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Prof. Devy (left) at his classroom

Professor Ganesh Devy of Baroda was conferred upon with a Padmashree for literature and education on 26 January 2014. Devy, 63, is one of the founders of Bhasha Research and Publication Centre and the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Right Action Group (DNT-RAG). It was Devy who led the ambitious people's linguistic survey of India in 2010-11 with the aim of documenting every living language in the country. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award (1994) for ‘After Amnesia,’ an original analysis of literary criticism in India, and the SAARC Writers’ Foundation Award (2000) for his work with denotified tribes. His Marathi book ‘Vanaprasth’ has received six awards including the Durga Bhagwat Memorial Award and the Maharashtra Foundation Award (2007).
Anosh Malekar profiles Prof. Devy and takes us through his fascinating work.

I first heard of Bhasha sometime in 1998 within months of shifting to Ahmedabad as The WEEK’s Gujarat correspondent. I had wanted to interview Mahasweta Devi, the previous year’s Jnanapith and Magsaysay winner, who had been in Baroda to deliver the Verrier Elwin Memorial Lecture and had set up the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group (DNTRAG) along with fellow writer-activists Ganesh Devy and Laxman Gaikwad. But I had no idea how to get in touch with her.

A journalist friend from Baroda suggested I contact Professor Devy of Bhasha Research and Publication Center. “He will help you. He is a nice man, though a bit eccentric,” he added tongue-in-cheek.

I made further enquires about Professor Devy and Bhasha with someone I knew at M S University. “Oh.. Dr Devy? He is a gentleman.. But I don’t know why he gave up the academic life for those tribes. I heard lately he has been talking of people called DNTs. Hopefully, Bhasha does not turn out to be a den of criminals..ha..ha..ha.”

With this brief introduction, I called up Professor Devy: “Bhasha is working for greater appreciation of the languages and cultures of adivasis, whose national population is 90 million, and the nomadic and denotified communities, whose population is estimated at 60 million. We are also engaged in ensuring their entitlement to constitutional guarantees and social security,” I heard him out.

As a newspaper reporter covering the police beat in Pune I had known the DNTs well, or so I thought, the Phase Pardhis, the Gai Pardhis and so on….

I came to the point. Can he help arrange an interview with Mahasweta Devi?

We decided to meet in Ahmedabad where the Jnanapith and Magsaysay winner was to meet municipal officials on the issue of Chharanagar, a pre-Independence era resettlement site on the city’s outskirts, where the Chhara community had lived ever since their notification as ‘criminals’ by the British.

It was a memorable encounter. When Mahasweta asked the young boys and girls from the ‘criminal ghetto’ what it was that they needed most, they said: “books to read.” 

I was astonished. These people cannot be any better than the Pardhis whose profession was to loot trains on the Pune-Solapur route. Now they want to read books, Fine!

The Jnanapith and Magsaysay winner interacting with young boys and girls from the ‘criminal ghetto’ made good copy for the magazine, which was more than fine with me.

The eccentric professor with whom I had the bare minimum interaction in Ahmedabad lingered in mind. What was he up to? What was Bhasha? How can people who can barely read or write – Professor Devy himself had said the literacy rate among the tribals of Gujarat’s Panchmahals district was as low as 20% for men and 5% for women – be a part of Bhasha? I had to find out for myself.

The man had a long innings teaching English literature at M S University and University of Leeds and could have continued to teach and write literary criticism - his work After Amnesia had won him the Sahitya Akademi award in 1993 – and he was in fact engaged in publishing a series on tribal literature comprising 50 volumes as the director of the Sahitya Akademi Project on Literature in Tribal Languages and Oral Traditions.

“I don’t attach much importance to all that. I would rather be forgotten and die a pauper. I did not inherit anything and would not like to keep anything for my wife and daughter,” Professor Devy said in response to my request for an interview.

“My personality is a bit problematic. I either live in the past or in the future. I am never in the present,” he continued. I recollected what my journalist friend from Baroda had to say about him. It was too late.

“The future is, in the tribal’s case, the enemy of the past,” Professor Devy observed as we watched hordes of tribals, perched atop jeeps and trucks migrating to Baroda in search of employment. We were on our way to Tejgadh, which he said was the last outpost of a great tribal civilization situated in Chhota Udepur east of Baroda on the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border.

I couldn’t help remember the “freakish Englishman” by the name of Verrier Elwin who more than half a century ago had moved to a tribal village in the heart of India, roughly a thousand miles further east on the path we were traveling in the present. Elwin spent the rest of his life among the tribals of India, whom he loved and worked for, and about whom he wrote beautifully, intensely and extensively in The Oxford India Elwin.

Coming from Pune I had only a faint idea of the tribal problem, but could grasp the huge proportion of the work Professor Devy proposed to get involved in. It entailed not just the question of reducing the economic deprivation of the Adivasis and DNT's but also of mainstream social attitudes beset with stereotypes. Besides, the question of restoring adivasi access to resources such as land, water and forest, Bhasha was to pursue a line of action that aimed at a social transformation by activating the energy and imagination of the young and the educated among the Adivasis. 

Why Civilize the Tribals?

Professor Devy talked excitedly about his experiment as our taxi sped towards Tejgadh. “The adivasis are better in so many ways than the so-called civilized society. There is no caste system among them and gender discrimination is less. There is respect for individuals and widows do not carry a stigma. Raped women are not mentally tortured and orphans are not left to beg. Adivasis neither exploit other people nor destroy nature to build monuments of human ego. Can such people be considered uncivilized? It is time India gave a thought to these communities,” he said.

What pained him was the effort to civilize the tribals. “Why do we insist that adivasi children attend schools meant for us? We have decided that what is good for us is good for adivasi communities as well. In the process, we are destroying a rich vein of our cultural heritage.”

It was easy to be skeptical at that point of time.

A few years ago, Professor Devy himself had thought of the adivasis ‘as people who choose to remain illiterate and as the progeny of thoughtless parents who did nothing but produce too many children.’ But over a period of time he had become curious and had since 1995 started making a systematic list of every migrant tribal labourer, later calling a monthly meeting on the new moon day to realize that ninety per cent of them were from Panchmahals. He was convinced that “only a very serious commitment to development in that area will slowly, very slowly, bring about a change… (for)… if things continue in this manner for a longer time, the condition in Panchmahal will also be the condition of other tribal districts of Gujarat…While the rest of the country is racing to join the international market, the tribals were imprisoned in their only capital - their bodies.”

Devy was planning to set up a tribal academy at Tejgadh: “The aim is to provide a place where not only the tribals but also scholars, sociologists, anthropologists and linguists can stay and study.”

He also dreamt of a publishing house of the tribals, for the tribals, wanting the tribal to write his own anthropology: “Why should it always be the study of those inferior by those who consider themselves superior? Have you ever come across a Zulu writing about European society?”

In the late nineties, Tejgadh had a population of around 5,000, of whom some eighty per cent were tribals – Rathwas mostly. The men and women wore elegant silver jewellery and their houses were adorned with unique paintings of the tribal God Baba Pithoro.

The Pithora paintings, which were to be found on three walls of the main hall of the Rathwa houses made of mud and thatch, depicted all that was ancient and valuable in their society, Naginbhai Rathwa, a local youth, explained. The tribal gods and their horses, whose features were distorted by the brush of the playful artist, surrounded by birds, animals, mountains and rivers, were indeed impressive. So was the campus of the tribal academy located on the outskirts of Tejgadh.

 

Photo courtesy: The Adivasi Academy, Tejgarh

The Tribal Academy at Tejgarh
I visited the campus in the monsoon of 2003, when the third batch had just begun its academic session. The Koraj hill overlooked a manmade check dam brimming with rain water, while the Mahuda and Nilgiri trees filled the gaps between huge boulders that marked the landscape. There were no stable structures, except the main one that was being built with bricks to house a modern library, museum of tribal sounds and an artists’ workshop. The only functional building was a typical mud and thatch structure constructed a couple of years ago by students and teachers. It was named Chaitanya in celebration of the new awakening among the tribal youth. It housed student activities and interests, including a pet cat. The roof leaked and pots and pans placed strategically caught every sacred drop of the monsoon drizzle.

The only classroom or learning cottage was named Samvega. It was located further downhill toward the seasonal stream whose path formed a natural boundary on the east. The bamboo mesh windows allowed a free flow of air and a breathtaking view of the wet greenery. The students had the option of squatting on the tiny lawn at the centre or sitting on the rows of steps around it or better still bunk classes and sit under a huge Mahuda tree discussing a subject of their choice.

“Our studies are based on the principle that any learning without benefit to human society is sinful,” Manisha Varia, a first-batch student now imparting training in micro-credit and helping form self-help groups, explained. There were no examinations and students sought grades on the basis of dissertations.

The academy’s students had set up micro-credit groups, water banks, grain banks, wadis (mostly mango orchards) and were also helping communities in raising honeybees in villages surrounding Tejgadh. Primary education and health awareness, particularly about sickle-cell anaemia, a genetic disorder prevalent among tribal communities, topped the students’ priority list.

The academy planned to extend its activities beyond Gujarat, researching and documenting the history, culture, arts, languages, medicine, economy and development of India’s adivasis. It had just launched its research programme with 23 students enrolling for doctorates that year. “Bhasha is a stream of thought and the Tribal Academy its practical wing,” Professor Devy said.

The intervening years hadn’t been easy for Bhasha. First, there was the killer earthquake that devastated Kutch district and parts of Ahmedabad on January 26, 2001. Bhasha activists and students at the Tribal Academy formed teams and rushed to Kutch, staying put for months in the affected area working to rehabilitate a village.

The beginning of 2002 turned out to be worse as communal violence engulfed most parts of central, eastern and northern Gujarat after the Godhra incident on February 27. Tejgadh was quiet in the initial weeks, but by mid-March sporadic incidents of burning and looting of Muslim properties began to be reported. Liqour was being distributed freely along with an unlimited supply of petrol and kerosene all over the Panchmahals.

Professor Devy was at pains to convey that the Gujarat tribals’ concern for economic development was far greater than that for the construction of a temple. ‘I have been working in Tejgadh and the surrounding villages. Mahasweta Devi helped us to establish a tribal academy there. Mahasweta Devi and I would like all Indians to know that the tribals of Gujarat are unnecessarily being dragged into the Mandir politics. What they need and want is decent education, health and employment and not temples and religious leaders. Bread, and not god, is what they want,’ he wrote in ‘A Nomad Called Thief -  Reflections on Adivasi Silence,’ a collection of essays published by Orient Longman.

It must be emphasized here that Bhasha was born amidst a raging religious conflict in Gujarat’s Dangs district, which has the highest concentration of adivasi population in the state. Sporadic attacks on Christians were reported from different parts of Gujarat ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the state. But the real shocker came on Christmas day in 1998 when hard-line Hindu groups, alleging the church wanted to convert adivasi India, burned and vandalised churches and prayer halls in the Dangs district inviting international condemnation. The Dangi tribals were caught in a difficult dilemma. Suddenly there was heavy pressure on the nature worshippers to decide whether they were Christian or Hindu.

I had a brief exposure to the difficulties of existence as an adivasi when I visited Dangs to meet Dahyabhai Vadhu, a Kunkna writer with sincere eyes, dark complexion and a slight but elegant physique. Dahyabhai was active with Bhasha and this involvement had filled him with the urge to present his culture and literature to the world and preserve it for posterity. In the Kunkna bhagat’s kathas, recorded by Dahyabhai, the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh were depicted as lusty and greedy, who harassed the poor. This invited the wrath of hard-line Hindu groups, who equated Dahyabhai with the Christian missionaries. I got a few threatening calls for featuring the kathas in the magazine. One could imagine the risk run by Bhasha at the height of this full-fledged battle of politics and religion between Hindu hardliners and Christian proselytizers.

In fact, Professor Devy was the target of a major hate campaign when he spoke to Tehelka magazine about communal riots caused by the demolition of a mazar of a Sufi saint in Baroda by municipal authorities in 2006. Tracing the source of the growing violence in Gujarat, Professor Devy had explained that there was a relationship between a society’s acquisitive tendency and the emergence of violence. He also talked about the role of ‘decent’ people in breeding hatred. Photocopies of the interview were circulated and nearly everybody in Gujarati literature reacted angrily, demanding an apology. Professor Devy wrote to his friends to keep them informed but did not want any campaign in his solidarity. Through his writings, he continues to explain why we should get rid of our obsession with the mission of bringing tribals to the mainstream.

The Tribal Academy is today creating adivasi intellectuals who are defining their own identity — which means that it would not be easy to integrate them in a larger Hindu identity or wean them off to western thought percolating through Christianity and globalisation. Bhasha and the Tribal Academy are, therefore, an irritant for the Hindu hardliners, Christian proselytizers and proponents of globalisation. While Dhol, a periodical conceptualized and edited by adivasis in eleven adivasi languages, continues to revitalize threatened languages and provide voice to silenced cultures, the latest Sangharsh Shatak, a novel series of a hundred titles in print literature conceptualized by Purva Prakash, Bhasha’s new publication wing, provides food for thought for all those (especially non-tribals) who would like to see this world as a place without injustice, ecological exploitation and economic deprivation.

The adivasis of Gujarat are today advocating for a novel counterpoint to the brutality inherent to the Special Economic Zone. An idea they call the ‘Green Economic Zone’ (GEZ) that has at its foundation the concepts of sustainability, ecological sensitivity and an ingrained understanding of the cultural roots of a people. Although utopian and as yet lacking in terms of exact parameters and clear definitions, the idea is to revitalize agriculture, promote local industries and form market linkages — all without destroying the biodiversity and local livelihoods and with local resource and investment. No foreign capital. This massive initiative was launched on 5 June 2009 at the Tribal Academy.

Over 2,000 people marched from June 5 to 12 covering scores of villages spanning the region between Tejgadh and Vedchi, Rajpipla and Vankoda, Naroda and Rangpur. A team of dedicated karyakartas decided during the Vivekshil Vikas Mate No Pravas (A march for wise and sound development) to develop GEZs across 2,000 villages falling between the Mahi River in the north and the Tapi in the south, with the Narmada flowing in between. It had been nearly a decade now since a group of young adivasis met at Tejgadh in 2000 and resolved to make their villages free of hunger, indebtedness, exploitation arising out of illiteracy, and migration arising out of helplessness.

The First Language Summit
In 2010, Bhasha hosted Bharat Bhasha Confluence, the first of its kind language summit held in a country that boasts 22 official languages, 200-odd rationalised mother tongues, and no one knows exactly how many minor languages and dialects. The event, held at the M S University campus in Baroda and the Tribal Academy at Tejgadh, was attended by over 600 speakers of 320 Indian bhashas representing all states and union territories from Ladhak to the Andamans and Kohima to Kutch. Professor Devy said: “It is perhaps for the first time that such a gathering of numerous speech communities is being held. I need not add that such a gathering – we call it not a conference but a ‘confluence’ – has never been attempted anywhere in India.”

At the inaugural function, sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan set the tone: “This is not a confluence of dead languages. We are here to celebrate languages. Modern democracy cannot be built on English. A true democracy has to be multilingual.” For three days the participants shared the plight of different languages, communities and states to arrive at an idea of the problems involved and visualise possible steps to be taken to protect India’s multilingual traditions. Professor Devy announced on the concluding day that a people’s linguistic survey of India will be planned to understand and deal with this situation. “We have decided to conduct a linguistic survey of India on behalf of the people. It will not be an official exercise. Ours will not be a survey really. We choose to call it ‘Abhivyakti’ or expression of ‘Bharatiyatva.’ We expect some 1,200 participants to deliberate and finalise the plan.”

Away from the conference deliberations and announcements, I was trying to retrace the roots of Bhasha and its journey over the past decade and to locate where it had arrived to carry further the cause of adivasi India. I roamed the Academy campus rather aimlessly; spending time under the Mahuda tree observing the activity around, visiting the learning cottage named Samvega for some silence, and finally deciding to have a look at the manmade check dam at the foot of the Koraj hill. There was not a drop of water in it. It was summer time now unlike the monsoon of 2003 when I had found it brimming with rain water.  Then a group of local adivasi boys accompanying a Naga youth delegate caught my attention. The Naga youth was having a close look at a cashew tree that had taken healthy roots between the Mahuda and Nilgiris. The Rathwa boys were providing him every bit of information they had as he carefully inspected the short, irregular trunk, and checked on the spirally arranged, leathery textured leaves. “Hamare wahan… caju ka tree nahi hai,” the Naga youth was saying, explaining the curiosity as he asked the boys to pose with the tree for a photograph he would carry home.

Once again, I couldn’t help recall what the “freakish Englishman” by the name of Verrier Elwin had to observe about India’s adivasis in his account from The Oxford India Elwin. Elwin and his lifelong friend Shamrao Hiwale had built up a small settlement at Karanjia, complete with a school, hospital, mud Chapel, thatched houses, proper spaces for poultry and cattle, and pits for refuse and manure. The settlement, in true Gond style, also had lots of flowers planted and many pet rabbits and pigeons.

In Elwin’s inimitable words: “All this made a great impression and one day we went with Mahatu the Baiga wizard to a neighbouring village and he gave a little talk on the ashram. ‘They have a beautiful flower garden,’ he said, ‘and a leopard goddess, and a bird which goes gobble-gobble and another that says quack-quack and some deer.’ ‘That’s all?’ I asked. ‘Yes, that’s all. But’—after a little thought—‘there is a school and hospital.’ But you could see what really interested him.”

The conversation between the Rathwa boys from western India and the Naga youth from north-east India was, for me, a sign that the adivasi children were pursuing what really interested them. They were free to decide what is good for them. And, more importantly, a rich vein of our cultural heritage was being preserved and allowed to prosper at Tejgadh.

The future was no longer an enemy of their past!

 

Anosh Malekar may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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