By – Pragati Kulkarni and Harshit Charles **
Bablai Mata and Thakur Dev are two of the most revered deities amongst the Madia and Gond Adivasis of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra. According to one of the folklores, Bablai and Thakur were married and lived on a hill top in the jungles near Bejur village. Bablai got pregnant and gave birth to 128 daughters in one delivery. This stretched her vagina to such an extent that it scared off Thakur Dev, who ran away to a hill top near Surjagad village. Even today it is believed that all her daughters reside outside each of the 128 villages in Bhamragad (a tehsil of Gadchiroli in the present day) and continue to be worshipped. And it has become customary that only after worshipping Bablai Mata do people go to worship Thakur Dev.
Every year, around the first week of January, a large number of Madia Adivasis and non-adivasis mainly from in and around Gadchiroli in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh congregate to celebrate Bablai Mata Jatra and Thakur Dev Jatra. The word jatra translates to yatra or pilgrimage.The former takes place in Bejur village of Bhamragad tehsil,while the latter is organised in Surjagad village of Etapalli tehsil. This year, the Bejur jatra was celebrated from 1st to 3rd January, followed by the Surjagad jatra from 5th to 7th January. The Gotul samitis are important community bodies of the Madia and Gond Adivasis that decide and plan the jatras every year. The Bejur jatra normally sees people from 128 Gram Sabhas while the Surjagad jatra sees visitors from 70 Gram Sabhas. Both jatras are generally a three-day affair, which includes song and dance, trekking uphill-tops to worship the deities and discussing important issues of the area, the major ones being – jal, jungle, zameen, forest rights and the PESA.
In 2007, a unit of Lloyd’s Group acquired the lease to mine in the Surjagad area from the government. It has been mining on and off in the area amidst protests from the people. This has resulted in a shift in the nature of the jatras.
Earlier, only a few people from each village would congregate for the puja each year, with there being no discussion or baithak. But since the last five years, many people from the villages come together to learn, discuss and protest, thus redefining the nature of the jatra. This year, there seemed to be a deliberate attempt by the State to co-opt these Adivasi gatherings as CRPF forces hijacked the space of the people, thereby killing their protest.
Co-option of Adivasi spaces by the state
Changing the narrative of the space
A WhatsApp message making the rounds read – “On behalf of Bhamragad Patti (area) Paramparik Gotul Samiti, ‘Bablai Mata annual puja and traditional meet’ is being organised at Bejur village in Bhamragad. This jatra, which is organised by Adv. Lalsu Nogoti, member of the District Council, from Bhamragad tehsil in Gadchiroli, and people from 70 nearby Gram Sabhas are present at the event while senior leaders from Frontal organisations of Chhattisgarh and such places, students of JNU University and naxals in plain clothes too are attending the event.” This indicates that some people and the State want us to believe that Adivasi spaces are owned and operated by naxalite outfits and anti-state elements. This is fake propaganda whose only intention is to spread fear. Since the time Adivasis started worshipping their deities jatras have been a holy place, owned and operated solely by them.
This year also saw a substantial increase in the number of police forces in both places, especially the Surjagad jatra. This rise in number is only to push further the false news of Naxalite presence in the jatras. It sends across a message that Adivasi festivities like these need to be monitored by the State. The State wants to brand these places of worship as naxal spaces in order to increase their control by force and take away the autonomy of the people.
Organising of activities by the CRPF forces
The first day of the Surjagad jatra saw the CRPF forces organising a volleyball match in the space where jatra activities are held. This was completely unnecessary and uncalled for as it is a space of the Adivasis. The next day, during the discussion about Gram Sabhas, forest rights and the PESA, the CRPF engaged in a parallel activity, distributing free blankets for all. Many who had gathered around to listen to the discussion left, and went to collect the blankets. This was certainly a deliberate attempt to divert people from learning about and understanding issues of importance of the region that matters to them. Even during the discussion, one of the CRPF officers sat on the stage, while many others sat next to the stage. In the evening, with cultural performances going on, the police sat on the stage distributing money offered by the audience to the participants, again occupying space which did not belong to them.
All of the above attempts seem like a strategic move by the State, to not only co-opt Adivasi gatherings and space but to also divert the attention from the main issue of Adivasis’ forest rights, mining and its resultant displacement. The protests against mining have been a key theme of the jatras since the past 5 years which saw a major setback this year due to intrusion by the CRPF forces.
In spite of this, both the jatras did see some positive participation and events, which we would like to highlight through the following pictures –
People from Dhanora village presenting Rela dance at Bejur jatra.
Adv. Lalsu Nogoti, elected district council member, lawyer and a prominent leader is seen addressing people, discussing about forest rights. Leaders like him, who are members of Gotul Samiti, are falsely branded as naxals.
Rajashree Lekhami, member of Bhamragad Patti Paramparik Gotul Samiti is seen addressing the people. She is also the district coordinator of the Gotul samiti, and one of the few women members of the Gotul samiti.
People singing and dancing together at night in the Bejur Jatra.
The person on the left is Perma, who is the head priest of the village and the person on the right is Bhumiya, whose ancestors were the first people to have established the village. He is holding the holy sword which is also worshipped. A puja is organised first at this temple, before the climb to the hilltop is undertaken for the safety of the believers who undertake the trek. This picture is taken at the Surjagad jatra.
Sainu Gota, Chairperson of Surjagad Patti Paramparik Gotul Samiti, is seen addressing the people regarding the need to demand their forest rights and their rights over the Gram Sabha. He said, “We are alive only because of our jungle. We do not have anywhere to go without it. PESA and forest rights are for us, and we need to struggle for our coming generations. The State wants to take away our lands by force. The fight is for the entire zilla (district) and we need to support this.” Many others spoke at the forum and ideas of B.R. Ambedkar and Birsa Munda were invoked.
Bhumiya is seen worshipping, while a devotee looks on, wearing a t-shirt of the Llyods Group, the company which is mining in the area. Under the false promise of employment, the company makes the people dig their own hills, which if protected would be way more beneficial for the people, their autonomy over their land and the preservation of their forests and their rights.
All Photos : Harshit Charles
** Pragati has been part of PRADAN, an NGO for the past 3 years working in the Adivasi areas of Madhya Pradesh and is currently on leave, traveling and writing on issues of her interest.
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