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.

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Great Fighter for Adivasi Rights is No More

Dr Brahmadev Sharma, administrator, philosopher and most importantly a scholar and activist rooting vociferously for social, economic and environmental justice, passed away yesterday, 6th of December, 2015, after a long illness at the ripe age of eighty five in his residence at Gwalior. This multi-faceted personality will be long regarded by the fighters on the environmentalist fringe in this country as one of their great visionaries and warriors. I had the good fortune of being closely associated with him for some time.
We were holding a meeting of people from all the villages coming under submergence in Alirajpur district in the reservoir of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the village of Anjanbara on the banks of the Narmada in the searing heat of a summer afternoon in 1986. Suddenly we saw a towering old man, dressed in a dhoti and kurta, huffing and puffing his way to our meeting spot, barely able to walk, supported by two men. This was Dr Brahmadev Sharma who was at the time the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of the Government of India, a constitutionally mandated post for the protection of the rights of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, which has since been replaced by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. He had heard that this meeting was to be held and had made his way to it walking up hill and down dale for the last five kilometers where there were no motorable roads despite also suffering from glaucoma which had impaired his sight. Sharmaji was a legend and had done much to ensure that activists like I retained some relevance in a milieu that has becoming increasingly hostile to the mass mobilisation of Adivasis for the control of their habitats. After obtaining a Ph.D. in mathematics he joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1956 and soon made a name for himself for his strict actions as the District Magistrate against the government functionaries and traders who were exploiting the adivasis of Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. His tenure in government service up to 1981, when he resigned due to differences with the government over the way in which the welfare of Adivasis should be ensured, was a single-minded pursuit of justice for the children of nature.

Following a five-year stint after this as the Vice Chancellor of the North Eastern Hill University in Shillong in the State of Meghalaya he had assumed the post of Commissioner Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in 1986 and at once done away with all protocol to hit the dusty trails in his insatiable quest for justice for the Adivasis. His activist outlook resulted in his producing scathing critiques of government policy regarding the Adivasis in his statutory reports to the President of India. Dissatisfied with the disregard shown by the government and the parliament to the sordid facts revealed and recommendations made in these reports, Sharmaji filed a petition in the Supreme Court to demand action from the government and got it to acknowledge that all was not well with its tribal development policies and programmes.  After retiring from his post in 1991 he went back to the villages of Bastar from where he had begun his crusade for the Adivasis to start a grassroots movement of the people there for village self rule. This is the phase in which he came up with the famous anarchist slogan - "Hamara gaon mein hamara raj" - our rule in our village which has now become common currency in Adivasi areas. It was at this time that there was the proposal for setting up a steel plant in the villages in which he was working and so he launched a movement against this. The result was that he was stripped by goons of the company proposing to set up the steel plant and paraded in the streets of Jagdalpur creating a furore all over the country. As a result of the furore the Government of the day, which happened to be a Bharatiya Janata Party one, relented somewhat and asked him to file a complaint to the police so that action could be taken. Sharmaji, however, refused and said that the Government should instead scrap the steel plant. Eventually the steel plant was indeed scrapped.
My association with Sharmaji, which began with that meeting in Anjanbara continued well after that and throughout his term as Commissioner he continually helped our organisation the KMCS and the Narmada Bachao Andolan in their mass actions by mediating with the administration to adopt a more positive approach. Afterwards as a free individual bereft of state privileges he was the prime mover behind the formation of the Bharat Jan Andolan, a forum of mass movements fighting for a just and sustainable form of development and governance. He not only led this forum from the front but also wwrote copiously on the problems of rural and especially Adivasi development and their solution. He too like our other mentors realised the great value of young activists like myself fighting for the rights of the poor and downtrodden and was equally aware of the problems that we faced. So he set in place a fairly efficient system for the mobilisation of resources from society at large to help out young activists in their work and struggles called "Sahayog" or assistance.  
After the passage of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment in 1992 making Panchayati Raj or village self rule mandatory as the third tier of democratic politics in the country, he busied himself with ensuring that the Act for the setting up of a special Panchayati system to accord with Adivasi specificities in the scheduled Adivasi areas as provided for in the Constitutional Amendment was also enacted. As a member of the Parliamentary Committee set up to draft the bill for this purpose under the Chairmanship of the then MP from Jhabua the late Shri Dilip Singh Bhuria, he was instrumental in bringing out a set of radical recommendations for the establishment of true democratic control by adivasis of their lives and habitats. Later it was through his persistent efforts as the Chairman of the Bharat Jan Andolan that finally the Panchayat Provisions Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) was passed in 1996. Even though in its final form the provisions have been diluted as compared to the recommendations of the Bhuria Committee, nevertheless this Act is a very powerful instrument for assertion of Adivasi supremacy in Scheduled Areas. Unlike the equally commendable provisions of the Fifth Schedule whose implementation is left to the discretion of the State Governments, this Act gives the Adivasis themselves powers to act and secure their rights and entitlements. Many later battles like that of the Adivasis in Andhra Pradesh and in Niyamgiri in Odisha against displacement due to mining have been won by fighting to implement the provisions of the this act. We in Alirajpur were able to use these provisions to block the creation of a wild life sanctuary that would have displaced Adivasis from around thirty villages.
Sharmaji also wrote copiously on the problems of agriculture and rural development in India. Even though he could not do much on the ground to address the serious crisis that faces farmers today, nevertheless he engaged with this problem wholeheartedly and developed an alternative decentralised system of agriculture and rural development.
There are criticisms of Sharmaji's stress on the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and his advocacy of PESA Act despite these being flawed in many respects and in essence being just adjuncts to the dominant centralised paradigm without any power of establishing an alternative decentralised one. However, given the dominance of the current paradigm, Sharmaji's undying efforts to get even this limited legal framework to work for the Adivasis will remain a great contribution. The environmentalist fringe in this country has lost a great fighter.
Sharmaji came to meet me after the Mehendikhera massacre in Dewas district in 2001, where we had been trying to implement the PESA Act to the chagrin of the Government which came down hard to crush the movement with armed police force. I was in jail on the usual false charges trumped up by the police and he commended me on having so purposefully fleshed out on the ground what he had conceived on paper regarding Adivasi Self Rule. When I asked him about whether my wife Subhadra and our small seven month old child were safe because there was a possibility of her being arrested too, he said - "Fikr mat karo, kuch dinon ki hi to baat hai, ham tumhare saath hai - don't worry, its just a matter of a few days, we are with you!!"


Shripad said...

Very well chronicled Rahul. Sharma ji was indeed multi-faceted. One of the most interesting discoveries I had of one of his many other sides was when he asked me to get something from his cupboard in his Delhi house and I found a treasure trove of some 50 books on mathematics.

Rahul Banerjee said...

Indeed Shripad, in one of his early books "The Web of Poverty", Sharmaji used mathematical modelling to explain how the poor are trapped into poverty.

prabhat said...

Great personality. I consider myself fortunate having spent time with him at our residence Sevasadan at Jabalpur, where he used to stay with my brother Jayant Verma

Sadanand Patwardhan said...

Thanks Rahul, for a very well fleshed out work-life sketch of this rare and outstanding person for people like I who were ignorant of his mission.