By Manju Gupta
Wide Wings of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram by Surya Narain Saxena, Suruchi Prakashan, 320 pp, Rs 140.00
This book by a radical Hindu thinker, analyst and journalist is a painstaking effort on the quiet but dedicated and multidimensional work of the voluntary organisation, called the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, for the uplift of the tribals or the Vanvasis of the country. The book is a study of the missionary endeavour, the odds faced on the path and how these were overcome by those who gave their lives and years to build the body from a non-entity to its present shape and size.
India is undoubtedly richer and more colourful because of these peace-loving tribals known as Janajatis or Vanvasis according to the Constitution of India. They have been in the vanguard of most national movements, including the country'snational freedom movement. Today they are an inseparable part not only of the country'sfolklore, mythology and history, but also of sports and politics.
A few decades ago, RSS Sarsanghachalak Shri Guruji had inspired a renowned freedom fighter, Shri Ramakant (Balasaheb) Desh-pande, to start the Kalyan Ashram for the economic development of the tribal society. Today the small step has acquired the form of a mass movement. The Ashram has built up its presence in almost every nook and corner of tribal India, serving through hospitals, schools, hostels, balwadis, adult education centres and various other humanitarian activities.
However, the Vanvasis of India have yet to be educated on their nation'shistory. Scholars say that the Vanvasis helped Shri Rama and that Sugriva, Shabari and Hanuman, all were Vanvasis. In Arunachal Pradesh, Rukmini is believed to be from the Idu Mishimi tribe. Legendary heroes like Birsa Munda, Rani Gaidinliu and Thalakkal Chandu are immortal icons of India'shistory.
Ironically, in the past while certain colonial ?scholars? and anthropologists kept labelling various Vanvasis as ?criminal tribes?, ?head-hunters?, etc., aggressive proselytisers contemptuously called them heathens and pagans, posing as the sole emancipators and well-wishers of these ?sinful? souls. The Vanvasis, called ?aborigines? by Europeans, were kept apart from the mainstream society and were declared ?animists? having no religion worth the name. The Vanvasi areas were sealed off as ?protected areas? to all except Christian missionaries to carry out conversions to Christianity by force, fraud and allurements and destroy their rich culture and heritage.
The Vanvasis, comprising some 400 tribes and sub-tribes?the Bhils of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh being over 5,000,000 are the largest and the Great Andamanese, merely 20 persons, are the smallest?about 8 per cent of India'spopulation. They generally inhabit the hills, forests, deserts in the remote interior or border regions of the country, where communications are poor or non-existent and life difficult to sustain. Their environment and habitat are handicapped by several factors?social, economic and anthropological?imposing on them a life of want and suffering, resulting in extreme poverty, backwardness, illiteracy, superstitions and inertia.
The author says, ?The picture of tribal life from Arunachal Pradesh in the east to Gujarat in the west and from Ladakh in the north to Kerala or Nicobar in the south, wherever they live, is more or less the same. Their physical isolation or distance from the social or national mainstream over the centuries has naturally instilled in them a sense of insecurity, aloofness and separateness, which deprived them the much needed spirit of enterprise and the will to better their lot, the qualities that develop from close contact and interaction between various groups, castes and classes of people.? In the absence of contact and interaction, the life of a group becomes static and a state of no-change takes over which is generally broken by an alien culture through exploitation.
The author'sregret is that the fruits of modern age and the democratic process have not yet reached these poor Vanvasis. According to the author, ?poverty and ignorance attract a number of exploitative forces, which, when allowed a free hand among them, destroy their social fabric and delink them from the socio-cultural mainstream of the country or nation. In India, these forces have been working under three garbs?namely, religion, politics and business.? The author says that in religion, exploitation is through Church-controlled education and health services aided by foreign money. In politics it is through communist-led elements and agents of neo-secessionist imperialists of the West, who mastermind violent agitations and spread hatred among various sections of the society. In business, it is through money-lenders, traders and other unscrupulous economic exploiters.
The author has identified the various roles the State can play in preserving the identity of the Vanvasis:
- guarantee the preservation of cultural heritage and continuity of living traditions;
- constitute various agencies for ensuring State protection;
- procure, store and research in tribal culture;
- popularise and develop tribal culture;
- ban conversions;
- protect tribal cultural heritage.
(Suruchi Prakashan, D.B. Gupta Road, Jhandewalan, New Delhi-110055.)