Monday, July 23, 2012

Recovering the Lost Tongue by Rahul Banerjee : A book review

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During my first job in Kolkata, one of the places I visited frequently on business tours was situated nearly half-way between Kolkata and Mumbai at Bhilai. My job was to market process instrumentation/automation equipments in the largest steel plant of India, Bhilai Plant. While on my way back by the Howrah-mail, it had become almost a regular ritual for me to look at the huge industrial structure spewing fumes , black, gray,red , as well as steam as it faded away in the background. I marvelled at the huge plant that made steel rails and at the vision of Nehru, the first prime minister of India whose obsession with rapid industrial development not only created this plant among many others but also the Institute from where I had received my engineering degree , the IITs. Little did I know then of a then-unknown senior of mine from my alma mater who was working some hundred kilometers south -west of Bhilai city among  Bhils (from whom this steel city appears to have  derived its name) , a  tribal population of Madhya Pradesh against modern-day industrial development.
Rahul Banerjee, graduated from IIT Kharagpur in the early eighties and was seriously disturbed to see how the tribal villages situated within a kilometer of IIT had received absolutely no impact of technology or development even after 3 decades of setting up of IIT. He questioned the usefulness of his technical degree and though he had joined   National Dairy Development Board in Kolkata , he had chucked it after a few days because they didn't allow him to wear his Kurta-Pajama in office  and had headed straight to Rajasthan to work for an NGO named Social Work and Research Center that had sent him to work among the adivasis in the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh to aid the adivasis in fighting for their rights against the socio-economic oppression that had raged on for centuries since the advent of the British.
The book however doesn't start with Rahul's beginning of a three decade long journey but with the brutal massacre of tribals in Mehendikhera village on the banks of the Lehar river in April '2001 by the district administration, police,forest officials who wanted to completely break the backbones of the mass organisation  of tribals , Adivasi Morcha Sangathan,  for daring to raise the issue of tribal rights on the use of forest for their livelihood. The case is still gathering dust in the courts and the non-adivasi culprits haven't been brought to book even as I write this.
Recovering the lost tongue is , as the author calls it,  the "saga of environmental struggles in Central India." Through the 29 chapters of the book, the author narrates the self-sustained lifestyle of the adivasis that existed in the 16th century under the dynasty  of Haihayas(1000.-1757 A.D), till they were overrun by the marauding Marathas. In tune with the environment , the ecological system  gave them their livelihood, culture, herbal medicine & civilisation. Then came in the Marathas followed by the British with their Zamindari system and industrial development , the tempo of which was not only sustained by the independent India's rulers but also paced up rapidly. This led to a huge collateral damage not only to the environment at large but also initiated decimation of livelihood,  culture , way of life &  oral history  transmitted by Gayans or bards of the Bhils.
The book derives its names from one such oral tale where a woman who disobeyed her husband was asked to cut her tongue for her husband to swallow as retribution . The tongue however got stuck in his throat. Just like the Bhils tribal civilisation and their voices have been silenced for centuries. The book, the author stresses, is an attempt to recover that lost tongue of Bhils by telling their stories, joys and sorrows.  To me , it sounds almost familiar with the narrative of an aged wanderlust in Satyajit Ray's film, Agantuk, who returns to his hometown after 5 decades and defends the ancient tribal lives against modern-day civilisation.
The book is also about the author's auto-biography , a documentary about his work for tribal rights , his as well as his compatriot's  struggles against state repression , red-tapism, indifference & hostility and his evolving philosophy about mass organisations and their leaders. Not only famous environmental movement like the Narmada Bachao Andolan  comes up repeatedly in this book but also the author's encounters with mass leaders like Baba Amte, Medha Patkar are narrated for future historians to take note of. The long struggles have left him exasperated like the mythical  Sisyphus, as he mentions repeatedly .They have made him a non-believer  about modern day industrial development that not only destroys the environment much more rapidly than we can think of but also enhances the inequity between the dispossessed mass and the greedy few.
Having read Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi, I had thought I know all about not only mainstream Indian politics and their representations of castes and subsequent  legislation of affirmative action since India gained independence in 1947. But this book gives the currents about sub-strata behind the  upper layers of the democratic structure that we have been conditioned to accept as the liberating system. On the contrary reading about impossible  struggles after struggles for constitution-guaranteed self-governance rights of the tribals or for removal of patriarchy or for guarantee of women's reproductive health rights or for education in the language of the tribals; one is forced to visualise that this pseudo-democratic structure of power-hungry politicians, indifferent bureaucrats ,  destructive  industrialists, greedy traders & corrupt magistrates  will never allow the marginalised to participate in the development process and will ruthlessly suppress any mass movement that springs up to to do the contrary.
In conclusion, this is an unique  book that a modern day reader will find extermely educative thanks largely to the author's free-flowing language , his intellect , his liberal use of humour and his ability to easily disseminate difficult philosophies for the uninitiated.

Rahul Banerjee's book (Nov'08 edition, 351pp)  is available from
Prachi Publications (04024602009; and
is priced at Rs.250/-.

Pictue Source : A photo-essay on the Bhil Adivasis


Rahul Banerjee said...

A nice detailed review of the book. Which is as you have so rightly said a chronicle of the many vibrant struggles for democracy at the grassroots.

Salty said...

Thanks rahul for your comments.