Mahasweta Devi: Her Ideas And Legacy


Mahasweta Devi is no more. With her passing one great intellectual who wrote for the most unprivileged sections of the Indian society, the tribals  leaves the earth. Her writings are socially relevant than any other contemporary writer. In fact the truth is that no one has written so prolifically, as she has done at the global level, for the underprivileged section of the society.

Her writings and the personality have several facets but what she thought in clear terms about these fellows is more important as it not only offers the insight on her own thinking about the tribals but also her ideas become the learning and guiding instructions for all of us. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is celebrated Indian critic and associated with Columbia University as Professor. She had interviewed Mahashweta Devi in December 1991 in Calcutta which later appeared with three stories in a book, ‘The Imaginary Maps’. The author’s living conversation (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak  in conversation with Mahasweta Devi) is a store house to know Mahasweta Devi.The interview contains several illuminating elements which are relevant for the generations:

Nature of tribal population in India

India belonged to these tribals long before the incursion of the Aryan-speaking peoples. The Ramayana, one of India’s two ancient epics, seems to contain evidence of how they were oppressed, evicted from their homeland, and then forced to occupy the lower reaches of the mainstream culture. Bits of their old culture can still be glimpsed. (and) Among the Austric and  Dravidian tribes of India, on the other hand—In the states of West Bengal and Bihar alone there are Oraons, Mundas, Santals, Lodhas, Kherias. Mahalis. Gonds, and more—widow remarriage has always been the custom. In tribal society, there is no dowry system, only bride-price. It is difficult to discern at this late date who borrowed from whom, especially since the tribals relied upon an oral tradition.

Communal land holding the absence of private property

They had no sense of property. There was communal land holding because just like the Native Americans, they also believed that land and forest and river belong to everyone. Their society has of course broken under mainstream onslaught. Today in the village of Kuda only seven families hold 21 acres of land. Now those 21 acres are getting irrigated and the crop will be equally divided among the entire community. They understood ecology and the environment in a way we cannot yet imagine.

The mainstream and tribals can not be compared

The tribals and the mainstream have always been paralleled. There has never been a meeting point. The mainstream simply doesn’t understand the parallel. As long as the forests were there,the hunting tribes did not suffer so much, because the forests used to provide them with food,shelter, timber, hunting. But now that the forests are gone,the tribals are in dire distress. Some, like the Santals or the Oraons from the Deccan, have advanced because they took to agriculture long ago. But the smaller tribes, like the Lodhas and Kherias you have seen, small hunting tribes all over India, suffer deeply. The government of India has pauperized them. They have to beg for everything they need. They do not understand mainstream machination, so although there are safeguarding laws against land-grabbing, tribal land is being sold illegally every day, and usurped by mainstream society all over India.

Tribals as bonded labours

The bonded labor system was introduced by the British. They created a new class, which took away tribal land and converted the tribals Into debt-bonded staves. The present government of India had to introduce, in 1976, the Bonded Labor System Abolition Act. You will be surprised to know that, from Kashmir to the Indian Ocean, and from East to West, in every state, there are districts marked as bonded labor districts because there are more than forty thousand bonded laborers in each of them. The Palamu I have depicted in my stories—only a few have been translated—is a mirror of tribal India. I have covered all of the district on foot. I walked miles, stayed somewhere overnight, went from place to place. Thus the bonded labor system, in its naked savagery and its bloody exploitation of women, became clear to me.

Role of an intellectual

Wherever there is exploitation. I report it immediately. I write directly to the pertinent ministerial department. I send a copy to the area, they make a mass-signature effort and go to the local authority. Each minister has one or two hundred of my letters. I think a creative writer should have a social conscience. I have a duty toward society. Yet I don’t really know why I do these things. This sense of duty is an obsession, and I must remain accountable to myself. I ask myself this question a thousand times: have I done what I could have done? My house is full of them, they write to me. They come and stay with me. I go and stay with them. And this journalistic exposure is very necessary. The government officials admit that they are afraid of me. What will I write next?

Tribals and system

Disunity among the tribals is something the system wants. The system is just exploiting you, creating this disunity, so that you remain divided. Wherever there is a movement now, they join hands, they are no longer disunited. You will still find disunity where there is no movement. The movement should start everywhere. It’s such a pity that Shankar Guha Niyogi was killed in such a brutal manner. How much that one person achieved?

Tribals are Indians not criminals

General tribal as Indian, not only that. They are Indians who belong to the rest of India. Mainstream India had better recognize that. Pay them the honor that they deserve. Pay them the respect that they deserve. There are no dowry deaths among the tribals. And when they are  called criminal tribes. I say, there is crime all over the state of Bihar. All over India.  All over the world. Do these tribes commit all these crimes? They are your easy victims, they are your prey, you hunt them. The system hunts them. And wants to brand them. The system which hunts them and uses them as a target is the criminal.

In fact Mahasweta Devi was human conscience awakener, an activist, an authoress but above all a great human being who lived, fought for the most unprivileged section of Indian society. The greater need is to take vision from her works for the tribals in order to ameliorate their lots. Truth is that this need has become more pressing than ever in the contemporary age of globalization and neo liberalism.

Dr. Vivek Kumar Srivastava is Assistant Professor, CSJM Kanpur University (affiliated College), Vice Chairman CSSP, Consultant CRIEPS, e [email protected]



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