Yes, Eating Beef is Part of Many Adivasi Cultures’ -Manish Kunjam, right, former MLA and president of the All-India Adivasi maha sabha
Manish Kunjam, right, former MLA and president of the All-India Adivasi
Sabha, at a rally organised by the CPI in Bastar. Credit: Special
*As president of the All-India Adivasi Mahasabha, affiliated to the
Communist Party of India (CPI), Manish Kunjam, one of the best known
adivasi leaders in the country, is required to travel to all the adivasi
(Scheduled Tribe) areas in the country. But, says the former two-term MLA
and secretary of the CPI in Dantewada, the problems in Bastar are so
pressing that much of his time is taken up in speaking up for the basic
right to life, and identity, of villagers affected by the armed conflict
between the police and the Maoists. The adivasis of the region, he says,
are faced with the prospect of displacement following the entry of
large corporations who want to take over their land and resources; and
confronted by relentless offensives by Hindu and Christian organisations
against their ‘inferior’ traditions. The situation in Bastar reflects the
issues that affect almost all adivasis, but in an exacerbated manner, says
*He should know. In a decade or more, the adivasi leader has held rallies,
protests and public meetings in difficult circumstances to demand
accountability, and compensation, for the victims of human rights
violations during the Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt; he was also
among the petitioners in a case in which the Supreme Court banned the Salwa
Judum in 2011. He has been in the forefront of campaigns to stop
displacement in Bastar.*
*In a sharply articulated interview, Manish Kunjam talks to sociologist
Nandini Sundar about the many aspects of adivasi culture and the serious
threats to adivasi identity today, be it the latest salvo of ‘beef
politics’, the uninformed slogan of ‘development’ being throttled, the lack
of public schemes such as NREGS on the ground, causing social distress and,
most of all, the ongoing armed conflict in Bastar which is holding the
lives of the ordinary adivasi to ransom. Excerpts from the interview:*
*In the current climate of violence and intolerance that is being witnessed
in the country, especially around the issue of beef, you are one of the few
to openly state that eating beef is part of adivasi culture. *
It is a tradition in Bastar, and in many adivasi areas across central
India, to sacrifice cows during *jatras* and *mandais*, or festivals to
propitiate the Devis (mother goddesses), the Earth, and clan ancestors.
Every three, seven or twelve years, the various clans, such as Kawasi,
Marvi, etc., have a gathering at their place of origin. Clan members from
all over the region, even from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, come for
this occasion, and a cow is sacrificed to the Devi. These are all public
In addition, cow sacrifices are made to the *hanal pen* or ancestors every
year. These rituals are governed by rules regarding the colour of the cow
to be sacrificed. In some places, a black calf, and in others, a red or
white cow is specified. If people sacrifice cows, one must automatically
assume they will eat the meat then.
Of course, not all adivasi communities eat beef, but on the other hand,
beef eating is a practice not just among the adivasis but also among many
SC and OBC communities.
*What has been the response to your statement? *
Apart from statements against me by a Congress MLA, Lakeshwar Baghel, and
some BJP youth leaders, there have not been any other reactions primarily
because people know that what I am saying is true. Go around the area and
see for yourself.
*What major threats to adivasi identity do you see today? *
The government’s invitation to big companies to start mining and power
projects, which lead to large-scale displacement of adivasis combined with
an influx of outsiders, constitutes the biggest threat to adivasi identity.
Connected to this is the violence inflicted on villagers in the course of
the state-Maoist conflict, which poses a grave threat to the very existence
of adivasis. The third major threat comes from the religious offensive
mounted by both the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Christian
*Are the RSS and Christian missionaries similar in the way they approach
Both represent equally serious threats to adivasi identity but work in
different ways. The RSS enters adivasi rituals and changes them from
within, while Christian missionaries say point blank that adivasis should
not worship their traditional gods.
The RSS goes around telling people they are also Hindus. In the name of
worshipping the village Devi, they introduce the worship of Hindu goddesses
such as Sita and Durga, thus bringing in new elements into the adivasis’
traditional religion. Through songs and stories about Hindu gods like Ram
and Sita, they influence people into thinking these gods are more powerful.
Since there is no organised propaganda about our own gods, people think
they are not as important.
Earlier, village youth would stop people on the roadside for the purpose of
collecting money just for the annual seed sowing festival. Now the number
of festivals for which people collect money has increased dramatically –
festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, even Holi, which were never
[image: Manish Kunjam. Credit: Nandini Sundar]
Manish Kunjam. Credit: Nandini Sundar
*Recently, the Lohandiguda area – where the Tatas want to set up a steel
plant – was in the news because the villagers were reported as saying they
would not allow Christian missionaries
into their villages. What does it signify? *
Lohandiguda happened to come into the news; the truth is that such
incidents are happening everywhere. The main cause of conflict in the
villages is the refusal of Christians to make contributions for village
festivals. In Lohandiguda, the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)
used this opportunity to incite the villagers to beat up the Christians.
What was essentially a local fight was made into a bigger issue by outside
*During a visit to Dantewada in May 2015, Prime Minister Modi announced
that an ultra mega steel plant would be built by the National Mineral
Development Corporation in Dilmilli near Jagdalpur. Why is the Adivasi
Mahasabha protesting against it? *
Dilmilli is a big area with 13 panchayats, with a significant population
residing near Jagdalpur. Hence, the first important question is, how will
the area benefit if so many people are displaced? Second, neither the Steel
Authority of India Limited (SAIL) nor the National Mineral Development
Corporation (NMDC), are in good economic shape. NMDC recently sold 30% of
its shares; there is a slump in the sale of its products. The construction
of NMDC’s steel plant at Nagarnar, which is also close to Jagdalpur, is
still underway, and it is not quite clear when it will be completed.
Moreover, NMDC has not been able to give jobs to all those people whose
land was acquired in Nagarnar; much of the casual labour employed has been
brought from outside. Seeing how unhappy people are in Nagarnar, those in
Dilmilli are bound to protest. In such a context, how does NMDC expect to
establish another ultra mega steel plant?
The Adivasi Mahasabha is leading the protest – it has organised seven or
eight meetings, including three big ones in Jagdalpur, and many rallies.
Several gram sabhas have opposed the project.
*What is the situation in Bastar now with respect to the conflict between
security forces and Maoists? *
Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camps are being set up every five or
six km, we could never have imagined there would be so many. These camps
line the main roads; so much so that all of Bastar has been turned into a
cantonment. By the look of it, they seem to be planning a big offensive. In
such a situation, it is the ordinary adivasi who will suffer the most.
That is why a dialogue between the government and Maoists is a must.
Already people are fleeing to Telangana. The situation has been compounded
by drought this year. The Maoists are telling people not to take the
rations provided by the government. Not that chief minister Raman Singh’s
government was providing the entire amount of rations needed, but whatever
it was giving was necessary for survival. Now people have no alternative
but to migrate.
Vilagers walking to attend Adivasi Mahasabha rally in Jagdalpur, November
2007. Credit: Special Arrangement
The problem is compounded by the fact that there are no public work
projects such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee
Scheme (NREGS) in those areas. While people’s needs have increased over
time, there is no corresponding source of cash income. In this respect, the
Maoists are working against the people’s interests.
The signs of distress are evident. I see many people coming to Sukma for
work, whether in people’s fields or in building works. Earlier people
migrated seasonally to cut tobacco for a couple of weeks. Now they migrate
for work all twelve months.
*In such circumstances, does trafficking pose a threat? *
Since women are going to work in places that are far away, we do get to
hear of instances where they are sexually exploited. Young people are
especially targeted by recruiters. It is an issue that the Adivasi
Mahasabha has raised in its meetings.
*How easy is to organise Adivasi Mahasabha meetings in the ever present
shadow of conflict?*
We don’t hold meetings in villages any more because the CRPF consider any
such assembly as a Maoist meeting. So we try and hold larger meetings at
the block or tehsil level. But yes, organising Adivasi Mahasabha meetings
has become difficult indeed.
*Though there was a news report to the contrary, the Indian Air Force has
clarified that there is no change in its policy of not undertaking
“offensive” operations in Bastar. But seeing the build-up of CRPF in the
area, do you foresee a scenario in which the air force plays a greater role
The fear has existed for many years. Now helicopters fly even at night,
and helipads are being made to facilitate night descents.
Almost daily we get calls from people saying someone has been arrested or
that COBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolution Action) forces are beating up
or killing villagers
Recently, there was an incident in Chintagufa where the woman sarpanch and
other women were severely beaten, and their houses raided by the COBRA
forces. When we complained to the Superintendent of Police he said that he
cannot control central forces like the COBRA! We held a protest rally that
was attended by around 500 people, and a drone sent forth by the Cobra for
surveillance was relaying images in real time. It sounded like a big
mosquito buzzing overhead.
There are many cases we cannot take up – we know this is a weakness – but
we are trying our best.
*You were recently able to stop illegal mining around your village, Ramaram
– tell us more. *
For a long time we have been saying that the Sukma-Konta section of the
National Highway should be repaired as it is in a bad shape. We discovered
that things were not moving because the contractor was selling *gitti *to
Odisha. He was also pilfering soil from a local farmer’s field. When we
complained to the district collector, he refused to take action. Then I
told a journalist with *Haribhumi* to publicise it. Reena Kangale, in the
Directorate of Geology and Mining in Raipur, saw the news on WhatsApp and
sent a team from the state capital to investigate the matter. Finally, an
FIR was registered against the contractor.
*What is the solution to all these problems? *
There are two steps that need to be taken: First, we appeal to the Maoists
and the government to start a dialogue; second, Bastar should have autonomy
so that people’s *jal jungle jameen *(water, forest, land) is preserved,
and there is no need for villagers to take up arms to defend their
The Constitution of India has provided for autonomy of tribal areas n the
Sixth Schedule. Right now, it is only applicable to the Northeast but we
have been fighting to make it applicable to Bastar also. The Panchayats
(Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA), currently applicable to
Bastar under the Fifth Schedule, should also be properly implemented. PESA,
which gives the gram sabha powers to decide on various things at the
village level, can work only when the elected representatives higher up are
Women in Bastar. Credit: Chhattisgarh Tourism
Right now the administration is dependent on the chief minister (CM) in
Raipur, but we can’t go to the CM for everything. If decisions are taken by
local elected representatives of an autonomous tribal council, they will be
far more conscious of their actions.
We have come to the conclusion that this combination is the only way to
resolve the host of issues plaguing Bastar. This has been acknowledged by
BD Sharma, former Commissioner Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and
one of the key architects of PESA.
*As President of the All-India Adivasi Mahasabha, what are the problems you
see in adivasi areas generally? *
What I have said about Bastar is common to all adivasi areas. As president
of the Adivasi Mahasabha, I am required to travel to all the adivasi areas,
but have been unable to do so simply because the problems in Bastar are so
pressing. Nevertheless, I am trying my best.
Recently, I visited Gadchiroli in Maharashtra to attend the commemoration
ceremony of Veer Bapurao Shedmake, who was hanged for taking part in the
revolt of 1857. He came from an ordinary adivasi family. In fact, a century
ago, great leaders like Birsa Munda, Gunda Dhur, Sidhu and Kanhu, and
Alluri Sita Rama Raju, too, emerged from ordinary adivasi families.
Adivasis have always rebelled against attempts by to take over their land.
Today, with so many business corporations entering adivasi areas, CRPF
camps are becoming a regular presence, as are outsiders who are taking over
adivasi land and turning them into minorities. We are once again faced with
an all-important question – what should we do about it?
[image: An Adivasi Mahasabha rally. Credit: Special Arrangement]
An Adivasi Mahasabha rally. Credit: Special Arrangement
In Gadchiroli, the RSS is saying that they will work towards the abolition
of PESA. This flows from the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory
in the adivasi areas during the 2015 Maharashtra state elections was made
possible by the support of non-tribals. The RSS is a threat not only to
adivasi culture but also to constitutional provisions like PESA and
reservation, which were designed to empower and protect adivasis.
The most important question is, how long will adivasis in India be able to
retain their identity, and in what form? Adivasis today, like mainstream
society, are getting attracted by the winds of politics, trade and
consumerism. All these constitute powerful forces of change, and we need to
think of ways of keeping our identities alive even as we respond to the
challenges of our time.
Sundar adds:* Interestingly, W.G. Grigson, Administrator of Bastar State in
the 1920s, and author of the classic *Maria Gonds of Bastar*, writes that
even then there was pressure on adivasis from Hindus not to sacrifice cows,
but cow sacrifices were deemed essential to their beliefs about the dead.
*Nandini Sundar is a Professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of