Disquiet in the jungle


On the fringes: An adivasi village near the Mudumalai forest reserve
Courtesy; Accord, Adivasi Cultural Centre, Gudalur, Tamil NaduOn the fringes: An adivasi village near the Mudumalai forest reserve

The first adivasi woman in the Nilgiris District files a case of sexual assault. Her battle tells of a constant tussle between a community known for its gender equality and those in power.

Madi (name changed) is a 23-year-old adivasi girl from the Bettakurumba tribe — traditional hunter-gatherers — famous for their skills as elephant mahouts. She lives in a village inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu. These forests, rich in biodiversity, are home to one of the largest populations of Asiatic elephants in the world. The adivasis share their home with the elephants and even the occasional tiger. Madi, who had studied till Class XII in a government school, worked as a shop attendant at a Public Distribution Shop within the forest area. Early last month, a forest guard, on the pretext of discussing work, insisted she come to his house. When she arrived, he sexually assaulted her, before she could scream for help.

Not one to be intimidated, Madi decided to fight back and take on the forest official, who continued to harass her with threatening calls and overt gestures. Along with her father she travelled to Ooty, the district headquarters, to report the case to P Sekhar, the District Collector. The collector passed her complaint to the superintendent of police who handed the matter to the women’s cell at the local police station in Gudalur. When she finally reached the police station, she was told that it was too late and since no investigation could be conducted in the night, she should return the next day to submit her compliant. When she met the superintendent of police to register her case under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA, 1995), he asked her inappropriate questions, such as, how could she prove the assault because she was a tribal woman. Statistics tell their own story, the conviction rate for POA cases in Tamil Nadu is 20 per cent lower than the national average.

But Madi, a single mother, and the daughter of a traditional Bettakurumba healer, is staying strong. Suresh, a Bettakurumba leader and member of the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam (an adivasi peoples’ organisation) says, “Madi is the first Bettakurumba woman who has filed such a case, we must stand by her.” Those supporting her have received offers of money from the forest department officials to withdraw the case. But Madi says with determination, “I will not take the case back.”

Madi’s battle against the forest department is part of a larger story about the battles of the adivasis. Their traditional ways are under threat by the forest department. The Kattunayakan — traditional honey gatherers — have not collected much honey this year because of fear of the forest department. Officials harass and threaten to imprison tribals who collect firewood and honey despite the Forest Rights Act (2006). Routine intimidation, in the form of verbal and physical abuse, and general harassment has led to fewer and fewer adivasi women venturing into the forest. This means they can no longer gather the tubers, leaves and berries, which are essential to their diets. They are not allowed to collect the thatch and bamboo from the forest to build their houses. The sexual assault on Madi is the ugliest face of this routine intimidation.

Where women are equals

For Madi, and those of her community, regressive manifestation of patriarchy are absent. For instance, among many adivasi communities, widows have the freedom to live a full and happy life and can remarry if they choose. Dowry is unheard of here. Instead, most adivasi girls receive a bride price (in the form of cattle or grain) during marriage. Unlike the all-too prevalent sense of misfortune associated with the birth of a girl child, unmarried girls are not seen as a burden in adivasi families. Neither is it mandatory for women to be the ones who move to their husbands’ homes after marriage. Older women can be granted the status of the chief of a village while men are sometimes seen cleaning, taking care of children and cooking at homes. Adivasi women do not change their names after marriage and children do not bear the name of their fathers at birth. Traditionally, it was also acceptable for both men and women to have several partners through life, something that would certainly tarnish a ‘chaste’ non-tribal woman.

Clearly, the rest of India has much to learn from adivasi societies. We don’t need to reach out to western feminist traditions or United Nation charters that call for equal rights. Yet those in power are working against these communities and their progressive worldviews. Even today adivasis are commonly understood as ‘primitive’ communities in need of ‘development’. Dominant cultural forces are acting to ‘integrate’ adivasis making them more like the us, in other words less progressive and more misogynistic.

We all know that Madi’s case is one among so many other cases of gender violence in the country. Amidst all this it is hard to imagine that India is also home to communities where women are treated as equals. We often forget that we have many other stories to tell.

The only story we repeatedly hear is that of subservient, helpless girls faced with gruesome forms of violence. In the process other narratives are routinely made invisible. There are also stories of struggle and resistance, like Madi’s, which must be told and celebrated. She like so many others is fighting back. Her fight is for all adivasi women who, despite the odds, have decided to speak out bravely against the violence inflicted upon them.

(Priyashri Mani works at the Adivasi Cultural Centre, Gudalur, Tamil Nadu)


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