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New Book Review – Whose Country is it anyway? by Gladson Dungdung and reviewed by Felix Padel

whose country is it anyway GD.Gladson Dungdung – Whose Country is it anyway?

Review by Felix Padel

This collection of activist essays is out just when it is needed most: a book touching on every aspect of the Adivasi situation by an Adivasi activist prepared to take on the big questions and the key perpetrators of violence, from the big companies staging takeovers, headed by Tata, to the police increasingly serving these companies rather than India’s citizens, and the politicians facilitating the takeovers.

The book’s starting point is a recent Supreme Court Judgement that validates Adivasis’ identity as India’s original inhabitants. Significantly, this case involved an Adivasi woman stripped naked and shoved around a village in Maharashtra. Another piece focuses on the plight of Anna, a domestic servant, whose unheard plea for justice is symptomatic of mass exploitation and oppression of Adivasi women in domestic service. As for exposure to rape – what about rapists in uniform? Hasn’t rape been used against tribal people as a weapon of subjugation for decades? When tribal women are gang-raped by police or army personnel, are perpetrators ever punished? “Are these women too?” is one of the book’s strongest essays, covering the sexual abuse in a school in Chhattisgarh and other episodes that bring national shame.

The first essay starts at the beginning with the inspiring, yet harrowing story of the first Adivasi to oppose East India Company invasions, in 1779, with the words “Earth is our Mother”. Baba Tilika Manjhi paid for opposing the British with a gruesome death, giving the lie to the mastermind of this Paharia campaign, Augustus Cleveland, whose memorial in Bhagalpore claimed that he brought this tribal people under British rule “without terrors of authority”!

The book’s documentation of the many forms of violence and prejudice ranged against Adivasis fills a vital gap in literature. The detail is often sickening and will make any sane person extremely angry. It is shown how Adivasis are being displaced by dams, by industrial/mining projects, by continuing tricks of non-Adivasis, and – perhaps most outrageously of all – by the new University for the Study and Research of Law at Nagri. As Dungdung points out, the head of this university is also Jharkhand’s Chief Justice. If this isn’t a blatant conflict of interest, what is? This university’s takeover of land lays down a pattern of trampling on the Law that does not bode well for its future!

The book documents the situation in other states besides Jharkhand, such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Assam, where the Forest Department’s use of Boro tribal people to evict Adivasis from their forest land shows a typical colonial technique of turning one tribe against another. As the author asks, if Rahul Gandhi says he is Adivasis’sipahi in Delhi, he needs to speak up a lot louder and more often on Adivasi issues!

Dungdung rightly points out that in many ways Nehru is the ‘Architect of Adivasis’ misery’, through his ideology of dams as ‘temples of modern India’. The experience of tens of thousands of Adivasis whose lives have been ruined by dams forms a blatant contradiction to Nehru’s stated principle that tribal people should always be allowed to develop according to their own genius. However well-meaning Nehru was in his words, his violent actions towards tribal communities at certain times have yet to be recognised: apart from the horror of his big dams, he also sent in the troops against tribal communities in Telengana in 1948, destroying the achievements of 3,000 villages who had effected a democratic redistribution of land, and similarly in Nagaland and Manipur during the 1950s, where troops used extreme levels of violence to force submission. In each case, ‘security forces’ established a level of habitual violence, including use of ‘rape as a weapon of war’, for which thousands of perpetrators went unpunished. Operation Greenhunt is just the latest manifestation of the recurring patterns of state violence that these two operations initiated. Offering just military action and ‘development’ to counteract today’s Maoist insurgency is no solution at all ‘precisely because the injustice, discrimination and denial are the foundation of the violence’.

Gladson Dungdung records the starvation levels of hunger still faced by large numbers of Adivasis. As Binayak Sen has pointed out using medical and nutrition statistics, over 50% of Adivasis and Dalits are presently living under famine conditions of malnourishment. This being so, how can India’s rulers claim they have brought ‘development’ at all to these sections of society? To be real, development needs to be under local democratic control, not dictated by corporations and opaque government hierarchies.

As the two most discriminated-against groups in India, Dalits and Adivasis share many experiences. Yet the difference between the two groups is also important to be aware of: Dalits were more or less enslaved by mainstream society, while Adivasis maintained a high level of independence up to British times. As such, they developed their own diverse cultures and languages to a high level. Adivasi cultures are still too often perceived through stereotypes as ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’, when the reality is that they are extremely civilised and highly developed in areas of life where mainstream society is weak or degenerate. Centuries of development is often destroyed when Adivasi communities are thrown off their land by projects usurping the name ‘development’.

Adivasi society needs to be recognised for its formidable achievements, including an economic system that is based on and in accordance with the principles of ecology, and therefore sustainable in the true sense and the long term. Cultural Genocide is the term for what Adivasis are facing now all over India, and this book is a landmark in spelling out the injustice. By bringing out the truth, and documenting the situation from an authentic Adivasi perspective, it gives hope for a turning of the tide that will counteract the genocidal invasions and takeovers of Adivasi land.

Dr Felix Padel is an anthropologist who has lived in India for 30 years. His latest book ‘Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel’ by Felix Padel and Samarendra Das is published by Orient Black Swan. ISBN: 9788125038672

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Gandhi Foundation.

Book Review – Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun and Modern India

Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun and Modern India
Lida Trivedi
Indiana University Press 2007 pp205
$29.95

Lida Trivedi teaches at Hamilton College in USA. On a study tour of India she travelled with, among others, an uncle who was a former freedom fighter and labour leader. Travelling for four months across northern and western India she had the opportunity to meet many who had taken part in the struggle. In addition the oldest sister of her father taught her to spin on the charka. So she learned about khadi and swadeshi as the material facts of India’s national politics.

Her study is about khadi – the self-made cotton for daily use and the role it played in the national struggle for independence. For many people outside India – and I was certainly one of them – the making and selling of khadi is an economic process. Khadi had to replace the imported cloth from Britain to re-establish the former Indian textile industry.

The movement which supported the idea was named swadeshi, the approach to economic self-reliance. One of the eleven Gandhian virtues, swadeshi meant belonging to or being made in one’s own country. This policy of self-reliance meant in practice using only Indian-made cloth. In a wider sense it meant establishing India’s economic autonomy as the basis for future self-government.

Thus khadi meant three different but related things: as a material artifact of the nation; part of a national economic policy; a visual symbol of the Indian people. In doing so it challenged the political boundaries of both traditional Indian society and the British colonial regime. The swadeshi movement found popular support and after some time the Indian National Congress through the Congress Working Committee created the All India Khaddar Board, comprising technical instruction, production and sales. It established in 1922 a new school to train swadeshi workers – the Akila Khadi Vidyalaya, which was in many ways the heart of Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement.

Within the Congress however there was controversy. One of the issues was with regard to members of Congress wearing khadi at Party functions. In keeping with the principles of mass participation the Congress Working Committee decided in 1924 that a revised franchise required that Congress membership had to be earned, not just paid. Hand-spun thread had to be donated to Congress’s Khadi Board and this had to become part of Congress membership. This decision however was not popular with many and within nine months the spinning franchise was repealed. There remained a diluted commitment to swadeshi politics and khadi.

This meant a defeat for Gandhi’s form of swadeshi but khadi was brought to the general public with great success. Gandhi formed the All-India Spinners Association in 1925 which oversaw the development of the swadeshi movement from Satyagraha Ashram. The assets of the defunct Khadi Board were transfered to this new organisation and there was support from some industrialists. Swadeshi now included other hand-produced goods.

India had known a century-long tradition of weaving and textile production including colourful clothing which was an obstacle to undyed khadi becoming popular. To counter this, promoters used exhibitions, showing of lantern-slides, the use of the Gandhi-cap, and the charka flag.

The swadeshi movement achieved three things:

  • khadi became more than a boycott of foreign goods – it became a moral system of labour and consumption for the nation. It emphasised the distinction between indigenous and foreign production.
  • it provided a heterogeneous population with a sense of a united India, relocating rural and urban India within a market-place shaped by common taste and defined by common values.
  • the habitual khadi-wearer celebrated the principle of universal labour and self-sufficiency as the basis of political community and made him or her visible as an individual.

The Gandhi cap or topi emerged as a symbol of political dissent and as a signal of one’s obligations, thus khadi became more than an economic issue. One more product of the khadi movement is worth mentioning, that is the flag of India. It no longer bears the symbol of the charka, the swadeshi movement emblem, but the Ashoka chakra wheel or dharma wheel, but it still represents the hopes and aspirations of the people of India. The flag still has to be made of hand-spun and hand-woven wool, cotton or silk.

Lisa Trivedi has written a penetrating and comprehensive study of khadi in a lively style and is a pleasure to read.

Piet Dijkstra

Book Review – Gandhi And The Middle East: Jews, Arabs and Imperial Interests

Gandhi And The Middle East: Jews, Arabs and Imperial Interests
Simone Panter-Brick
I B Tauris 2008 pp193
IBSN 978 1 84511 584 5 HB
£47.50

This study deals with Gandhi’s involvement with the politics of the Middle East and in particular Palestine. There were two periods when Gandhi became involved in Middle Eastern politics. The first was following the Great War when the victorious nations wished to abolish the Caliphate, i.e. the leadership of the Muslim world which was in recent times held by the Ottoman Sultan. Gandhi took up the cause as it was one that Indian Muslims were very concerned about and it would help to maintain good Hindu/Muslim relations. However, it was a rather outdated cause and the Turks led by the secular leader Ataturk themselves eventually abolished the Caliphate and Gandhi’s involvement in the Middle East then ceased.

The second, which is the focus of this book, was around 1937. During WWI various promises were made to both Jews and Arabs about the post-war settlement. One of the most important was the statement by Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, concerning the establishment of a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine. The leading Zionist, Chaim Weitzmann, hoped that immigration would lead to 4-5 million Jews settling there and therefore a Jewish state would become viable. In 1922 the British fixed immigration quotas and the numbers settling rose until the late 1920s when numbers dropped off with the world recession. A Jewish Agency was set up to operate as a non-official government which even developed a military wing.

In 1929 trouble began when there was rioting in Jerusalem as it looked as if the Jews would rebuild the Temple in place of the Dome of the Rock. In the 1930s immigration greatly increased so that by WWII Jews constituted about 30% of the population. In 1936 a Higher Arab Committee was established to include all Arab parties and it was chaired by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hadj Amin. They opposed the Jewish settlement and a violent revolt erupted in April 1936 which lasted about 6 months. In response the Jews expanded their defence force, the Haganah, and developed a more extreme off-shoot, the Irgun.

In 1936 Gandhi began to involve himself again. Hermann Kallenbach had been Gandhi’s closest colleague in South Africa and he was Jewish, and he knew the representative of the Jewish Agency, Immanuel Olsvanger, who was also from South Africa. Dr Olsvanger went to see Gandhi in October 1936 and was supposed to be accompanied by Kallenbach, who was pro-Zionist, but he could not manage. Olsvanger was not favourably impressed by Gandhi’s views and considered him to be naive. Kallenbach came to London in April 1937 to meet Olsvanger and also Weizmann and Maurice Shertok, head of the Political Department, then went on to Palestine before going on to see Gandhi. Gandhi promised Kallenbach he would study Zionist literature which he would be sent.

Gandhi’s position was that Palestine was Arab territory and if Jews settled there they should not expect the protection of a colonial power (Britain). But Jews and Christians who were already there should have equal rights to the Arabs. The dependence of Jewish settlers on the colonial power became clear when 30,000 troops were sent during the 1936-39 rebellion. Gandhi’s position was even more strongly held by Nehru who saw the Arab struggle and the Indian anti-colonial struggle as essentially the same.

In July 1937 Kallenbach left India taking a proposal from Gandhi to Shertok in Jerusalem and by letter to Weizmann in London. The letter by Kallenbach to Weizmann offered mediation between Jews and Arabs by Nehru, Azad (President of Congress) and Gandhi. In July also the British Government’s Peel Report was published recommending partition, something which the Arabs did not like, and the Jews were disappointed about too because of the small size of territory proposed. Nevertheless the Zionists accepted it, as did the League of Nations, but the Arabs totally rejected it.

In September the British Commissioner of Galilee was assassinated and for 18 months there was virtual civil war. 3,ooo Jews were recruited to the police, the Irgun resorted to terrorism against Arab and British, 200 Arab leaders were arrested. In the 26 November, 1938 edition of Harijan Gandhi published an article called ‘The Jews’. In it he wrote: “My sympathies are all with the Jews” calling them the untouchables of Christianity. However, he continued: “The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me.” He wrote that “The Palestine of the Biblical concept is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts”. However if they do feel that they should settle in the geographical Palestine it should only be done with the approval of the Arabs there and done nonviolently and without the support of British arms. This met with much criticism and it was clear that Gandhi’s advice would be ignored. Gandhi’s attempts to influence the politics of the Middle East in the 1930s were a complete failure. However the history of Palestine has been a sorry one indeed, with intermittent war for 80 years, but one that could have been predicted given the inflexibilty of the protagonists.

Simone Panter-Brick’s book tells us about a relatively obscure part of Gandhi’s life but the reader will learn much about the Middle East and she does not neglect contemporaneous events in India. It is a complex story she tells which helps us to understand the events in Israel/Palestine today and the problem that the Jews, the Arabs and the world community still have to solve.

George Paxton

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