Why the Adivasi won’t dance: a political tale from Jharkhand
A somewhat neglected news report drew my attention to a long simmering issue in Jharkhand, a state where I grew up and had my school education. A government doctor, an award winning Adivasi writer of some repute Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar recently wrote an article in The Indian Express questioning the domicile policy of the present government in the state. If the domicile issue has remained unresolved for too long in Jharkhand, the reason is it is inherently complex requiring a political and administrative acumen of a high order, not to mention a deep sense of fairness towards the original dwellers of the state who despite their recent political awakening remain a dispossessed lot. But this historical problem, to use a euphemism, for a vexatious social-political tangle is not the only reason I bring up this incident here. In fact that is not the main reason presently at all.
What drew my attention to the incident was what happened in the wake of the publication of Shekhar’s article in the press -according to several news reports the state government is considering stringent action against Shekhar for freely expressing his views in the media. Shekhar in his article criticizes the BJP government led by the CM Raghubar Das for fixing 30 years of residence in the state as adequate for domicile status and expresses his fears over the appropriation of land and property of the tribals by the non-tribals from the neighbouring states like Bihar and Chhattisgarh. Shekhar also worries and warns as any well-wisher of the Adivasis would, “Today, the BJP has launched an anti-adivasi domicile policy. Tomorrow, it might repeal the pro-adivasi Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act to legitimise the act of non-adivasis grabbing Adivasi land in Jharkhand.” Even if the government takes no action on the matter and stops at threatening gestures and noises, this ought to be seen as unacceptable in a democracy. Such gestures are enough to intimidate and discourage a citizen from airing her views of public concern that deserve wider exposure and discussion. That the writer of the article is an Adivasi author known for his espousal of the Adivasi identity and dignity makes it even more imperative for him to boldly place his views in a public forum. It must be admitted that given the broad nature of the issues raised by the author such advocacy should not be discouraged even in the case of ordinary government employees. The fact remains that after its formation in 2000, Jharkhand had adopted the Bihar Public Servant Conduct Rules 1976, according to which a government servant was not authorised to criticise the government he was working for. Confirming that a notice has indeed been sent, a senior Health Department official stated, ‘The Principal Secretary (Health) has passed the order to send a notice to the person concerned. The notice has been issued. Further action will be taken after we get his reply.’ Clearly, the government in India is very selective in its determination to implement the letter of the law as well as the due procedures in their most literal sense.
The dispute that divides the Jharkhand society of today revolves around the question – who are the original residents of Jharkhand a state formed in 2000 out of the larger state of Bihar? Given the history of human movement across the subcontinent and in fact all over the globe over time, this question is complicated enough if you have no practical definition of ‘original’ along with a clear dateline to recommend. The question gets even more complicated if you bring in the dimension of the ‘tribes’ which obligates you to define a tribe as against a non-tribe. In the plain language of daily use the migrants from the plains who clearly hail from a caste society now call the inhabitants of the hills ‘Adivasis’ who in turn have several groupings like Oraons, Mundas and Santhals, to name a few. The Adivasis similarly use the term ‘Diku’ for the plainsmen – this is probably the closest one may come to comprehending the social divide and the resentment that fuelled the Jharkhand movement after independence. This resentment of course was an outcome of an accelerating process of dispossession imposed on the inhabitants of the Jharkhand hills since the late 19th century by the migrants from the plains who saw the Adivasis as crude and simple-minded savages to be yoked into their agricultural colonization and reclamation enterprise.
Given such a background, what is an Adivasi intellectual as a writer, a doctor or a government employee or even a freelancing individual to say at a public forum? Should he just acquiesce in the ongoing injustice or show some grit despite the risk faced at workplace whatever that may be? On the other hand should a state government forever paying lip service to the cause of the Adivais to win their votes try to muzzle the voices of those Adivasis who are able to raise the adivasis demands in the most reasoned manner possible, even suggesting a way out as Shekhar does in his article? Indeed, the Indian state is itself responsible for the continued occupation of large territories in the country by the Maoists who are easily able to convince the so-called tribal or hill people of the government’s utter inability to empathize with their plight. The conduct of the various state governments such Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand lends continued legitimacy to the so-called Naxalites in the eyes of the former dispossessed forest dweller. This is why in his article, Shekhar claimed the policy made clear the BJP’s real intentions – to “sideline” the Adivasis, the “real residents of Jharkhand”, and allow non-Adivasi outsiders to “take over the state”. He traces a long history of such politics in the state by the BJP, which is “clearly a party for non-adivasis and capitalists”. According to Shekhar, he has not yet received an official letter or notice and he is “not sure if the government is really serious about this… or if it is just a fear tactic to silence [his] voice”. Finally, he is unsure about whether he has been singled out for being an employee of the Jharkhand government or for being an Adivasi who has dared to speak out against the BJP.
The title of the article by Shekhar in its print edition was ‘The Adivasi will not Dance’ which is why the title of the present piece. Anyone who has seen an Adivasi dance in Jharkhand would be struck by the wide community participation where the participants greatly outnumber the observers. I thus take the dance as a metaphor for a coherent and convivial society where every performer has a fair chance. Shekhar’s case simply exemplifies why an Adivasi intellectual refuses to sync his steps with the clumsy official moves aiming to intimidate him and his folk. The Adivasis are sick of being seen as a gullible, singing dancing people easy to take for a ride by shrewd scamsters from the caste society of the plains.