It was the first of September, 1940, when the policemen working under Tahsildar Abdul Sattar of the Nizam of Hyderabad, opened fire in Jodeghat on the warriors being led by Komaram Bheem in a rebellion to gain self-determination over the land and resources of the Gondi people. While the fire killed many warriors and left many with fatal injuries, it is believed that the sarkari men were so petrified of Bheem’s supposed knowledge of ‘magical spells’, that they attacked him until his body and face were practically unrecognizable. Immediately after destroying his body, they burnt him to ensure that no scrap of his flesh remains to be seen. One can hardly find anything reminiscent of the story of this war against the state, outside the regions of the present states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, including in the historical and digital archives. But, as the cry of these wars remain in the conscience of the people in these districts, it is invoked and narrated widely.
Today when various civil rights activists, social organisations, environmental councils, student organisations, lawyers, and members of the civil society debate over the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), 2020, it is the tribal communities that are claimed to be the most adversely affected, should this draft become a part of policy and legal order. Since the draft eliminates processes of public consultation and dialogue before occupying land for industrial, chemical and special zonal projects, as well as allows such projects to flourish with no prior assessment on damage caused to the environment – it stands to be disastrous for the communities who remain most in proximity to these resources, both geographically and ontologically. Even if these claims hold strong with relation to the communities, it is only a small dot on the giant historical context of exploitation on the tribal communities, wherein the life of the tribal communities and forest dwellers are destroyed, and their dignity curbed. Bheem’s fight towards the injustices taking place towards his community soon before the new nation building process began, is one of the most violent instances, forgotten today. The present state of Telangana, where Bheem was born, was once ruled by the Asaf Jahi Dynasty, which came under the ambit of the Indian Union in 1948. Not only did the Nizam impose unbearable amount of taxes on the tribal communities of the area, other forms of mental and physical violence, torture, extortion and exploitation were also rampant by the Nizam’s forces. It is said that Bheem grew up hearing about the extortions on his people – just as the young boys and girls from the districts of North Telangana do today – and witnessed the sufferings of his people based on false charges against them, by the authorities. It was after the murder of his father by the very same authorities, that Bheem was agitated, and became actively involved in the tussles between the Gondi people and the Nizami officials. Due to a murder accusation charged against him after one such tussle, he fled to various parts of the present sub-continent, including Assam, and organized protests against peasants and workers’ exploitation across those districts. In the uprising that he organised and led for the Gondi people, demands were made for the release of prisoners on false charges and self-rule for the Gondi community. When Bheem refused to fall for the many personal baits offered by the Nizam, his officials finally conspired with locals, leading to a momentary fall of Bheem’s army and also, leading to his murder.
The Gondi people suffered in the hands of the British, alongside the Nawabs, as both parties joined hands for over a century before the formation of the Indian Union. After the first war of 1857, the British Raj set up separate forest departments to closely administer resources and raw materials such as timber, and also handed a large amount of control and power to the Nizam. The Gonds and other forest dwellers then faced everyday extortions and experienced the degradation of their lifeworld not only at the level of the Nizam, but also the Raj. Moreover, post-independence, several of the forest acts which remain but a continuation of the legal language of the Raj. They gave central control of land and resources to government bodies instead of the original inhabitants of those lands, and enforced a partition of their land into several states and administrations today in the form of Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
To think about an alternative world where the Gondi people can be returned what they fought and continue to fight for, is to crumble several historical layers of oppression and violence, and may only be possible in the direction of a political secession. When the narrative of the nation-state was carved, it stood over several narratives which were supposed to go silent. While the contemporary form of state repression on natural resources functions on a more sophisticated language of law and policies, these narratives refuse to go silent. In the midst of a small nugget of the state language in the form of Draft EIA 2020, the narrative of Komaram Bheem’s ‘Jal Jangal Zameen’ is being remembered even today.
Anamika Das, currently pursuing my MPhil in Social Sciences from the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. I have completed my undergraduate and masters in social sciences, with a specialisation in sociology from Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts and Manipal Center for Humanities, respectively. My current research interests include the nature of social movements, with a focus on post 2010 women’s movements on gender and sexuality in India. I am also interested in performance and visual arts, and cinema. Email id: email@example.com