"In our village, we are the government"

At first glance, he seems just like any other Madia Gond tribal. Perhaps a little older than his age. But DEVAJI TOFA, who is only 38, is notiust the headman of the nondescript Mendha (Lekha) village in Maharashtra's Gadhchiroli district, he is one of the leaders of the villagers who had the courage to declare that they were the mien of their own destiny. And it was notiust rhetoric. The people in this village govern it and anything that remotely affects their lives .. even the activities of forest officials are not spared scrutiny. In spite of being a very soft-spoken person who has studied only up to the fourth standard, this adivasi headman is well aware of the present political scenario. The fire in him came out during this interview with Amit Mitra

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

You had once said something to the effect that Mava Nate Mava Sarkar. What does it mean?
Mava nate mava sarkar. Dilli, Mumbai mava sarkar. The people we elect to represent us run the government in Delhi and Bombay. But in our village, we arc the government. We run the village and manage its affairs as we see fit.

What affairs and works do you mean?
Every activity taking place in the village concern$ us, our lives and livelihood. This includes development, education, health, forests, laws, codes of conduct and anything else that you can think of. We will regulate all of them. It is our rule and our government in the village.

You say that you will govern everything that concerns your life in the village. But very often, the sarkari log (government officials) and the people who you elect to represent you, say that adivasis are drunken, lazy simpletons who are incapable of working, leave alone managing their own affairs. What do you have to say to them?
Look, there is nothing we can say to such supercilious remarks from people who know nothing about us or our culture. Just stay in our village and observe. As such, how many politicians ever come to the villages, except once in five years to beg for votes?

This system of self-governance is cent old and is a part of our traditional culture. elders would always sit together and dis issues and arrive at decisions collectively. this got disrupted by the processes of what I call modernisation- I am not sure whether have progressed. In fact, we seem to moved backward, and many hitherto unkno ills have crept into our society. We have rei our traditional system for our own good.

But yet the sarkari babus say that the adivasis are drunken sots who don't W0 They call you stupid.
Yes we drink. So do most of you slid, babus. So what? Drinking is part ofour cul I But that does not mean we don't work. N do the city people know of our culture? hardly understand their own cultures, 13 alone ours.

Do you think that the sarkars in Delhi and Bombay are necessary?
Of course they are necessary. They M111 corrupt, but we can fight that corruption, we do need those sarkars too. But want them to interfere in our day-to-day in the village.

When was self-rule revived in your village?
About four or five years ago. Initially, there was a lot of opposition from the local officials. There were obstacles, but we managed to overcome them. We are managing our own forests, but the officials do not cooperate. They threaten us, and at times cajole us, arguing that we are usurping their work and they might lose their jobs. But we ask them why in the first place they did not do what they were supposed to have done? Way did they suddenly wake up after we started conserving the forests?

And what exactly are you doing to the protect the forests?
We keep a constant vigil to prevent thefts of forest products and felling of trees by neighbouring villagers. We don't force anybody, we persuade them. We explain to them that the forests have got to be preserved and that we all have to live together. If anyone, including forest department officials, wants to undertake any work in the forest, they have to take the permission of the gramsablia. The gramsabha considers all such applications very carefully before giving or denying permission.

Are there women members in the gramsabha? It is alleged by the officials that there aren't.
That was true earlier. The women would not attend the meetings of the gramsablia. The men did not want them to advance on the plea that the household would be neglected. But now things have changed. The women refused to accept their ascribed lowly status. They began to participate vocally in the gramsablia. Women have a lot of power in our village.

Fine. You have achieved a lot of things in your village. But why is the phenomenon not spreading?
Well, Mendha has a long tradition of collective decisionmaking. This hasn't been so strong in other villages of the area. But still, we continue our struggle for village self-goverance. We don't attend meetings in other villages just by ourselves, but only after discussing the issues and getting the green signal from the gramsablia. After attending such meetings, we report back to our gramsabha on what happened there. We want every village to be governed by its residents.

Our andolan (movement) began just sometime ago. These things take time. We had planned to take our campaign to 250 villages. But Gadhchiroli is a naxalite infested district. They influenced the people and our volunteers too were threatened. During the day, there would be the terror of the police and at night, the naxalites would take over. The people were scared and did not want to talk to us.

But we have not given up. We have been wccessful in some villages like Merkegaon, Gunialgondi and Parsewadi. We have learnt that till the people want to change their lives, no amount of lecturing by outsiders helps.

Are you not glorifying your thdition beyond proportion? Is there nothing that is bad in your culture?
No. Saying that I am proud of my culture does not mean that I am glorifying it. There are many undesirable elements in our culture too. The subjugated position of women and superstitions are some examples. Many of our practices are unscientific. For instance, in the past, while collecting honey, we would burn the whole hive. Then we started a programme in our village where scientists would come from outside and take up experiments in their areas of specialisation. We learnt modern bee-keeping from them. We have to combine the best of both the traditional and the in modern.

But why the over-emphasis on traditional education ?
Look, how useful is this modern education? A few adivasis... our own boys and girls... acquire higher education. They get abused by you the saharwallahs (cityfolk), and they in turn abuse us, call us drunken sots. We would rather have an education based on local needs, inour mother tongue, so that the youth are not alienated from their society. For this, the entire curriculum, and the very mindset and approach to education has to be changed. We need human beings who are educated and can serve the needs of their people.

You must be aware of what is happening in Delhi and Bombay. I refer to the wave of liberalisation and the coming of Pepsi and Coke. How do you think it is going to affect your village? Will you be able to retain your sovereignty?
Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh are selling the nation. A nationwide people's campaign is necessary to stop this. We have been debating in our gramsabha about the course of action we should take.

But has that process not started already? Has Kamal Nath (the then environment minister) not offered to give the paper industry forest lands for captive plantations? It will not be long before your precious lands and forests go.
We are opposed to such a venture. I was chosen by my village to participate in all the meetings, to draft a peoples' forest bill. We have in all these meetings debated extensively Kamal Nath's proposal. If the industry wants wood, they can buy it from us. But they will have to ask us. We will decide whether we will sell at all and if so, on what terms.

So you are against industry?
No, we are very much for industry. But we have to ask who benefits from industry. Are they for the people, that is, adivasis like us? Or are the adivasi's fodder for industry?

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