Well-known adivasi leader Manish Kunjam speaks on the serious threats to adivasi identity today
As president of the All-India Adivasi Mahasabha, affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI), Manish Kunjam, one of the best known adivasi leaders in the country, is required to travel to all the adivasi (Scheduled Tribe) areas in the country. But, says the former two-term MLA and secretary of the CPI in Dantewada, the problems in Bastar are so pressing that much of his time is taken up in speaking up for the basic right to life, and identity, of villagers affected by the armed conflict between the police and the Maoists. The adivasis of the region, he says, are faced with the prospect of displacement following the entry of large corporations who want to take over their land and resources; and confronted by relentless offensives by Hindu and Christian organisations against their ‘inferior’ traditions. The situation in Bastar reflects the issues that affect almost all adivasis, but in an exacerbated manner, says Kunjam.
He should know. In a decade or more, the adivasi leader has held rallies, protests and public meetings in difficult circumstances to demand accountability, and compensation, for the victims of human rights violations during the Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt; he was also among the petitioners in a case in which the Supreme Court banned the Salwa Judum in 2011. He has been in the forefront of campaigns to stop displacement in Bastar.
In a sharply articulated interview, Manish Kunjam talks to sociologist Nandini Sundar about the many aspects of adivasi culture and the serious threats to adivasi identity today, be it the latest salvo of ‘beef politics’, the uninformed slogan of ‘development’ being throttled, the lack of public schemes such as NREGS on the ground, causing social distress and, most of all, the ongoing armed conflict in Bastar which is holding the lives of the ordinary adivasi to ransom. Excerpts from the interview:
In the current climate of violence and intolerance that is being witnessed in the country, especially around the issue of beef, you are one of the few to openly state that eating beef is part of adivasi culture.
It is a tradition in Bastar, and in many adivasi areas across central India, to sacrifice cows during jatras and mandais, or festivals to propitiate the Devis (mother goddesses), the Earth, and clan ancestors. Every three, seven or twelve years, the various clans, such as Kawasi, Marvi, etc., have a gathering at their place of origin. Clan members from all over the region, even from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, come for this occasion, and a cow is sacrificed to the Devi. These are all public events.
In addition, cow sacrifices are made to the hanal pen or ancestors every year. These rituals are governed by rules regarding the colour of the cow to be sacrificed. In some places, a black calf, and in others, a red or white cow is specified. If people sacrifice cows, one must automatically assume they will eat the meat then.
Of course, not all adivasi communities eat beef, but on the other hand, beef eating is a practice not just among the adivasis but also among many SC and OBC communities.
What has been the response to your statement?
Apart from statements against me by a Congress MLA, Lakeshwar Baghel, and some BJP youth leaders, there have not been any other reactions primarily because people know that what I am saying is true. Go around the area and see for yourself.
What major threats to adivasi identity do you see today?
The government’s invitation to big companies to start mining and power projects, which lead to large-scale displacement of adivasis combined with an influx of outsiders, constitutes the biggest threat to adivasi identity. Connected to this is the violence inflicted on villagers in the course of the state-Maoist conflict, which poses a grave threat to the very existence of adivasis. The third major threat comes from the religious offensive mounted by both the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Christian missionaries.
Are the RSS and Christian missionaries similar in the way they approach adivasis?
Both represent equally serious threats to adivasi identity but work in different ways. The RSS enters adivasi rituals and changes them from within, while Christian missionaries say point blank that adivasis should not worship their traditional gods.
The RSS goes around telling people they are also Hindus. In the name of worshipping the village Devi, they introduce the worship of Hindu goddesses such as Sita and Durga, thus bringing in new elements into the adivasis’ traditional religion. Through songs and stories about Hindu gods like Ram and Sita, they influence people into thinking these gods are more powerful. Since there is no organised propaganda about our own gods, people think they are not as important.
Earlier, village youth would stop people on the roadside for the purpose of collecting money just for the annual seed sowing festival. Now the number of festivals for which people collect money has increased dramatically – festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, even Holi, which were never celebrated here.
Recently, the Lohandiguda area – where the Tatas want to set up a steel plant – was in the news because the villagers were reported as saying they would not allow Christian missionaries into their villages. What does it signify?
Lohandiguda happened to come into the news; the truth is that such incidents are happening everywhere. The main cause of conflict in the villages is the refusal of Christians to make contributions for village festivals. In Lohandiguda, the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) used this opportunity to incite the villagers to beat up the Christians. What was essentially a local fight was made into a bigger issue by outside forces.
During a visit to Dantewada in May 2015, Prime Minister Modi announced that an ultra mega steel plant would be built by the National Mineral Development Corporation in Dilmilli near Jagdalpur. Why is the Adivasi Mahasabha protesting against it?
Dilmilli is a big area with 13 panchayats, with a significant population residing near Jagdalpur. Hence, the first important question is, how will the area benefit if so many people are displaced? Second, neither the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) nor the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC), are in good economic shape. NMDC recently sold 30% of its shares; there is a slump in the sale of its products. The construction of NMDC’s steel plant at Nagarnar, which is also close to Jagdalpur, is still underway, and it is not quite clear when it will be completed.
Moreover, NMDC has not been able to give jobs to all those people whose land was acquired in Nagarnar; much of the casual labour employed has been brought from outside. Seeing how unhappy people are in Nagarnar, those in Dilmilli are bound to protest. In such a context, how does NMDC expect to establish another ultra mega steel plant?
The Adivasi Mahasabha is leading the protest – it has organised seven or eight meetings, including three big ones in Jagdalpur, and many rallies. Several gram sabhas have opposed the project.
What is the situation in Bastar now with respect to the conflict between security forces and Maoists?
Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camps are being set up every five or six km, we could never have imagined there would be so many. These camps line the main roads; so much so that all of Bastar has been turned into a cantonment. By the look of it, they seem to be planning a big offensive. In such a situation, it is the ordinary adivasi who will suffer the most.
That is why a dialogue between the government and Maoists is a must. Already people are fleeing to Telangana. The situation has been compounded by drought this year. The Maoists are telling people not to take the rations provided by the government. Not that chief minister Raman Singh’s government was providing the entire amount of rations needed, but whatever it was giving was necessary for survival. Now people have no alternative but to migrate.
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The problem is compounded by the fact that there are no public work projects such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) in those areas. While people’s needs have increased over time, there is no corresponding source of cash income. In this respect, the Maoists are working against the people’s interests.
The signs of distress are evident. I see many people coming to Sukma for work, whether in people’s fields or in building works. Earlier people migrated seasonally to cut tobacco for a couple of weeks. Now they migrate for work all twelve months.
In such circumstances, does trafficking pose a threat?
Since women are going to work in places that are far away, we do get to hear of instances where they are sexually exploited. Young people are especially targeted by recruiters. It is an issue that the Adivasi Mahasabha has raised in its meetings.
How easy is it to organise Adivasi Mahasabha meetings in the ever present shadow of conflict?
We don’t hold meetings in villages any more because the CRPF consider any such assembly as a Maoist meeting. So we try and hold larger meetings at the block or tehsil level. But yes, organising Adivasi Mahasabha meetings has become difficult indeed.
Though there was a news report to the contrary, the Indian Air Force has clarified that there is no change in its policy of not undertaking “offensive” operations in Bastar. But seeing the build-up of CRPF in the area, do you foresee a scenario in which the air force plays a greater role in counter-insurgency?
The fear has existed for many years. Now helicopters fly even at night, and helipads are being made to facilitate night descents.
Almost daily we get calls from people saying someone has been arrested or that COBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolution Action) forces are beating up or killing villagers. Recently, there was an incident in Chintagufa where the woman sarpanch and other women were severely beaten, and their houses raided by the COBRA forces. When we complained to the Superintendent of Police he said that he cannot control central forces like the COBRA! We held a protest rally that was attended by around 500 people, and a drone sent forth by the Cobra for surveillance was relaying images in real time. It sounded like a big mosquito buzzing overhead.
There are many cases we cannot take up – we know this is a weakness – but we are trying our best.
You were recently able to stop illegal mining around your village, Ramaram – tell us more.
For a long time we have been saying that the Sukma-Konta section of the National Highway should be repaired as it is in a bad shape. We discovered that things were not moving because the contractor was selling gitti to Odisha. He was also pilfering soil from a local farmer’s field. When we complained to the district collector, he refused to take action. Then I told a journalist with Haribhumi to publicise it. Reena Kangale, in the Directorate of Geology and Mining in Raipur, saw the news on WhatsApp and sent a team from the state capital to investigate the matter. Finally, an FIR was registered against the contractor.
What is the solution to all these problems?
There are two steps that need to be taken: First, we appeal to the Maoists and the government to start a dialogue; second, Bastar should have autonomy so that people’s jal jungle jameen (water, forest, land) is preserved, and there is no need for villagers to take up arms to defend their resources.
The Constitution of India has provided for autonomy of tribal areas n the Sixth Schedule. Right now, it is only applicable to the Northeast but we have been fighting to make it applicable to Bastar also. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA), currently applicable to Bastar under the Fifth Schedule, should also be properly implemented. PESA, which gives the gram sabha powers to decide on various things at the village level, can work only when the elected representatives higher up are also autonomous.
Right now the administration is dependent on the chief minister (CM) in Raipur, but we can’t go to the CM for everything. If decisions are taken by local elected representatives of an autonomous tribal council, they will be far more conscious of their actions.
We have come to the conclusion that this combination is the only way to resolve the host of issues plaguing Bastar. This has been acknowledged by BD Sharma, former Commissioner Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and one of the key architects of PESA.
As President of the All-India Adivasi Mahasabha, what are the problems you see in adivasi areas generally?
What I have said about Bastar is common to all adivasi areas. As president of the Adivasi Mahasabha, I am required to travel to all the adivasi areas, but have been unable to do so simply because the problems in Bastar are so pressing. Nevertheless, I am trying my best.
Recently, I visited Gadchiroli in Maharashtra to attend the commemoration ceremony of Veer Bapurao Shedmake, who was hanged for taking part in the revolt of 1857. He came from an ordinary adivasi family. In fact, a century ago, great leaders like Birsa Munda, Gunda Dhur, Sidhu and Kanhu, and Alluri Sita Rama Raju, too, emerged from ordinary adivasi families. Adivasis have always rebelled against attempts by to take over their land.
Today, with so many business corporations entering adivasi areas, CRPF camps are becoming a regular presence, as are outsiders who are taking over adivasi land and turning them into minorities. We are once again faced with an all-important question – what should we do about it?
In Gadchiroli, the RSS is saying that they will work towards the abolition of PESA. This flows from the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the adivasi areas during the 2015 Maharashtra state elections was made possible by the support of non-tribals. The RSS is a threat not only to adivasi culture but also to constitutional provisions like PESA and reservation, which were designed to empower and protect adivasis.
The most important question is, how long will adivasis in India be able to retain their identity, and in what form? Adivasis today, like mainstream society, are getting attracted by the winds of politics, trade and consumerism. All these constitute powerful forces of change, and we need to think of ways of keeping our identities alive even as we respond to the challenges of our time.
 Nandini Sundar adds: Interestingly, W.G. Grigson, Administrator of Bastar State in the 1920s, and author of the classic Maria Gonds of Bastar, writes that even then there was pressure on adivasis from Hindus not to sacrifice cows, but cow sacrifices were deemed essential to their beliefs about the dead.
Nandini Sundar is a Professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics