I DON’T mind haggling, be it with bureaucrats or a vendor selling red ants at the Hembrom market in the Naxal-hit Adiki block. Little irritants or banal cold wars do not seem to have an effect on my ability to focus on the larger picture.
Born to a Bengali father and an Uraon Adivasi mother, I grew up tackling bullies. Growing up with 10 siblings, I learnt to deal with my three elder brothers. Being the eldest daughter, I was setting examples for my two sisters. Having had no connection with the Bengali side of my family, I grew up like any other Adivasi girl in Ranchi, except my sisters say that I was always aggressive and restless.
Bhano, the most overbearing of my brothers, was the biggest thorn in our flesh. I was the biggest pain for him. I gave as good as I got. I grew up to be a supposedly intrepid and resourceful journalist writing for Navbharat Times, Jan Satta and Prabhat Khabhar on women and Adivasi issues, displacement and Jharkhand politics. Bhano grew up to be a lawyer. Childhood rivalry eventually transformed into a much publicised war after our father’s death. For Bhano, it was having the final say in “his house”. For my sisters and I, it was about asserting our freedom.
It started with a domestic squabble when he refused to part with the keys of the small restaurant that our father used to run. I snatched the keys and returned them to the family. Aloka, the youngest sister began running the restaurant for a while. But there was friction every day.
This friction eventually turned into a spectacular battle that spilled onto the streets. Bhano was extremely traditional and patriarchal in his outlook. He had married his wife against our mother’s wishes. But he would beat his wife every other day. For a while, I watched it all. I didn’t make any move as my sister-inlaw never spoke to me. Like my brothers, she considered me the family freak. It was too much for me to tolerate his violence at home when I was out on the streets calling for ending the oppression of women. It was pure hypocrisy. There were times when Bhano would beat his wife on the verandah while feminist groups were meeting in my house.
So, the only option was to put him where he belonged: jail. I went to file a case against my own brother once I got my sister-in-law’s assent.
Bhano didn’t take it lying down. He filed cases against all three of us sisters. One of the charges was attempted murder. He held dharnas against me and distributed pamphlets vilifying us. On a particular occasion, a dharna was held right in front of our house. At the end of that day, there were police, media and three political parties present.
As much as the world outside laughed, there was sorrow within the family. Even my mother thought that I had not only exacerbated the problem but was also tearing the family apart. Of my brothers, only the youngest, Sandeep, maintains some sort of familial bond.
My sisters say that I’m responsible for their politicisation. We were sisters who were resolutely non-conformist. After all, we had learnt it from our mother. She had a ‘love marriage’ and was out working for a living. Yet, Bhano expected us to stay home, stay silent and submissive. But, of course, all the humiliation he faced did seem to have some effect. Ever since he was released from jail, Bhano has stayed away from us. The general assumption is that he began to behave in a civilised way with his wife.
I DEAL with Adivasi societies. Even though they are more egalitarian than Hindu or Christian or Muslim societies, they can be just as mean. Alcoholism is a big problem. Similarly, patriarchy, though to a much lesser degree, has been injected into Adivasi societies. Adivasi women living in forests do not know their rights. The forest, which sustains them, is still given to them as a gift by the government. Under the Forest Rights Act, (I was part of the revision in 2010), it is recognised that women are an essential pillar for utilising our forests well and sustaining them. Lack of knowledge, then, becomes the biggest impediment for women’s empowerment.
But then there’s history to this. In Jharkhand, everybody remembers Sidu and Kano, who fought against the British in 1854, three years before our much-touted first war of independence. It’s a tragedy that nobody has documented these struggles. However, the tragedy within the tragedy is that nobody remembers Phoolo-Jano, the sisters who fought alongside their brothers Sidu and Kano. My latest book, Adivasi Bharat ki Krantikari Naariyan, looks at the role of women in the major Adivasi struggles.
It is through remembering these struggles that I want to fight for women’s empowerment. For the acknowledgment that women are equal, and their role in a society has to be imbued in the collective consciousness.