Adivasi Movements in India: An Interview with Poet Waharu Sonavane

The original interview was conducted in Marathi language in December, 2011.

All photos of Adivasi Ekta Parishad gathering in Rajasthan, India. Credit: Satish Londhe
All photos of Adivasi Ekta Parishad gathering in Rajasthan, India. Credit: Satish Londhe
I have known Waharu since I was a little girl growing up in India. I have many fond memories of him and his wife Hirkana. I used to accompany my family to activist conventions and meetings in various parts of our home state, Maharashtra. Waharu’s son Malema, myself, and other kids used to sing social-movement songs with our parents and other community organizers before the start of every meeting, and then play outside as the discussions and strategy sessions continued throughout the day.

The indigenous and tribal identified peoples of India are part of hundreds of diverse tribes, nations, and ethno-linguistic peoples throughout South Asia. Many group themselves together with the umbrella term Adivasi; and many are recognized as Scheduled Tribes (STs) by the Indian government. Together, they number almost 90 million people today, almost 9% of India’s population.  The Bhil are one Adivasi people, all together numbering in the millions, rooted in various parts of western India and Pakistan.

Waharu is a Bhil Adivasi, long-time poet and activist. Since the 1970s, he has been organizing for Adivasi self-sufficiency among his community near his hometown in western India. He is a big part of my wonderful childhood growing up among dedicated organizers and activists who made fighting to change the world look like it was fun, exciting, and something everyone should be involved in. The poetry and the songs that came out of this movement are still etched in my memories, and come out of my mouth unthinkingly as remarks to certain circumstances in life.

As the first Bhil poet to be published, Waharu has gained much critical acclaim, being mentioned in the same company as great Marathi-language poets like Narayan Surve and Baburao Bagul — both Dalits (members of Scheduled Castes (SCs) considered ‘untouchable’ in the caste system). Adivasis and Dalits are often considered the most oppressed sectors of Indian society. Surve was the poet of my childhood. His poetry was in my school textbooks and adorned the walls of my house.  His poetry challenged the status quo, bringing up topics that were often not talked about in Indian society. I remember, clearly, his poem about a sex worker who goes to admit her son to a school. When asked to submit her son’s father’s name, she hopelessly says to the school administrator, “Master bapachya thikani aata tumchach nav liva (Sir, instead of his father’s, now please just give him your name).”

Waharu’s poetry has now also made it into textbooks and universities. One of his poems has also been adapted by the rock band Indian Ocean for a song called “Boll Weevil.”  The poem is about Adivasi courage and pride. His most well-known poem, “Stage,” caused an important debate during a time when he was also questioning the leadership of one of India’s best-known mass social movements, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), about Adivasi representation in its early years.

Like my father and many friends, Waharu is a member of Shramik Mukti Dal (SMD – toilers’ liberation league). SMD is a political organization in rural Maharashtra state, organizing with drought victims, dam evictees, poor women, and agricultural laborers — against encroachments by the government and corporations, and working toward the annihilation of caste and patriarchy. Waharu’s main work continues through the Adivasi Ekta Parishad (Conference of Adivasi Unity), formed in 1992.  During my recent visit to India, I caught up with him at SMD’s 13th national convention in coastal Maharashtra.  I decided to interview him now, when some Adivasis are getting absorbed into the so-called mainstream, with its commercialization, caste hierarchy and patriarchy.

The problems of Adivasis remain.  Many indigenous peoples worldwide face some similar struggles and questions, whether on Turtle Island (North America), in Latin America, Australia, and elsewhere.  The word ‘occupy’ has raised discussions and debates in many places in the past year; Waharu is also talking about occupying and reoccupying, claiming and reclaiming – land, culture, values.  In this interview, I also wanted to learn the changes that occurred in his perspective, from the time he named his son “Malema” (named for Marx-Lenin-Mao), to the recent work of the Adivasi Ekta Parishad.  What shaped those changes, and why?


We didn’t go to the stage,
nor were we called.
With a wave of the hand
we were shown our place.
There we sat
and were congratulated,
and “they”, standing on the stage,
kept on telling us of our sorrows.
Our sorrows remained ours,
they never became theirs. 
When we whispered out doubts
they perked their ears to listen,
and sighing,
tweaking our ears,
told us to shut up,
apologize; or else…

–Waharu Sonavane; translated by Bharat Patankar, Gail Omvedt, and Suhas Paranjape

Prachi Patankar: How did you start working in the Adivasi movement?

Waharu Sonavane: I was born in Shahada, in Nandurbar district of northern Maharashtra. In 1970 when I left school, I came back to Shahada.  At that time there was a big drought in Shahada taluka (county).  My young brothers and cousins, who should have been in school, had to go to work in the fields.  My family wasn’t asking me to do manual labor because I was educated.  But I started feeling that I was living off the work of my little siblings and cousins. So one day I started going to work with them. They welcomed the extra income in the household. It was difficult at first, as I wasn’t as used to manual labor as before.

One day when I had finished work and sat down to eat, my aunt said, “Brother, how long can we toil like this? You’re so educated and you’re working like us. Forest plots have just been released.  We should get some share in this. Then we can live off our own land like farmers.“

I filled out two forms and went to the Member of Legislative Council.  I wandered for eight days trying to get the land. Then someone told me that if you want help there’s a grassroots Adivasi leader who fights for our rights, his name is Ambarsingh.  When I went to him, he said, “The community to which you have been born is burning in the fire of exploitation and atrocities.  It is shouting, ‘Save us!’  But, the one who has the power to save it is running after employment and position.”  That hit me.  I said to him, “Look, you don’t think I could work for our people?”  Ambarsingh said, “It’s easy to say, but something else to do it.  Many people have tried, have stayed on for a month or two and then gone back.  Sometimes doing this work for the community, you may remain hungry, get beaten up; sometimes you’ll have to go to jail.” I decided to stay.

Ambarsingh was once away; he was working for the Sarvodaya Mandal, a Gandhian cause.  I was staying in his hut and hadn’t eaten for two days.  At night there was no oil in the lamp.  I was sitting in the dark; it was raining and the rain was falling on me.  Then I thought, “I’m also human.  A dog even goes to different houses and fills his stomach. I’m going leave.”  But then I remembered Ambarsingh saying, “It’s easy to say, but to actually live it is something else.” Since then I’ve been committed to the movement.

PP: Tell us about the land liberation struggle that came up in the Dhule area.

WS: We started a struggle to get back the Adivasi land that had been lost to non-Adivasis. We carried out a survey to find out how the land was lost.  Was it given as a kind of mortgage, for some need for cash or something?  Was it lost in an old contract, or sold?  After the survey, on January 30, 1972, we had a bhu-mukti (“land liberation”) rally, inviting leaders from different organizations.  At that rally, Ambarsingh made a declaration that if Adivasis’ names were on the land record, and if they were the actual tillers, then we should re-occupy that land. This news flew like a big storm, and people throughout the villages started occupying land.  It was a big movement.  A fight between the Adivasis and the landlords!  The police were on their side; there were legal cases filed against Adivasis. But still, in this struggle, we won back 10,000 acres for the Adivasi community!

The next struggle was over education. Most Adivasis had not gotten any formal schooling. So when dealing with any paperwork, people who weren’t literate could only give their thumbprints, and they would get cheated. So we started night schools for adult education. The 6th and 7th grade students from our community would teach the adults. We also realized that alcoholism was rampant and was ruining people’s lives; this had to change.  We collectively mobilized, broke a lot of liquor-store jugs.

We then took up a struggle for women’s liberation. We were shouting all kinds of slogans like “victory to toilers,” but we only slowly realized that among the toilers were women, who also needed to stand up for their own rights. Ambarsingh used to say that women and men are wheels of the same chariot, and both wheels need to be strong! Women are exploited and oppressed by people within the community.  We started consciousness-raising about women’s equality. We then had a state-wide gathering on these issues of women’s rights.

This movement went forward through the formation of Shramik Sanghatana (toilers’ league).  People from different parties and tendencies were in the movement, from Sarvodaya and other Gandhians, socialists and communists, and from the Magowa group (one precursor to SMD).

PP: This was a time of great social unrest across India. Labor unions and student unions were going on strike all over the country. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a repressive state of emergency in 1975.  “Extraordinary laws” were being invoked and thousands of people were jailed for dissenting. How did this affect you?

WS: We also had been jailed during the Emergency period. Many of our activists were working underground. Within our movement, there were some differences about how we should work during the Emergency.  Sarvodaya people were saying that if we wanted to be against the Emergency we should do individual satyagraha, one of Gandhi’s tactics. We were saying that opposition should be through a collective people’s struggle. There was a split among us on this issue. Later, there were differences regarding what kind of organization we should build. Some people among us went to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (one of the major parliamentary parties in India). Some people formed Shramik Mukti Dal.  I was among those who went to SMD.

PP: You formed the Adivasi Ekta Parishad while you were already involved in Shramik Mukti Dal.  So, what was the trajectory from SMD to forming an Adivasi-only organization?

WS: While this work was going on, we were thinking about our Adivasi communities and cultures.  We needed to assess our situation.  Where are the Adivasis today?  They are divided among multiple religions, multiple parties, many organizations.  Adivasi life and culture is based on equality, belief in love, humanism — these life-values must not be forsaken. We should return to these values. We should oppose all kinds of exploitation; economic, patriarchal, social, caste.  Even among Adivasis there are hierarchies now, since we are living within the larger societies. We should come together as Adivasis, rejecting hierarchies and caste.

Why shouldn’t we protect and conserve our own culture, which is based on great values?  This is what revolution is, we thought, we should have a movement for this.  And so in 1992, we put forward the principle of establishing an organization on the issues of existence, pride and self-respect, culture, history, education, self-reliance and development — with Adivasi culture as our basis.  Any Adivasi who agrees with this and believes in these principles can come. This was called the Adivasi Ekta Parishad (AEP).

PP: You were/are still a member of SMD. What was the response of SMD to this? What about other organizations?

WS: Shramik Mukti Dal supported this. But other organizations were trying to dominate us. One organization said, “If you come here and propagate this, we’ll break your legs.”  Another distributed pamphlets against us. Their allegations were that we were self-declared leaders. They claimed that we were playing into the hands of powerful parties — Congress party, Shiv Sena, etc. We continued our work. We met with different Adivasi movements. They also told us their experiences — that whether it was the Communists (the parliamentary left), the Naxalites (Maoist rebels), BJP (Hindu nationalists), or Congress party (the main governing party in India), or whatever…. we Adivasis were always given a second-class status. They used us only as foot-soldiers, but never accepted us as leaders. We have the right to our own life.  Based on this determination, we continued the movement and decided to build a united organization.

PP: Your poem “Stage” elicited quite a debate among various activists and movements. Could you talk about the poem, and how some of this thinking has influenced the working process within AEP?

WS: So while we were carrying out this movement, in 1994 we had our first sammelan (gathering) of the AEP, which brought together Adivasis from four states: Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. Up to this point, in the name of welfare and development for Adivasis, only others have spoken. People have said to Adivasis, “come into our religion; we’ll solve your problems and give you relief.”  Some became Hindu; some became Christian; some became Muslim.  Some went to different parties.  After all of this, many years, our situation remained the same.  We don’t have the decision-making power.  We decided that it is us, Adivasis, who should speak on our stage about our problems. This is what my poem “Stage” is about (recites poem).

Others can come to listen.  In the beginning, there were some problems; there was a journalist who was pleading to speak for fifteen minutes; we said no. In Rajasthan, there was a person who was working with an NGO among Adivasis; our people didn’t allow him to speak. Up until now, these are the ones who’ve been speaking, and we’ve been listening; now, it’s their turn to listen.  It doesn’t matter who comes — even a big leader or minister sits among the people.  This is our discipline, our policy.

So the policy of the AEP is that there is a big stage that holds about 200 people.  Nobody sits on it; there is only a microphone.  Why?  Because everyone is equal, and anyone among the Adivasis can go on the stage to speak.

PP: What are some of the demands of AEP?

WS: The attack on our culture and life should stop.  We’re not called ‘Adivasis’ in the Indian Constitution, but ‘Scheduled Tribes.’  One demand is that we should be called Adivasis.

But really, who should we demand things from?  From the government that uses us in the name of development and welfare?  The question of ‘Adivasi development’ is not an Adivasi question; it’s theirs. The idea of development that they bring is in their mold, not ours. They say, come into the ‘mainstream.’  Have all the problems of people in the ‘mainstream’ been solved?  Has there been development and welfare for all the people in the mainstream?  If we come to the mainstream, the faults of the mainstream will also enter our life. That’s why we have to protect and care for our lives which are based on our values, our democracy.

I could give you many examples.  If someone dies in one house in the village, then no one sweeps their house or fills water or cooks food. The whole village is in mourning until after the burial. These people who try to teach us about ‘culture’…. I’ve seen in Mumbai city, if someone dies, neighbors close their doors and eat deep-fried food (a luxury), ignoring the pains of their neighbors.

In our weddings and rituals, we don’t have any brahmins (the upper-most, ‘priestly’ caste).  Brahmins promote inequality.  Our weddings are democratic. When people are offered gifts, they ask whoever is present there, whether they should accept.  In other weddings, brahmins utter some scriptural verses that no one understands, put some water here, put some rice there, do all kinds of things — just giving orders. People just do these things, without understanding why they are doing it. This fight is between Adivasi values and brahmanic values — not between Adivasis as persons and brahmins as persons.  It’s a fight between democracy and autocracy.

Another example:  If I haven’t been able to plow my land for some reason and time is passing, we give a call to the community, and whoever has a plow comes and does some of the work. They don’t ask for anything in return.  But non-Adivasis, the ‘mainstream’ — they call us ‘drunkards’ and ‘beggars,’ if we work all day and then come to ask for our rightful pay and livelihood.  So we are working to stop this attack on our culture, and to preserve our values.

PP: Reflecting on her visit to Naxalite (Maoist) rebel-held area in Chhattisgarh state, the well-known Indian writer Arundhati Roy raised some questions in a 2010 essay. “Who are the Maoists? Are they just violent nihilists foisting an outdated ideology on tribal people, goading them into a hopeless insurrection? …. Is the Sandwich Theory—of ‘ordinary’ tribals being caught in the crossfire between the State and the Maoists—an accurate one?  Are ‘Maoists’ and ‘Tribals’ two entirely discrete categories as is being made out?  Do their interests converge?”  Your thoughts on all this?

WS: In some areas, Naxals work among Adivasis, and Adivasis have joined them. In other ways, they too treat Adivasis badly, as second-class, as foot-soldiers for their agenda. I feel that most everyone tries to fit Adivasis into their own model, their own ideology. But those who support Adivasis by helping them to stand on their own feet and give them leadership, that’s real solidarity and support.

We also fiercely fought and sacrificed our lives during the Indian independence movement. Adivasis also fought in the struggle; but no one talks about it.  During the great 1857 rebellion, the revolutionary Khajya Naik led a strong uprising against the British in Madhya Pradesh.  His head was hung for eight days from a tree. People know the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre of hundreds; they should also know Mangarh. Hundreds of Bhil Adivasis were shot there in 1913, because they revolted against the British.

This denial of our history has been happening since the Aryans entered this continent; it’s in the major mythology too. They killed Adivasis, calling them ‘rakshasas’ (demons), saying they eat human beings.  People invoke the god Rama, who killed many ‘evil’ rakshasas.  You know about the story of Ekalavya, right?  (He was an Adivasi boy who tried to learn archery, and for that was punished, made to cut off his own thumb. Bhils believe they descended from him, so when they use bow & arrow they don’t use their thumb.)

Adivasis believe in the values of nature — the wind blows for all equally.  Our lives should be based on equality and love, and protecting and caring for this life.  Living life is not just eating, drinking and sleeping.  Revolution is not something you make one day and it is finished.  How we take this change towards humanity is our fight!

Prachi Patankar is an activist, educator, and arts administrator based in New York City.  She grew up in rural India among rural peasant movements.  Currently, Prachi works with South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI) and serves on the board of Afghan Women’s Mission and the War Resisters League, an organization dedicated to resisting war at home and war abroad since 1923.