Adivasi activists, however successful in mobilising grassroots struggles, have seldom been able to make a dent in Parliament. Will Dayamani Barla make a difference?
Khunti, the most tribal of Jharkhand’s districts, has gone to the polls. With nearly three-quarters of its people adivasi, the reserved seat has been through yet another campaign which can be termed “interesting” for want of a better word. This is the land of the legendary adivasi leader Birsa Munda who led an armed rebellion against the British in the 1890s and whose legacy is evident in the naming of everything, from schools to the central jail, after its greatest folk hero. He is known as Bhagwan (god) or Dharti Aba (father of the earth).
I was recently on the campaign trail of Dayamani Barla, another famous fighter from the Munda tribe who spent time in the Birsa Munda Jail in Ranchi two years ago for leading a campaign against tribal land grab.The extraordinary Dayamani is, possibly, the first tribal activist-journalist who floated her own newspaper and also wrote for Ranchi’s reputed Prabhat Khabhar while leading a successful struggle of indigenous peoples against land acquisition by both government and the corporate sector.
But Dayamani, who after decades of a grassroots struggle has entered the political arena on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket, is fighting a decidedly unequal battle. She is pitted against the seven-time MP, Karia Munda of the BJP, a venerable parliamentarian in his 70s, and 12 others, some of whom are flexing money power to win votes. They, too, claim to be working for the rights of the adivasis and also use the much-exploited “jal, jungle, zameen” (water, forest, land) plank to reach out to the overwhelmingly large rural segment of their constituency. Dayamani’s credentials on this count may be unmatched but it’s a double-edged sword for this fearless campaigner; her earlier struggles are being used to portray her as an “anti-development” ideologue. But she is certain she can make a difference if she makes it to Parliament.
Watching her struggling but spirited campaign I am reminded of a lesser known hero of Khunti, the singular Jaipal Singh Munda who studied at Oxford, cracked the prestigious Indian Civil Services examination, and was an internationally known hockey player and distinguished parliamentarian. It was he who initiated the long struggle for an adivasi homeland as early as the 1930s, and if Birsa Munda is god to the tribes of Chotanagpur, Jaipal Singh is marang gomke or great leader.
It was Jaipal Singh who laid the foundations for Jharkhand state, although his vision of a homeland for the adivasi people—he disliked the word tribal—encompassed a larger contiguous area spanning central India. In 1938, he set up the Adivasi Mahasabha, whose name after Independence was changed to the Jharkhand Party to bring on board non-tribal people also in the campaign for a separate state. However, it is his role in the Constituent Assembly of India where he represented all the tribespeople that matters, especially a telling speech he made on December 13, 1946, when Jawaharlal Nehru moved the Objectives Resolution. Among other things, the resolution promised “adequate safeguards shall be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes…”
Here’s what Jaipal Singh “as a junglee, as an adibasi” had to say in response: “I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of the Indus Valley civilisation, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the newcomers—most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned—it is the newcomers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness….The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder… I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.”
In the 66 years since his speech, the exploitation and oppression of the adivasis continue almost unchecked. Over the decades, many well-meaning politicians and activists have struggled for tribal rights and fought and made their way to the Lok Sabha. Yet, the ground realities have not changed. Land is still being alienated and one of the primary promises Dayamani is making is strengthening of the implementation of laws more than a century old, such as the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act. Tribal MPs have seldom mustered the necessary clout to force mainstream parties to make adivasi issues a top concern. Will Dayamani be able to make the vital change, if she makes it to Parliament, that is?
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