The scion of the former Gond kings of Chandagarh or Chandrapur, now in Maharashtra, Birshah Atram, was recently visiting the Gond homelands in the former composite Adilabad district to meet his kinsmen in the various garhis in the region. Birshah Atram is descended from a line that was established in Chandrapur in the 13th century by Kandakya Balal Sah. The Gond kings ruled till 1751 when the British annexed it after the Raja of Nagpur died childless. Birshah, who holds two PhDs in English and Ancient Indian History, has for long been seeking a solution to the vexed adivasi problem, that has also morphed into the Telugu-led Naxalite rebellion that enables the Central and state governments to turn it into a law and order issue, by highlighting the grievances of the adivasi people. He believes that the Centre needs to implement the constitutional provisions and promises made in the Constituent Assembly by recognising the Gondi language and self-rule for the Gond people by carving out a “Gondwana” state out of the Gond homelands in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. There is a vast and mostly forested region spanning almost the entire midriff of India from Odisha to Gujarat, lying between the westbound Narmada and eastbound Godavari, bounded by many mountain ranges like the Vindhya, Satpura, Mahadeo, Meykul and Abujhmar, that was once the main home of the Adivasis. The late Prof. Nihar Ranjan Ray, one of our most distinguished historians, described Central India’s Adivasis as “the original autochthonous people of India”, meaning that their presence in India pre-dated by far the Dravidians, Aryans and whoever else settled in this country. Dr Verrier Elwin, the renowned anthropologist, states this more emphatically when he wrote: “These are the real swadeshi products of India, in whose presence all others are foreign. These are ancient people with moral rights and claims thousands of years old. They were here first and should come first in our regard.”
Unfortunately, like indigenous people all over the world, India’s Adivasis too have been savaged and ravaged by later people who claim to be more “civilised”. They still account for almost eight per cent of India’s population and are easily its most deprived and oppressed section. Though this is the home of many tribal groups, the largest tribal group, the Gonds, dominated the region. The earliest Gond kingdom appears to date from the 10th century and the Gond Rajas were able to maintain a relatively independent existence until the 18th century, although they were compelled to offer nominal allegiance to the Mughal Empire. The great historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar records: “In the 16th and 17th centuries, much of the modern Central Provinces (today’s Madhya Pradesh) were under the sway of aboriginal Gond chiefs and was known under the name of Gondwana. A Mughal invasion and the sack of the capital had crippled the great Gond kingdom of Garh-Mandla in Akbar’s reign and later by Bundela encroachments from the north. But in the middle of the 17th century another Gond kingdom, with Deogarh its capital, rose to greatness and extended its sway over the districts of Betul, Chindwara, and Nagpur, and portions of Seoni, Bhandara and Balaghat. In the southern part of Gondwana stood the town of Chanda, the seat of the third Gond dynasty and hereditary foe and rival of the Raja of Deogarh.” But the glory of Deogarh departed when the Maratha ruler of Nagpur annexed Deogarh after the death of Chand Sultan.
Incidentally, the Gond ruler of Deogarh, Bakht Buland, founded the city of Nagpur. Jadunath Sarkar writes about him thus: “He lived to extend the area, power and prosperity of his kingdom very largely and to give the greatest trouble to Aurangzeb in the last years of his reign.” In fact, the one big reason Aurangzeb could not deploy all his power against Shivaji was because the Gond kings were constantly at war with the Mughals and kept interdicting the lines from the Deccan to Agra. But of course, the history of modern India is not generous to them. During the British days, this region constituted much of the Central Provinces of India, later to become Madhya Pradesh. This is the main home of about 16 million Gond people, who are India’s largest single tribal grouping. The Gonds are now a culturally and linguistically heterogeneous people, having attained much cultural uniformity with the dominant linguistic influences of their region. Thus, the Gonds of the eastern and northwestern Madhya Pradesh region, that now includes the new state of Chhattisgarh, speak Chhattisgarhi and western Hindi. But the Gonds of Bastar, which is at the southeastern end of this vast region and a part of Chhattisgarh, are different in this respect. Though there are many tribal groups like the Halbas, Bhatras, Parjas and Dorlas, the Maria and Bison Horned Gonds are the most numerous. The language spoken by them, like that of the Koyas of Andhra Pradesh, is an intermediate Dravidian language closer to Telugu and Kannada.
The process of Hinduisation combined with Hindi culture has reduced the egalitarian Koitur to the bottom of the social strata. Dr Kalyan Kumar Chakravarthy, director of the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal, has written eloquently and cogently on this in his concluding chapter “Extinction or Adaptation of the Gonds” in the book Tribal Identity in India, that is also edited by him. The real enemy of the adivasi is the creeping Hinduisation with all its attendant values and exclusionary practices, seems to me a good start to the process of saving its tribal society from extinction. All over the rest of India’s central highlands our policies, by forcing the Adivasis to merge their identities with that of the encroaching culture, have crushed them into a becoming a feeble and self-pitying underclass. Clearly there are two distinct reasons for the present unrest in the adivasi homelands of India. The first and probably the more important one is the struggle for identity against the creeping Hinduisation or deculturisation of adivasi society.
Adivasi society was built on a foundation of equality. People were given respect and status according to their contribution to social needs, but only while they were performing that particular function. Such a value-system was sustainable as long as the adivasi community was non-acquisitive and all the products of society were shared. Adivasi society has been under constant pressure as the money economy grew and made traditional forms of barter less difficult to sustain. The Fifth and Sixth Schedules under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution in 1950 provided for self-governance in specified tribal majority areas. In 1999 the Government of India even issued a draft National Policy on Tribals to address the development needs of tribal people. Special emphasis was laid on education, forestry, healthcare, languages, resettlement and land rights. The draft was meant to be circulated to MPs, MLAs and civil society groups. A Cabinet Committee on Tribal Affairs was meant to constantly review the policy. Little has happened since. The draft policy is still a draft, which means there is no policy.
Even before Independence, on December 16, 1946, welcoming the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly, the legendary adivasi leader Jaipal Singh stated the tribal case and fears explicitly. He said: “Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated, it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years… The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.” The Adivasis paid dearly for taking the Constituent Assembly at its word.