The Ekta Parishad has been working for close to two and a half decades now in the districts of Morena, Sheopur, Shivpuri, Bhind and Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh and Kota and Baran in Rajasthan for the rights of the Sahariyas, especially their land rights, which have been alienated by non-tribes and the Government . The Shahpur block of Baran district is one area in which there is a heavy concentration of Sahariyas. This is where I spent a night with activists and members of the Ekta Parishad.
I learnt that a new initiative had begun in the area. Ravi Badri, a computer scientist, who has become a full time activist of the Ekta Parishad for some years now has been working in the Shahpur area. Earlier there was a funded project for rights based mobilisation in the area but it wound up a couple of years ago. Since then Ravi has been exploring the possibilities of self funded and self motivated mobilisation by the Sahariyas instead of external funded and externally motivated mobilisation. The modus operandi is to organise meetings of the Sahariyas in their villages to discuss their problems and try and find solutions to them. In one such meeting the discussion veered round to the traditional modes of organisation of the Sahariyas which pre-dated the present election based panchayat system at the village level. This revealed that there is an organisation called the Chourasi or conference of eighty four villages which governs cultural matters of the Sahariyas mainly related to marriages, rites of passage and religious celebrations. It has considerable powers too, as it can ostracise people who do not follow the social norms of the Sahariyas with respect to marriages, rites of passage and religious celebrations. Each village has a Patel who is the cultural leader and the Patels of 84 villages together make up the Chourasi. But the Chourasi was not involved in regulating the socio-economic matters of the Sahariyas which had become the domain of the elected panchayats and so a part of the mainstream political, administrative and economic systems.
The discussions then turned to whether the Chourasi could not be made to intervene in socio-economic matters as well for the development of the Sahariyas as a whole. The members felt that this could be done and they decided to tackle the problem of alcoholism which had laid the Sahariyas low by affecting their health and so the capacity to work and earn and also increasing their expenditures. A Chourasi meeting was called and in that a total ban on the sale and consumption of liquor in villages was decreed by the Chourasi with the penalty of ostracism on those who violated this decree.
This intervention by the Chourasi in preventing alcoholism turned out to be a roaring success as people took it seriously and closed down the liquor vends in their villages and also kept tabs on people who were going to the market towns to drink. This also sparked off a spate of meetings of the Chourasi in village after village in which nearby villages were invited for night long meetings after a community dinner to sustain the momentum and take the movement forward. It was to one of these village meetings that I went along with Ravi Badri of the Ekta Parishad.
The meeting started off with the singing of a paean to a Saharia Goddess and then Patels and others from the various villages attending the meeting came up and spoke about the way the liquor ban was being enforced. Later the meeting began considering other agenda that the
Chourasi could take up like forest, soil and water conservation. While the anti-liquor agenda was one that the people themselves had chosen, the forest, soil and water conservation agenda was being pushed by Ravi Badri to try and give a more lasting basis to the socio-economic intervention of the Chourasi.
This took me back to our own efforts at initiating anti-liquor movements and also forest, soil and water conservation efforts in the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath. The former took off with great gusto and spread to a large set of villages but after some time they died down as people went back to selling and drinking liquor. The latter happened at a more sedate pace and in a much lesser number of villages but had a more lasting impact and are still in existence. One does not know how the efforts of the Sahariyas and the Ekta Parishad will fare in the long run but there is always difficulty in sustaining social movements in the face of the onslaught of capitalism which continuously tries to atomise society to push its wares and especially liquor which not only brings in the moolah but also prevents people from organising to protest against the depredations of capitalist development.
Another thing of note is that the idiom of the mobilisation of the Sahariyas was more religio-cultural than politico-economic. Our experience in the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath has been that it is very difficult to synthesise religio-cultural and politico-economic idioms in mass mobilisation. While using the religio-cultural idiom we used to always stress on the primacy of the politico-economic but in the end we could not sustain the movement at the peak levels of mobilisation that it reached at one point of time.
Finally there is always the important question of resource mobilisation. The KMCS could not mobilise enough resources from the people and eventually had to rely increasingly on outside resources which led to a distortion in the democratic functioning of the organisation. It remains to be seen how well the Sahariyas are able to mobilise resources to maintain the independence and the direct democracy of their Chourasi and make it an effective organisation for the conduct of the politico-economic affairs of their community and establish Gram Swaraj.
Anyway one is always enthused by efforts at establishing direct democracy and it is indeed welcome that such efforts surface continually in various corners of this country despite the overwhelming dominance of the mainstream politico-economic system.