I am just back from one of the most backward regions of India – Western Madhya Pradesh. I travelled in the districts of Dhar, Jhabua and Badwani. These are all tribal dominated areas with the Bhils and Bhilalas (apparently an aristocratic tribe that has been generated by Rajput and Bhil miscegenation).

How do I describe this experience? Do I talk of the inherent contradictions?

  • A land rich in natural resources with people living in abject poverty?
  • The glorious landscape which is at once breathtaking and rugged.
  • Absolutely flat land interspersed with very high mountains.
  • The rich culture of the tribals or the assault that it is coming under from the external world.
  • ‘Protected’ forests, over thousand hectares, which have over 10 foresters at various levels overseeing it but only 5 trees!
  • Dense forests where one can still see hyenas and deer from roads.
  • Bank loans being sanctioned worth Rs.100,000/- on basis of land that is not worth more than Rs.5,000/-

There are many titbits to share….let me do it randomly……..

The Bhils are a warrior tribe…. They once ruled the central part of the country… Even the British stayed away and did not tangle with them. Today they are found in 4 states… Maharashtra, Gujarat, MP and Rajasthan. Almost all of them living in abject poverty…. In a debt trap.. It is ‘normal’ to find a Bhil family depending on 2 acres of rain-fed agriculture for survival…. Also normal are early marriages and 7-10 children. There are actually women in their mid 30s who are grandmothers! Aunts and nieces of the same age are common. I saw at least 10 such cases.

In this community bride price has to be paid by the house of the groom. It goes from 5,000 to 60,000. Many a times 3-5 times the annual income of the family. Naturally this pushes them further in debt.

We were in a village… a number of people had gathered. There was an outcry in the next lane… the women looked at each other and suddenly got up… we were asked, politely, to leave. We did not heed, at first and tried to investigate. The matter was simple, common-place : a man from the village had been murdered and his body sent to the village square on a bullock cart. There were no tears… not even from his wife… the men went into a huddle… This was the jat (caste) panchayat…. They decided that revenge was needed. The women went to fetch booze, the men brought out spears, bows and guns…. Revenge would be swift and sure…. An Eye for an Eye. The police reacted… within a hour the every village in the neighbourhood were being patrolled… I spoke with a police constable. He was of the opinion that all the patrolling in the world would not be of any use… He knew that the murderer would die the same day, if he was in the area…. It was a frightening few minutes… the tension in the village… the dry eyes of the wife… it is no matter of dishonour to say that we split immediately!

The sense of community bonding is great.. The Adji-Padji system is in use. In this a group of people work jointly on one persons farm… This is done in cycles and at the end of the day, all participants access free labour equal to the one they have given. Another system is that of
‘halma’ : in this one person invites a group for work in his field in return of food and liquor. Some times this is more expensive than straight away paying for labour.

One more system is that of Nukta : the death feast. Tens of men get themselves tonsured and a feast is held for the soul of the departed soul…. Once again the family is plunged into debt.

I traveled through an area (the Macholiya [fish like] ghat) which the police fear to patrol……. There have been number of attacks on the vehicles travelling in the night (and day)…. The MO is clear. Stop the vehicle… beat up the men and rob every one…….. The administration has responded with a solution. All vehicles are stopped at a point and released in a convoy.. of you miss one convoy, you have to wait for another two hours for another to be formed… there are a number of such places in the region….

Crossing the Narmada was a great experience. It was a full moon night and there was no power…….. I almost believed the local myth that just a glimpse of the Narmada is enough to wash away ones sins… No need for a dip…… Very disturbing was staying in an area that will be submerged in the back waters of the Sardar Sarovar dam……. I could see homes and aspirations of the people not just buildings that were going to be razed…… This has confirmed my personal view that monstrous dams should not be built……. The social cost is too high.

So many things to share – so little space

  • The system of Bhagodia… where boys and girls elope.. some times causing murders……
  • The bhagat (reformed tribals) who eschew alcohol, meat, tobacco etc and the nagats who continue on their own merry ways…..
  • Colourful faces carved in stone in each village… apparently these represent the dead, who have died because of ‘unnatural’ causes like fights, murders etc…..
  • How posting to police stations in ‘troubled’ spots are auctioned… those getting posted there KNOW that they have hit a gold mine…. fighting tribals represent a mother lode of ‘settlements’

It was an exhilarating experience…… One that I felt I must share with you……….So that you can live it vicariously………