Field Notes: 'These Sisterf****** Are Bastards & Thieves'


"In Bhil pe likh ke kya karoge, b***c*** saale harami, chor hai," (Why are you writing on these Bhils, these sisterf****** are bloody bastards and thieves.)" 

I got versions of this expletive-ridden reaction from three former government employees and one serving official when I went to Udaipur in southern Rajasthan to interview activists and government employees who had worked among the Bhils, India's second-most populous tribal group. 

I was reporting on their desire to win for themselves a tribal state called Bhil Pradesh, the demand for which first emerged a century ago and has waxed and waned since, gaining momentum before state assembly elections in four states from which they hope to carve a homeland: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. 

These non-tribal government officials, retired and serving, offered few useful insights. They disparaged the Bhils, who occupy the lowest rungs of society in the four states. What they talked about was how, through the years of their service, they had shown the Bhils "their place", confirming why the Bhils wanted a homeland.

Little wonder that the Bhils were suspicious of outsiders. When I tried to talk to Kanti Lal Roat, cofounder of a Bhil advocacy group called Adivasi Parivar, it took me three calls to convince him I was a journalist. Roat later told me he had plenty of adverse experiences with "journalists" who were indeed journalists but working on behalf of politicians in Delhi.  

Four other activists I eventually spoke to were similarly wary when I first called and said I was a journalist. All suspected I may have been some political or governmental mediator. It indicated how negotiations with tribals were conducted clandestinely, often using dubious back channels instead of following the letter of the law and constitutional guidelines. It also explained how tribals were looked upon and why those officials I had spoken to were so abusive.   

The chat with Roat revealed their growing mistrust of India's political system, which they said had been misused in ways that went against the Constitution and the law to take over their lands, often covered in forests, which they venerate and live off. Below those forests lie rich veins of minerals, which is why mining companies covet tribal lands.

 "No one understood our problems," said Roat. "The BJP and the Congress utilised us for votes. Even the fifth schedule (of the Constitution) that was added to protect our rights has been reduced to nothing more than paper."

Once they accepted my credentials, the Bhils freely expressed their desire for a homeland. They explained how the movement for it was being grown by a new generation of leaders who adroitly used social media to create a strong foundation for their ideology and keep millions of them motivated.

"We are fighting for our territory," said Roat. "Challenges will continue to arise, but we will find a way to get our state."

You can read Devendra Pratap Singh Shekhawat's full story here.

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