Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bhil Women in History

The Bhils have fought valiantly against their marginalisation by the mainstream society and their alienation from their lands. Along with the men on many occasions women too have fought shoulder to shoulder with them. Unfortunately there are even fewer records of these women fighters than there are of the men fighters. The history of these women fighters needs to be documented because they provide an inspiration to the present generation of Bhil women not only to fight against the centralised market and governance systems that continue to marginalise them but also against the patriarchal oppression they face in their own society. The short histories of three brave Bhil women are related here.
1.       Sursibai
Sursibai, a Bhil tribal of the Nayak sub tribe, was a resident of Panchmohli village of the present day district of Barwani in Madhya Pradesh in the nineteenth century. The two decades from 1837 to 1857 witnessed a series of dry years resulting in much lesser agricultural production than normal years. Despite the famine like conditions prevailing due to lesser agricultural production the British refused to waive the heavy taxes that they levied on the farmers. When the Bhil farmers protested they were subjected to beatings and imprisonment by the British. When this oppression reached an extreme Sursibai organised one hundred and fifty Bhil women into a fighting unit and gave them training in the art of warfare.  These women then vowed in front of their tribe Goddess Nagri Mata that they would not rest till they had freed their territories from the British and began their campaign. Sursibai had a son who was in his teens and his name was Bhima and he too was inspired by his mother’s example. In 1837 Bhima formed a fighting unit of his own with men and women trained in warfare. Thereafter from 1840 to 1864 Sursi and Bhima together led their tribe in a long and attritious war in the whole of the West Nimad region of the present day Madhya Pradesh against the British. Initially the fighting unit was five hundred strong but at the peak of the struggle in 1857 to 1860 the strength went upto thousands.
The local Bhil Corp of the British was not able to subdue the Nayaks and so additional reinforcements were brought in from Gujarat by the British. The Magistrate in charge of the Khandesh area south of the River Narmada forced the traders of Sendhwa town to deposit their money with the British. This money amounting to Rs 7 Lakhs was being taken secretly for safe keeping from Sendhwa when the convoy was attacked by a raiding party led by Bhima and Sursibai and they took away all the money saying it belonged to the poor Bhil farmers. At this time Tatya Tope the great general who fought against the British in 1857 came to Nimad and sought Bhima’s help to cross the River Narmada. Bhima successfully aided Tatya  to ford the river and Tatya promised to return the favour someday once the British had been removed and he left behind two hundred of his fighters to help Bhima in his struggles.
Once the British were able to subdue the rest of the country they turned their attention to the Bhil rebellion in Nimad. A big force under Captain R. H. Keating raided Dholabavri village and then on 13th February 1859 a fierce battle took place in Sursibai’s village Panchmohli. Bhima was able to escape with some of his men but many others including Sursibai were arrested and imprisoned in Mandleshwar. The British tortured Sursibai to get information about Bhima but she resisted all the torture including being deprived of food and water and died on 28th February 1859. The other Bhil inmates rose up in revolt and occupied the jail in protest and military force had to be brought in from outside to subdue them. Eventually many of them were executed after a summary trial and others were deported to imprisonment in the Andaman Cellular Jail. Bhima carried on his fight from the jungles and on 16th December 1866 launched a big attack on the British. However on 2nd April 1867 he was apprehended as a result of treachery and subsequently hanged.

2.       Kalibai
Kalibai was a Bhil teen aged girl residing in Rastapal village of the present day Dungarpur village in the 1940s. Once the Quit India Movement was announced on 9th August 1942 the people in Rajasthan which was mostly under the rule of Indian Princes owing allegiance to the British also came out in open opposition to colonial rule. Gandhian activists in Dungarpur like Bhogilal Pandya, Shobhalal Gupta, Manaklal Verma and others inspired by the Gandhian leader Thakkar Bapa established the Dungarpur Sevak Sangh. The Sevak Sangh used to run schools for Dalits and Adivasis in the district. Under pressure from the British the Prince of Dungarpur forbade the Sevak Sangh from running these schools once the Quit India Movement started. A more broad based organisation called the Praja Mandal was formed to conduct a campaign against this unjust closing of schools and the more general demand that colonial rule should end. The Prince took repressive action against the workers of the Praja Mandal and had his forces beat them up and send them to jail. This led to an intensification of the protests by the people.
The state police went to Rastapal village on 19th June 1947 to close the school there which was running in the house of Nanabhai Khat. Nanabhai refused to close the school and and lock it and give the keys to the police. The police then beat up Nanabhai severely and rendered him unconscious and took him away with them for jailing him. However, Nanabhai died from his injuries on the way before the police could reach their camp. After this the police beat up the teacher Sengabhai Bhil who had continued to teach the children despite Nanabhai’s death. After rendering him unconscious the police tied Sengabhai to their truck and took him away dragging him on the road. Unable to see this a student of the school Kalibai ran towards the truck with a sickle to cut the ropes and free Sengabhai from this torture. The police warned her not to run after the vehicle but Kalibai did not listen and reaching her teacher cut the rope with one swish of her sickle. The police were incensed at this and as Kalibai bent down to tend to Sengabhai they shot her in the back. Kalibai fell down unconscious and later died in the hospital in Dungarpur.
This unjust murder of a girl student of the school for trying to save her teacher incensed the Bhil Adivasis and they got together from surrounding villages and a massive twelve thousand people fully armed with bows, arrows and swords and their traditional drums descended on Dungarpur town. The Prince was forced to release the leaders of the Praja Mandal from jail and they calmed down the Bhil populace and convinced them to return. The people of the village constructed a statue of the brave thirteen year old girl Kalibai in Rastapal and even today a fair is held there on the occasion of her martyrdom.

3.       Dashriben
Born in a Choudhury Adivasi family in Vedchhi village in Valod Tehsil of present day Tapi district in Gujarat on 3rd October 1918, Dashriben grew up to be the foremost Gandhian Adivasi woman leader of the freedom movement. She came from a family that had a history of leadership of Adivasi struggles.  Her maternal grandfather Jeevanbhai Choudhury had been the first to organise the Adivasis of western India against the oppression of the British who had beginning with the promulgation of the Indian Forest Act in 1884 and the Land Acquisition Act in 1894 severely dispossessed the Adivasis. This devastation of the Adivasis continued with the ban on alcohol distillation and the introduction of licenses for selling liquor and during the drought of 1890 the British refused to reduce the taxes on Adivasi farmers and so they had to borrow at usurious rates from moneylenders who later usurped their land. Jeevanbhai organised a “Kali Paraj Parishad” or Black People’s Conference in Vedchhi in 1903 in which Adivasi from as far afield as Dahanu in Maharashtra and Dahod in Gujarat congregated to formulate a campaign for securing the rights of Adivasis.
The Swaraj Ashram was established by Gandhi’s son Ramdas and Vallabhbhai Patel in Bardoli in 1922 and Jeevanbhai and other Adivasi leaders then went and met them requested them to arrange for Gandhi to visit Vedchhi and provide guidance to the ongoing Adivasi struggles. After this Gandhi’s wife Kasturba attended the Kali Paraj Parishad organised at Shelpur village in Surat district in 1923 and he himself came to the Parishad organised the next year in Vedchhi village when Dashriben was just six years old. A Swaraj Ashram was established in Vedchhi and very soon hundred villages nearby had people wearing khadi and spinning yarn. Gandhi came again to Vedchhi in 1926 and then when Dashriben went to garland him with a handspun yarn he noted the golden bangles she was wearing and asked her not to wear them as there were many poor in the country who did not have proper clothes to wear. Dashri immediately took off her bangles and gave them to her father to give to Gandhi. Ever since then she never wore ornaments again.
Vallabhbhai Patel started the Bardoli Satyagraha for non-payment of taxes to the British to protest against their unjust policies in 1928. Patel took Dashriben with him to his meetings because she could sing protest songs very well which inspired the people. The Satyagraha went on for two years during which the Choudhury family along with other protesting farmers had to bear tremendous repression as the British confiscated their property for not paying taxes and also the police beat them up and jailed them frequently. Ultimately the problem was resolved with Gandhi’s intervention. Later in 1930 Dashriben took part in the famous Salt Satyagraha with Gandhi by marching to Dandi along with thousands of other protesters.
Dashriben used to study in the national schools set up by Gandhi in which a new education pattern called Nai Talim was introduced. She was studying in the national school at Maroli in 1933 when the Swadeshi Movement began and once again she took part in this along with other women. Women sat in Satyagraha before the traders of Surat preventing them from selling foreign cloth. The women were arrested and a case was filed against them. When the magistrate asked Dashriben what her name was she said “Bharat”. When she was asked where she resided she once again said “Bharat”. On being asked what she did she answered “ I work for India’s freedom”. Then the police put a gun to her chest and asked her whether she knew what would happen if it went off and she replied “ If I die then I will become a martyr in the cause of freedom and if I am alive then Bharat will be free”. The magistrate said then said that this girl is very dangerous and she was sentenced to a year in prison.
Dashriben first was sent to Sabarmati prison and later transferred to Yeravda prison in Pune. Gandhi and Kasturba were already in prison there at the time. Gandhi and Kasturba were prevented from meeting each other and they could only communicate through letters. Kasturba had to ask others to write her letters as she was non-literate. One day she asked Dashriben whether she would teach her to read and write and Dashriben readily agreed. For four months Dashriben taught Kasturba how to read and write and used to write her letters to Gandhi. Then she asked Kasturba to write herself as she had learnt enough. When Gandhi received the first letter written by Kasturba he was very pleased and wrote back to ask who had taught her. Kasturba wrote that she had been taught by her student Dashriben. Gandhi then wrote a letter to Dashriben commending her and saying that what he had not been able to do in all these years she had done in just four months!!!
After coming out of prison she went to study at the Sabarmati Ashram and there she met many leaders of the freedom movement and also Indira Gandhi with whom she began a lifelong friendship. Dashriben led the rally in Bardoli town on 21st August 1942 when the Quit India Movement was declared. She led a five thousand strong mass of people holding the tri-colour aloft with the intention of planting it in front of the Police Station. However, when they neared the police station they were baton charged by the Police and one baton landed on Dashriben’s hand. Nevertheless she did not let the tri-colour fall and handed it over to another protester to take away to safety. She was again sentenced to a year in prison for this protest march. After her release she married another freedom fighter Kanjibhai Choudhury in 1944 and they both began working as teachers in the Gram Shaala established in Vedchhi. After independence Kanjibhai became a full time social worker and Dashriben completed her higher education and took the job of a teacher. As a teacher she has taught thousands of Adivasi children and youth and raised awareness among them. Later after retiring in 1976 she once again became active in the social movement as the president of the Gujarat Khadi Gramodyog Board for ten years. Kanjibhai passed away in 1998. Thereafter Dashriben was active as a leader of the Adivasi Ekta Parishad till her passing away in Vedchhi on 2nd September 2013.


The above history shows that the Bhil Adivasi women too have been at the forefront of struggles for justice. After the compilation of this history a seminar was conducted in Alirajpur on 16.12.2013 where both men and women village level activists of the KMCS were told the stories of these brave Bhil women fighters. The need for women to come out in larger numbers and emulate these great fighters to ensure a better deal for the Adivasis was underlined by speaker after speaker at the seminar.

No comments: