Saga of a struggle

Print edition : June 08, 2018

Godavari Parulekar with Warli Adivasis in Thane, where the Kisan Sabha launched a revolt in 1945. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A gripping oral history of the struggle of the Warli Adivasis, the book is a much-needed and valuable documentation of history.

GODAVARI PARULEKAR’S seminal 1975 publication, Adivasi Revolt, documented the takeover of tribal lands and the subsequent slavery of the Warli Adivasis by the new landlords until they were marshalled under the Communist flag to revolt against injustice. The book under review is a natural corollary to this work.

Archana Prasad is a professor at the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her 2017 book continues the documentation, started by Godavari Parulekar, of the Warli Adivasis of the Thane and Palghar districts north of Mumbai. Their struggle for survival is closely interwoven with the work of the Kisan Sabha, which is why Archana Prasad has chosen to tell the story through the memories, opinions and beliefs of veteran and contemporary Kisan Sabha activists, one of them 100 years old.

A gripping oral history unwinds through 87 pages, and the remaining pages are dedicated to enlightening appendices. The book starts with the Warli Adivasi movement of 1945-52, a period the author says is “often described as one of the ‘golden periods’ of the Communist movement”—a reference to peasant struggles such as Telangana, Tebhaga, Punappra Vayalar, Gana Mukti Parishad, Surma Valley and the Warli Adivasi revolt in Thane. All these struggles were led by local Kisan Sabha leaders who were guided by dreams of an oppression-free egalitarian society.

In Thane it was Shamrao and Godavari Parulekar, both Communist Party members, who shifted their base to Kalyan from Mumbai and organised the first farmers’ struggle that led to the formation of the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha.

At the initial meetings, Adivasis told shocking stories of slavery, bonded labour and torture by the landlords. They spoke of being whipped, tied upside down to trees and deprived of food and of those who had lands but were prevented from working on them and were forced to work on the landlord’s land.

Archana Prasad interviewed Ramji Vithya Vighne of Sogwa in Dahanu taluka, who said: “Adivasis were being used in place of animals by landlords for ploughing the fields and other works. They were given food just once a day. I remember one incident told by my father. One day he was very hungry, he ate one mango and kept it on the green paddy bundles. When the landlord came to know this, he removed all the involved people. My father pleaded with the landlord, only then was he taken back at work.”

It was a time of distress and confusion. For Adivasi families used to the centuries-old tradition of non-ownership, the new laws must have been baffling. Worse still was the manner in which they were cheated of the lands they lived on. Their thumbprints were taken on documents that they had no understanding of and in this simple way the land passed from community use to individual possession, and the Adivasis themselves either became trespassers or vethbigaris—forced labourers—depending on which option they “chose”.

They were illiterate and unfamiliar with the violence that ownership of land engenders in people, and it was no surprise that the lal bavta, or red flag, of the Communists banded them together. The lal bavta offered the Adivasis not only a sense of purpose and organisation but an empathy that gave them the courage to fight.

Once organised, the Adivasis tasted their first victory. At a meeting at Zari village in 1945, they all agreed that no Warli would work for less than one rupee for eight hours of work and a one-hour break for lunch. The Warlis went on strike to ensure that this was implemented, and the landlords had no choice but to agree.

While this was a cause for great celebration, it also led to seething anger among the landlords. The year 1945 was a watershed in the history of this struggle. About 15,000 grass cutter Adivasis had gone on strike on the advice of the Kisan Sabha. It was agreed that until the Parulekars gave the green signal, no one would cut grass. The strike caused ripples since green grass was needed by the dairy industry. The Milk Commissioner of the erstwhile Bombay State and the landlords tried to work out a compromise wage rate, but the Parulekars saw this for what it was—an attempt to water down the movement—and refused to accept the deal. That was when dirty tricks were played. False rumours were spread by agents of the landlords that Godavari Parulekar had organised a large meeting and that there was a plan to attack her and so Adivasis must gather in full strength with whatever weapons they had to protect her. Believing the rumours, about 30,000 Adivasis gathered at Talwada, armed with axes, lathis, bamboo poles and spears. The alarmed administration tried to disperse them, but the Warlis refused to budge because they wanted to save their beloved Godutai. Eventually, shots were fired and five Warli men were killed and many were injured.

The Talwada firings are now part of the oral history among Warlis. Children hear it from their parents and pass it on to their children. The larger significance of this, however, was that it cemented the relationship between the Kisan Sabha and the Warlis.

Apart from wages, the other oppression was a disgusting practice called lagnagadi. Essentially, it meant that the landlord had sexual rights over a new bride if her husband had borrowed money from him for their marriage. Before this terrible oppression was stopped, more than 15,000 marriage slaves were freed by the Kisan Sabha largely by direct action of raiding the landlord’s house. It was a measure of Warli power that although the landlords threatened to use their guns, they never did.

While the book is a much-needed and valuable documentation of history, its title is a reminder that the struggle continues. In his preface, CPI(M) leader Hannan Mollah, who is also general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, places it in context.

He writes: “Today, seven decades after these struggles, neoliberal capitalism in alliance with, and superimposed on, feudalism has thrown our country and especially its peasantry into the throes of the worst agrarian crisis since independence. Over 3.5 lakh peasants all over the country have been forced to commit suicide due to indebtedness in the last 25 years of neoliberalism, and the number of peasant suicides has increased over 40 per cent in the last three years alone.

“During the same period, lakhs of tribal children have died in various parts of the country due to malnutrition. To deflect attention away from these… the ruling dispensation is brazenly resorting to communalism and casteism. The recent dastardly killing of Gauri Lankesh, and of M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar in an eerily identical manner, to say nothing of the numerous killings of poor Muslims and Dalits by the so-called gau rakshaks, is a pointer to the intolerant hatred and violent terrorism of the fascist forces.”

But Mollah is also hopeful that the book will be a reminder of the successful struggles of the Kisan Sabha. In many ways the book is a good reminder of that old adage of good ultimately triumphing over evil, though not without a strenuous fight.

There is little to criticise in the book except for the glaring lack of photographs. However, the oral histories are so vivid that they compensate to a great extent for this. Still, to see the massive Adivasi rallies, the faces of the people and their leaders and the conditions of Adivasi padas (hamlets) would have brought the past alive even more.

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