New gods, new lives and lost identity: The Baiga story

Kicked out of their jungle habitat, an ancient tribe struggles to cope – in vain


Archana Mishra | February 7, 2018 | Madhya Pradesh

#Madhya Pradesh   #Baiga Identity   #Tribal Children   #Tribal Women   #Health   #Tribals   #Baiga Tribe   #Baiga  
(Photos: Archana Mishra)
(Photos: Archana Mishra)

Gyanwati, a Baiga tribeswoman, recently made the 15 km journey from her village Jhulup to a house in Bhanpur Kheda that has a large, framed picture of Lord Hanuman. It was an act of penance to a god she started believing in only five years ago. She says such visits bring her peace of mind. Whenever she thinks she has erred, she makes the trip in atonement. Hundreds of Baiga men and women have turned to Hindu gods and goddesses like Hanuman, Shiva, Vishnu and Durga. Colourful posters of these gods are stuck or strung on the mud walls of Baiga homes. Many women keep votive or penitential fasts.

The change marks one of the results of a clash between their ancient animist traditions and contact with the modern world. For the Baiga, considered among the oldest original inhabitants of mainland India along with the Gonds and Oraons, have their own sophisticated mythology and theology to which their identity is bound. Their principal deity is Baradeo, the spirit of the forest, believed to dwell in the saaj tree (Terminalia tomentosa), unique in that it stores water in its woody trunk. They also worhip Narayandeo, Thakurdeo, the sun and the earth, and have their own creation myth. Worship often involves animal sacrifice: in the worship of Narayandeo, for instance, a village feeds a pig for a few months and on the day of worship, it’s killed by drowning it in boiling water, cooked and served to all families. This continues in some villages deep in the forests, but very few take part in it. Now, most of them light agarbattis, steadfastly observe Navratri vrats (fasts), and sing bhajans.

Touched by development, whether they like it or not, the Baiga have found their way of living, culture, and tradition eroding away. The idea of money was once alien to them; today, they face poverty. To them, word of honour meant an unbreakable commitment; today, they find themselves cheated out of land and money by middlemen through paperwork. From an identity bound to forest life, they find themselves poor migrant labourers in big cities or poverty-stricken, inept farmers on land given to them like alms. Some find solace in new religions, some in alcohol.

“When I’m drunk, I feel better,” says Sukrati, a 50-year-old Baiga woman, sitting outside her hut, speaking to her neighbour, who is also drunk. “There’s no tension of money or food.” She ekes out a living collecting roots and tubers from the forests of Sijhora and selling them at haats. She knows it’s forbidden by law since the forest was declared a protected area, but has no alternative. “We used to live in the forests for ages, but now everything has changed.”

There are many like her, who have befriended mahua, a spirit made from flowers and used in worship, funerals and weddings. But in their jungle days, drinking was only for festive occasions. Now, many men and women sit drunk through the day and night. So much so, the Gond tribespeople, who also live in the region, look down upon the Baiga.

Who they are

The first reference to the Baiga comes in the Seoni settlement report of 1867, prepared by one Capt WB Thompson of the British army. He describes them thus: “...the wildest of the tribes, inhabiting the most inaccessible hills and the remotest forests; living on what they can secure with their bows and arrows, in the use of which they are very skillful, and on forest produce, and the small crops which they grow on the hillside.” They are considered a branch of the Bhuiya tribe of Bengal and Bihar. It’s believed that Mandla and Balaghat (in Madhya Pradesh today) were not the original home of Baigas. They migrated to the plains from the Satpura hills, running from eastern Gujarat right up to what is now Chhattisgarh, to settle in the plateau and lowlands, living with the local Gonds. They worked as priests or medicine men. In the 1912 Gazetteer entry on Mandla, FRR Rudman writes: “Baigas are the most primitive and interesting of the forest tribes in the district. Their origin is obscure but they are almost certainly older established than the Gonds, and retain their religious ascendancy over them.”

The feeling of superiority, which still persists among them, stems from their creation myths. They believe the entire human race originated from them: their ancestor Nanga Baiga and his wife Nangi Baiga had two sons who married their sisters, and the Baiga are the descendants of the elder son, while the rest of humanity descended from the younger. Feelings of superiority also stem from their reputation as powerful exorcists.

Their primitive slash-and-burn cultivation is known as Bewar, in which millets (kodo and kutki) are grown on the ashes. They continue to cultivate on the same patch till yields dwindle, and then move on to another region of the forest. Baigas believe they must not plough the earth because they worship it and ploughing amounts to lacerating its breast. So they are not accustomed to normal agriculture. This is a major handicap in adjusting to life outside the forest.

“The land settlement idea of displacing tribals from their native place and giving them a minor piece of land for agriculture is a hangover of the colonial rule,” says Ishan Agarwal, a team leader at the voluntary group Foundation of Ecological Security, Mandla. “During that time, the intention was to take control of the land and charge fine on the produce.  Today, we might not be charging fine, but eviction is ongoing. Today, giving them poor quality land for agriculture is called development.”

Out of  the forests

Dr Verrier Elwin, missionary-turned-anthropologist who lived among the Baiga of Madhya Pradesh from the 1930s on, noted that they give their children names that inspire disgust or fear: the idea is to keep ghosts away. One of the names listed by Elwin is DFO – short for district forest officer, someone the tribespeople have learnt to loathe and fear. So to the Baiga, from early on, sarkar and control, whether under the British or in independent India, have always spelt conflict. Over the decades, governments have done little to correct that perception. Even the path-breaking Forest Rights Act of 2006 has made little difference.

As Agarwal puts it: “Forest rights and habitat rights are simply on paper. Barring Odisha and Maharashtra, none of the tribal-dominated states have properly implemented forest rights. So far, habitat right has not been claimed in Mandla area. We are forcing our paradigm of development on them. They are supposed to learn everything new that comes with development.”

Some decades ago, the Baiga were forced to take up agriculture after they were displaced or evicted when certain forest areas were declared national parks or by irrigation projects. All across India, it is more or less the same story: implementation of rehabilitation schemes is patchy or slovenly, leaving tribespeople open to exploitation by middlemen.

Raman Lal, 55, who was born in the forests of Kanha but left when a national park was created there in 1973, says, “We do farming on land given by the government. Our survival depended on the forests then, but we no longer can depend on it. First of all, we cannot use the forest the way we used to do and second it does not fulfill our growing requirement.”

He speaks of a time when performing rituals would earn them a living. “If an entire village has to be protected from hailstorm or an evil spirit that is causing disease, the Baiga priest used to get Rs 100, a big amount then,” he says. Selling roots and honey would bring in a few rupees that would be enough to survive a month. “Expenditures have added up today, but there is no source of income.” He suffers from tuberculosis and can hardly afford treatment.

Families that have come to settle here after being thrown out of Kanha got small landholdings. “The soil on which Baiga families are doing cultivation is poor,” says Shafiq Khan, the village agriculture expansion officer for Bichhiya. “Moreover, the region is a rain-fed cultivation zone, so overall yield depends on the monsoon. Even the groundwater is very low. On the whole, agriculture is a challenge for them.” He says that even when the weather is good, they are able to produce only eight or ten quintals of rice or millets, about 10 jute bags. They usually keep five bags and sell the rest. “The money is not enough to sustain them through the year; nor are they food-secure,” he says.

Fishing and migration

Around September, outside every hut in Kharpariya and Gadiya villages, Baiga men and women can be seen knitting fishing nets from nylon cord. They fish in the Matiyari, a tributary of the Banjar in the Narmada basin. “For the next few months, I’ll be selling fish before I leave the village for work in the cities,” says Samaru, who earns Rs 150-200 daily from fishing during the season. If he lands a big fish, the profit can go to Rs 500.

In some villages, fishing brings a good income during the season

In both these Baiga villages, every household follows the ritual of fishing and migration. No one here has agricultural land. They were displaced from the dense forests at the time of the Matiyari major irrigation project, which was completed in 2001. Jeetu Lal, who is in his fifties, remembers how he and 22 other villagers were sent to jail for farming near the river. “We were thrown out of our homes in the forests. But we were in the habit of farming a bit, and the police put us in jail,” he says. “Till now we don’t have any land for farming.”

In the cities they go to in search of work on construction sites, they begin to wear shirts and pants, buy cellphones. But this exposure leaves them dazed.

Jeetu Lal’s son Charan is the breadwinner of the family. He goes to Raipur, Bhopal and Indore for construction work, earning Rs 250-300 daily. Since his wife looks after their one-year-old son and Jeethu Lal, she does not go along with him.  

After Diwali, these villages become vacant. Only a few women and some old people stay behind. Able-bodied men and many hardy women set off for the cities to work at construction sites. In most cases, the whole family goes away. Staff at the nutrition rehabilitation centre (NRC) for malnourished children say families pull mothers and children out of treatment to take them away to the cities or to leave them to take care of the elderly.

Konwariya, who cannot conceive, is able to work with her husband in the brick kilns of Bhopal and Gwalior. “We earn Rs 400 daily, working together,” she says. They live in the cities saving up till they have Rs 6,000-7,000, enough to live on for some six months in the village. Then they return to the village, maybe earn from fishing if it’s the season, and go back.

There are times these families don’t get work for months. Jeetu Lal’s son Charan feels it is because he is unskilled. They get maximum work during harvesting or when construction is in full swing. “Generally, contractors come to our village and take people along. We work on farmlands, iron factories, construction – everything that requires immense labour,” he says.

No money sense

Some of the Baiga evicted from Kanha are referred to as daslakhiya – someone who has Rs 10 lakh. It’s a term used mockingly, and a documentary film of that name by National Institute of Design (NID) alumna Rishika Namdev pictures the lives of those who received that amount in compensation for their eviction from the forests of the Kanha national park. It tells a sorry tale, of families being cheated of the money or squandering it away.

Many tribespeople in the region speak of how officials or middlemen grabbed their compensation money. Those who got land found it’s infertile. In some cases, officials and middlemen told them to pay for land that turned out to be useless. And those who managed to keep some money didn’t know how to invest it or use it proplerly. Anthropologists like Elwin have noted how the Baiga have no idea of property, inheritance or the sanctity in law of written documentation. It hasn’t changed since his time.

In Gadiya and Kharpariya villages too the families were given compensation instead of getting land. And activists and lawyers have stories to tell of how it slipped out of the fingers of the Baiga families. Nayan Sukh Marawi, caretaker of the Gadiya primary school, says, “We did not know anything about money, so we don’t know how to value our work or the effort we put in our work. Since we started going out to earn livelihood, we are learning the value of our labour. Some Baigas go as far as Telangana to work in the fields and earn '10,000-15,000 during the season.”

The irony is that they are in a world where everything works through documentation, while their tradition is based on faith, word, intention. And they are at a loss to understand what is more valuable – the life they have been living for ages, or the money.

Poor support

On paper there are several government schemes for the Baiga, but they rarely reach them. Most Baigas, anyway, are unaware of these schemes. And those who know of them, find it daunting to approach government officials. If they cross that hurdle, they are foxed by the paperwork. “Our panchayats receive funds for our benefit but nobody gives us any information. We have no knowledge of those schemes. Humko kaun sunega? (Who will listen to us?),” says Sukkhu Lal.

There’s special central assistance to the tribals sub-plan, implemented by the ministry of tribal affairs, that provides diesel pumps for irrigation, sewing machines, training for sericulture, financial assistance for setting up shops and so on. But since 2014, there’s been a budget cut. In 2012-13 the Baiga development office of Mandla got Rs 32.22 lakh. The same amount was released in 2013-14. But in 2014-15, funding was slashed to Rs 19.30 lakh. In 2015-16, no money was received, and in 2016-17 it got Rs 3.26 lakh.

On its part, the state government promotes education among tribals. Baiga girls who go to school get Rs 300 from Std V to Std VIII, and Rs 500 from Std IX to XI. There are health camps for pregnant mothers and also for promoting traditional arts and crafts. But the funds for all this have been dwindling: in 2013-14, Rs 282 lakh was released, but the next year it fell to Rs 127.40 lakh. In 2015-16, it was slashed to Rs 56.62 lakh and in 2016-17, it fell to as less as Rs 1.94 lakh.

District magistrate Sufiyah Faruqui Wali says it’s a systemic problem. “These schemes are operating in isolation,” she says. “They are not focusing on the overall development of the tribe.” According to her, the problem is that schemes and the like are imposed on tribespeople rather than really understanding their problems.

She is right to an extent. But it’s a shame how the government has failed to do anything substantial for the Baigas. They have been categorised as a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), which means they are not allowed to go for sterilisation (as an earlier Governance Now story pointed out). But   through government neglect, they have been left incapable of surviving with dignity in a world they are unable to come to terms with. One which is eroding their identity.

Off with the tattoos

In their own confused way, the Baigas are trying to come to terms with the world outside the forest. They have seen village life outside the dense forests of their ancestors, having been forced to settle down in places where the government has told them to. They have seen city life from the margins, living on footpaths or construction sites. Some have got themselves cellphones.

Dazed by what they experience, they are trying to transform themselves. Feeling the need to adapt to the modern world, they are trying to erase or do without the external markers of identity – manifest literally in the tattoos Baiga women bear.

Baiga women of a generation or two before got themselves tattooed all over their body as ornamentation and expression of sexuality. The designs used – haldi roots, flowers, dots, lines – have no particular meaning though. They are needled in using an ink they say is made of cast snake scales burnt with sesame seeds and oil. They even tattoo their foreheads. But now, women no longer take pride in these tattoos. They don’t want their daughters to bear these patterns.

Bhadiya, a Baiga woman, has a school-going daughter with a tattoo of a small open triangle and a dot on her forehead. “We won’t get any more tattoos done on her. Just this chandrama on her forehead [is enough],” she says. “She goes to school and it will mark her out as different from others, and we don’t want that.”

Lamiyabai, a Baiga midwife, says, “Younger girls who are getting married don’t have tattoos these days. They want to look no different from the other women they see around them.” Some young women say that, with tattoos, they’d feel awkward when they go to the market or to the cities to work with their husbands.

Men too are making adjustments –in dress, in attitude. To stand out as a Baiga forest-dweller, they think, will prevent them from getting jobs or business. “If you’d seen me ten years ago, I’d have been wearing a langot and moving around barechested – a typical Baiga man,” says Sukkhu Lal, of Kharpariya village, in the forests near the Matiyari dam. “Life has changed now. Today I have a T-shirt, a shirt and pants.” But he was moving around barechested, and on seeing this reporter, pulled on a T-shirt, saying, “I’m still not accustomed to wearing T-shirts. The habit of roaming around barechested in the jungles still remains with us.”

Learning their way out

Slowly, some Baigas are coming around to believing that their life will change for the better if they educate themselves or send their children to school. But it’s only a few, and they have no clue as to what a good education entails. All that they can afford, and reachable from their villages, are government schools where teachers do not turn up more often than not. But to them, just sending children to school means a step towards progress.

Sukkhu Lal, who has studied only up to Std III, thinks educating his children will be his sole investment for the future. His elder son Satish is the only one in his village to reach Std X. He stays in a hostel for tribal students in Jabalpur. His younger sons Orain, 9, and Rakesh, 7, are nearing the end of primary school and preparing to leave for Jabalpur. “No matter what happens, we’ll give our children a proper education. We know the poverty we’ve been facing for a long time. Our children should not face what we have faced,” he says.

At the primary school in Bhanpur Kheda village, run from two rooms, Srinivas, a teacher, asks his students what they’d like to become when they grow up. “Who wants to drive a Tempo?” he asks. From the group of children in tattered clothes and dishevelled hair some boys raise their hands, but the girls are quiet. The children know a Tempo – it’s the three-wheeler that ferries people from village to village or to nearby cities.

“Who want’s to be a bus driver or a bus conductor?” he asks. More or less the same response.

“Who wants to drive a truck?” Hardly a hand or two, again from the boys.

“Tempos, jeeps, buses excite them because they hear people talking about the money that can be earned driving them to ferry people about. Many of them come from families which cannot manage even one square meal in a day. And their parents know nothing about education – or even money for that matter,” says Srinivas, who has been teaching them for more than 20 years. In the group of some 40 children, hardly anyone wants to study beyond Std VI. Probably none of them will.

“And who wants to fly a plane?” he asks one last time. Not one hand raised. The limits of their ambition are well defined.

(The story appears in the February 15, 2018 issue)



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