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Giving adivasis a voice

By G N Devy

The 80 million adivasis and 60 million de-notified tribes in India are possibly amongst the most excluded communities. How should their exclusion be addressed, even as their language and culture are protected? This article documents how the Bhasha Institute, which was set up to record and preserve adivasi languages and oral traditions, moved on to address other needs, from education to food security and from craft to credit

castes and adivasis

Indian society is distributed into castes and adivasis; there are about 1,500 major and minor castes and about 600 adivasi communities. The current population of adivasis is approximately 87 million. They have continued to live side by side with the castes throughout India's history, sometimes crossing over, occasionally clashing with each other, but generally remaining affably indifferent to each other.

Traditionally, adivasi communities have been hunter-gatherers, nomads, pastoralists, feudal war clans, and, in some cases, agriculturists. The imposition of colonial civil, criminal and forest law, which was rooted in sedentary norms of production and governance, caused serious disruptions in adivasi communities and started bringing them into conflict with the State.

The forms of knowledge and memory developed by adivasis have been oral. Even if tribals could paint, and even if they had their own methods of measuring and counting things, they did not develop scripts to record linguistic or economic transactions. During the early-19th century the main Indian languages were brought into the print medium; but due to the cultural and geographical isolation of the adivasis, print technology did not reach their languages. As such, when modern India was distributed into linguistic states, the adivasi speech communities were left out of consideration.

Not having their own language states meant not having schools, colleges and universities that use adivasi languages as the medium of instruction. Since none of them became an official language of administration, there have been no employment opportunities in the domain of the adivasi languages. As a result, adivasi languages in India started becoming extinct in quick succession. The 1971 Census of India listed around 90 adivasi languages as mother tongues, each claimed by a minimum of 10,000 persons. In the 1991 census, this figure dropped by 18, bringing the number to 72. In other words, in India, one adivasi language perishes every year.

But just because these languages did not evolve scripts, except in a few cases, does not mean that adivasis do not have any significant imaginative literature. All that literature is a valuable cultural heritage of India.

'Bhasha', which means 'language' or 'voice' was founded as a research and publication centre for the documentation and study of literature in adivasi languages. The ultimate horizon of obligations for Bhasha at the moment of its inception was to document and publish 50 bi-lingual volumes of adivasi literature. Little did we know at the time that beyond the horizon many new worlds were waiting for us.

Within months of commencing work on the 50 volume series, many adivasi writers and scholars approached me with the idea of starting a magazine in adivasi languages, aimed at adivasi communities, to be read out rather than for individual reading. Bhasha accepted the idea. The magazine was called Dhol (drums), a term that has a totemic cultural significance for adivasis. We started using the state scripts combined with moderate use of diacritical marks to represent these languages.

The response to the magazine was tremendous. More adivasis approached Bhasha and asked for versions of Dhol in their own language. In two years, Dhol started appearing in 10 adivasi languages of western India.

When the first issue of Dhol in the Chaudhary language was released it sold 700 copies on the first day. This was a record of sorts for a little magazine. Inspired by the success of the magazine, our adivasi collaborators started bringing Bhasha manuscripts of their autobiographies, poems, essays, even anthropological studies of their communities that they wanted us to publish. Subsequently, in order to highlight the oral nature of the adivasi culture, we launched a weekly radio magazine which was relayed throughout the adivasi areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

All these initiatives together gave birth to a small but focused publishing and book distribution house that now works under the name Samas and is the first community-owned publishing programme for adivasis and nomadic communities in India. It is not so much a commercial venture as a cultural and literary platform for intellectual concerns, and a forum for expression in people's own languages.

Oral literature, unlike written literature, is not an exclusive verbal or lexical art. It is inevitably intermixed with song, music, dance, ritual and craft. So, Bhasha was drawn to the craft of adivasi communities, initially in western India and subsequently all over India. This resulted in Bhasha's craft collection and craft-training initiatives, and then to the formation of an adivasi craft cooperative under the name Tribals First. The objects identified as craft are not produced in adivasi communities for aesthetic pleasure alone. They are invariably an integral part of daily life. Often, such objects carry with them an imprint of the supernatural as conceived in the myth and imagination of the adivasis. The shapes, colours and forms of these objects reflect transactions in the adivasis' collective unconscious.

Often, one overlooks the fact that the metaphysical matrix of the adivasi thought process differs markedly from the philosophical assumptions of the dominant cultural traditions in India. Therefore, sometimes simple concepts and ideas that look perfectly natural and secular can provoke adivasis into reacting negatively, even violently. Any intervention in an adivasi community is likely to have a better chance of making a lasting impact if it is preceded by a sympathetic understanding, if not careful study of the interior landscape of the adivasi mind. The rituals, arts and crafts of the adivasis reflect the complexities of their cultural norms and thought patterns as nothing else does.

I learnt the hard way that there is a common source for the dominance of the colour red in adivasi art, and their utter unwillingness to donate blood even when a kinsman is in dire need of it -- the supernatural belief that the domain of witchcraft is red in colour. This incidental insight came in handy when we found ourselves involved in a haematological crisis involving sickle cell anaemia. Reports from the Amravati district of Maharashtra, inhabited by the Korku adivasis, about a large number of untimely child deaths, and similar reports from Wyanad in the south, drew our attention to the sickle cell phenomenon. Medical science maintains that a certain genetic mutation required to fight malarial fevers has made adivasis prone to the sickle cell disease.

On learning about the Korku trauma, we decided to check the statistics of sickle cell anaemia in our own area. Blood-testing among adivasis is a challenging task. So we decided to draw up mathematical models, and, at the same time, composed an extensive family tree, through a survey that took us over two years to complete, to isolate certain localities, villages and families that could provide clues for coming up with the most reliable projections. We found that nearly 34% of Gujarat's adivasis are carriers of the gene disorder, and about 3.5% of the population is its direct victim. This means, around 210,000 of Gujarat's 7 million adivasis are likely not to attain the age of 30. What's even sadder is that the available healthcare system has not been sensitive to the epidemic scale of the gene disorder; in most cases, healthcare remains inaccessible.

This revelation was shocking, to say the least. Bhasha decided to launch its own healthcare programme under the title Prakriti. Obviously, we did not wish to set up a large hospital, rather a small functional clinic, and to train local people as community health workers so that patients in a crisis situation could be identified and provided with immediate relief locally, and be referred to city clinics for long-term treatment.

Thus, beginning with aesthetics we arrived at anaesthetics!

Specific diseases may have universal scientific definitions, but the general notion of 'illness' as distinct from 'wellbeing' does not have a universal grammar. In a given community, illness and wellness are divided by an invisible line; and introduction of new medicines keeps pushing the line, enlarging the domain of anaesthetics, that is, the management of pain, and encroaching on the domain of aesthetics, which is the management of pleasure. This, in turn increases the desire for instant curbing of pain, and, at the same time, the longing for an instant gratification of the senses.

The distribution of pain and pleasure on the cultural spectrum corresponds directly with the distribution between craft and product on the economic spectrum. Often, shortages caused by larger economic forces push a social sector from its subsistence-farming character into becoming impoverished labour-providers. The acute food shortages faced by adivasis in Kalahandi and Koraput, in Orissa, and the mass migration of adivasis to the mining districts are not exceptional stories. Though their main occupation is agriculture, adivasis have been undernourished throughout India, and, sadly enough, death by starvation is not news to them.

Bhasha decided to set up foodgrain banks for adivasi women to address the issue of food insecurity. Initially, we decided to follow the government model of foodgrain banks, but we realised that they had come to be seen by adivasi villagers as charity distribution events. So we chose to set up the grain banks without any government contribution and entirely through local participation. We were convinced that no effort to reduce the incidence of sickle cell anaemia was likely to succeed if it was seen in isolation from the question of forced migration and food insecurity. For us, food security and healthcare are a single concern.

Soon after the Bhasha Trust was established, it decided to institute an annual lecture series named after the legendary Dr Verrier Elwin, a long-time friend of India's adivasis. For the 1998 Elwin Lecture, we chose the theme 'De-notified and Nomadic Tribals'. In India there are about 191 communities that were once wrongly notified as 'criminal tribes', owing to the colonial government's lack of understanding of the nomadic way of life. They were restricted by law to specific localities, prevented from moving, put to unpaid labour and stigmatised beyond redemption. After their 'de-notification' in 1952, these communities, now known as DNT, continued to suffer stigma, social isolation and acute economic disadvantage. Utterly dispossessed, these landless, illiterate and hounded people have been unsuccessfully trying to shake off their identity. Their estimated population is around 60 million.

Moved by the Elwin Lecture delivered by the eminent activist Mahashweta Devi, we decided to establish the DNT Rights Action Group. It was the first national campaign ever taken up for the cause of DNT rights. Under the campaign, we moved the National Human Rights Commission and various ministries of the central government to abolish the Habitual Offenders Act, and to provide a rights protection mechanism for DNT.

Bhasha's energetic campaign for DNT rights received an overwhelming response from the de-notified communities. We had exposed a long-festering wound. As a leader of that campaign I had to give very serious thought to turning the anger and frustration among the demonised, brutalised and politically vandalised DNT into a constructive energy. I decided to use the most ancient method of getting people angry without making them destructive -- theatre. My experience with handling the violence within the minds of these communities has left me convinced that theatre is probably the most powerful cultural means of sensitising communities on the mutual entanglement and dependence of economic, social and cultural rights of several competing and clashing social sectors.

Bhasha now has its own theatre group called Budhan Theatre, named after Budhan, a DNT killed whilst in police custody. Apart from Budhan Theatre, we have so far successfully established four annual cultural festivals in as many locations in Gujarat, one of which is Dandi -- the place made sacred by Gandhi's salt satyagraha. Adivasi and nomadic performers travel to the four locations on their own, and thousands of people from several states participate. These melas are now here to stay.

Ever since adivasis were brought under the provisions of the colonial forest department, their access to forest produce has been steadily diminishing. They constantly face the possibility of losing their agricultural lands due to conflicting notions of land records between them and the administration. At the same time, most adivasis have to depend on rain-fed cropping patterns. This historical legacy has forced them into chronic indebtedness, made worse by the rising cost of seeds, fertiliser, fodder and electricity, as well as education and healthcare expenses. Unlike caste Indians, who first earn and then spend, adivasis, by and large, like to first spend and then earn just enough to meet those expenses. Their need for short-term borrowing has increased over the years. However they rarely default on repayment of their loans, even when no written contracts have been signed. In fact, the needs and habits of adivasis should have been seen as a great opportunity by the formal banking sector, which is barely in existence in remote and inaccessible adivasi villages. Credit delivery to adivasis is not only pathetically poor but almost non-existent, and it invariably takes third-party intervention to make the system work. For a majority of adivasis, institutional banking that involves written records at every stage is a completely alien concept, whereas the simple procedures of private moneylenders are easily comprehended despite the exorbitant interest rates.

When we noticed that these interest rates could range from between 60% to 120%, we felt the need to intervene. So we took up the task of forming microcredit self-help groups. We faced a number of challenges: getting adivasis to understand and recognise the formal banking system was hard, but even more difficult was the task of educating bank employees on their own schemes, the microcredit policies of NABARD, and the economic concerns of an NGO like Bhasha. The trickiest issue was the peculiar social character of the private moneylender. For one thing, moneylenders in adivasi areas are extremely influential. They maintain extremely complicated and not easily terminable accounts with their adivasi clients, through a system that treats cash, land, grain and labour as inter-convertible currencies. Not surprisingly therefore, the moneylenders teamed up against Bhasha's self-help groups as soon as the adivasi farmers stopped going to them. I was amazed when some self-help group members started bringing in new and serially numbered currency notes to pay off the bank loans they had received barely a month earlier. On enquiring, we found that the moneylenders had been distributing the notes liberally to whoever was prepared to step out of the group!

The moneylenders' unease grew as Bhasha's microfinance programme began to cut into the private credit market. There were moments when I felt we should enter into a dialogue in order to circumvent the conflict, and introduce an ethical element in their operations. But I had the naïve hope that the formal banking system would quickly step in and grab the opportunity. The moneylenders continued to feel threatened and destroyed. Their fury expressed itself in March 2002, when Hindu moneylenders bribed, coaxed and threatened a pliable section of the adivasis into making violent attacks on the families and properties of Muslim moneylenders. Several hundred houses were burnt down, hundreds were injured, many lost their lives, and the livelihoods of thousands of adivasis and Muslims were adversely affected.

In the essay Kikiyario, I wrote elaborate analytical reports on the genealogy of the adivasi riots in Gujarat and how the microfinance intervention had become a significant component. At the height of the riots we felt that the moneylenders would succeed in restoring their stranglehold on the adivasi economy. But we found that more adivasis started forming SHGs after the riots. Since then, for our general SHG meetings, the number of adivasis wanting to participate has kept multiplying.

Bhasha has been providing training for the management of groups, directing them to establish viable occupations for increased incomes, and enabling them to form a federation of SHGs. Some of the new occupational avenues we have opened up include honey cultivation, specialised gum-tree plantation, brick-making and masonry, craft training, and organic cropping. As regards the choice of micro-enterprise, the minimum guiding principle we have followed is that new income-generating activities should not cause adivasis to migrate to urban centres where the urban infrastructure has no space for the adivasi poor, nor does the caste-bound society have any social respect for adivasis. Therefore, we have been focusing more on para-agricultural or value-added agricultural activities.

Over the years, I have noticed a great hunger for learning among the adivasis. Contrary to the popular impression, adivasis do want to send their children to schools. Their aspirations are belied because primary education in adivasi villages is burdened with its own numerous structural problems. I have noticed that given a set of dedicated teachers, children in even the tiniest adivasi hamlets shape up to become potentially excellent university entrants. And so, at Bhasha we decided to take up a programme to help adivasi children by establishing, in about 80 villages, support schools to help those who have missed the bus altogether or those who lag behind in their school studies.

The results have been excellent. When I see the children in these non-formal learning centres playing, singing, painting and reading, my faith in the future of the adivasis is strengthened.

Bhasha Trust established the Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh in 1999. Since 2000, we have been teaching young men and women a subject we call Tribal Studies, by which we mean the study and understanding of how adivasis perceive the world. The idea is to make our students reflect on their own situation, motivate them and put them onto the great task of empowering adivasi villages by helping them become self-reliant. The academy offers short-term training in microfinance, and diploma courses in tribal rights, food security and development, publication and rural journalism, and tribal arts and museum studies. As a rule, we do not hold examinations; students are required to go out in the villages and set up SHGs, grain banks and water banks and promote the use of solar energy and organic farming. Based on their experience of field work, the students are then required to write dissertations.

The Adivasi Academy is not a place for cutting-edge theoretical knowledge. It is meant to forge strategies to improve the lives and economic condition of adivasis, to build durable and sustainable assets for the community, to instil respect for their cultural heritage, and to provide a forum and a space to voice adivasi concerns in their own idiom.

The academy is today managed mostly by adivasis. It has its own library and a Museum of Voice. I am often asked if the Museum of Voice is the centrepiece of the academy and whether cultural concerns are more important than economic issues. My answer is that for communities that are culturally marginalised and economically disadvantaged, an element of pride in their identity comes in handy as a strategy to empower them. Besides, cultural diversity too is part of the nation's wealth.

For the first two years, classes were held under a majestic mahua tree. Then we built a small hut. Finally we have a structure with red-brick and arches, built against the backdrop of Koraj hill. I cannot help mentioning Koraj hill. It houses several rock paintings dating back 12,000-15,000 years, and has at its foot relics of an historical fortification belonging to the 12th or 13th century. When one stands on top of Koraj hill, one can see a huge expanse of land spreading into Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, within which several hundred adivasi villages have been waiting for over two centuries for an intervention such as the Adivasi Academy. Visitors come to us from all parts of India and the world. A former chief justice of India, Justice M N Venkatachaliah visited the academy and, when asked a number of questions by the students, said: "If a tribal boy can ask the chief justice of India these questions, India still has hope."

The ambassador of Netherlands and his wife were so delighted to be with the adivasis that they sat down with them for long hours and broke the same coarse bread with them.

In the early part of my journey, I was alone. Now we are over 150 people. My hope is that the Adivasi Academy will become the source of many more new journeys. Of course, the road ahead of us is not easy. Eighty-three million adivasis and 60 million DNT is not a small number. And their problems do not have easy and ready solutions. What we have undertaken is only an experiment in shaping an alternative model of development. It is too early to judge if it will produce what it seeks to create. Yet I agree with the poet Shelley that one must "hope, till hope creates the thing it contemplates".

(Dr Ganesh Devy is a Sahitya Akademi Award-winning multi-lingual writer and activist based in Baroda. He gave up his job as Professor of English at the M S University to work with the adivasis of India. He is the founder of Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Baroda, the Tribal Academy, Tejgadh, and The De-notified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008