credit: Madhu Ramnath
When there is no longer any violence, there is no need for help
Therefore you should not demand help, but abolish violence
Help and violence form a whole
And the whole has to be changed.
∼ Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werks, 1967
Over the last two decades and more, the internal war in large parts of central India has been simmering, every now and then bringing whatever is accepted as “normal life” to a stop. Our former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2010 declared that “I have been saying for the last three years that Naxalism remains the biggest internal security challenge facing our country,” but one hardly ever hears about any sensible and credible long-term plan that the government has laid out to neutralise this challenge. In 2016, present Prime Minister Modi added that “… natural resources in forests should not be exploited at the cost of tribals” and warned of strict penalties to those who encroach upon tribal lands. This stand is appreciated. At the same time, there are several places where precisely such exploitation continues.
The few fact finders and lawyers who did venture to places such as Bastar in Chhattisgarh, for instance, have been systematically hounded out by self-styled patriots and aggressive vigilante groups that have come together. In fact, the state has looked the other way when these groups have methodically stalled or disrupted fact-finding teams, lawyers or journalists who go about their work. As in Kashmir and several parts of northeast India, the (para)military has been brought in and is quite capable of pointing its guns against its own citizens. Each new incident between the security forces and the Maoists leaves some more Indians killed – civilians, policemen, others – at which the nation pauses for a while. The smaller incidents get a few lines in a Hindi newspaper and are forgotten altogether. Larger incidents evoke statements of condemnation from political leaders, at times more forces are brought in and, once the dust has settled, business continues as usual. Business is important, as we all know.
What is less known is that over the same period, many civil society organisations and NGOs working in these areas have felt the heat of this war. They have had to retreat from the villages where they worked and which was their “field area”. The programmes these civil society organisations (CSOs) built up with the Adivasi communities in some of these villages over tens of years – on the conservation of sacred groves, the protection of streams and the sustainable harvest of bamboo; on soil conservation and the preservation of indigenous seeds; on legal literacy and local health initiatives – were abandoned overnight, and these villages seldom visited again. The retreat of civil society from these hinterlands left a vacuum that no formal government department can ever fill. Yet, there was not a whimper of regret or concern that so much good work was being forsaken and there was little done to fill this crucial gap. It was almost as if these CSOs and NGOs had never existed, that such ground-level initiatives in Adivasi villages had never happened.
What, instead, filled the gap was the security personnel and the Maoists who made their presence felt in these areas. With each skirmish with the Maoists, the security forces became more nervous and misbehaved with anyone they encountered during their “patrolling”. For their part, the Naxals moved further into the forest and, in places where their behaviour was unseemly and violent, many Adivasi families tended to move out, sometimes close to the security camps. Both sides depended on the recruitment of Adivasi youth to show them the way, in more than just the literal sense; high recruitment drives made the youth migrate away from their villages, often to nearby towns and cities, carrying their nostalgia and anguish with them, along with their dreams and aspirations.
But what about the Adivasi people who live in areas chronically prone to conflict? Areas that are regularly patrolled by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) – who comb specific areas of the forest, usually within 50 m of the road, as part of their daily exercise – but who know absolutely nothing about the people they are in the midst of? Would any armed security officer realise or bother to know that the person he stops to question rudely is a wise man from the nearby village, famed as the best bone-setter in the region? Would he know that the youth he slapped and swore at the previous evening was the son of the sarpanchresponsible for the protection of the largest sacred grove in Bastar? Or that the young man he sent off to the camp to fix the fence is the high priest of the entire pargana, responsible for blowing the first ceremonial horn of the season? For the armed, uniformed, male society that has encroached the forests of central India, such Adivasi class, knowledge and high culture is unimaginable. More than once such encounters have happened between crassness and culture, and the larger Adivasi society in the region has absorbed much in frustrated silence. Yet, this is not to point fingers at the security forces, most of whom are simply doing their job, as honestly as they can in the terrible circumstances they are trapped in. [I was once surrounded by a large group of them in the forest – all of them pointing their AK 47s at me simultaneously – and due to some chance questioning I mentioned plants and botany. It turned out that the leader of the battalion had studied botany and he and I walked ahead together discussing various plant families while the rest followed us in formation towards their camp where I was to be questioned further. He would rather have had a botanical lens in his hand than a gun. We met a few times during his tenure in the region, usually in peculiar circumstances, and from his frank conversations I began to worry about his safety and hoped that he would be able to get away on deputation.]
One of the largest sacred groves in Bastar. Credit: Madhu Ramnath
Fortunately for the peacekeepers in these regions of modern India, it is dealing with a culture endowed with an extraordinary patience. But how long will such patience last, tested unfairly around every corner, and how long are the Adivasi youth expected to remain neutral in this game of hide and seek?
You may break your heart but men will still go on as before.
∼ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
For the Legal and Environmental Action Foundation (LEAF), a civil society organisation working in Bastar for about a decade, many of the unpleasant facts mentioned above were experienced first hand. It was forced to give up its work in many of the interior villages in Bastar and Odisha. As the tension of the civil war escalated, LEAF and the villages it worked in determinedly stayed clear of both factions and concentrated solely on conservation.
One of the largest sacred groves is in Bastar and LEAF’s members have been active in protecting it. The grove itself is close to 100 acres and, like all groves, eyed at for its riches of plant material by fly-by-night traders: it’s no exaggeration to say that the grove has to be watched continuously. Over the years LEAF has enriched the degraded areas within many groves and convinced encroachers at the fringes to move away; it has prevented forest fires every summer by keeping a watch in the forest; it revived the old tradition of thengapalli (a community method of forest conservation) and ensured that there was no illicit felling; it stopped the over-exploitation of bamboo shoots, a delicacy that is being exported all over the state, regardless of the diminishing stocks in the forest. In particular, LEAF has had to occasionally enter into dialogue with the forest department when the latter came in with some hare-brained project such as clearing crooked-growing bamboo or handing over the management of a section of the forest to a village not concerned with it. And in these troubled times, disagreeing with the state has its own consequences: one connotation of simply questioning or disagreeing with the state is sometimes being labelled as “anti-state” which is equivalent to pro-Naxal, a label most people fear. And it is this fear that is used by some parties within the state to push through what it wants, be it a coal mine or a eucalyptus plantation. One sees the pattern all across central India, whenever an infrastructure or development project is questioned by the people.
A LEAF nursery with more than one lakh plants. Credit: Madhu Ramnath
In the last ten years, LEAF established large native-plant nurseries to restore degraded forest patches; these plants were in recent years sought after for restoration programmes in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which helped it gain an expertise in this field like few others. LEAF’s preoccupation with plants and conservation helped it to keep clear of the Naxal-security dilemma, both of whom continually eyed the village youth as potential recruits. The Adivasi youth was clear that conservation was their future and linked to their long-term security. Yet, is there anything more difficult than to stay neutral when a war is staged is one’s village?
In 2009, the state rewarded LEAF’s efforts on conservation and neutrality by arresting four people from one of the villages it worked in on trumped-up charges. When the youth heard that they were going to be arrested they followed an old Adivasi custom: they roasted a fat hen and feasted with their families and then set off to the police station to hand themselves in. The four people taken in were respected members of the village, youth from families that were crucial in forest protection and who guided village affairs. They were so actively concerned and involved with conservation, often putting aside their own work to attend to a “forest issue”, that we had come to depend on them for direction. Understandably, there was a stillness about the usually boisterous village. It took over a year to press for charges against the four and the case dragged on for a year. The four people were freed for lack of evidence and returned home in 2010. But this incident gave the village a “Left” reputation and a kind of tint, and when a few years later, the village was separated from the Darba panchayat and designated a panchayat in its own right, the newly-acquired attribute stayed.
In 2013 tragedy struck again, indirectly, when about 20 members of the state Congress party were massacred in a brutal Maoist ambush in the nearby Darba ghati. There were unprecedented combing operations and it remains a miracle how the villagers continued their neutral stance and pushed on with their primary work on conservation. They even stepped up their efforts, risking encounters with the forces while collecting seeds in far off places in the forest, raising more than 100,000 native plants each year and using them for reforestation in Bastar or sending them to neighbouring Telangana or Andhra Pradesh on request of the forest department and other parties interested in good-quality seedlings. Nurseries were established in four villages to raise the plants, with anything between 50-100 native plant species.
In 2015 LEAF took a consignment of four trucks of 50,000 plants through the “conflict zone” of southern Chhattisgarh marked by innumerable paramilitary camps, to Telangana, at the request of the forest department in Khammam division. The trucks flew a banner that read ‘In the right direction’ and ‘Sahi disha mein‘, and the journey is a story in itself and was documented in an earlier article. The drive was in the height of summer, on the roadless section of southern Chhattisgarh and when we arrived into the civilisation of Telangana, we were all caked in mud.
In 2017, the Telangana forest department, seeing that the plants did better than the departments planting efforts in many years – a survival rate of almost 90% as against the department’s 60% – invited the nursery staff of LEAF to train the Telangana forest staff in Kothagudem on nursery techniques. Two sessions were held for the field and nursery staff of the department where many practical aspects of nursery management was discussed. More than anything else, the Adivasi youth of Bastar were happy to be recognised by the Telangana state forest department who took their teachings seriously and expressed their wish to visit Bastar and see the LEAF nurseries. The Bastar youth visited other nurseries in the state, discussed areas of improvement and returned home with a new confidence and optimism. The forest department in Bastar, however, had long since stopped visiting LEAF’s work areas – as they have most forest tracts reputed to be under Naxal influence – and are unaware of LEAF’s activities going on under their nose.
Dignities and offices are necessarily given by fortune than by merit; and people are often wrong to blame kings for this. On the contrary, it is a marvel they have such good luck, having so little information…
∼ Montaigne, Essays
The Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 was advertised as a correction to the historical injustice that the Adivasi and forest-dwelling people have faced for generations in our country, regardless of the government that ruled, British or Indian. Yet, a decade after the Act has been in place almost no administrative staff of local governments are aware of this law, let alone its complicated procedures, the need for sub-committees and committees, the forms to be filled and so on. But our Adivasi people are supposed to be at home in this bureaucratic labyrinth, sketch the maps of their territory, conduct their gram sabhas (with the prescribed officials present), make their resolution and turn up at the appropriate office of the sub-divisional officer, and submit their claim. It is not surprising that after ten years, only 3% of the claims have been recognised in the country. Across much of the country the government has wavered between antipathy and indifference as far as the FRA and its proper implementation is concerned. The question now is, how can the coming years be used to rectify this injustice and see the FRA implemented.
A preliminary map of the community forest claimed in a village. Courtesy: Madhu Ramnath
Between February and April 2017, the FRA was taken up in a village where LEAF has had a presence for more than 20 years. Detailed maps of the community forests had been made, with each point on the map explained; several informal meetings as well as gram sabhas had been conducted over the years to discuss the proposed claim. During the formal process of the gram sabha – before submitting the application at the sub-divisional level – the officers of the forest department as well as the revenue department were invited. The tehsildar, who was also invited, absented himself from these meetings even though a second meeting was conducted expressly for him. The claims were then submitted according to procedure to the SDLC and now await clearance.
Sometime in April, the tehsildar, however, had sent word to the village that there was a plan to plant coffee in the revenue areas around the village. On getting no positive response from the people he made a visit to the village with his staff on May 23, 2017, and through the secretary of the gram panchayat called a special gram sabha. The lady sarpanch of the panchayat who was present in the village was not informed of the meeting. In the gram sabha, the tehsildar talked about coffee and had it written down in the resolution – without people’s knowledge – that the village was in agreement to plant coffee in their revenue areas. When the resolution was to be signed the people asked for it to be read out and realised that they were being tricked and refused to sign. The tehsildar first tried to convince them, then threatened them that he would have their rations and kerosene stopped if they refuse the coffee and stormed out of the village.
On the June 5, 2017, the tehsildar appeared again and held a meeting in another hamlet of the village. Again, people refused his offer to plant coffee. (They grow a variety of millets, hill rice, various legumes, yams and cucurbits, chilies and tomatoes; and they harvest about 200 species of foods from the wild.) This time the tehsildar threatened three of the tribal elders with a stick and shouted that he would have all the commons fenced off and any houses on common lands raised to the ground with an earth remover, a JCB. Though the people in the village were frightened at all these threats, the sarpanch told the tehsildar that this was no way to behave; she also told him that the people had discussed the matter at length within the village and that all of them are against the coffee plantation. (I would like to add here that the sarpanch had been elected about two years ago by consensus – it may not be far fetched to claim that this was one of the only panchayat’s in Bastar where there was no campaigning, no bribes and none of the filth that accompany Indian elections of whatever scale.)
The gram sabha over the coffee programme. Credit: Madhu Ramnath
The tehsildar, now furious that his wish was not granted, came again with more staff on June 6 and threatened the people, saying that he would do as he wished in the village, that the people in the village were like animals and know nothing, that he will go ahead with the fencing and drive them out and so on. There was little space for the people to speak their minds, and there the matter stood.
Perhaps, he feared,
His people would not share
The sorrow that he knew.
What I am describing above is not about sporadic violent exchanges between the two factions that dominate Adivasi territory today or about the efforts of little known CSOs in a part of the country few people have heard or care about in the higher echelons of Delhi or Raipur. Nor, as you may have guessed, is it about coffee. It is about the larger and more pressing issue about the state and its fieldworkers in the ubiquitous avatar of forest department officials, revenue officials and tehsildars, collectors and commissioners and, unfortunately, the police and battalions of security personnel. Time and again we have heard that Naxalism is due to “under development” (whatever that is supposed to mean) in areas like Bastar. Education is also supposed to be a deterrent to Naxalism, according to some thinkers, but one may ask whose education?
Road to Telangana, South Chhattisgarh. Credit: Madhu Ramnath
The fact that that there are specific laws in our constitution to protect our Adivasi people, like the Panchayat Extension for Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, enacted just because they are more vulnerable and cannot deal with the aggressive – ‘modern’ is only a euphemism – mainstream society has long since been forgotten. Instead of keeping the reasons for the PESA Act in mind – essentially the Adivasi’s culture of trustfulness, vulnerability and an alternative idea of using and owning land – new ways have been found to overcome this safeguard. Instead of the state playing an active role in the protection of its vulnerable peoples, for which our elders enacted a law, we see it abetting those who choose to defy it or go around it, without the least sense of shame. Shame and ignominy are feelings still extant in tribal country, though absent among most of the visitors there.
It is in these regions, known to be inhabited by vulnerable peoples with a culture that is older and more sophisticated than that known in ‘orthodox’ India that we have let loose our well-trained paramilitary forces, our barking tehsildars, our forest guards who demand a chicken for a load of bamboo, our drunken school teachers and other luminaries. Seldom are these people able to appreciate or relate to tribal communities other than with an assumed and misplaced sense of authority, usually bordering on arrogance. For the Adivasi, the forest has been a home where his culture and world view developed and is refined, making it possible to anticipate every natural phenomenon; for the security forces the forest is alien territory where they have come to “fight” not live, for which they are trained in jungle warfare colleges.
I would have supposed that our benevolent and democratic state will apologise to the four Adivasi people who were wrongly arrested and put in jail for a year; their families suffered their absence in silence until the men returned home. But that was that, the state did not even contact them again. The tehsildar could have begun a dialogue about the coffee scheme and, when the people refused, honourably retreated. But in Adivasi country, these fieldworkers of the state are allowed to swear, misbehave and be least concerned about the impression they make while they go about their business. They are obliged to their masters in the state and national capital, not to the gram sabha and definitely not to the Adivasi people, whatever the constitution of the country says. Such callousness is the norm, not the exception, despite pronouncements to the contrary by our country’s leaders.
There is no quick fix to address the ongoing unrest in central India. It is not only about livelihood options and job opportunities, or connectivity and mainstreaming, nor Re-1 rice, or even land. Primarily and fundamentally it is about respect, dignity and trust in our behaviour towards other people, in this case the Adivasi, without which no scheme will work, however hard we may try. Unfortunately, respect, dignity and trust cannot be bought or injected into a society when one chooses to do so. And these are the very three ingredients that are missing in the government’s relation with its vulnerable peoples.
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First published by The Wire