Adivasi revolt that ushered in change for Maharashtra’s tribal community

Seventy-five years have passed since the Warli Adivasi Revolt that changed the lives of Adivasis and led to democratic reforms in Maharashtra.

Published : Jun 15, 2020 16:11 IST

The power of storytelling among Adivasis in the largely tribal areas of Talasari, Thane, Palghar and Dahanu north of Mumbai is strong. It preserves the glory of events that happened 75 years ago. So strong is the Adivasis bond to that time that to this day they acknowledge their allegiance to the Left and bring it victory at elections. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has won nine out of ten Assembly elections in the Scheduled Tribe constituency in Dahanu, and for the last 58 years, voters have consistently brought the CPI(M) candidate back to Talasari taluka.

The past is kept alive by sharing memories with the younger generation so that they do not forget that just seven decades ago rural landlords victimised their people. Bonded labour, rape and illegal acquisition of Adivasi land were common practices then.

New hope for Adivasis: All India Kisan Sabha

Adivasis were primarily indentured labour working in the fruit orchards, or wadi s, mainly of chikoos for which the area was famous. They brought the wadi owners huge profits, but little of this was transferred to the Adivasis, most of whom were caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and debts they were unable to pay back.

Also Read: Tribal panchayats in protected areas being illegally converted to municipalities

All this was noticed by an extraordinary woman named Godavari Parulekar, or Godutai as she was known, who was a member of the CPI(M) and the Kisan Sabha. Her husband, Shamrao Parulekar, was the leader of the Maharashtra chapter of the All India Kisan Sabha. They decided to organise Maharashtra’s peasantry, starting with the Adivasis of Dahanu and Umbargaon. Inspired to take up the red flag, the Adivasis asked the Parulekars to lead them.

Heeding Godutai’s call, about 5,000 Adivasis, largely from Thane, Dahanu and Palghar, gathered at Zari village in Talasari taluka on May 23, 1945, when Godutai formally declared that bonded labour was at an end. It was a rousing moment and has been documented in a book by Shamrao. Ashok Dhawale, president of the All India Kisan Sabha, describes what was written: “The Adivasis moved from village to village declaring they would not work without wages. People stopped work and marched out of landlords’ houses and fields. Within months this spread to Dahanu. Godutai gave the call for liberation with the slogan ‘Take your pot and your loincloth and break free’. By October bonded labour had been buried.” Even the barbaric practice of lagnagadi , or marriage slave, ended. Landlords never marked loans given to Adivasis for their wedding celebrations as paid off and they also thought it was their right to have sexual relations with a lagnagadi ’s wife.

Warli Adivasi Revolt: police brutality, state intervention and negotiations

Although bonded labour was cast off, the rage of the landlords had still to be dealt with. They thought up a diabolical plan in which they would spread a rumour in such a manner that no one would know that it had originated with them. Soon the “news” was all about how Godutai had been captured, was being tortured by the landlords and had to be rescued. The “news” also said that all the Adivasis should carry arms and assemble at Talwada to rescue her. Obviously unaware that they were pawns in the landlords’ game, about 30,000 Adivasis gathered on October 9 armed with sickles, knives and lathis. Seeing their devious plan had succeeded, the landlords alerted the police saying that an Adivasi attack was imminent. When the police arrived, the Adivasis refused to disperse, and the command to shoot was given. Parulekar says in his book that the shooting went on sporadically from morning to afternoon, killing 10 people and injuring hundreds. The Adivasis were under the impression that the police wanted to capture their beloved red flag, so they kept on protecting it. It was only when a Kisan Sabha member from a nearby village, who heard of the tragedy, intervened that the Adivasis dispersed.

Also Read: 2006: Forest Rights Act

But, the Warli Adivasi Revolt continued into 1946. The Adivasis asked for the proper wage of Rs.2.50 per pound of grass cut and rice harvested. The landlords had to agree because the Adivasis refused to work, but then the state intervened. B.G. Kher was the Chief Minister and Morarji Desai was the Home Minister. Both refused to agree, saying they would not deal with communists. So, a three-day march of 30,000 people was organised from Umbargaon to Dahanu. The Adivasis’ resistance to police action incensed Desai, who took the unbelievable decision of sending in the Army to defeat the movement.

Enraged, the Adivasis started burning landlords’ homes, and 600 Adivasis were arrested. But timely support came from the working classes of Bombay and Thane. They threatened an indefinite strike if the Army acted. The government was forced to withdraw the Army. The labour wage was negotiated and the agreement reached was the precursor of the legislation that brought about the Minimum Wage Act.

The Tenancy and the Forest Rights Acts

For the region, 1945-46 must have been a heady time. After almost a century of injustices, there was unity, leadership and personal freedoms; it must have felt like a new dawn in the lives of the Adivasis. The Parulekars, the Kisan Sabha and the Adivasis kept up the tempo. The Warli Adivasi Revolt started out as a fight against bonded labour and lagnagadi and went on to become a fight for wages for work, land ownership and forest rights.

What began as a movement to liberate Adivasis blossomed into a fight for basic democratic rights and laws for the general population. In 1948-49, the Maharashtra government was forced to enact the first tenancy legislation in the State. Since the law came about because of the Adivasi struggle for ownership of land, it was only appropriate that it was first implemented in three tehsils of Thane district. The Tenancy Act was soon implemented all over the State. This was followed by legislation that prohibited Adivasi land from being sold to a non-Adivasi person. In 1960, Godutai led the first ever morcha (march) in India demanding forest land in the name of Adivasis; 46 years later, in 2006, the Forest Rights Act was enacted.

Also Read: How are Chhattisgarh’s tribals fighting back miners in central India’s densest forest?

This year also marks 75 years of the martyrs of the Warli Adivasi Revolt. The Adivasi leader Jethva Gangad was shot dead in police firing on October 10, 1945, along with nine others. Dhawale says that from then to the present 61 Adivasis have given their lives for their cause. The latest was in 2012. A woman Kisan Sabha worker was told by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not to canvass for the CPI(M). She refused to listen and went ahead. The BJP candidate lost. The night after the results were declared her head was smashed in. Her murderers were arrested and convicted.

The Adivasis may no longer need to revolt today, but their fight for justice continues.

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