Struggle for the Soil

Harsha Vadlamani
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The Adivasis of northern Telangana raise a rallying cry for land and livelihood rights

THERE ARE TIMES when Dosangla Rajavva, a 44-year- old primary schoolteacher in a tribal hamlet near Utnoor in Adilabad district, feels as though she is harbouring a fugitive. On June 2nd, as she watched the national flag go up to mark Telangana Formation Day at the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan school in Kolamguda, the village patel walked up to her. “Why is she still coming to school?” he asked, discreetly. ‘She’ was her colleague Ajmera Shesha, a 37-year-old Banjara who had been deemed an ‘outsider’ and asked to stop coming to the school to teach. This was a village of Kolams, traditionally a basket-making community that is among the most educationally and economically backward STs in Telangana (socio-culturally, Kolams, while endogamous, follow progressive rules for divorce and widow remarriage). For decades, ethnic tribes such as Gonds and Kolams, the much-tattooed people of the rugged hills of northern Telangana, have been in conflict with the Banjaras, migrants also known as Lambadas, who settled in their villages and quickly acquired not just land, an education and other assets, but also a big chunk of government jobs after their fortuitous inclusion in the list of Scheduled Tribes in 1977. Over the past eight months, concerted activism by Adivasi rights groups has kindled the fire of ethnic pride among aboriginal tribes and exhorted them to take control of their lives. On June 2nd, as a mark of filial obligation, hundreds of tribal villages in Telangana raised black flags and responded to a call to declare self-rule under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act (1996) after talks with the state government to ensure a better deal for the original settlers reportedly failed. The PESA Act, at least on paper, gives wide-ranging powers to Gram Sabhas in Scheduled Areas, validating ‘customary law, social and religious practices, and traditional management practices of community resources’, and further asking state governments not to pass laws that may infringe on these rights. It has been invoked for the first time in Telangana, inspired by the Pathalgadi movement that is underway in Jharkhand.

“It is a tense situation. I call madam every day before I leave home. She is here by 9.30 am, but I wait until the morning assembly is over for her to check that things are normal,” says Shesha, busily moiling about the school and reading Telugu words with the younger of the two study groups. Rajavva, the senior teacher at this merry little school with a total strength of 15, is a Nayakapod, an ethnic tribe. The two teachers had worked, taught and eaten together nearly every schoolday in the past three years, until trouble came knocking on January 16th in the form of smiling village elders. “They said, you don’t have to come anymore. It’s nothing personal,” says Shesha. In April, upon the district Collector’s intervention, many Banjara teachers who had been ousted from tribal schools were reinstated. “Fresh trouble has begun now. It is hard to say how long this arrangement can go on. I hear that in some schools, even children have started chanting ‘Jai Adivasi’.”

“Lambadas prohibited. Maava naate, maava sarkar (Our village, our government)”. The sign outside Marlawai, a village in Jainoor mandal, Komaram Bheem Asifabad district, has become a familiar artifact in the tribal districts of Telangana. Above this swaggering decree is a limp green flag announcing the presence of the Adivasi Hakkula Porata Samiti, also known as Tudum Debba— literally, drumbeat—an activist organisation that has mobilised the ethnic tribes to wage the latest battle in their decades-long war against the incursion of outsiders into their lands. Land is gold. No sooner has the first rain soaked the hot loam than the women get busy sowing cotton seeds, their saris hitched up above thick silver anklets. But there is something even more precious: an education culminating in a government job. Land rights and reservations in government departments are the twin cornerstones of an unfulfilled struggle by the Gonds, who feel edged out of the field by Lambadas. Their demand for protective laws and equitable development has, for too long, seemed like a performance without a stage. The stage finally looks set and the spotlights are trained on the four tribal-dominated districts of Telangana—Adilabad, Komaram Bheem Asifabad, Mancherial and Nirmal, which together made up undivided Adilabad—where Adivasis are staking out their territory.

Over the past eight months, concerted activism by Adivasi rights groups has kindled the fire of ethnic pride among aboriginal tribes and exhorted them to take control of their lives

“We are sitting on pins every day. Any minor conflict can snowball into a major violent incident. We have been counselling community leaders and engaging with them regularly to ensure this doesn’t happen,” says Divya Devarajan, the IAS officer who took charge as Collector, Adilabad district, in December 2017. In a throwback to the Naxalite era when Adivasis had set out to forcibly repossess land acquired by non-tribal settlers and rich landlords, Gonds have peacefully taken over tracts of agricultural land from Lambadas, and issued de facto embargoes on their working in and visiting Adivasi gudems. Direct land reclamation by Adivasis—and there have been over 150 such cases in Adilabad so far—is worrisome, since most land transactions between Gonds and Lambadas date back 30 or 40 years. As per the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation, 1959, the transfer of tribal-owned land to non-tribals is prohibited, but there are no provisions to regulate transactions among tribes. With Lambadas classified as an ST in Telangana, there is no legal ground for Gonds to demand reposession. “We are trying to arrive at via media solutions, especially in areas where the government could potentially acquire patta land from willing non-tribals and assign them to aboriginal tribals,” Devarajan says.

“Most of the tribes of the Deccan are on the whole so gentle and inoffensive that extreme provocation is necessary before they take the law into their own hands,” wrote Austrian anthropologist Christopher von Furer-Haimendorf (1909-1995) in Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (1982), the result of several years of seminal work in Adilabad where Marlawai served as his base for documenting the Gonds. It was one such provocation—an agricultural cess—that had brought Haimendorf and his wife Elizabeth to India to probe the springs and depths of Adivasi life. The Nizam of Hyderabad had just quelled a rebellion by a guerrilla army of Gonds led by Komaram Bheem, a man who didn’t seem to tire of asserting the natives’ rights over ‘Jal, Jangal, Zameen’. Bheem was martyred in the forests of Jodeghat in October 1940 and in the aftermath of the rebellion, the Nizam, to better understand Adivasi grievances, deputed Haimendorf as his advisor on tribal and backward classes affairs. Arriving in Adilabad in December 1941, the scholar would spend eight years studying ethnic populations within the Nizam’s dominion and help enact the Hyderabad Tribal Areas Regulation 1356 Fasli (1946) and set up tribal teacher training schools, starting with one in Marlawai, in 1943. ‘Rebellions of aboriginal tribesmen against the authority of the government are among the most tragic conflicts between ruler and ruled. Whatever course the clash may take, it is always a hopeless struggle of the weak against the strong, the illiterate and uninformed against the organised power of a sophisticated system,’ he would write.

Abutting Maharashtra and nearly cut off from the rest of the state by the Godavari, undivided Adilabad is a tribal heartland with a history of taking on powerful rulers, governments and feudal landlords. The shrinking woods still smell faintly of the Naxalite insurgency, which managed to enlist hundreds of Gonds, ‘kings of the bush’ as they are called in Gondi, using their disenchantment with the establishment to put them to work as footsoldiers for the cause. In 1981, over 60 of them, assembled at a conference organised by the Girijana Rythu Coolie Sangham, an organisation affiliated with the militant People’s War Group, in Indervelli on the Adilabad-Utnoor road, met a bloody end when police opened fire indiscriminately. A clash between police and Adivasis at Allampalli in present-day Nirmal district in 1985, resulting in the death of seven policemen, was seen as an act of retaliation, and to thaw the ice that threatened to freeze the government machinery in Adilabad, the then chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh NT Rama Rao offered up hundreds of government jobs in a one-off dole to Adivasis in Scheduled Areas who had passed Class X.

“It is an attempt by Banjaras to hijack our history so that one day they can claim to have ethnic links with Adivasis and thereby co-opt our legacy” - Soyam Baburao, Tudum Debba state president and former MLA

TODAY, IN THE four districts of erstwhile undivided Adilabad, Lambadas account for 558 regular teaching positions and 695 contractual ones across Government-run residential schools called Ashram schools, primary schools, and Zilla Parishad schools, and Gonds hold 408 regular and 159 contractual positions. Pradhans, Nayakapods, Kolams, Koyas, Thotis, Andhs and other minor Scheduled Tribes have negligible representation at these schools, presently manned by 1,577 regular teachers and 1,320 contractual ones. Recruitment drives have been few and far between, and although Gonds account for over 50 per cent of the population in these districts and Lambadas only 22 per cent, the latter have managed to corner a disproportionately large chunk of the reservations for STs. Gonds in other districts, where they are a minority, feel even more wronged. Banjaras, classified as an OBC in neighbouring Maharashtra and as an SC in Karnataka, number over 20 lakh in Telangana, while the population of all the ethnic tribes in the state together stands at 10 lakh. “They are more qualified than our people. Not even one per cent of Adivasis go to college,” says Vedama Bojju, 30, state general secretary of the Adivasi Students’ Union and the PESA district coordinator for Adilabad. It is hard enough to convince Adivasis to get a teacher’s degree, but without regular recruitments, it is the Lambadas who tend to fill most temporary teaching positions, Bojju says. “Adivasis on either side got a raw deal after the bifurcation of the state—the Polavaram project has displaced lakhs, flouting the rules of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 and the Telangana Government has been largely unresponsive to our demands. There is not a single IAS officer from our villages. But the state government continues to recruit Banjaras through the Telangana State Public Service Commission. The odds are stacked against us,” adds Bojju. Until recently, Adivasis were required to furnish proof of continuous residence in a Schedule Area since 1950 to obtain an ST certificate, and this put ethnic tribes, who do not always maintain property records, at a disadvantage. When Divya Devarajan took charge, she dashed off a circular asking tehsildars to go by enquiry and not by evidence in case of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups. The process was recently streamlined via GO No.24, in a huge relief to Adivasis who routinely find themselves trapped in a bureaucratic maze.

A series of unfortunate incidents that transpired between October and December 2017 further torqued the narrative. Ahead of the Komaram Bheem jayanti celebrations at the tribal museum in Jodeghat last year, dozens of Adivasis led by Tudum Debba state president and former MLA Soyam Baburao, stormed into the gallery where a statue of a Banjara holy woman was on display, and vandalised it. “It is an attempt by Banjaras to hijack our history, so that one day they can claim to have ethnic links with Adivasis and thereby, coopt our legacy. When the chief minister can propose a separate Adivasi Bhavan and a Banjara Bhavan in Hyderabad, where was the need to appease them in a project that is supposed to celebrate our biggest hero? If the government refuses to budge, we can throw our weight behind as many as 20 Assembly constituencies at election time,” Baburao says, in a crisp white shirt uncreased by the four-hour-long drive from Hyderabad to Nirmal, where his SUV is parked in a service road off the highway. “We have mounted rebellions before—in 2008 and 2012, when our people climbed cellphone towers and threatened suicide, and even attacked the Collector, but this time, we want to organise ourselves. We consulted Adivasi leaders from across India.” The face of the self-rule movement in Telangana today, Baburao says he has over 50 cases registered against him, including charges of dacoity and arson. “Everything but terrorism,” he says, flashing an acerbic smile.

In subsequent reactions to the Jodeghat incident, the office of the Collector of Komaram Bheem Asifabad district was attacked and government vehicles vandalised. In December, the statue of Komaram Bheem at Betalguda in Adilabad district was reportedly desecrated with a garland of slippers, and it was as though a match had struck phosphorus. With the relatively innocuous appointment of a Lambada politician as president of the organising committee of the Sammakka-Saralamma Jatara, a major Adivasi fair held in Medaram, Jayashankar Bhupalpally district, further clashes erupted. When Gonds and Lambadas came to blows on the streets of Utnoor in mid-December, burning down vehicles and pelting stones, Adilabad police, despite having been briefed by intelligence reports on possible outbreaks of violence, were unprepared to handle the incident. Prohibitory orders were issued soon after, the media was gagged, and the Internet banned. The TRS Government was forced to take action, and heads had to roll, among them those of district Collector Jyothi Buddha Prakash, DIGP Karimnagar C Ravi Verma and DSP M Srinivasulu. The tone of the Adivasi rebellion seemed to have changed overnight, from a sidelong demand for tribal rights to a defiant override of the system. “Like hooded buds dormant for half a century, Adivasis have finally bloomed,” says Kanaka Ambaji Rao, a 36-year-old postgraduate in English who is the second most educated man from Marlawai. Having failed to clear civil service exams, however, Rao works as a teacher on contract. “I had hoped for a better life,” says the soft-spoken man. “Ours was the first generation to be educated. But there is hope of renewal in Gond society today.”

On June 2nd, hundreds of tribal villages in Telangana raised black flags and responded to a call to declare self-rule after talks with the state government to ensure a better deal for the original settlers reportedly failed

EVEN IN MARLAWAI, the epicentre of identity consciousness in these parts, getting a degree is almost a baptismal event. “I was not very good at studies. I dropped out after Class X but always regretted it,” says Atram Bhagwant Rao, the 28-year-old deputy Sarpanch. He studied at the residential high school built on top of a hill draped with ancient banyans, overlooking the spotlessly clean, undulating village. Pucca buildings dedicated to Haimendorf and his wife have replaced the thatched huts at the school, and at the centre of the compound is a picketed enclosure where the couple had first pitched their tent. “He warned us even then not to give away our lands to Banjaras,” says Atram Bojju, the 55-year-old village patel. “They keep coming in droves. Buy a Rs 20 bus ticket from Chandrapur or Nagpur and you can become an ST,” he says. But even as Haimendorf’s memory thrives in the hearts of villagers, and in his carefully-tended grave with a totem pole marking him as one of them, his agenda of educating tribal children has all but failed. As the 229 kids on the rolls of the school in Marlawai line up for an afternoon snack, the teachers admit it hasn’t been easy letting go of four of their Lambada colleagues. Says M Govinda Rao, the English teacher, “We have no teacher for math, science and Hindi. Last year, 19 out of 40 children passed class 10. This year, the result will be affected. The 13 Lambada children who were part of the school last academic year stopped coming. They wanted to drop out mid-year but we convinced the parents to keep them on till April.” The Class 10 pass percentage in tribal schools across the four districts is a dismal 22 per cent this year. Rao admits unwitting complicity. “Since the biggest talking point in the Gonds’ struggle is government jobs, we dare not ask for Lambadas to be reinstated at school.” To fill these unexpected vacancies, the Telangana Government is considering the appointment of 100 teachers from Gond, Kolam and other communities who can speak their native tribal languages, even if the medium of instruction after Class V must necessarily be Telugu.

Banjaras, painted as ravening wolves plundering the tribal heartland, find themselves on the backfoot. The media, too, has been quick to cock an eager eye at them. “What can we do but sit tight, breathing ourselves back to calm? There is an India-Pakistan type feeling,” says Rathore Narayan Naik, 48, a homoeopathic pharmacist in Utnoor and the All India Banjara Seva Sangh’s state secretary. “Our children are educated. They do not want to be involved in skirmishes. Education is very important to us. We would rather avoid going to Gondi jataras than risk our lives. As a result, business has been slow at the Keslapur, Narnoor, Sirpur and Lingapur jataras this year,” he says. The boycott of one community by another is stretching thin the socio-economy of Adilabad, Naik says.

In Nagalakonda, a Lambada thanda of about 450 people in Narnoor mandal, Gonds have ‘reclaimed’ much of their agricutural land. “We pick cotton up to four times a year and often employ Gonds for help in the fields. Starting December, however, they stopped working in our fields. They harvested our crops and claimed the fields as their own even though we have legally valid pattas,” says 47-year-old Vasant Rao Rathore, the village patel. “The schools have been shut for six months. Our village is surrounded by Gond hamlets, so we fear an impending attack and keep watch. Many of us are subsistence farmers and we don’t know what to do anymore.”

Tribal—both aboriginal and Banjara—livehoods are lanced through by old rivalries that spare no one, not even schoolchildren. Every weekday morning, starting at 10 am, a cortege of motorbikes files into the compound of the office of the Assistant Tribal Welfare Officer in Utnoor. The 169 Lambada teachers who find themselves out of work must nevertheless clock attendance here day after day. “We sign the register, sit under the Neem trees and talk. In the evening, we are back here again. Time passes somehow,” says Kapil Kumar Jadhav, state general secretary of the Telangana State Tribal Teachers Federation, who taught at the high school in Marlawai. “The next generation of tribal children should not become casualties in this war for government benefits.” What the tribal districts need is a rising tide of education, rather than revolution, to lift all boats.