Should Adivasi and Dalit literature be considered a separate genre in India? Beyond the merits of this ongoing debate, the question itself would today undoubtedly remain largely impossible even to pose had it not been for the work of 80-year-old Ramnika Gupta and her Ramnika Foundation, from Jharkhand. For decades now, she has worked to publicise the voices of hundreds of Adivasi and Dalit writers from across India. Not only were many of these writers previously unheard of outside of their communities, but with help from the Foundation’s All India Tribal Literary Forum (AITLF), many have received nationwide recognition and even accolades. Among others, these have included Mangal Singh Hazowari, the noted Bodo poet and writer; Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi, from the Sherdukpen tribe in Arunachal Pradesh; and Jadumani Besra, the Santhali author who writes in the Oriya script. Each of these has in recent years won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award, conferred by India’s National Academy of Letters.
Set up in 2002, AITLF and the Ramnika Foundation have assisted in the publication of works in some 27 Adivasi languages, including Mizo, Chakma, Koke Boroke, Khasi, Jaintia, Garo, Bhilodi, Mundari, Ho, Kurukh, Kharia, Santhali and others. Given her long experience (in addition to her activist work, she has authored close to 70 books), when Ramnika Gupta is today asked to explain why Adivasi and Dalit literature needs special recognition, she translates a few lines of poetry in response. This particular selection comes from “Stage”, written in a Bhil dialect by Vahru Sonawane, a revolutionary Maharashtrian Adivasi poet and also the AITLF’s general-secretary:
We never went on the stage that was made in our name
They did not invite us
They pointed with their finger
And showed us our place
We sat there
They appreciated us
They were narrating to us
Our own vows and sorrows
Which were ours and never theirs
We had some doubts
They heard us attentively and sighed
They twisted our ears and said –
Apologise … or you will be…
“It is for this reason that tribal literature is required,” she concludes, suggesting that Adivasis have for too long only had others write about them, rather than being able to write about their own experience and situations. The idea has thus been to develop an Adivasi leadership that can allow for these disparate communities to speak for themselves, but also to give them a common unifying social, political, linguistic and literary platform. The end goal is to change both external and internal attitudes towards Adivasis, and to enable them to overcome an age-old sense of inferiority. This is “a tribal literature that encapsulates a history of three to four thousand years,” says Gupta. “A wonderful diversity from an abundance of communities, composed in 90 languages that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.”
A window and connection
A key component of this has been the publication of a quarterly journal, Yudhrat Aam Aadmi, which over the past several years has become an important gateway of expression for Adivasi and Dalit writers throughout India. Today, every issue of Yudhrat Aam Aadmi is replete with poems, stories, lyrics and other literary forms from writers and poets representing a huge section of India, from the Northeast to Punjab to Tamil Nadu. A typical issue is a bit over 100 pages, of which the four general issues every year are buttressed by two subject-based special issues. The latest special issue, for instance, deals with excrement carriers, while others have focused on the process of printing, Adivasi communities of the Northeast, and tales of valour and revolt. Such special issues typically run upwards of 300 pages.
Yudhrat Aam Aadmi is not the only publication of its kind. A group called Katha, based in Delhi, also publishes Adivasi literature, particularly from the Northeast, in English translations. However, Adivasi literature is not its sole focus. The same can be said with regard to Dalit literature: while there is a significant amount of such works being published in India today, there are still only a handful of organisations focusing exclusively on Dalit literature. The Ramnika Foundation, on the other hand, is the only publisher in the country today not only placing such focus on Adivasi literature from throughout the country, but also translating these into Hindi.
By publishing pieces both in their original languages in the Devanagari script and in Hindi translations, the magazine has brought such works, along with their authors, into the national limelight. The Hindi translations, Gupta says, “provide a window to the writers, allowing for interaction between the [mainstream] and the various tribal languages of India.” In this way, the priority for the journal, for the foundation and for Gupta herself remains grounded in the political, rather than the aesthetic: to sustain and transform Adivasi and Dalit literature into an empowering tool that can be used to pressure the government into changing certain policies. Changes have been called for in terms of development policies causing displacement and migration, mother-tongue education and related changes of curriculum, and the introduction of Adivasi and Dalit literature.
“This literature does not have the conventional aesthetic but it is grounded in reality, speaks of life,” Gupta said. This is the real voice of the marginalised, she emphasises – “their struggle, their pain and anguish, which has been penned by they themselves, as they see it.” The public response to the publication of this material has over the past decade been overwhelming. Copies of Yudhrat Aam Aadmi consistently sell out, and have been widely incorporated as reference material for research work on Dalit and Adivasi literature. The public response has prompted Gupta and her staff to start bringing out bound compilations of works that they had published. Dalit Chetna: Kavita, for instance, published in 1995-96, included a collection of more than 40 poems; Dalit Chetna: Kahani showcased 28 short-story writers, and Dalit Chetna: Soch highlighted 29 more writers, works of literature, history and social disparity.
AITLF has since decided to concentrate for a bit on Dalit Telegu writers, followed by additional focuses on fostering women writers, then Adivasi and Dalit talent in Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. “For the first time, we have brought out a collection of 400 Dalit and tribal writers,” Gupta says. Their initiatives eventually led Indira Gandhi National Open University to start planning for postgraduate classes on Dalit literature, which are scheduled to begin in the near future. Similarly the government of Uttar Pradesh has introduced Dalit literature into many of the state’s schools and colleges; while Ranchi University has taught five Adivasi languages – Mundari, Kudux, Santhali, Kharia and Ho – for a decade now.
A significant priority for the AITLF programmes has been the Adivasi communities of the Northeast. The first special issue of Yudhrat Aam Aadmi, for instance, included 13 languages of the Northeast (including Bodo, Mizo, Khasi, Jaintia, Dimasa and Lepcha, among others), in addition to offering a directory of more than 100 Northeast writers. Several conferences have taken place, including the first major Adivasi literary conference, in New Delhi in June 2002. The Ramnika Foundation has also set up an annual award to find and name exceptional creative writers in particularly remote areas. In the past, this exposed to the national stage writers such as Nirmala Putul from Jharkhand, who later went on to receive the Kendriya Hindi Sansthan Award for her powerful Santhali-language works.
Putul’s writings are known for being candid regarding the problems of the Santhali tribe. She not only writes of the exploitation and struggles of her community, but also tries to rectify some of these through her writings. Equally bold and powerful are her outpourings on women’s issues, as in this Santhali poem (Hindi translation below):
Tumhaare haathon par bane pattal par bharte hain pet hazaron,
par hazaron pattal bhar nahi paate tumhare pet …
Jin Gharon ke liye banaati ho tum jhaaru,
unhi se aate hain kachre tumhaare bastion mein…
Your handmade leaf plates are used to feed thousands of bellies,
but these thousands of leaf plates cannot fill your own bellies…
The very homes that you make brooms for
are the ones that bring filth to your doors…
Putul says that her inclusion in Yudhrat Aam Aadmi was a turning point for her writing. “My joy knew no bounds when my first collection of poetry saw the light of day in YAA,” says. “The platform shall remain a guiding light in my life, exposing my work to the outside world, which later fetched me recognition.”
Drops of reality
During this year’s awards ceremony, in January in Ranchi, the foundation recognised 12 Adivasi authors from across the country for their contributions to preserving marginalised languages. These included, among others, Bijoya Sawian for her writings in Khasi; V P Verma Pathik for his contributions to Aravali Udghosh, a publication connecting Hindi and Adivasi literature; Krishna Chandra Tuddu, for his prolific writing in Santhali; and Pragya Daya Pawar, whose Marathi poetry, plays and criticism have long highlighted Dalit and Adivasi issues. Also recognised were Anamika and Sushila Takbhore, for their writings on women; Abhay Mourya and Bibhuti Narayan Rai, for their work on communal harmony and communism; and Dwarka Bharati and Y C P Venkata Reddy for their translation work on Adivasi literature.
Bhagwan Das, long a leading Dalit intellectual with some 20 books to his name on untouchability, human scavengers, human rights and social disparity, was awarded the Birsa Munda Samman. “Main Bhangi Hoon” (I am a scavenger) is amongst his best-known works, offering what is still an astonishingly vivid portrayal of the harsh realities of his community, aglow with his wrath against centuries of social oppression. “Yes, my family name is Bhangi,” he wrote in Hindi. “Today, I want to narrate my story. My story in my words. Who would have narrated, nobody ever wrote anything about us. We are on the last rung of the social ladder – dustbins, where the filth and dirt are disposed.” At the awards ceremony, he said: “The Foundation has instilled confidence amongst the Dalits and tribals. They take pride in their culture and language – this is the Foundation’s biggest contribution.”
Sushila Takbhore was also honoured with the Savitribai Phule Samman. Known for her strong Dalit and feminist writings, she addressed the function with a recitation of one of her poems, “Gaali” (Abuse), which translated from the Hindi reads:
In the name of loyalty
one may call himself a dog
but not a bitch
the very utterance of the word makes it appear as an abuse.
Is it because it belongs to the feminine gender?
Also at the ceremony, Rajendra Yadav, the eminent Hindi writer and chairperson of the Ramnika Foundation, reminded the audience that communities in Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere in the Northeast are continuing to battle for their cultural and linguistic identities. For much of the public, he said, ‘the Northeast’ today simply means Assam. “But how many of us are aware that even Assam has 15 different tribal languages?” he asked. “And their viewpoints and creations are so compelling that they can really stir up one’s thinking.” Examples of what Yadav is referring to include the strong matrilineal society as depicted by the Khasi writer Bijoya Sawian, or her references to how a groom man comes to stay in the house of the bride; or the writings of Chamulal Rathawa, from the Rathawa tribe of Gujarat, on how “no child is called illegal, child and mother are cared for by the community, while the child gets the name of the father, his marriage to the mother depending upon the wish of the latter”; or simply the general collective way of life for most Adivasi communities, how the concept of individual possession almost does not exist. Each of these offers something to be learned from by mainstream readers.
At the event, it was also noted that as of 2002 there were 146 Santhali and other Adivasi-language magazines registered in Jharkhand alone. Altogether, there are thought to be some six million speakers of Santhali (which in addition to Jharkhand is spoken in Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh), yet for years the language was not included in the Indian Constitution’s Eighth Schedule, which lists the country’s accepted ‘national’ languages. Yet since 2002 the number of Santhali publications increased significantly, with writers and activists using these magazines to develop their written literature as part of the larger struggle. In 2003, Santhali was finally included in the Eighth Schedule, which means that the tongue can now be taught in school. This can now potentially help Adivasi children in terms of both self-confidence and the later ability to get a job, including due to the need for a new generation of teachers fluent in certain languages, as well as obligatory government appointees, and the like.
Yet the current success on the part of activists in keeping Santhali alive is not one that is shared by other marginalised languages in India, including Ho, Kharia, Mundari (in Jharkhand), Bhilodi (in Maharashtra), Gondi, (in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Karnataka), Dimasa and Karbi (in Assam), Kandha, Sora, Kui and Kamar (in Orissa). Indeed, these are just a few of those currently fighting for official recognition. This, Rajendra Yadav said, is to the detriment of the country as a whole. He emphasised that each of these languages, and their accompanying literature, when it exists, is instrumental in tracing the roots of the civilisations of the Subcontinent. “Each of these languages, which could not flourish beyond their speakers’ areas due to lack of scope for wider use on the national level, is endowed with vital potential to add something to national integration,” Yadav said, “like drops of water, however small, augment the surface of rivers and streams.”
It is important to note that many of these languages survived because of the oral tradition at a time when they had no script; now, there is more scope for their continuation because of the rise of literacy. As such, many languages will never die until the speakers abandon them, but continued efforts at cowing down the Adivasi languages by the mainstream will inevitably hasten this. According to Ramnika Gupta, “A rivulet has its own identity for the period it flows from the mountain to the sea. To make the sea rich, the identity of rivulets cannot be abolished. Let them flow without any boundaries around them for the benefit of the people around, enabling them to express better.”
Today, many of these languages are endangered because of government policies, particularly in education, as well by as the constant external cultural assault brought about by television, films and the ubiquity of media of all kinds in the ‘mainstream’ languages. “There are more than 500 tribes in India,” says Gupta. “Of these, 75 such groups live outside the Northeast and, barring a few, nearly all of them have either lost their language already or are on the verge of it. In most cases, these have been subsumed by the language of the majority.” Even in the twilight of her life, Gupta is far from complacent about the situation. “No country in the world has such a multilingual literature as ours,” she says, “there are 600 tribal languages in the country and only 90 languages have so far been written in – our forum aims to scout for talent in every nook and cranny of the country.”
~ Moushumi Basu is a journalist based in Ranchi, Jharkhand.