Thinking about the Future by Looking at the Past: Travels to South Gujarat

At the start of this Fellowship year, I hardly anticipated that I would be speaking about why legal history was important to a group of young Adivasi professionals and community elders in South Gujarat. This was related to my area of research at Harvard Law School where I worked on tribal property rights in Indian legal history. 

My AIF Clinton Fellowship with the Bhasha Research & Publication Centre’s Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh village provided me an opportunity to read more widely about tribal and Adivasi issues and also meet some very interesting people either from or working amongst Adivasi and tribal communities in India. It was through one such chance meeting that I found myself traveling to south Gujarat.

Amongst the many visitors to the library was a linguistic anthropologist who has worked extensively in Jharkhand and was associated with the Adivasi Academy many years ago. Sitting on the cow-dung plastered floor of the Adivasi Academy canteen, we spoke about many things including my research interests. Apart from suggesting many helpful books, he introduced me to a local college lecturer who worked on issues of adivasi identity and was associated with Bhasha before leaving for further studies in the UK.

Following several long conversations, the lecturer invited me to attend a lecture in Vadodara which was being organized in honor of Jaipal Singh Munda. Being someone whose fiery speeches in India’s Constituent Assembly I had read and admired, I readily agreed. Jaipal Singh was a visionary Adivasi leader who had humble beginnings in a village near Ranchi (formerly in Bihar and now the capital of Jharkhand). The staff of the missionary school Jaipal studied in found him to be unusually bright and sent him to the University of Oxford for further studies. Not only was he nearly selected for prestigious civil service, but he also played an important role in the hockey team which won India’s first gold medal at the Olympics. He returned to India to play a major role in the Adivasi Mahasabha and was a member of the body which debated on the contents of India’s constitution and fiercely canvassed Adivasi issues. The lecture, which was organized by the Gujarat based Adivasi Sahitya Academy, was not only well attended by members of various Adivasi communities from Gujarat, but also many who had made their way from far away Jharkhand. I met some office-bearers of the Adivasi Sahitya Academy on the sidelines of this lecture and got to discuss my current fellowship project and research interests with them. They took an interest in my Fellowship project and research interest and soon invited me to speak at a session for a three-day workshop in Narmada District in South Gujarat.

Gujarati Poster of the First Jaipal Singh Munda Memorial Lecture (Designed by the Adivasi Sahitya Academy)

I had traveled to the Narmada District before accompanying a staff member from Bhasha and had come away with the impression that it was a beautiful place with mountains and an abundance of forest areas and mango trees. This visit would not disappoint. The drive through Chhota Udaipur to the hillier Narmada district was long but mostly uneventful except for the car radiator overheating, and seeing a few men physically lift up a cow to its legs after it sat down from heat exhaustion.

This workshop was organized at the home of one of the office bearers of the Adivasi Sahitya Academy and the “classroom” was the open spaces in his very large backyard. Sitting under the shade of tall trees and a wall-less tin roofed structure, it was surprisingly cool despite it being the peak of summer. This workshop was meant for young Adivasi professionals and community elders from various Adivasi communities in Gujarat.

Historically, the Narmada district has been very politically conscious, having taken part in some of the earliest Gandhian movements since the 1920s and in more recent times where it was the site of resistance against large dams and acquisition of tribal land by the government. The speakers before me had talked about cultural expression, the importance of remembering Gandhian ideals in today’s age as well as Adivasi identity. My lecture was on the importance of legal history for Adivasi communities. Given that the audience was very diverse, I wanted to ensure that it would be as interactive as possible. My attempt was to look at the watershed moments in this history which were particularly significant for tribal and Adivasi communities in India.

I began with the question of what the appropriate date to begin examining legal history would be. While many spoke about looking at Mughal and Maratha rule and their relations with Adivasi chiefs and kings, others spoke about the period under the East India Company or the British Crown. Given the continuities in the present-day legal system with that established by East India Company, I took the audience through the period from 1600 when the British East India Company received a charter from the queen till 1950 when the Constitution of India was enacted. While this is something that is often covered in school-level history, it rarely contextualizes it in a way that is usable by Adivasi communities and seems to mostly only focus on the Indian independence movement.

Speaking at the “Classroom” in at the Workshop (Photo Credits: Dr. Rajesh Rathwa)

The lunch which followed gave me an opportunity to interact with the participants. It was encouraging to see that documents I had studied during my Masters were part of daily discourse amongst the young professionals in these communities. This also provided me an excellent platform to talk about the Adivasi Academy Library’s multi-disciplinary and multi-lingual holdings which participants may find to be of interest. Several persons asked for a list of library holdings and some book references which I was only too happy to provide.

That evening a few of the speakers were scheduled to return to Tejgadh, so I traveled with them. On the way, there were excellent conversations about the importance of role models and mentorship for Adivasi youth. Everyone agreed that the three-day workshop was something that should be replicated for youth in Chhota Udaipur district as well and we discussed how the Adivasi Academy and its library could play an important role in this.

I have met many wonderful and interesting people through the course of my Fellowship year. These have helped shaped my ideas not only for a long term plan for the library but also further personal academic research which examines the past where tribal and Adivasi communities have been excluded. Through sustained engagements such as those enabled by the AIF Clinton Fellowship, I have had a unique chance to examine our past and work towards building a more inclusive and just future.

Further References:

Jaipal Singh: A Visionary Adivasi Intellectual of Modern India, Republished from www.tribalzone.net available at http://www.adivasiresurgence.com/jaipal-singh-munda-visionary-adivasi-intellectual-modern-india/ (last accessed 30th July 2019)

Centre for Law & Policy Research: Constituent Assembly Debates of India available at https://www.constitutionofindia.net/constituent_assembly_members/jaipal_singh_ (last accessed 30th July 2019)

Nishant graduated from West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata in 2011 and received his LL.M. degree from Harvard Law School. He clerked with the Supreme Court of India and later litigated a diverse range of cases in and around New Delhi with a litigation chamber. His most recent engagement was with the Centre on the Death Penalty at the National Law University, Delhi where he was one of the founding members and assisted inmates sentenced to death secure legal representation. At Harvard Law School, Nishant wrote about the impact of colonialism on tribal groups in India and pursued diverse interests ranging from natural resource issues, law and neuroscience, food law and criminal justice policy. He frequently writes about criminal justice issues in academic and popular publications. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Nishant will be working on issues related to de-notified "criminal" tribes in India and hopes to better understand the law's impact on the lives of marginalized peoples.

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