Editor's Note: In this eighteen-part series, we will attempt to address the tropes associated with the communities in question from an Adivasi perspective while also exploring the contemporary relationship of Adivasi citizens with the Indian government. This is part six of the series on Adivasi communities in peninsular India.
Pandu Dolu Pungati, 28, is caressing a young chicken in his hands, which will be sacrificed during the Bija Pandum ceremony in his field, as preparation for sowing paddy. A fistful of rice soaked in the chicken’s blood will be offered to Kopunga, one of the six-clan gods of the Madia, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group that lives primarily in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. Madias are classified as one of the four endogamous sub-tribes that make up the Gond tribe.
At the porch of their mud-and-thatch shack in Juwi village, in Bhamragad tehsil of Gadchiroli district, his wife Sushila, 26, is preparing mahua, a local alcoholic drink consumed to mark important occasions.
Bija Pandum, or seed ceremony, is performed to appease the clan deity before sowing seeds or after harvesting grain. Stirring a pot filled with water to condense the vapours, Pungati tells me how he got ripped off by the tendu leaf traders this year.
Last year, traders had slashed the procurement price of tendu — used to make bidis — from Rs 1,600 per 100 bundles to Rs 400 per 100 bundles. Each bundle contains 70 tendu leaves. The reason given by the traders was the restructuring of business due to the government’s Goods and Services Tax.
In protest, the villagers had refused to collect tendu leaves in 2018. "Last year was difficult with no income. This year we didn’t have a choice but to sell," said Pungati.
The Tehsildar of Bhamragad, Kailash Andil, pointed out this was a temporary setback as a result of the implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (1996) in 2015, under which Gram Sabhas can auction non-timber produce from the forest, a right that was earlier vested in the Forest Department.
“The Gram Sabhas haven’t been able to bargain well, especially with the traders uniting to fix the prices. Once they learn the market ropes, they will negotiate better,” Andil said.
This meant that from getting Rs 16,000 per 1,000 bundles of tendu leaves in previous years, Pungati could take home only Rs 5,000 this year.
Almost all of that money was spent on buying rice — three bags of 50 kg each. It will last the family of five two months. In the absence of regular sources of protein and nutrients, rice becomes a staple food.
Additionally, Pungati gets 10 kg of rice every month for Rs 50 from the Public Distribution System through his Above Poverty Line card and 20 kg of wheat for Rs 20.
“We don’t eat wheat so we feed it to the chickens,” he said.
The rest of the year, his family will live off the rice grown in their two-acre plot, along with ambadi (gongura), shenga (legumes), or roots foraged from the forest. Fish from the nearby river supplants their protein intake. Chutney made from red ants is also a staple, but not during monsoons, as the ants grow wings and fly away.
In the horizon, the mountains of Abujmarh loom just below the clouds. Juwi is enclosed by the Indravati river in the south, beyond which lies Chhattisgarh. The Madias and Gonds prefer to call the region between Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh by its traditional name Abujmarh — a thick jungle area stretching over 4,000 square kilometres. It is also referred to as the “liberated zone”, as it is known to be controlled by the Maoists.
Pungati’s eldest son Dinesh, 10, dropped out of school in Class 4, as he could not pass the exams. Dinesh began his studies in his mother’s village, Alwada, in Abujmarh, which falls under Gopalpattanam tehsil in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district.
While living there, he fell ill often, suffering epileptic fits and bleeding in the mouth.
“The nearest hospital was a six-hour trek from there, so we brought him back to Juwi. At least the rural hospital here (in Bhamragad) is half an hour away on a bike,” said Pungati.
Luckily though, Dinesh’s symptoms vanished after returning to his father’s village, and he joined a new school.
“But I couldn’t follow what the teachers were saying. I stopped going after failing in the exams,” said Dinesh, whose mother tongue is Madia but speaks Hindi as a result of growing up in Chhattisgarh.
Marathi, which was the medium of instruction in the last school, is not his strong point.
The language barrier is a concern shared not just by Pungati and other Madia families, but also by government officials. Andil acknowledged that language was the biggest cause of failed integration of the Madia children in primary schools.
Even in the school records, Pungati claimed, the children’s mother tongue is recorded as Marathi instead of Madia, which is a Dravidian dialect.
Hinduisation of tribal culture
Lalsu Nogoti, an independently elected Bhamragad Zila Parishad member and the first lawyer from the Madia community, believes this is a part of the deliberate erasure of Adivasi culture and identity that has been going on for decades.
“I always say the Madia and Gond are treated like caged parrots by different states. We are forced to speak Marathi in Maharashtra, Hindi in Chhattisgarh, Telugu in Telangana, and Odiya in Odisha,” he said.
“They say Madia does not have its own script. My question is, do Hindi or Marathi have their own script?”
He told this author that the language imposition makes many Madia families wary of sending their children to schools. “They fear the children will forget their traditions and never return to the village,” he adds.
Nogoti’s wife Ujjwala, a primary school teacher, however, disagreed that Marathi or Hindi were posing a threat to Madia culture. She said that Madia students needed to be taught in the culturally hegemonic languages for their own future.
“Our children will not live here forever. At some point they will have to leave for Mumbai or Pune,” she said.
Caught between these two polarised views are the majority of Madia families, whose lives, disrupted by an encroaching ‘civilisation’, are left with a Hobson’s choice —assimilate and lose their culture or resist and lose their lives.
After a sustained campaign by teachers and local leaders, the state government agreed to provide handbooks in local dialects for students up to Class 3. Ujjwala was entrusted with translating a Marathi textbook for Class 1 students into Madia.
Nogoti, however, thinks it’s a tiny and futile attempt at stemming the rise of cultural imperialism engendered by multiple governments.
"Recently, in a police record, they put my religion down as Hindu. I had to threaten an FIR against the personnel to change it,” he said.
Pungati’s children, too, are Hindu in their school records. “I don’t know what Hindu means. We worship Kopunga, who lives on the hill and is Kamarmutte’s son,” Pungati said.
The question of religion, and particularly their inclusion into the Hindu fold, has provoked protests from many tribal communities. In April 2019, tribal representatives from 19 states protested at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to demand the inclusion of their religion(s) in Census 2021.
But the pre-modern origins of this debate go back to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who in his book, Essentials of Hindutva, claimed that the “aboriginal or hill tribes also are Hindu: because India is their Fatherland as well as their Holy Land”.
Even Gandhi agreed with this worldview and claimed that the tribals had been part of Hinduism from time immemorial. But the most persuasive argument for including tribals as Hindus would come from the British anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who had conducted a study on the Madias of Bastar and found traces of Shaivism in their mythology.
The religion of the Indian aboriginal outside Assam should be regarded as a religion of the Hindu family, with a special relation to the exciting, dangerous, catastrophic, Shivaite type, but as having a distinct existence of its own, Elwin wrote in his book, Loss of Nerves.
Even Elwin’s bitter critic, the sociologist GS Ghurye, felt that “tribals were the imperfectly integrated classes of Hindu society”, that in matters of faith and livelihood, “the so-called aboriginals had lived in fairly intimate contact with Hindus over a long time".
Elwin and Ghurye’s ideas would go on to inspire the Sangh Parivar to make inroads into Adivasi communities, or vanvasis as they called them, by making a pitch for a return to the “original Hindu fold”, through their tribal outreach organisation the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram.
The sociologist Archana Prasad has critiqued these positions as emanating from the tradition of “ecological romanticism”, which portrays tribals as pristine, pre-historic forest-dwellers, similar to Rousseau’s “noble savages”.
According to Prasad, “oral evidence suggests the economy of the Gonds was largely in flux and they were displaced to the plains from the hills and foothills as also from the plains to the forests during and after the Maratha conquests".
She argues that caste Hindu peasants, brought into the region by the Maratha rulers, “slowly edged out tribal cultivators from all fertile agricultural tracts, and converted them from permanent cultivators to hunter-gatherers".
She claims that in the face of increasing proselytisation of the tribals by Christian missionaries around the time of independence, Elwin aligned with the Hindu nationalists and paved the way for the Hinduisation of the tribal identity.
Today, Hindu observances have silently crept into Madia customs on the back of popular culture like TV serials. The mangalsutra, which had no basis in Madia culture, has become a sought-after accessory among married Madia women.
Nogoti explained that women have always enjoyed a higher status in the Madia tribe. Pre-marital sex is not taboo, and it's common and acceptable for a married woman to get divorced and remarry. The custom for Madia men is to live in their wife’s house after marriage. But this practice is changing, with many women today moving into their husband’s house after marriage.
One of the more explicit ways in which majoritarian impulses have altered tribal customs is by controlling dietary habits.
The 2015 presidential assent for the Maharashtra Animal (Preservation) Bill, 1995, which resulted in a ban on the slaughter of bullocks in the state, has put an end to bull sacrifices during important Madia and Gond festivals.
“They are choking us slowly. They want us to become dependent on hospitals and medicines,” said Gabba, the perma of Laheri village. Permas are the hereditary priests among the Madia who perform rituals during pandums and double up as the village healer.
Sitting outside the village gotul, Gabba lamented the interference of the state in village affairs. Gotuls are the traditional community centres for the Madia, which have been paramount in shaping their social life and customs. In earlier times, young boys and girls used to meet and cavort in the gotul to go on to form life-long, or even temporary, relationships. It still is the place where village elders gather to pass important pronouncements, organise festivals, or celebrate an occasion.
Originally made of earth, wood and thatch as an open structure, gotuls are now being rebuilt by the government as concrete buildings with doors.
A few such structures that I passed on my way to Laheri wore a decrepit and abandoned look, with locked doors.
“The government has put a plaque on them that says “mandir”. Why can’t they just call it gotul? They think we won’t know?” Gabba asks.
In the Laheri gotul, the only government imprint was a poster denouncing the captured Naxal leader Narmada-akka.
State engagement and burden of identity
In 2018-19, Maharashtra state earmarked Rs 8,969.05 crore for the Tribal Sub Plan (TSP) for the social, economic, and educational welfare of the tribals, from its total Annual Scheme Expenditure of Rs 95,000 crore.
The schemes specifically targeting the PVTGs are bracketed under the conservation-cum-development (CCD) programme.
Under the Adivasi Zamati Gharkul Aawas Yojana, which comes under the CCD programme, the state provides Rs 1,30,000 to each household to build a house.
But Pungati cannot avail of this scheme as neither he nor his family has an ST certificate.
It is an elementary problem faced by most Madia. According to the Integrated Tribal Development Project officer of Bhamragad, Niraj S More, only around 40 percent members of the community have ST certificates.
To get an ST certificate issued, a person has to furnish evidence from pre-1951, proving his/her tribal origin either through land records or school transfer certificates.
“But hardly any tribal person in this country has land records from that era, and literally none of them would have gone to school before 1951,” says More explaining the verification loop that villagers get stuck in.
“But at the same time, I can’t give them anything without an ST certificate,” he added.
Even if Dinesh resumed schooling, without the certificate he would not be able to secure admission to a college or a tribal hostel. Bhamragad and the nearby Etapalli tehsil have one hostel each for tribal boys and girls, where they receive Rs 500 and Rs 600 stipend per month, respectively.
For those who cannot get admission to the hostel, the Deendayal Upadhyay Swayam Scheme offers up to Rs 6,000 stipend per month for tribal students pursuing educational courses after Class 12.
The only catch is they need an ST certificate.
To tide over this, the ITDP office started a joint scheme with the Revenue Department to issue on-the-spot ST certificates in 2018.
Andil claimed that through this they have been able to distribute ST certificates to everyone in the tehsil.
“We have successfully distributed 10,000 ST certificates till the month of July,” Andil said. However, on probing further, he could not verify whether everyone in the tehsil now had ST certificates.
Remote, understaffed and alienated
The remote location of the villages, too, becomes an excuse for a delay in implementation of schemes.
Following the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission to build toilets, Narango Pusu Narote of Laheri village borrowed money to build an individual household latrine in his compound. Under the scheme, the state provides Rs 12,000 to each BPL and APL households belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
But after trying unsuccessfully for two years to get the money released from the Gram Sabha, Narote said he had given up. “The Gram Sewak is yet to visit my house to take photos for verification,” he explained, adding that he did not have a phone to take the pictures himself.
The Tribal Development Department runs 528 residential government ashram schools for tribals in remote and hilly areas of Maharashtra, with a budget of Rs 933 crore for 2018-19. Many of these schools are in far-flung and inaccessible places.
Rajyashri Lekame, 42, an accredited social health activist (ASHA) worker in Maraknar village, around 25 kilometres from Bhamragad, narrated her weekly ordeal because of a recent notification.
In May 2019, the state government made it mandatory for ASHA workers to submit the attendance of students at the Bal Vikas Prakalpa office at the tehsil on a weekly basis. “I walk four kilometres, cross overflowing rivers every week to get here. It’s exhausting,” she said. Back at the village, there is only one teacher in the primary school that has around 20 students.
Ramamasan Micha, 45, a primary school teacher from Hodri village, around 20 kilometres from Bhamragad, claimed that his school did not even have a building and was run out of a community centre.
Then there are hamlets like Binagonda, which are accessible only through an eight-hour trek through hills and mountains. During the monsoons, the hamlet is completely cut off by overflowing rivers. Villagers use handmade boats to cross them.
In a medical emergency, the hamlet residents have no option but to trek for eight hours through forested mountains.
More adds that many government schemes fail to take off as a majority of the departments are understaffed.
“Nobody wants to come here as it’s a remote area. There are no proper schools for their children, and there is Naxal disturbance,” he says, illustrating a vicious cycle of neglect, in which teachers don’t want to come to the village because there are no doctors and doctors don’t want to come here because there are no teachers.
Bhamragad tehsil has been unable to get an IAS officer to head the ITDP office for the past five years. More, who is a state-level officer from Nagpur cadre, said his own department had 46 percent vacancy.
If outsiders don’t want to come here, shouldn’t the locals self-govern?
During Pungati’s Bija Pandum ceremony, a group of activists arrived in the field unexpectedly. They had come to seek support for the creation of Vidarbha state in eastern Maharashtra.
Turning down an offer for a district-level chairmanship in the campaign in lieu of his support, Nogoti brought up the demand for Gondwana, a state for the Gondi-affiliated tribes carved out from central Indian states, that was first articulated in 1956.
“The day 14 million Gondi people of this country get their own state, I will extend my support for the idea of Vidarbha,” he promised.
Updated Date: Aug 30, 2019 22:42:37 IST