Adivasi Author Gladson Dungdung writes prolifically on Adivasis’ struggles for their identity and on their existence. He tells Vidya Bhushan Rawat about the challenges facing his community.
Your new book Endless Cry in the Red Corridor has hit the stands recently. What is the central message of this book?
I want to tell the world that the rulers of this country have looted the Adivasis. There is this area of around 92,000 square kilometers, extending from Andhra Pradesh to Nepal. They call it the Red Corridor. They say that there are Maoists in this corridor. But just pick up the map of India and you will find that there are Adivasis, forests and minerals in this corridor and they call it the Red Corridor! Why do they call it the Red Corridor? Because they want to exploit the natural resources of this area, they want to loot and sell the minerals and the water and the forests. In 2008, the Government of India commissioned the British company, Execution Noble & Company Ltd, to study the economic potential of the Red Corridor. It concluded that it has immense business opportunities. If it is exploited, the Indian economy can take a quantum jump, the company’s report said. [Then home secretary] G.K. Pillai promised that the Red Corridor would be vacated by 2013. This was duly given in writing. And to fulfil the promise, two lakh paramilitary troops were sent to this area. Look, how they killed the Adivasis after branding them as Naxals. In at least three states, I have seen how the Adivasis were branded as Naxals and brutally killed them. Later, it came to the fore that they were innocent. They have killed at least 1,000 innocent Adivasis in this manner. More than 500 tribal women were sexually exploited. They were subjected to all kinds of atrocities. In Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, they threw over 27,000 persons behind bars. The book unfolds the brutalities.
In the Saranda forests, about which I have written a book, Mission Saranda … the government says it cannot run schools in that area, it cannot establish Aanganwadis, it cannot build roads. But I have exposed that the mining companies are extracting minerals in that area. If the State cannot do anything there, how are the mining companies operating. They are paying money to the Maoists – some are paying Rs 50 lakhs, some are paying Rs 25 lakhs. They also provide arms to them. But, if an Adivasi even serves food to the Maoists on gunpoint, you put him in jail.
It is obvious that government wants to snatch the land and mineral resources from Adivasis. An English proverb goes, “Give a dog a bad name and hang him.” The government is doing exactly that vis-à-vis the Tribals. Brand them as Naxals and kill them. And no one protests. What is sad is that those who are talking about development for the Adivasis know nothing about them. There is no disputing the fact that development is needed. But how can they decide what is development? How can they decide how to bring it about? I’m sure you remember Chidambaram telling Parliament that Tribals are not a museum piece. Of course, not but how can he talk about the development for Tribals without knowing anything about them?
For argument’s sake, let us accept this definition of development. Now tell me, mining began in the Saranda forests in 1925. Every year, the government extracts iron ore worth Rs 3,000 crores from there. But there is no good road for the Adivasis in the forest, no good school, no good hospital. Why? Why 70 per cent women of the area are anemic? Why 80 per cent Adivasis children are malnourished? Jharkhand is a Adivasi-dominated state but even here Adivasis have been marginalized.
See, whether it is the BJP or the Congress, their agenda has been the same – annihilate the Adivasis. Since the time of Independence, the slogan was that the Adivasis and the Dalits have to be brought into the mainstream. And what is the mainstream? Leave behind all that is yours and come and join us. They want our identity to be destroyed. So, our battle is for our identity. The Supreme Court had said on 5 June 2011 that Adivasis are the indigenous inhabitants of this country. They fear this fact and that is why they want to finish everything. Besides the rest of the world, the Supreme Court has also admitted that the Adivasis are the original inhabitants of this country. What is stopping the government from accepting this fact?
There was a long debate on this issue in the Constituent Assembly during which Jaipal Singh Munda had unequivocally declared that they wanted the “Adivasi” word in the Constitution. “We would settle for nothing less than that,” he said. The word “Adivasi” was inserted in Article 13(5) of the Constitution. Babasaheb Ambedkar did not want the word to be included in the Constitution. Some say that Babasaheb feared Dalits going with the Adivasis if the latter were called the original inhabitants. Babasaheb also said that the word “Adivasi” had no meaning.
Do you have any reference to support your claim?
Of course, I have the proof. On can see the debates of the Constituent Assembly. He said during the debates that the words “Adivasi” and “Untouchable” have the same meaning. This means nothing. He himself faced great persecution. I feel that perhaps, he did not get the time to study the Adivasis community, to understand it. I am saying this because in one of his speeches he said that the government should work for the development of the “uncivilized” tribals. Why uncivilized? Why did he have such a negative perception about the Tribals?
It was not negative. Dr Ambedkar was deeply involved in the problems of his own community. Tribals were not victims of untouchability. So, first we should bring the debate in the Constituent Assembly to light. There were many others in the Constituent Assembly besides Ambedkar and Munda. So, we cannot make this charge against Ambedkar.
I’m not making any charge. I’m just trying to understand things. Ashwini Kumar Pankaj has written a book that says all this.
I also have talked to him about this. I told him that when Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were being discussed in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar was standing by both.
See, I consider it wrong to categorize Adivasis as a caste. They are not a caste. Calling them “Anusuchit Janjati” is wrong. It should be “Anusuchit Jan”. Today, caste certificates are being issued to Adivasis. When you are not a part of the caste system, why do you need a caste certificate? They should be given certificates saying that they are Adivasis or belonging to the Adivasi community.
Another thing, whether it was Ambedkar or Nehru or Jaipal Singh Munda, all were educated in the West. They learnt about liberalism or democratic liberalism or Western liberalism from the West. On the one hand, we took lessons in democracy from the British; on the other hand, they had colonized us. This is mutually contradictory. Similarly, “aboriginal” and “uncivilized” are used to describe the same people.
Describing Adivasis as aboriginals may have been negative but it put the others in a difficult situation. It meant that the Adivasis were the original inhabitants and others they came later. But from the very beginning, they have not considered Adivasis as humans. At best, they considered them a slightly developed animal. So, this is the reason Adivasis issues are not in the center stage today.
When we analyze the Ambedkarite movement, people say that it brought about a social revolution because Babasaheb called upon Dalits to shed antiquated traditions and march forward. Shouldn’t the Adivasis do the same?
No. There is no question of tradition here. Since the Adivasis are not a part of the caste system, we don’t need to shed anything. This misconception arises because of the lack of exposure to tribal philosophy. This is why the Adivasis were suppressed. When you want someone to give up something you simply paint a negative picture of it and that person will himself abandon it. This was what was done with the Adivasis. No society is as equal as Adivasis society. They have both social equality and gender equality. Among Adivasis when a prosperous farmer employs a poor man to work his fields, he works shoulder to shoulder with him. He eats food with him, he celebrates festivals and happy occasions with him, he invites him to his place and he visits his place. Just see what happens in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and other states. There is nothing like this anywhere. In fact, there is discrimination based on the rich and the poor. Secondly, Adivasi girls choose their own life partner. And what happens in your civilized society? Lakhs of women are burnt alive, murdered for dowry. Girls are not allowed to be born; and if they are born, they are killed. This is your civilized society?
The way you blocked the CNT [Chotanagpur Tenancy] Act through your relentless struggle is an example for other states. What changes was the government bringing about in this Act?
The issue is not limited to CNT alone, it also includes SPT [Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act]. They were trying to amend sections 21, 49 and 71 of the CNT Act and section 13 of the SPT Act. The first amendment pertained to declaring agricultural land as non-agricultural. This was a very dangerous game and they were playing it very shrewdly. As soon as Modi and his team came to power, it amended the Land Acquisition Act. They did it thrice. Why did they do it? Because the Rehabilitation Rules 2013, framed under the Act, clearly stipulate that there will be no acquisition of land in the Scheduled Areas unless it is very essential. Secondly, even if land is acquired, it should not include agricultural land. And in case this has to be done, you have to provide agricultural land of an equal area to the farmer. So, what did they think of doing to circumvent this problem? They wanted to acquire the power for declaring agricultural land as non-agricultural. Now, if they moved court, they would argue that it was non-agricultural land and they had the power to acquire it. They have still not repealed section 49. We are still fighting for it. According to this section, they can acquire land for industries and mining. It says that the land that has industrial and mining infrastructure, can be regularized by paying one per cent tax within a period of three months. That is why businessmen unitedly support the BJP; that is why they provide funds to the party. And in a quid pro quo, the government protects them. They fear that if in the future, the tribals become judges or enter the government, they will get the mining and industrial infrastructure on tribal land razed. Their objective is to facilitate the businessmen. They want to grab whatever land remains.
In Jharkhand, the leadership of the movement is in the hands of Adivasis. In other states, non-Adivasis are leading the Adivasis. Your take?
Efforts are being made here, too. Others are trying to take over the leadership. But whenever they try, the Adivasis community throws up one leader or the other. That is because Jharkhand has a 300-year-old history of agitation and movements. Writers, litterateurs, poets and historians have all cheated the Adivasis. They say that 1857 was the first war of Independence. Then, what about 1855 when 15,000 Santhals were killed, Sido and Kanhu Murmu were hanged? Those who are wearing their patriotism on their sleeves – let them point out a single place where they had declared that the British rule was not acceptable to them. The Adivasis did that. Sido and Kanhu had the support of 60,000 Santhals and they had told the British in clear terms that they are their own rulers, that the rule of the British was not acceptable to them. When the British opened fired on them, they took the bullets on their chest. Talking of the even earlier times, in 1770, the British told Baba Tilka Manjhi and the Hill Adivasis that they would have to pay land revenue. The Adivasis’ reply was that land, water and forests were the gift of god and they would not pay any tax on them. When the demand for Pakistan was being raised, Babasaheb demanded Dalitsthan. Then, Jaipal Singh Munda also demanded Adivasisthan. But their Adivasisthan was not like Pakistan or Dalitsthan. They said that they wanted to live in India but they should be given autonomy in their areas. There should be no government interference in these areas.
Dr Ambedkar was saying the same thing. He was not demanding a separate Dalitsthan. But the main problem in India is its electoral system. Non-tribals are posted in tribal areas. Non-Muslims are getting elected from Muslim areas. How will they work when they don’t understand the pain of the people they are meant to serve? So this is a major lapse on the part of Parliament for which everyone is responsible …
Sometimes I feel there was no discussion at all between Babasaheb Ambedkar and Jaipal Singh Munda. I haven’t come across any mention that they met outside the Constituent Assembly or held discussions. Just imagine, had they met, had they forged a common strategy, the condition of the Adivasis and the Dalits might have been different.
After Independence, Dr Ambedkar worked in tandem with many others like Dr Ram Manohar Lohia. They held discussions on how to free Dalits and the other poor from poverty. Dr Ambedkar died in 1956. This was a big setback. But what about Captain Munda? He was ignored.
I feel that though he [Jaipal Singh Munda] was in the Congress, in his speeches, which are available in writing, he targeted the Savarnas. He said that the Savarnas did not want we Adivasis to progress. So, Jaipal Singh Munda understood this and after the formation of the Jharkhand party, he won 32 seats. This put the fear in the Congress that they could become a major threat for them in the future. So, the Congress started suppressing them. Secondly, Dr Ambedkar’s friends and others have written much about him. But no one wrote anything about Jaipal Singh Munda. Instead, some began deriding him. Later, the tribal leaders also did not talk about him – whether it is Shibu Soren or Babulal Marandi or anyone else. You see, at that time he had won nine gold medals. He was until then the only Tribal to captain an Indian sports team. When the movement for the creation of Jharkhand state began, the RSS and the BJP were the first to oppose it. They said that we wanted to Balkanize the country. And now, it is they who are enjoying it the most. The RSS-BJP do politics of religion. The day conflict over religion ends, the BJP will be finished.
Don’t you think that every major movement has to take the support of one or the other religion? Dr Ambedkar, for instance, chose Buddhism.
You see, the RSS was born in 1925 and the work for organizing the Adivasis had begun in 1915-16. Jaipal Singh Munda emerged as a political force in 1952. RSS achieved that political status only after 1980. But it is now ruling the country. When Jaipal Singh Munda and his group constituted the Adivasi Mahasabha, they became very powerful. They raised the same basic issues (language, culture, identity, water, forests and land) that are relevant even today. But a big folly on their part was converting Adivasi Mahasabha into Jharkhand Party. Due to this, the Adivasi Mahasabha lost its identity. What they should have done instead was that they should have taken the Mahasabha forward; Jaipal Singh Munda should have handed over its leadership to someone else and founded another organization for doing politics – just as the RSS had done, and which we are trying to do now.
Secondly, we are working on Adivasis literature. Literature has assassinated the Adivasis. Nothing was written about them. Or whatever little was written was full of inaccuracies. It was said that the Adivasis are barbarians, they are illiterates, they move around naked. This was a conspiracy to obliterate us. But now we are writing what is true and we are rebutting what is wrong.
There is this talk of the Dalits and the Adivasis coming on a common platform.
If we are talking about the long battle and the pan-India context, we have launched a Moolniwasi movement. I believe that this is necessary. There should be unity. We cannot fight separately for a long time because if we are divided, we will be sitting ducks for the enemy. But a lot of spadework needs to be done for this because the issues are different.
Looking ten years ahead, don’t you think that Adivasi life is the best, especially in view of the blind race for development we are witnessing today? What do you have to say?
Over the past three-four years, I have been travelling to Europe frequently. There, people tell me that if we are to continue living, we will have to lead our lives as you do. Around 25 families of London have shifted to the forests of Wales. They are living in small houses. They don’t want internet or mobile. When I asked them why they are doing it, they said that what was being described as development was actually insanity. When this Earth won’t survive, how will we? Hence, if this world has to be saved, we will have to tread the path of Adivasis.
The growing population of outsiders in Jharkhand has become a big challenge for the Adivasis. Your take?
Under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, there should be restrictions on outsiders settling in tribal areas. But when we advocate it, people quote Articles 19 (1) (2) (3) (4) to argue that every Indian has the right to settle anywhere in the country, to work anywhere. But they do not talk of 19 (5) (6), which allow a state to impose restrictions on outsiders.
How does the media look at Adivasis?
The media publishes news about Adivasis only when it thinks it will sell. The media sees them as a product. It is the most intellectual but at the same time the most racist institution in the country. You won’t find a tribal news editor or bureau chief in the tribal areas. All of them are outsiders. Some of them cannot even write Hindi well. But they are there. This is shameful for the media. They have barred the Adivasis, though you will find Adivasis occupying top positions in many other fields.
Why is there so much emphasis on privatization in India?
This is a shrewd move, because when you complain why reservations are not being given, they can say that the institution concerned is privately owned. How can we give reservations now? You talk of merit. Are Dalits and Adivasis lagging behind in merit? Then, tell me, there is so much corruption in India. Are the Dalits and the Adivasis looting the country? You ran the country for 70 years. Could you solve even one problem? Just tell me one scheme, one programme that was implemented 100 per cent. They build roads and they are in pieces within two years.
What are your future plans?
Protecting the tribal land, water, forests, languages and culture of the Adivasis – for this, the tribal community will have to turn intellectuals. I hold the view that the battle for saving the Adivasis should and will be an intellectual battle. The day an intellectual revolution comes about in the tribal community, it will become invincible. Today, they don’t know the law. They don’t understand how the government is grabbing their land. They do not understand the new laws. On the one hand, the BJP presents itself as a well-wisher of the Adivasis; on the other hand, it is killing Adivasis in Chhattisgarh, branding them as Naxals. Their women are being raped. And this is happening in a state where the BJP has been ruling for the past 15 years. The Adivasis will be able to understand all this only after an intellectual revolution. They will be able to analyze things.
Secondly, people say that conversions are taking place. Christians formed 2 per cent of India’s population in 1951. The 2011 census also says that they are 2 per cent. Where is the question of conversions then? The Christian missionaries run the highest number of educational institutions in the country and children of other religions also study in them. If these institutions were involved in conversions – as the BJP and the RSS say – then the Christian population would have increased. If not more, they would have been at least 10 per cent. All the movements being run by the RSS and the BJP are based on lies.
Shouldn’t Parliament apologize for the atrocities against the Dalits and the Adivasis?
One day, they will have to apologize. That is why we are conducting so much research. If you won’t apologize on your own, we will make you apologize. The day the Dalit-Tribal-OBC unity is established, the rulers will have to apologize for doing injustice to us. That is why cases are being filed to silence people like us. We are being stopped.
Should others also join this battle?
Yes. There is no problem with that. But I have a problem when the non-Adivasis want leadership. People like Medha Patkar and P.V. Rajagopal – there are others also. I salute them. But why do they want the leadership? In her writing, Arundhati Roy wonders what the Adivasis would have done without the Maoists. How can she write that? And that too about the Adivasis, who did not allow the British on their land, who forced them to retreat.
I will give you an example. Gandhi Foundation, London, had to honour the Adivasis of India. And whom did they choose – Bulu Imam and Dr Binayak Sen. I salute their work. But the honour was meant for Adivasis. I objected. I wrote to them asking why they couldn’t find two Adivasis from among the 100 million of them in India? What they told me was astonishing. They said that they were given in writing that there was not a single Tribal in India who could come to London and express his or her views in English. Then, I wrote another letter asking whether the two individuals proved more than a match for 10 crore Indians. I said that if they wanted to honour those two people, they should not have invoked the Adivasis of India. I wrote that this was an insult to the Adivasis and they should apologize. And they did apologize. Initially, some people welcomed me with open arms. These greedy people were thinking I would play into their hands. But when they realized that I would do what I felt like, they started ignoring me.
Someone asked, “What problem do you have if Dr Sen is being honoured?”
What problem could I have? Let them give the Nobel to him. But this honour was meant for Indian Adivasis then how non-Adivasis got it?
Some people say that you have personal issues. Like that about your passport. You raise them frequently?
No, there are no personal issues. My passport was seized twice. There are some IB people who tell me that my passport was seized because I had made Saranda a major international issue. There was no personal issue involved in the seizure of my passport. What happens is that as you rise, you create more and more enemies. Some people are jealous of you. They will try to put you down by raising personal issues. Let them be. This happens. I have my own commitments. I will fight for society till I am alive.
You have struggled a lot in your life. Tell us about your struggles.
My family was very prosperous. My grandfather was a teacher. He was also involved in social work. He was famous locally. He had two sons – my father and his elder brother. My village is Birni, very close to the Kelaghat Dam in Sindera. When my grandfather got a job, he moved to another village. There, he worked as a teacher and did some other work too and bought 10 acres of land. He thought that if he settled his two sons in different places, they would not quarrel over land. The dam was built in 1980. I was not born then. The entire agricultural land in my ancestral village was submerged. We got some money. A case is still pending in the court. My father was forced to move to the other village after my grandfather’s death. So, the land that was purchased for one brother had to be divided between the two brothers. My father’s elder brother got a job. Our situation was such that there was not even enough to eat in our house. I was very young. I remember that my father brought wood from the forests and sold it at a place 17 km away to arrange for food. Then, the forest department foisted cases on my father saying that he felled trees. The police came and took away my father in the night. At the time, my mother’s arm also got fractured. After my father was released, he filed a case about the land in a court in another village. Later, he became a Munshi. He won the case. The other party comprised many people. When, on 20 June 1990, my father and mother were going to court, they were murdered in a valley that fell between the village and the court. Our relatives took us four brothers and sisters into their various homes. I was barely 12 at the time. I was studying in standard eight. Later, I came back to the village. Everyone, including the teachers, knew me. I was kept in a hostel. Then, I quit the hostel and started living in the village. There, I started studying in standard nine. I grew crops to purchase my uniform and books. I passed the matriculation examination but could not arrange Rs 250 for paying college fees. So I could not get admission. I then started working as bicycle mechanic. I lived with my father’s elder brother. I also took his buffaloes for grazing.
My sister lived in Patna. She worked for just Rs 900 a month. When she came to the village, someone told her that she should take me to Patna, for otherwise my life would be ruined. So, my sister took me with her to Patna. But she did not earn enough to send me to a regular college. She had me admitted but I could not attend classes. So, I started studying in the library of an organization called Ekta Parishad. Pradeep Priyadarshi was the head of the Parishad. One day he called me and asked how I could look after the library just like that. So, I started sweeping the floor and cleaning the toilets of the library. If there was a visitor, I used to prepare tea. They saw that this boy is doing all this for free. So, he asked me to take care of the library and do whatever I was doing and said that he would pay me Rs 500 per month. When I started getting Rs 500 per month, I learnt typing. Then, I joined English language coaching. In six months, I picked up a little English, not much. At the time, I saw that the people who had hired a labourer were giving him food in another plate – like they would do to a dog. At the time, I visited Bhojpur for the first time. I worked with the Dalits in Ekta Parishad. Then, a case came up which filled me with great self-confidence. It was a case related to a farmland. The Savarnas had broken the leg of a Dalit woman. They came with her to our office. There was no one at the office then. I did not know what to do. “Let us go to the Naubatpur police station,” I said. The policemen did not register an FIR. I went to the police station in-charge and argued with him, though I was afraid. But I succeeded and the FIR was registered. Those who were booked, they were staring at me; they were trying to threaten me. I did not know their background, so I wasn’t afraid. I came back home. The next day, I was praised effusively at the office – that this little boy had the FIR registered and that too against musclemen. After that, the people of the organization started sending me out for fieldwork.
How long were you at Ekta Parishad?
For around five years. I passed my intermediate exam. Then, I learnt how to operate the computer. There was a problem. The director asked me, “How can you possibly learn here to use the computer?” There was a catholic priest in Patna supported me. He said that since I knew typing, I could work for him and get paid Rs 1,000 per month. That was a challenging time. I had to pay room rent and the college fees with just Rs 1,000. But I had the passion. For six months, I attended a computer class during lunchtime. Then, I got an opportunity to study at the National Centre for Advocacy Study. That brought about a change in my life. There, Dr Gyan Prakash was giving a lecture on Anthropology. I knew nothing about Anthropology. My knowledge of English was also rudimentary. The other students had studied in good colleges. There were one or two friends who had a similar background but they too had attended college. I only had a degree. I felt that it was the end of the road for me. If they asked questions, I wouldn’t be able to answer them. That day, when I went to my room, I could not sleep the whole night. I kept thinking that this was a golden chance for me and I decided that I would study only English for the following one year. After six months, I wrote an article. It was titled A World called Equality. It was about Dalits. I had worked with them and at the time, in 2002, some Dalits were lynched at Jhajjhar. That article was published in a national magazine called Indian Currents. John Dayal was the editor of the magazine. He praised the article. Then, I went to Orissa for my dissertation. I lived in the forests for six months and researched on forest rights. I worked in 10 villages populated by Adivasis. There, some RSS people came after me. They had a news item published in a newspaper that conversions had begun in the area. Then the Graham Staines incident happened. I feared that they would burn me alive. I came to Jharkhand and became associated with the Ekta Parishad again. We organized a month-long cycle rally during which we raised questions on human rights. We went from village to village, from forest to forest and fought for human rights. We took cases to courts, to commissions. We went to the areas from where people were being displaced. We made them aware. Then we studied the documents and wrote about the cases.
How many books have you written so far?
Around 20 – three of them are in English. I write mostly in Hindi. I write small booklets so that they can reach the people living in rural areas. I write in English so that the world can know about the pain of the Adivasis.