Somewhere, in the forests of BaigaChak... (Part 1)
Updated: Jun 17
The term 'village' is often perceived to be synonyms to backwardness. With modernist development as the norm of the day, adivasi lifeworlds are expected to be matters of the archives. These life worlds and their associated philosophies are supposed to be in the past now. It is this past which modernist development has diagnosed as pathological thus pitching forth the urgent need to get over it and ‘move on’ towards being part of the ‘mainstream’.
The present times are turning out to be more testing than anyone of us had ever anticipated. The outbreak of COVID-19 brought the whole world at a standstill. We are still reeling with its effects as we find ourselves standing, or perhaps stranded, at a crossroads where each one of us is gaping at the other for a possible way out. We have no immediate precedence of this kind and thus the literal vacuum of national leadership on this front. The question(s) of poverty, unemployment, and hunger couldn’t have been more urgent and grave. The modernist idea of development finds itself strained - clearly, it wasn’t ready for something like this and thus the absence of a coping mechanism. The leadership of the country now envisions aatma nirbharta - understood as giving vocals to the locals. The very articulation of which reveals the assumption that hitherto the local was operating on some kind of muteness. This makes one imagine: if the local was ever aatma nirbhar. Would packages of monetary allotments be able to build this aatma nirbharta? Perhaps yes and perhaps no, perhaps it depends on the contexts of the ‘developer’ and the ‘underdeveloped’. Then, is it possible (as also 'right') to work with these questions without attending to the understanding(s) of our past(s); and what is to become of our future(s)? Perhaps in these surreal times, we need to take a moment and reflect, if these past(s), that have been rendered backward, host our hope for better future(s)?
My association with Centre for Development Practice at Ambedkar University Delhi brought me in interaction with the Baiga of Kandawaani living in the forests of present-day BaigaChak (Dindori, Madhya Pradesh). From my time in Kandawaani, I got a glimpse into the life-world of the Baiga. Surrounded by forest from all sides, Kandawaani has seen generations of the Baiga being hosted by the forest. From where the Baiga of Kandawaani sees the world, forests are looming over the horizon of their vision. In an architectural sense, Kandwaani rests as that base of the bowl which is constituted of forests making Baiga’s vision both literal as well as figurative. With years of living-in-(with) the forest, the Baigas seem to have developed intimate realizations of the ways of the forest, and the life therein. What may look like a green mess to an outsider, could be one of the most appreciated kaanda bela or bhaaji or something even more important for the Baiga. The possibilities of the forest are potent with the immensely rich range of life that it hosts. This is not to valorize the Baiga’s way of life but, a realization of it may help us conceive a (re)thinking of the grand narratives of modernist development which are unaware and perhaps also disrespectful of the Baiga's way of life, to an extent that knowingly or unknowingly it has been writing off the same.
In the cacophony of our newly developed vocabulary of aatma nirbharta - as google trends showed a spike in the number of people searching for this term as on date 02-June-2020 - I have been doing a bit of retrospective thinking of my own. My thoughts, vined around the notion of atma nirbharta, can not but be associated with the little stories from BaigaChak. I stand as a link between an idea and the experience from which emerged the idea. This idea is to suggest that the Baiga, in their own way, are indeed atma-nirbhar and it is perhaps the overloomingly rich vision(s) of forests that enable the Baiga’s aatma nirbharta (read as self - reliance)?
The onus remains on me to qualify that which I say. To be able to do this, I wish to dwell on the Baiga's meaning(s) of forest and how, in my world, I arrived at these meaning(s) or got myself associated with them. I seek to convey this through little stories (as mentioned earlier) i.e. the narrative of my life with the Baiga. They have helped me shape a new world view. These little stories, in my conception, are a kind of subversion to the otherwise dominant narratives 'on' and 'of' the adivasi. This subversion operates at two levels - (a) when the co-architect of my experiences, the Baiga, break the dominant narratives I was carrying (b) when I, through this writing, become the conveyor of those ruptures of grand narratives. I am a firsthand audience of these little stories as well as a simultaneous co-architect of them. It is through these experiences that I have carved these little stories. These stories, humble in their little-ness, enunciate my vision of the Baiga's relationship with their forests. These little stories are my navigator to think if the aatma nirbharta of the Baiga is through and because of their forests? And that way, if the Baiga has already been aatma nirbhar?
Little Stories: Capturing moment(s) of being-with the Baiga
'dongar bheetar ke aadmi'
During one of my conversations with Lacchan Devadia, one of the elderly women of Kandawaani, I prompted her 'aapka jungle se kya rishta hai?' In response, she says 'jungle hai toh theek hai, jungle maa hi gujad hai' (When the forest is around, it is fine. Sustenance is (in) forest). She takes a moment and adds, 'Baiga dongar bheetar ke aadmi hain' (Baiga are the people of the forest hills).
'jungle accha lagt hai'
'jungle ghoomne chaloge?' (Would you like to come for a stroll in the jungle?) The young girls of Kandawaani, after long days of laboring through the monsoons, took a day off from their paddy fields and invited me to join them for going around in the forest. Their question confounds me. Aren't they already living in the forest? Why do they want to roam around in the forest? It’s just the same everywhere. My inquisition is met by a stand-alone one-liner. They say, 'jungle accha lagt hai' (The forest feels good).
'sab jungle se ho raha'
I once asked Bhadli Devadia, one of my Baiga friends in Kandawaani, 'Why is the forest important for you? In response, she said, 'pehle ke samay khoob bhukmari rahi, tab ke Baiga ese anaaj nai ko kar rahe. Baiga jungle se kaanda kod ke gujad kar rahe. Okhar jad khaa le tah pher bhook nahi lage. Ab bhi toh sab jungle se ho raha." (In earlier times, there was starvation. In those days, there was no grain production, the Baiga would thus survive by eating tubers from the forest. Some of the roots could sustain the Baiga for the whole day. Even now, everything is through the forest.)
'sarai beeja la ghugri'
While the hot winds of Chait were blowing under the hot summer sun, I along with Jhamia Nandia were lazing off the afternoon under the shade of her perch. As she narrated her childhood to me, I gathered that Jhamia Bai along with her siblings (two sisters and a brother) was brought up by her grandparents. While they didn't have parental support, they worked as baandi for the kisaan (Gonds are locally referred to as kisaan) of their neighborhood. They would assist these families with household chores, and in return would get grains in exchange which was never enough for the day's meals. Their grandmother would then make ghugri out of sarai (Shorea Robusta) seeds. They would collect these seeds during the summers (Jeth), cook them in ash, and leave the seeds (overnight) in the running water of the nearby river. The following morning, these seeds were then cooked with Mahua flowers (to add sweetness), and eaten with the sweetly tangy Charotta Bhaaji. In this sense, the forest provided food security and helped them see through difficult times.
'dongar bhitar ke log'
While we were cooking one of our evening meals, on a makeshift chulha outside Sukhmat Nandia's house facing the lush Sarai of the forest, the leaves of which found themselves waving with the light winter breeze. In her musing, Sukhmat said, 'Shahar ma hamla bhook nahi lagt, Baiga dongar bhitar ke log hain, shahar maa beja chibri hoth hai' (I lose my appetite whenever I happen to be in the city, we Baiga are people of the forest hills. The city is too loud and boisterous for us).
'tumhara sahar city aur hamla jungle'
On our way up the dongar, one winter afternoon, Hariyaro Devadia, an elderly Baiga woman turned around and asked me, 'tumhe yahaan jungle bhitar chod den toh raasta jaan jaaogi? (If I abandon you here in the forest, will you be able to find your way back?). It was a rhetorical question, the answer to which was known to both of us. She further added, 'tumhara sahar city main hum raasta bhool jaaen par jungle hume poora yaad hai, jungle ko hum poora jan rahe' (I would get lost in your city but here I remember the forest in and out, I know the forest in and out).
Through these stories, I attempt to reimagine the meanings of aatma nirbharta for these people of the hills and forests. The elderly Baiga woman, the navigator of the forest, when asks me if I can find my way out of the forest if left alone, isn’t just asking a rhetorical question but is also conveying something about her own sense of aatma nirbharta within this setting. The Baiga is aware of the various life-forms with which it inhabits the forest and has a mapping of its own for that. My women companions at Kandawaani would tell (and know) the exact locations where one might find a particular species of the forest. This kind of navigation of the forest, perhaps, constitutes the Baiga’s aatma nirbharta. When the times become tough, be it for hunger or sickness, the Baiga tunes into the songs of the forest. In one of his most recent publications Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, whose grandparents lived in the princely state of Hyderabad (now Telangana) and were shepherds, narrates his grandparents coping mechanisms in response to the Bubonic Plague which had hit undivided India during the year 1897. Shepherd’s grandparents like many other peasant communities of those times retreated deeper into the forests where they could ensure distance from the disease. In this process, they developed their own community associations and survived through the forests which provided them an indispensable means to life.
The article tries to say two important things: (1) one may say, that the dongar (the forest hill) is the other meaning of aatma nirbharta which has hitherto remained understated in the grand narratives on some of our people(s) of the hills and forests. We may find several such other meanings in the world (see, Pluriverse by Kothari et all.). (2) The Baiga way of life is perhaps a small window for us to realize 'nature as the largest producer'; to realize that the self-reliant and self-sustainable present of the Baiga (and other such adivasis) could be a possible way ahead for tomorrow. Perhaps we have been delusional in believing modern factory units as the sites of production, and thus obliterating ‘nature’ into the background. Allotting handsome packages of money for setting up more of these sites and creating distribution chains to connect the local to the global couldn’t be our national imagination, or let’s say the only imagination, of aatma nirbharta. Maybe we can turn towards our hinterlands to understand what aatma nirbharta may even mean.
I seek to now take the reader through the second part (Part 2) of this article i.e. through a photographically illustrative tour wherein I attempt to present a tiny fraction of the rich range of life that the Baiga’s forest supports. I take this tour as a glimpse into (an)other meaning of aatma nirbharta that gets constituted through the forests. This my experience of 'what life with the forest-dwelling Baiga may look like'.
 Mr. Prime Minister’s public address on 02-June-2020 puts emphasis on the need to promote the local and work towards building distribution chains such that this local can be made global. It was stated that the local needs to be vocal.
 Located in Samnapur block of Dindori (Madhya Pradesh)
 January 2018 - February 2018, July 2018- August 2018 & January 2019 - May 2019
 The April issue of the magazine Down To Earth features Shepherd’s interview titled as ‘Sufferers Then Sufferers Now’