Mainstream India thinks of Adivasis as a monolithic commmunity. As Gladson Dungdung argues, the controversy around the Gandhi Peace Prize shows a need for rethinking these definitions.
By Gladson Dungdung
Adivasis (Indian tribes) have always been neglected and faced decades of government apathy whether it concerns their upliftment or recognition for any extra-ordinary work by the community’s leaders. The London-based Gandhi Foundation recently faced heat of Adivasi organisations after the politics behind the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award 2011, which is awarded by the foundation, surfaced. The top story on the home page of the organisation’s website reads, “Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award 2011 will be presented to Dr. Binayak Sen and Bulu Imam”. Interestingly, it was mentioned earlier that the award would be presented to Adivasis of India, on behalf of whom Sen and Imam would receive the honour. But the photograph showing two Adivasi women painting on the wall of a community dwelling has not been removed stressing the strong connection between the indigenous community and the Award. Perhaps, the award this year would lose its meaning if the Adivasi connection is completely severed.
Needless to say that the Gandhi Foundation recognises the extraordinary, non-violent work of any individual or group through the international peace award every year, but unfortunately, the organisation didn’t find any extraordinary person in the peace-loving Adivasi community. For the first time, the foundation is facing controversy with Adivasi organisations–Jharkhand Indigenous People’s Forum and Jharkhand Human Rights Movement—protesting the absence of names of any recipient from their community, for whom the award was initially declared in July 2011.
The Adivasi organisations wrote a letter of protest to the foundation’s president Lord Richard Attenborough welcoming the announcement of the award for Adivasis. But they also protested strongly the absence of names of any Adivasi recipient in the award list. “It is extremely painful to know that the foundation has decided to award a renowned doctor and civil rights activist Binayak Sen and Bulu Imam on behalf of Adivasis of India. We have high respect for both the recipients. However, we would not like them to receive the award on behalf of Adivasis of India,” they wrote. They appealed to him to uphold the dignity of Adivasis by changing either the wording or selecting bestowing the award on someone else.
The organisations also wrote a letter to Sen and Imam appealing them either to not receive the award or write to the foundation to change the wording associated with the award before they receive it. In response to the letter, Sen wrote, “We understand your sentiments and feelings. You have raised important issues and questions, and this discussion is extremely important at this juncture. The extended public profiling has never been at our initiative and we would happily step back to a less fractured existence, one that has played havoc with our personal lives.”
He further wrote, “However, we have used this profiling to raise issues related to the dysfunctional developmental policies and their effects on the lives and concerns of the people of India, which has meant that we have often spoken of people we know most closely, the toiling people and Adivasis of central India. At no point, have we claimed to represent Adivasis.”
Similarly, Imam also responded, “In my opinion, the award should be given to him individually and not on behalf of the tribal people of India. I do not represent the tribal people of India, and never claimed to do so.”
The Adivasi organisations used the virtual media to gather massive support for their protest. Noted film maker Anand Patwardhan wrote, “What you wrote is true, but I think it is equally important to point out that someone like Binayak Sen, whom I know personally to be one of the most modest and self-effacing people I have met, would never knowingly usurp an honour meant for Adivasis.” Similarly, social activist Swami Agnivesh wrote, “I fully endorse the sentiments of my eminent Adivasi colleagues.”
Some responses addressed concerns beyond the award like how Adivasis are always neglected, underestimated and denied everything though they well-deserving. Renowned academician and social activist professor Nandini Sundar of Delhi University wrote, “I fully support you on the award question–in fact, I had privately pointed this out earlier to someone. I would also like to point out that the person who has done the maximum for the Salwa Judum issue is Manish Kunjam, leader of the Adivasi Mahasabha, but sadly this fact has never been recognised.”
Similarly, Phil Carter, teacher at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (Kyushu, Japan) writes, “I agree too. I recommended his (Bulu Imam) nomination based on my knowledge of his individual work which is exemplary and following the highest ideals of non-violence. I stand by this nomination of this outstanding work and also request the Gandhi Foundation to change the wording of the award.”
A British photographer Robert Wallis wrote, “Considering the nature of work both Bulu and Dr. Sen have been doing, and the growing violence against Adivasi across the mining states, the Gandhi Foundation decided that they would award them on behalf of Adivasis. Although their intentions were honourable, the foundation has now realised it was a mistake.”
London-based international organisation Voice of Dalit International (VODI) supported the caused and wrote to the foundation and the recipients. The organisation is preparing to protest in front of Amnesty International on November 9. Eugene Culas of VODI wrote to Sen and Imam requesting them to accept the award based on their own merits and asked the foundation to delete the term ‘Adivasis’ from the list of recipients. Finally, the Foundation made some changes to avoid further protests.
The most interesting thing is though both Sen and Imam denied representing Adivasis, none of them have declined to receive the award. Instead, Sen suggested a carefully crafted line for the award: “Award will be given to Dr. Sen for his work among tribal people”. Besides, both Sen and Imam never suggested any changes to the foundation until the Adivasi organisations protested. If they really care about the sentiments of Adivasis, why didn’t they decline to receive the award on their behalf, or suggest the name of any Adivasi leader for the honour?
According to the British campaigner Max Galstaun, if the award is meant for Adivasis, they should receive it. When he asked the foundation about the anomaly, they shot back, “Does any Adivasi speak English?” It clearly shows the perception of international visitors and Indians who represent Adivasis in foreign countries about the community.
How can an international organisation decide to hand over the award to non-Adivasis when there are number of leaders from the community like Munni Hansada, Soma Guria, Dayamani Barla, Kumar Chand Mardi, CK Janu and many others who have won fights against corporate sharks trying to uproot these tribal communities, and devoted their lives for the promotion and protection of their identity, tradition, culture, autonomy, dignity and livelihood resources? How can few people receive award on behalf of another community? Why Adivasi leaders who have done commendable work for the community go unrecognised?
Meanwhile, I got a news saying, “The Gandhi Foundation has changed the wording of the award and Dr. Binayak Sen and Bulu Imam will be given the International Gandhi Peace Award 2011 for their extraordinary work for the Adivasis of India.” We clapped because we had won the battle, but did we really win? Sadanand Patwardhan sent me an e-mail supporting the campaign, but also reminded me of a painful poem by Adivasi poet Vahru Sonawane that explains the apathy the community faces.
We never went on the stage that was made in our name
They did not invite us
They pointed with their finger
And showed us our place
We sat there
They appreciated us
They were narrating to us
Our own vows and sorrows
Which were ours and never theirs
We had some doubts
They heard us attentively and sighed
They twisted our ears and said –
Apologise… or you will be…
Gladson Dungdung is an Adivasi activist from Jharkhand.