“Our life used to be quite simple before. We relied on nature and happily accepted whatever it gave us – be it floods or plenty of Nachli. But it also brought more death and acute hunger. Now with access to medicine and ration, things are better. Our freedom, though, has been restricted and we have become dependent. Hamara roub ab kam hogya hai!”
– Sanju bhai, a 62 year old from village Samdahan in Dang district of Gujarat
Dang is a tribal population dominated (94% as per census 2011) district in Southern Gujarat, also the least populated in the state. In the last 15-20 years, Dang, along with the whole tribal belt has witnessed improved development through well-connected roads, stable electricity, better Public Distribution System (PDS) and healthcare. This has improved the living conditions of people. Another significant set of change has been brought by the religious and civil societies in the region. These organisations have worked to enhance education as well as livelihoods among people. Dang has attracted the maximum attention from these groups. People often joke that there are more NGOs and religious groups than the number of people in Dang. But what makes Dang so special?
Not much is known about the pre-colonial history of the region except for the ballads from Ramayana and Mahabharata. It was mostly self-ruled like most tribal communities. But they had leaders or village Mukhiyas among them who maintained communal harmony and mediated conflict. They didn’t control people and land like most empires and kings; they just maintained social order and regrouped people in case of external threat.
With their understanding of the hilly terrain and sheer courage, the tribal people were able to halt British invasion multiple times. They were so successful against the British government that they had to come to an agreement with the five Bhil ‘Kings’ in 1842. Under this agreement, Britishers got to exploit natural resources, mostly teak timber in lieu of the fixed salana (annual) compensation. This practice is still continued by the government of India. Since it wasn’t adjusted to inflation, Kings still get a meagre Rs. 4,000 monthly. These kings live like commoners in the village, mostly in a hut and do farming. Only on Holi, they get to feel like a King, when they go to collect the pension with full fanfare, from Awha, the district headquarters. Performers come from all parts of Dang and showcase their art and culture.
By 1950, this region became a hotbed for Christian missionaries who started many schools and hospitals. Through these mediums and by preaching, a great deal of people adopted Christian faith.
Faith healing is still a major puller for the churches.
“I was a sportsperson during my college days. I can still run as fast as any man in my village. Despite my good health, over the last few years, I would often feel feverish every once in few years. When doctors could do nothing about it, I went to a village Pastor on my wife’s insistence. The Pastor gave me a Bible and asked me to fast two weeks a month to wash off my sins. It’s been two years now and I haven’t seen a doctor for myself.”
– Kamlesh Bhai from Maneram village.
With Hindu groups getting active by 1980s, this became a point of contention as they feared that the region will turn into a Christian majority, like a few states in North East India. They too started their Ghar Vapasi efforts. According to them, tribals are inherently ‘Hindus’. This led to conflict and violence between the religious groups. But this conflict was mainly between external interests; not so much among local people. Now with the anti-conversion law in Gujarat, it has become difficult to change one’s religion on paper. To avoid any hassles, people are continuing to mention their religion as Hindu but many have started practicing Christianity in real life.
Impact Of Development
Some tribal belts are still far removed from the influence of the global world and even though, there is a movement to integrate them, they are still discriminated against.
“Outsiders or non-tribal people living in Dang as teachers, doctors and civil officers create only hurdles for local people. My brother was selected for an interview for a clerical job in Gujarat Government. But he received the call letter on the day of the interview, which was scheduled in Ahmadabad. He could not attend it. We cannot convince ourselves that this was not a deliberate action by a non-tribal person sitting in the Post office, as this isn’t the first time. We are small people with limited means; we can’t go to cities and file cases against such acts of injustice.”
– Dhanji bhai from Soopdahad village
Roads and highways have connected people with cities and opportunities but have also restricted the path of people and animals. I came across a Hyena on my second day in Dang. With prey shortage, predators like Leopards and Hyenas have transgressed into human settlements to pounce upon chicken and goats. This transgression is superficial though, as it’s people who have moved into animals’ land. Forest area has reduced by more than 50% as government data considers vegetation land as forest too.
Status Of Women
Women are relatively independent and better off than their counterparts in cities. Tribal community gives more rights to their women.For instance, if a couple has a single daughter, they can get a Ghar Jamai for her, who will stay with the girl’s family post wedding. Matrilineal lineage is also accepted in the community. Charul Ben got married at a tender ager of 17. At 23, her husband died in a road accident under mysterious circumstances. She decided to stay single as she feels that a second marriage would affect her children adversely. She has inherited all the land of her husband and will benefit from it.
She started working with UTMT as a Master Trainer (MT) in 2014 and has become a technical assistant now. She is the most educated person in her family and now supports her siblings as well as parents. They too have helped her immensely in raising her kids.
Agricultural & Cattle Rearing Practices
I stayed at a farmer’s house, who is also a Master Trainer at UTMT. He is a mid-scale farmer by Indian standards, having five acres of land. Due to lack of irrigation, he can’t cultivate all year around. He also practices shifting cultivation on some part of his land. Like many in the region, he too bought a Holstein cow on credit agreement with Vasudhara Milk Company. He started with two cows and now has five. He foresees good returns in future but this is a double edged sword. While Holstein cows give more milk, they are not adaptable to our weather conditions. They are more prone to diseases and are not resilient to heat. They have a higher mortality rate than any Indian cow. Also, they require a special feed to be bought from the dairy which again makes the farmers dependent on dairy.
Cattles and goats are plenty in the region with a huge number simply roaming on the roads. These desi varieties of cows aren’t much useful today. They give lesser milk (3-5 litres a day), while Jersey and Holstein breeds of cows give 20 litres a day. If breeding of these desi cows is done, then they can yield 10-15 litres of milk. But like other sectors, in case of cattle also, the country always looks outside for solutions and prosperity.
Alcohol and meat are an integral part of the culture. Alcohol made out of Mahua flower is used in most religious ceremonies. With “new” religious beliefs intruding, people are being told that these are sinful behaviours. The ardent followers of these new beliefs, either don’t eat a certain type of meat or don’t drink at all. Forest land has been a part of their identity as well. Collecting Mahua flowers, timber and herbs from forest has been a part of culture and livelihood. For decades, tribal population suffered under poor legislation which favoured industrial exploitation of forest resources while restricted tribal communities inhabiting in them. While the Forest Act of 2006 has righted many wrongs from the past and now people have some legitimacy over the land, it will require mindset change in people and more policies to give back where it is due.
Intrusion and subsequent integration is inevitable, what’s important is to strike a balance. Integration shouldn’t take away their cultural and social identity.
Early humans were no different than most other animals around. Their life was basic, as the foraging for food, escaping from predators and procreation were the main aspects of life. This continued for millions of years, and in between humans learnt how to control fire and make tools. Things changed when they started farming. This differentiated them from all other animals. Then they made settlements and communities grew, out of which other needs originated.
Farming along with settled way of life led to the origin of expansion mindset of people. As the history has shown as, as a country or a kingdom grows, it extends and expands at the cost of neighbouring nations. This expansion may or may not be beneficial for both. In today’s nation state world, where most land on earth is divided and demarcated as different sovereign entities, the scope of expansion has reduced. Tribal people and their lands are last frontiers remaining to be conquered. From Asia to Africa to South America, tribal population is present in all robust ecological hotspots. Connection between these communities and lands around them cannot be ignored.
*Names changed to protect identity