The Gonds, like other indigenous communities, still do not have sovereign political rights
BARELY 100 km from the city of my birth, Vadodara, is a region that is distinct from all of Gujarat. Called Poorvi Patti (eastern belt), it stretches from Banaskantha in the north to Dangs in the south. It is a hilly and forested area and most of its inhabitants are tribal communities such as Gonds, Rathwas, Chaudharys and Gamits. Growing up in Vadodara, I was fed with stories about how these communities were naïve, childlike simpletons and lazy buffoons, who drank lots of country-made liquor. To dispel such stereotypical descriptions, Bhangya Bhukya has written The roots of the Periphery about the community of Gonds. “The popular image of indigenous people of India as isolated, primitive, bar-baric, and uncivilised is what led me to write this book,” he writes in the preface. The Gonds are one of the largest tribes in India—who along with another tribe, the Bhils, constitute nearly 22 per cent of the country’s Scheduled Tribe population (104 million)—as per the 2011 census.
The region between the Narmada and the Godavari is the traditional homeland of the Gonds called Gondwana. There are various antecedent theories about them. Some say they are descendants of Sage Vishwamitra’s sons, who were banished to the borders of Aryavarta, while others say that they are a pre-Aryan, Draviadian race, possibly related to the Indus people.
Whatever their origin, the Gonds established four kingdoms in Gondwana and coexisted with various other dynasties and rulers, including the Mughals and the Marathas. But the crux of Bhukya’s book is the British period. He describes how after the Second AngloMaratha War (1818), the Gonds came under British suzerainity, who made them secondary citizens. He narrates how the British took over the lands of the Gonds using land tenure systems like zamindari, ryotwari, malguzari and ijara. Worse, they encouraged caste Hindu peasants and moneylenders from the surrounding plains to settle in the forests and hills. These people grabbed Gond lands and left them in penury. The British also made the Gonds’ traditional shifting agriculture illegal and introduced “civilised” farming techniques to counter them.
The Gonds fled further into the forests only to find that these were also now state property—they could neither graze cattle nor hunt.
The worst thing was that the British created an entire new mythology about the Gonds and other indigenous communities: that they were primitive.
The current condition of Gonds is even worse—whether it is health, education or food security. Some Gonds have turned into Maoists, but as Bhukya says neither the Indian state nor the Maoists have been able to understand the “Gond question” (see interview). It is not one of development, but rather of recognising the sovereign political rights of the Gonds.
|`Nobody has addressed the political question of indigenous communities'
Bhangya Bhukya speaks to Down To Earth about the relevance of his book
Is primitivism a consequence of the natural evolution of some human societies? Or is it a conscious choice by such societies to evade state power?
Primitivism is a programme designed by communities to evade state-making process in their areas. While many forest and hill communities across the globe have adopted this strategy, some are still practising it at a reduced level, like the Jarawas in the Andamans. Primitive mode of life arrested the state-making process in the hills and forests and facilitated a condition for autonomy and self-rule. However, it is now just folklore in India, as the State has managed to make its power felt everywhere.
How did British rule mark the decline of the Gonds?
British colonial rule marked a sharp demarcation in Indian history as it imposed a different political rationality on the colony subjects. Under colonialism, the Gonds, who were sovereign rulers, were reduced to being just agriculture labourers. Importantly, there were multiple sovereignties in pre-British rule period—there was an imperial power on the top, and below, there were many subordinate powers acting independently.
Even during Maratha rule, the Gonds had complete independence over their territories. The British destroyed these multiple sovereignties and created a singular British colonial sovereignty. The Gonds' act of tax evasion and raids were seen as political acts by the pre-British empires, but the British criminalised these acts and stigmatised them as criminal, violent, barbarous and primitive communities.
How can your book be beneficial to current administrators trying to deal with the ongoing Maoist insurgency?
Indeed, the book can be useful to both administrators and Maoist insurgents. There are considerable lessons which both can learn from the experience of the Gonds. The post-colonial state is not different from the colonial state as far as indigenous communities are concerned. The colonial construction of indigenous communities as poor and sub-human is still central in the policymaking of the current administration. The current administration treats this challenge essentially as a poverty and development question, but not as a political questionÐabout their territories and forest resources.
Maoists have also been losing ground because their strategy is purely a political one. Like Indian State they too do not recognise them as a political community. Indian Maoists failed to build a movement centering on the politics of indigenous communities.
They are using their territories only as a protective cover from the police or the army. The spread of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh exemplifies their failure.