Returning to the Communities’ Table

By Stella James  

  1. The language problem

Hidden in the north-western corner of Odisha, between the districts of Keonjhar and Sundergarh lies the Khandadhar: a gorgeous hill range home to thick forests, Odisha’s highest waterfall, and to iron ore mines. Going to the Khandadhar is a remarkable experience. One moves from dusty, broken roads with constant movement of overloaded trucks, coughing and spitting, into the coolness of the woods. Leopards, giant squirrels, bears and elephants share space in these hills with several tribes, one among them, the Paudibhuyan[1].

One beautiful evening, in a meeting with the bhuyan to discuss the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the facilitator had some trouble with communication.[2] My memory of how that conversation went is this:

“Facilitator: Who do you worship?

People: We worship the Khandadhar.

Facilitator: Yes, but what in the Khandadhar?

People (with baffled expressions): Sir, we worship the mountains.

Facilitator: Which mountain?

People (looking confused again): All of them

Facilitator: Arre, but what in the mountain do you worship?

People: We worship the mountain, sir. The mountain has water, trees and all.

Facilitator (clearly beginning to get frustrated now, tries a different tack): Don’t you have a deity?

People: Yes sir. There is Kanta Devi. We worship her also.

Facilitator (with evident relief): Okay, where does Kanta Devi live?

People: Sir, she lives in the mountains.

Facilitator: So you worship Kanta Devi in the mountains.

People: Sir, we worship Kanta Devi also, and we worship the mountains also”

I sat on one side watching the whole proceedings with barely contained laughter. But it was only later that I began to understand that this mutual confusion was a direct consequence of the dissonance in the worldviews of the facilitator and the people. The bhuyans, long practitioners of sarna (a form of ‘animism’), take the interconnectedness of nature for granted. Worshipping everything in their landscape – river, trees, grains, agricultural implements, rocks, the mountain itself, village or forest deities – comes naturally to them. The facilitator, speaking the language of the law had difficulty adjusting their brand of spirituality into the law’s stricter mores. This is not an indictment of the facilitator; he, with all good intentions, was simply trying to recreate the Niyamgiri model.[3]

Along with the FRA, the Niyamgiri judgment has been the lifeline of all those seeking justice for adivasis in India. In one fell stroke, Justices Aftab Alam, KS Radhakrishnan and Ranjan Gogoi overturned years of injustice and changed the face of environmentalism in India. Legally, it was a great victory for community rights. So, what, if anything, is amiss?

As the conversation between facilitator and Paudibhuyan showed to me, adivasis and the law are still speaking completely different languages. Without really calling for mainstreaming, legal empowerment models have often revolved around the community being made more literate, the community learning to understand and speak the language of the law, the community pushing for greater spaces for itself in the law. And with the intractability of the legal system in general, these pushes are necessary and important. And yet the burden has been on communities to adjust their worldviews and practices to fit within the legal system, and barring a few momentous pushes like the Niyamgiri judgment, there has been much less pressure on the legal system to adjust itself to the worldviews and practices of adivasi communities.

  2. Words, words, words

One simple example of the above is how we process words. Although perhaps not stated explicitly, the primacy of the written word is an important part of law. The Indian Evidence Act excludes oral evidence on matters for which documentary evidence is available, with certain exceptions.[4] If one begins to look, the importance given to writing in the law is everywhere.

Take the process of the environmental clearance, for example.

An application is made by the project proponent in writing

            The Environmental Impact Assessment Report is made in writing

Notices for public hearing are done in writing

Environmental Clearance is given in writing

The bias and consequent exclusion of the written word permeates even into laws which are meant for the benefit of the community. Take the Forest Rights Act, one of the most inclusive and participatory laws that exist in our country today, and examine the evidence that can be submitted:

public documents,

government authorized documents,

studies done by reputed institutions,

and where oral evidence is allowed, it is restricted to tracing genealogy and the statement of elders, which incidentally, must be ‘reduced to writing’.

But is the written word the only way in which communities process words?

One early morning in the village of Kusumdihi, as my colleagues and I yawned and rubbed sleep out of our eyes while waiting for the community to gather for a meeting, the conversation turned to music. Music has always been precious to the bhuyan. They have a separate language, but no written script and so, all their traditional expressions are through other forms, music and dance being the strongest of them. And in their chosen mode, through improvised singing called duddigeet, there’s little that they cannot express easily.

In our morning meeting, one of the men started telling us about their musical traditions. Before long, a wiry old man, having announced himself as a reputed singer and changu[5] player, started a beat on the ground. He then started singing of his own musical prowess. Soon, another man came, and without missing a beat, synced his own words with the first man’s, sometimes praising, sometimes deriding the old man. Then another man. Three women. More men, more women. Before we knew it, there were about twelve people, all singing in chorus about the singers in their village, with words that were getting made up on the spot, and yet everyone somehow effortlessly harmonizing tune and lyrics.

Our meeting was supposed to be a discussion of the natural resources used by the village, for including it into the claim for community forest rights. “Can you sing about it?” one of us asked on a whim. After a little hesitation, and looking left and right, a woman started singing in a clear and resounding voice. Others followed, the beat joined. A smaller group began dancing in time to the music. Together, they sang of their village, named the hills that formed part of their territory, the animals in the forest, the trees and plants in it. Ten minutes later, we had a detailed ‘community resource map’. In song. This from the the same people who completely freeze when asked to work with pen and paper for any participatory exercise. In the village of Tinko, they sang to us about their relationship with government officers, forest department and Non Governmental Organisations (happily mocking us in the process), in effect a ‘participatory stakeholder analysis’. In song.

Despite their clear, and rather poetic, articulation, the Paudibhuyan are textually illiterate, which our legal system and our society knows simply as ‘illiteracy’, as if an inability to read and write a script negates any other relationship you may have with words. So despite having all this great information, what were we to do with it? Which government officer could we convince to accept the validity of an FRA claim set to the beat of the changu?

In a talk in 2013, the speaker Brian Ganson, explained an important rule of negotiation: “your goal is to bring the others to your table; the table where the discussion happens is the table that sets the terms of the discussion.” For me, Brian Ganson’s talk was a reminder that for legal practitioners working for and with communities, perhaps it is time that we come back to the communities’ table. Conversations around rights, justice and law must happen on the terms set by the community, and not by the law. This is a call to the civil society for much more honest reflection in the ways in which we engage with adivasi and other communities and support their engagement with legal and policy-making spaces.

(The author is a graduate of the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata and has previously worked with communities in Odisha dealing with mining and consequent degradation of their forest habitats. She is currently associated with the Nature Conservation Foundation)

[1] The terms ‘Paudibhuyan’ and ‘bhuyan’ are used interchangeably in this piece to refer to the Paudibhuyan, or hill bhuyans of the Khandadhar mountains in Odisha. This is simply a reference for convenience, derived from the community’s reference to itself. The term bhuyan is not to be confused with other tribes also called bhuyan, bhumijas etc. also present in parts of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, and West Bengal. These tribes, while they may have been connected at some indeterminate past, have evolved with separate identities and cultures. For an insight into some of the theories around their name and evolution, see Sarat Chandra Roy, The Hill Bhuiyas of Orissa (With Comparative notes on the Plain Bhuiyas (2014).

[2] The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, Acts of Parliament, 2006.

[3] Niyamgiri Orissa Mining Corporation v Union of India, (2013) 6 SCC 476.

[4] The Indian Evidence Act, 1872, No. 1, Acts of Parliament , 1872.

[5] A changu is a drum specific to the Paudibhuyan. Traditionally, it was made of deer skin but then began to be made of goat skin. About ten years ago, the ‘changu’ was banned in a meeting of the Paudibhuyan Council, on the grounds that it distracted young boys and girls who don’t study for school and spend time singing and dancing instead. Many claim that the decision was pushed for by elite members of the tribe keen on entering the mainstream economy, and was done with no consultation with the rest of the community. While changus have been disappearing in some of the villages because of this decision, large parts of the community still retain their strong tradition of singing.

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