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RAHUL BANERJEE

India,

Rahul Banerjee is formalizing language in order to revive interest and enthusiasm among tribal people for their culture and thereby get them to participate in mainstream social and political life. Simultaneously, he is using language to force policy changes that will reduce the systemic marginalization of tribal people by the rest of India.

This profile below was prepared when Rahul Banerjee was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.
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Read Rahul's book, Recovering the Lost Tongue

Fellow Sketch 

Rahul Banerjee believes in empowering tribal communities by synergizing traditional practices with modern economic and democratic systems. Over the last 25 years, he has mass mobilized the Bhil tribes in Madhya Pradesh to create a strong sense of identity. Simultaneously, he has also leveraged Government schemes and laws to revive traditional agricultural practices, create decentralised, gender-sensitive and equitable governance systems that conserve the Bhil culture.

A large part of his work involved the development of a written language using the Hindi Devnagari script to document the entire body of Bhil myths, folklore and literature. This helped instill awareness and pride among the younger Bhil generation in their identity. Encouraging the public celebration of festivals developed a sense of ownership, by mainstreaming and projecting the Bhil identity. “People know how to solve their problems, but don’t have the resources” states Rahul, having also mobilized and educated the tribes about their rights and entitlements. These efforts resulted in the implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 that created for the Bhils a special governance system through decentralised gram sabhas. It also empowered the community to play a key role in national campaigns aimed at implementing the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act. As a result of his efforts, the Bhils now have control over decisions that involve them directly or indirectly, including issues like the declaration of a wildlife sanctuary or other environmental projects on their lands. Government schemes like MGNREGA are being used to rejuvenate traditional agricultural practices and conserve natural resources like soil, water and forests while at the same time generate livelihood options.

Other tribal communities and civil society organisations across the States of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are now following this alternative development model created by Rahul’s organisation, Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra. Since his college years at IIT, Rahul has been working towards bridging the wide socio-economic gap that separates tribal communities from the mainstream. His plans for the future include mobilising the Bhils to integrate movements at the community level with those at the national and global level bringing about larger societal impact. These movements include the economic involvement of tribals in trade circles and the protection and conservation of natural resources that lie at the heart of their lives. 

Note: This was updated in December, 2013. Read on for the ELECTION profile

INTRODUCTION

Rahul Banerjee is formalizing language in order to revive interest and enthusiasm among tribal people for their culture and thereby get them to participate in mainstream social and political life. Simultaneously, he is using language to force policy changes that will reduce the systemic marginalization of tribal people by the rest of India.




THE NEW IDEA

Rahul recognized that to engage disenfranchised tribal communities in mainstream Indian life, he had to help them first come together as a community. Rahul uses language to empower Bhils with a multi-step approach: preserving their age-old traditions, practices, and wisdom through a written language; using this newfound pride in their culture to bring them together as a community; and finally using this sense of community identity to fight for their rights and participate in modern life.

Starting with Bhils, India’s third largest tribal community, Rahul has worked with the community to develop a written language using the Hindi Devnagari script. This language is now being used to gradually document the entire body of Bhil myths, folklore and literature. Documentation of folklore is instilling among the younger generation awareness of age-old customs and rituals and disseminating information about the adivasi (tribal) way of life. A written language also allows for publication of magazines and newsletters in the Bhili language, furthering a sense of community identity. With indigenous language acting as the common strand, the Bhils are rediscovering the old bonds that held the social fabric of their community together. This newfound unity allows them to collectively challenge their marginalized, victimized status, fight for their rights, and participate actively in the social, cultural, and political life of mainstream India.

Rahul is also working at the policy level to mainstream Bhili language and history in the education system. He has roped in educators from the Bhil community to support and further this movement, which will eventually spread to other tribal groups such as Gonds and Santhals. At every stage, Rahul brings in members of the community to participate collectively in decision-making, thus preparing them for playing similar roles on a broader level outside their community.




THE PROBLEM

Indigenous groups in India are perhaps the most disenfranchised of India’s marginalized people. From the time of British rule to the present, they have been neglected and often systemically victimized by mainstream India. With their lands wrested from them, scarcity and poverty have led to the breaking down of age-old community links and way of life. Village elders are often co-opted by government servants and political workers into helping them fleece other tribal members.

The Bhil, Bhilala, Barela, Mankar, Naik, and Patelia tribes together constitute the indigenous people known generally by the name of Bhils. With a population of approximately 4.5 million, they are the third largest adivasi group in India, after the Gonds and the Santhals. They inhabit an area of about 40,000 square kilometers spread over the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra.

Most tribes have an oral folklore that reflects their religious, cultural, and environmental heritage. This heritage, however, is in danger of being lost forever because younger adivasis today view it as powerless in securing a viable livelihood or respect in the larger Indian society. The formal Indian education system is also irrelevant and of not much use for the adivasi way of life. Consequently, it leaves them unequipped to participate effectively in the modern economy or advance their rights as citizens of India. Frequently, those who go through the formal education system emerge divorced from their culture.

Lacking a meaningful education and confidence, adivasis are unable to secure services that are due to them, much less protest unjust state policies. The Constitution of India provides for special governance of adivasi areas on the recommendations of the tribal advisory council comprised of adivasi legislators. Similarly, another statute provides for adivasi representatives to be paramount in deciding the use of village resources and the resolution of disputes. However, in reality these two powerful statutes are not effectively used because the adivasis are unable to press for them in an articulate, effective manner.

The resurrection of Hindutva in India is yet another threat to these communities. An increasing number of conversions to Hinduism is reflected in the tendency to celebrate Hindu festivals instead of traditional festivals related to harvest, nature worship, and environment. Hindutva also brings with it caste hierarchy, social ostracism, and brahmin rituals and language. Tribal converts are never accepted as equals; in fact, they are very low in the social order. This again intensifies marginalization of adivasis.




THE STRATEGY

Rahul decided to use tribal languages to create an essential community identity by reviving their pride in their sociocultural heritage and traditions. As with most other adivasi communities, the Bhils have a rich body of myths and legends which form a storehouse of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, including good environmental practices, sustainable agriculture, social customs that actively bind the community together, and good governance—all of which have practical significance for the Bhils today.

The transcription and publication of the vast body of folklore and the publication of magazines in the Bhili dialects is gradually creating reading material for Bhils to entice them back to their language. For instance, in one region of Madhya Pradesh, adivasi agriculturists are drawing on their folklore to practice sustainable, organic agriculture, thereby generating an economic revival of the community. Sustainable agriculture inherently requires strong community links and a culture of sharing. As ancient community festivals and rituals are being rediscovered and revived, Bhils are re-forging community bonds that in turn will support good agricultural practices.

A formal cultural forum called Adivasi Riti Badhao Tola (ARBT) has been established, and it has begun publication of the first ever magazine in Bhili—Adivasi Dahar. While this forum and its magazine play important roles in the language and cultural revival movement, they have another vital function: bolstering and promoting participatory action and institution building. The formation of ARBT and the constitution of the governing body of Adivasi Dahar were conducted publicly and transparently. Invitations to a general meeting were sent to adivasis involved in organizational and developmental work, and attendees collectively decided on the mode of functioning of the ARBT and the standards for publication of Adivasi Dahar. Participants also elected a governing body from among themselves, which meets every month to oversee the work of the ARBT. Given the variety of dialects in Bhilali and Bhili, eventually as many as fifteen editions will be published. The governing body is overseeing the editorial, production, and distribution aspects of the whole process.

With a view to mainstreaming the Bhili language and also, very importantly, to make an impact upon the present generation of school-going children, Rahul is introducing the language in alternative and non-mainstream schools. Bhili is already being taught as a language in one such school. Given language’s integral role in building a group identity, it strengthens tribal self-awareness and pride. To this end, tribal history is also being recorded. Historical role models are being resurrected in collective consciousness. For example, Bhil freedom fighters who participated in India’s fight for independence are being celebrated through the commemoration of Martyrs’ Days as well as via history lessons in schools. The Bhils, with encouragement from Rahul waged a decade-long effort to establish Tantia Bhil as a freedom fighter, and in 2000 they organized a march to a monument of Tantia Bhil to commemorate his martyrdom. Such efforts are helping Bhils identify themselves as citizens who contributed to India’s history, thus reducing their perception of themselves as irrelevant to the country.

As a result of all these initiatives, the Bhils are gradually becoming a resilient community, socially, politically, and economically enabled to engage with the mainstream on equal terms, aware of and able to demand their rights and serve as active architects of their own future.

Rahul wants to perfect this model among the Bhils before spreading it to other tribal groups. Through the federation of Adivasi Ekta Parishad (AEP) that is active in the four contiguous states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, he will introduce it to the entire Bhili population. The AEP is also the distribution channel for the magazines and the books. In time, Rahul will help to replicate this model among the Gonds and the Santhals. These adivasis occupy lands that are close to major industrial centers, so a successful revival of traditional culture and livelihood practices there will greatly impact society at large. The goal is to set up three major centers of alternative development and culture in ten years time that can then go forward with the replication in additional tribal areas.




THE PERSON

Rahul was born into a middle-class family in West Bengal in 1960. After spending five years in Tinsukia, he moved to Calcutta for his education. He lived with his grandparents and studied at an elite school, La Martiniere for Boys. His public school education left a mark on his life, especially the weekly talks on poverty by the pastor. Inspired by the talks, Rahul joined the Parish Social Service Center as a volunteer.

Parental pressure and excellent academic records pushed him to accept admission to one of India’s top prestigious engineering colleges, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Along with some IIT professors and student volunteers, he started a Science Education Programme that conducted a survey of the prevalent science education in the neighboring village schools. The abysmal findings left him worried. To spread awareness about prevailing conditions, he and a few IIT friends pooled their own pocket money to start a magazine. This popular magazine had articles about students’ problems on campus, ways to use engineering to improve life for the masses, and general socioeconomic conditions.

Dramatically, it was one night’s conversation with local tribals that changed his life. The tribals were landless laborers who drove hired bullock carts to the local market. On an impulse, Rahul asked them whether they could see their children studying in the IIT. The tribals thought he was joking. It was then that Rahul decided that he would work for the tribals, seeking out some way to bridge the wide socioeconomic gap. After graduation, he and two friends, again using their own money, began work on tribal issues in several Bhil villages located in the jungles in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. Here they chalked up several firsts with Bhil-adivasis: formation of the first trade union; formation of the first self-help groups; execution of the first joint forest management, wasteland management and watershed development projects; publication of the first primer in Bhili for children. During this time, he was also active in the work of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which attempted to secure justice for the people affected by Sardar Sarovar Dam.

In 1994 Rahul along with his wife, Subhadra, won a MacArthur Fellowship to work on the reproductive health and rights of the Bhil women. Given his interest in education, Rahul had all along been studying the Bhil’s rich heritage. Over the past three years, Rahul has supervised the publication of booklets in Hindi on the history and culture of the Bhils. Today he is piloting his new model to achieve wider impact among marginalized indigenous groups.




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