At about the time of the Battle of Britain, an Englishman of combatant age made a new home with his new wife in a then very remote, and very forested, princely state named Bastar. The man was Verrier Elwin, a brilliant Oxford scholar who had joined the Church and then left it, apprenticed himself to Gandhi and then left him, finally settling on the wandering life of a freelance anthropologist. His wife was a Raj Gond named Kosi; much younger than Elwin and without his academic distinction, she yet matched him in strength and independence of character.
Between 1932 and 1940 Elwin was based in the Mandla district of the Central Provinces. In those years he wrote fine books on the Baigas, the Agarias, and the Gonds, as well as two novels with tribal themes and characters. He moved to Bastar in the autumn of 1940 in search of new tribes to write about. Kosi and he built themselves a home overlooking the spectacular Chitrakot Falls on the Indravati river. Over the next three years, they spent the winter months roaming around Bastar, talking to Gonds, Murias, Marias, Koyas, Kalhars and other communities of the State. In the hot weather and monsoon, they mostly stayed at home, where Elwin wrote on a desk that faced the Chitrakot falls themselves.
Recently, while in the British Library in London, I came across a copy of Elwin’s ‘Journal of a Tour in Southern Maria Country, November 1941 to March 1942.’ Several entries speak of the beauty of the countryside, with villages ‘surrounded by hills with yellow fields of sirson [mustard] in the foreground and forest everywhere’. The anthropologist found the humans no less enchanting. In a village named Kaklur he attended a tribal dance held in a ‘most romantic spot’. The boys were attractively dressed, with ‘tassels of red woollen cowries’ on their topis, while the girls were ‘especially beautiful and graceful in their movements’. Afterwards, the Elwins and their hosts drank leaf cups of landa, ‘one of the most potent drinks known to mankind’, which tasted ‘like liquid dynamite’, yet filled one ‘with a spirit of universal benevolence’.
Elwin found the tribals of Bastar ‘gentle, friendly, with no desire for property or power’. They were, he wrote to his mother in London, in striking contrast to the warring Europeans. The life led by the Bastar adivasis was ‘a great lesson to the world at this time. So long as men cling to the desire of empire and wealth such catastrophes as the present one [i.e., World War Two] are certain to occur’.
This past May, I visited Bastar sixty-five years after Elwin had been there. The old princely state has now been divided into three districts—Bastar, Dantewara, and Kanker. It was in the Dantewara region that Elwin made his tour of 1941-2. I passed through some of the same villages as he had–such as Gidam, Kotru, Bijapur and Bhairamgarh. The countryside was still exquisitely beautiful, the fields interspersed with trees of sal and jackfruit and wild mango, and densely forested hills in the background. Even in mid-summer, the Indravati is a very beautiful river. And the bird life was very rich indeed–the Brain Fever Bird calling overhead, orioles in the trees, larks and warblers on the ground.
What had changed was the fate and state of the tribals. In fifty years of being part of the Union of India, the Bastar adivasi had seen the new sarkar mostly in the role of an exploiter—as forest officials who denied them entry to the forest, police officials who demanded bribes, and state-supported contractors who paid less than the minimum wage. Nor had the ‘fruits of development’ reached them–like other tribal districts, these too had far less than their fair share of functioning schools and properly staffed hospitals.
The misdeeds of the Government of India had created an opening for Maoist revolutionaries to move into. For the past decade they have been very active in Dantewara district, mobilizing villagers to demand higher wages and freer access to forests. However, such mobilization was invariably accompanied by armed action. Policemen, forest officials, and contractors were attacked and killed, sometimes brutally. So were village leaders deemed to be unsympathetic to the revolutionaries.
Unable or unwilling to meet the Maoist challenge by conventional means, the politicians of Chattisgarh—in which State Bastar now falls—instead set up a vigilante group to combat them. Young tribals were induced by the offer of a gun and a monthly stipend to fight the Maoists. Other villagers were forced to leave their homes and fields and shift to camps by the roadside. The Maoists, meanwhile, responded with retaliatory attacks of their own. In the past year alone, several hundred tribals have been killed in the conflict. And as many as forty thousand have been displaced.
Verrier Elwin found the Bastar tribals at peace, but now they are at war—with one another. He wrote of the Maria of Dantewara that they were ‘communistic people’, who ‘still have a great deal of village solidarity’. Now each village is split down the middle, clan pitted against clan, family against family. Had Elwin seen Bastar today he would have wept. I know I did.