The Politics of Prizes and Silencing of Adivasi Voice: Nandini Sundar

Guest post by NANDINI SUNDAR


Adivasi Mahasabha rally in Raipur
Adivasi Mahasabha rally in Raipur

Last weekend, I attended a wonderful rally by the Adivasi Mahasabha in Raipur – some 10-15 busloads of people came from Dantewada and Bastar alone, while large numbers came from other parts of Chhattisgarh and even other states like Maharashtra, Orissa and West Bengal. The procession was flagged off by Dhurwa dancers while the rear end was brought up by Marias with their large dhols and bison horns. In between were thousands of militant marchers shouting slogans against militarization, demanding peace talks, the release of their arrested leaders, the implementation of the Supreme Court judgement on Salwa Judum, and all their constitutional rights with respect to land, forest and water.  These were men and women who had lost everything to arson and loot by Salwa Judum, who had been interned in camps but managed to return home and pick up their ploughs again, who face the daily threat of arrests, beatings and encounters by the security forces, who have to negotiate with the Maoists everytime they wanted to access panchayat funds, who live a life on the razor edge of survival.  And yet here they were, laughing, cheering and vowing to fight till the last breath, fight for their constitutional rights and in a constitutional way.

This remarkable struggle has been waged, not just over one weekend, but over years.  Indeed, the Salwa Judum leaders themselves credit the CPI with the destruction of their movement – both through mass actions and through legal means.

The first reliable account of what Salwa Judum was doing came from a CPI fact-finding in November 2005. It was at an Adivasi Mahasabha rally held in Cherla in June 2007 that villagers broke the silence which had engulfed them since Salwa Judum began and gave written accounts of what had happened to them – accounts which later formed the basis of a writ petition before the Supreme Court by Manish Kunjam, Kartam Joga and Dudhi Joga.  Kartam Joga has since been jailed for his efforts, along with several other CPI leaders all of whom have anywhere between 5- 7 heinous cases against them.  In the Tadmetla case of April 2010 when 76 CRPF men were killed, for example, there is a fungible and expansive list of accused where anyone inconvenient can be grandfathered in, regardless of how far they were from the actual site or their political persuasion.

Adivasi Mahasabha rally in Raipur 2
Adivasi Mahasabha rally in Raipur 2

Subsequent rallies organized by the CPI have each been historic – one in Jagdalpur in November 2007 which was attended by over a lakh of people, broke the fear of returning home and led to the slow and gradual emptying out of camps.  Much public attention has been focused on a few villages where NGOs have worked to resettle IDPs, and important and brave though that was, the much larger scale and quiet impact of the CPI work  – as well as the Maoists own efforts at restoration – has gone unremarked. The CPI has also been fighting against Tata and Essar’s plans to displace people for their steel plants. Despite the fact that the CPI cannot compete with the money power of the Congress and BJP and win elections, Manish Kunjam is easily the most popular adivasi leader in the undivided district of Bastar.  The CPI is also the only party in a field which includes the Maoists, which is led and peopled entirely by adivasis in the area. This is of no mean significance. Indeed, speaking at the adivasi mahasabha meeting on the 16th, PA Sangma recalled how on a visit to Jagdalpur, he was introduced by the Congress leaders to their local functionaries. In a tribal dominated district, with all seats reserved (Jagdalpur has since been dereserved), not one of them was an adivasi!

So when I read a Tehelka article which describes Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi as “the last men left standing in Dantewada district” after Binayak and Himanshu were arrested or evicted, or Shoma Chaudhury’s quote from some unnamed (and obviously ignorant) CRPF commander that “earlier the tribals didn’t have a voice, but these two people changed that”, I had to rub my eyes in disbelief. It is evident to everyone on the ground and outside that Soni and Linga are being framed, but in Chhattisgarh, whether you are a hero or a zero, you have equal chances of being arrested.  Some would argue that it is perhaps not surprising that a party like the CPI which has consistently fought against Essar and Tata – which coincidentally are funding a major Tehelka event- is off its radar. But the Tehelka article displays a deeper malaise.

For far too long, the dominant activist mode of engaging with Dantewada has been in the language of ‘sole spokesmanship’ or “saviourism” by “human rights defenders”, who are usually non-adivasis. This is not to belittle their important work in bringing attention to the issue or the very real sacrifices that Binayak  Sen and Himanshu Kumar have undergone in being arrested or having their house demolished – but simply to remind readers that were it not for the bravery of the adivasis who tell their stories to fact-finding teams, the media or lawyers and adivasis who guide outsiders to their burnt villages – none of these stories would ever have come out.  I have had students in Delhi university refuse to even fill out anonymous  teacher evaluation forms for fear that they would be found out and victimized.  It is clear that if anyone deserves a prize for defending human rights, it is the very people whose human rights are being violated, but who have refused to take it lying down.

When it comes to the CPI, there are of course, political reasons why their sterling contribution to the ongoing struggle in Chhattisgarh is not recognized. There is the history of the party left’s betrayal in West Bengal and their own ossification and failure at media outreach; but also the increasingly personality centred campaigns of the independent left; the way in which the media and internet list-serves amplify the views of those who are tech savvy; the media requirement of a person/face to provide the human interest angle; the interests of the Maoists in undercutting any support for a potential rival; and also the interests of corporate funded media which find it easier to celebrate individuals as against communist parties, individual heroism as against organized resistance. But this glossing over is also, I am convinced, in the Bastar case, because their cadre and leaders are adivasi.

Questions of representation have repeatedly surfaced in a variety of social movements, including among the Maoists who claim to be the quintessential party of the adivasis and dalits. Dalits in Andhra Pradesh have broken away claiming submerged casteism in the party. For the Nepali Maoists, ethnicity is a major question; while even an organization like the RSS has formed separate fronts for dalits and adivasis even if the aim is ultimately to Hinduise them.  Ethnicity or caste does not always manifest itself in visible ways, but through hesitancies and silences. For instance, I have observed a class full of adivasi boys in Jashpur fall silent and allow one or two non adivasi boys to dominate when it came to discussing the merits of reservation.

Historically the university has provided a good ground to study the coming to voice of an oppressed group. In the first stage, people who have been oppressed want to work on their own problems and histories – women, adivasis, dalits, immigrants – and this provides a valuable corrective to the dominant view on the subject which is historically male or upper caste or white. It is, however, in the second stage when people break away from their own past and begin to assert the right to write the histories of other communities or so-called universalist accounts, that they have more truly gained power. Indeed, the people who have really become well known from their communities like Dr. Ambedkar, Jaipal Singh and Prof. Ramdayal Munda, all excelled in things which went beyond their own social background, though they later took up the cause of their own people.  Sadly, that state is still far off for most adivasi and dalit students in India.

Adivasis, dalits or others rarely take unmarked leadership positions. Even though their struggles are saving the rest of us from environmental disaster, they are seen as victims rather than as leaders in the search for universal solutions. On the contrary, non adivasis and non dalits rarely feel uncomfortable when representing the problems of these communities, even if a residual modesty may make them deny that they are the voice of the community in question, and I confess to being part of this privileged group.

It is against this background, that we must welcome the recent controversy over the Gandhi Peace Prize awarded to “The Tribal Peoples of India” and the designation of Dr Binayak Sen and Bulu Imam to receive it on their behalf. A group of human rights and indigenous rights activists from Jharkhand had written a letter to both the Gandhi Foundation and the recipients of the award pointing out the irony in handing over an award meant for adivasis to non-adivasis, thereby implying that there were no adivasi leaders capable of receiving the prize on their own behalf. Expressing the highest respect for the awardees in question, they wrote: “Therefore, we humbly request you that if you are really willing to give the ‘International Gandhi Peace Award 2011’ to the Adivasis of India then you must give the award to the Adivasi recipients and not the non-Adivasis. However, if you want to recognize the precious contribution of Dr. Binayak Sen and Shree Bulu Imam to the society then you must change the title of the award and honor them, we would highly appreciate you for it.”

Today it would be inconceivable for a prize meant to honour women being given to a man, even if he invented a foolproof cure for breast cancer; or one for blacks or dalits being given to someone from another community. That a prize for adivasis can be awarded so blithely and unthinkingly to non-adivasis is thus perhaps one of the best indicators of precisely how silenced adivasis are.

At the same time, however, it is true that assertions of indigeneity and adivasi identity are often voiced by middle class activists in international fora far away from the everyday struggles of adivasis against displacement which are led by non-indigenist parties or organizations; and presume a homogeneity which does not in fact exist. Sometimes the adivasi card is played by politicians who have no hesitation in looting their own people. Thus Ilina and Binayak Sen have responded by noting that for them the greatest issue is the debate over what kind of development should take place in the country:  “We have great regard for the many leaders named in your letter, but seeing the debate entirely in ethnic terms might lead to a  tribal leader of the salwa judum  claiming to represent the Adivasis  purely on grounds of racial purity!”

The Gandhi Foundation has since changed its citation to honour Binayak Sen and Bulu Imam for their own work, which is a valid decision. But any organization which wishes to move beyond the Gandhian tradition of “tribal uplift”, must award a prize to the adivasis of India.  Fortunately the only choices to represent them are not Mahendra Karma or Madhu Koda, but we also have Manish Kunjam, CK Janu and a host of others, who embody both symbol and substance.

9 thoughts on “The Politics of Prizes and Silencing of Adivasi Voice: Nandini Sundar”

  1. for all the liberal heart bleeding, just tell me this: who is ‘we’ in ur ‘we should be there otherwise history will forget us’ post?! Hope I am not just a poor victim of ‘memory making’


  2. Nandini Sundar insinuates that the reason Essar is off the radar for Tehelka is because Essar is sponsoring a major Tehelka event. I presume Infosys and all the devastation it has caused is off Nandini’s radar since she has received an Infosys award.



  3. the biggest reward for the adivasis would be to leave them alone and develop according to their own genius. for that to happen we will have to give up our consumerist lifestyles because the adivasis reside on the resources required to fuel this.


  4. ‘Adivasi’ is a catchall term to refer to a population of over 100 million people made up of diverse communities, each of which has a name, history and separate culture of its own. It is time these people are referred to by their individual names and not buried under the generic ‘adivasi’ terminology.

    As for representing them in any way, nobody, even from within these communities, can claim to represent all of them unless they have been elected to do so. In the absence of such a process everyone is free to take up their cause in whatever manner they think best just as many of us champion ‘human rights’ though we do not represent all human beings on this planet!

    The truth is that the ‘adivasis’ have not been very good historically at defending their rights or protecting their territory otherwise they would not be right at the bottom of Indian society (a similar argument can be made for indigenous people elsewhere) today. From the time of the Ramayana these people have been pushed off their lands and forced to move into deep forests, up the hills or to the coastal regions to survive while migrants from central Asia and elsewhere have grabbed all the fertile land they once accessed as common property.

    If non-‘adivasis’ are willing to fight for the rights of the ‘adivasis’ they should be welcomed instead of pilloried for not being ‘representative’. If that perverse logic of allowing only members of a particular community to speak or do anything on behalf of that community were to be observed consistently then I can assure you a lot of us on this forum would have to talk only on behalf of brahmins, kshatriyas, banias and sundry upper castes. Let us decide on that first and then stick to the new rules before pointing fingers at other people for doing what they do sincerely with the best of intentions.


  5. No doubt they are recognizing one another in their own ways, to which we may not be privy unless we stay there long enough to understand the language and culture. And when we visit an adivasi region even for a short time they give us a chance to speak and recognize us in any public program that we attend. Would that we reciprocate such simple gestures.

    To Rahul – I agree. But how is that going to happen?


  6. where I think, ‘politics of symbolic representation’ falls in category of Nandini’s illustration. furthermore, it augments the ‘political economy of speaking’ in nation- as a furled community. these awards and news reports- as one quoted here by Nandini and queue is long, sustain this political economy of speaking and eliminate the guilt of consumerist middle class for symbolizing itself as a ‘compartment’ of civil society. using these symbolic spaces of tribals’ dwellings all acts of this kind try to stretch their sphere of critique in these terrains of awards and news reports.


  7. A bit confusing. Since we have been accustomed with news of cpi friendship with tatas in munnar of kerala, their record during emergency, and complete support to policies of cpm. Are they doing different things now. really shocking


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