Vasavi Kiro is a former member of the Jharkhand State Commission for Women and a well-known Adivasi author and social activist. As a journalist, she has been associated with The Times of India and Jansatta. She has led and participated in several movements and protests in Jharkhand. Jyoti Paswan did an extensive interview with her. This is the first part.
Please tell us something about yourself. When and where were you born? How was your childhood and when and how did you get drawn to Adivasi literature and social activism?
Not long ago, Adivasi literature created waves in the world of letters. Dr Ramdayal Munda, Ramnika Gupta, Mahashweta Devi and many others were active in the field of literature. I was also one of them. On 2 June 2002, for the first time, the Sahitya Akademi organized an event focused solely on the problems faced by Adivasis. I moderated the programme. Immediately afterwards, we constituted the All India Tribal Literary Forum in New Delhi under the leadership of Ramdayal Munda. Ramnika was a great support. She lived in Delhi and her residence was used as the forum’s office. All these people contributed immensely to the enrichment of Adivasi literature. Till then there was nothing like Adivasi literature in the country, or shall we say, in the world. No one talked about Adivasi literature and there was no discourse centred on it. Twenty years have elapsed since. In 2018, we celebrated 15 years of the formation of the forum. This year, too, we are going to hold a large event on 30 June and 1 July. UNESCO is celebrating 2022-32 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages and we are holding the event to announce the celebration. We will also hold discussions on the various dimensions of Adivasi literature. It is the duty of the Adivasi writers, poets, novelists and intellectuals to hold events to make the decade of indigenous languages memorable and full of creative activities. Currently, I am busy preparing for this event.
You want to know about me. I was born in Ranchi. At one time, Ranchi was almost a village. It turned into a city in 1958-60 when the Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC) came up there. That led to rapid industrialization and urbanization.
I was born into a very ordinary family in the 1960s. At the time, Ranchi had become a small town. We lived in the house which my father (Prafulla Kumar) had rented to enable my three elder brothers to pursue their studies. I was born in that house and completed my primary education while I was there. My father ran a business. My mother (Gango Oraon) was an unlettered housewife. My father was somewhat educated but I don’t know to what extent because he passed away quite early. At the time of my father’s demise, I was in grade 7 or 8. Hence I know very little of him. My mother was from the Oraon tribe and my father belonged to another tribe. After his death, I was brought up by my maternal grandmother. I was not in touch with anyone from my father’s family who could have told me about him. The rented house where we lived is still there. I am using it as my office. Having lived there for 40-45 years, I have developed a great liking for the place. I simply cannot move elsewhere. It takes about 5-7 minutes on foot to reach the place from the heart of Ranchi. My life was confined to within a room. This situation arose after 1994. Earlier, all we had was one room. We slept there and we cooked there. When any guests came, they, too, were accommodated in that room. That was an important phase of my life. It was in my mother’s house that all my ceremonies were held. The weddings of all my brothers took place there. They were married into the Oraon tribe. My marriage was arranged. But I knew my husband before our marriage. He is from the Khadihar community.
We faced many problems after my father’s death. Making ends meet was a massive struggle. My brothers were very young. My eldest brother must have been 16 or 17. My father used to run a small business. He was a coal trader. When coal mines were nationalized, he had to close down his business. Then my father started an eatery on the main road. All my brothers were studying and so they could not share his burden. My father passed away after a two-year-long illness. It was a catastrophe for us. I started taking tuitions for children in the neighbourhood. I also started selling Hindustan Lever products, going from door to door. After matriculation, I happened to meet Sudha Sinha. She used to publish a magazine called “New Message”. She was visiting my next-door neighbour to request them to subscribe to her magazine. A daughter from that family was my schoolmate. Sudha Sinha’s office was also in our locality. She told me that I could start going to her office to help her out and also learn something along the way. I agreed. I thought that since my father was no more, if I wanted to do something in life, I should grab this opportunity. On the first day, she asked me to write on the status of women. I kept visiting her office and writing on various issues. She also occasionally used to send me to solicit advertisements. One day, Naveen Sinha from The Times of India stopped me on the way. “Do you work for Sudha Sinha?” he asked me. I said, “Yes”. Then he told me that The Times of India was soon going to launch an edition from Patna. “Will you work for us?” he asked me. That was sometime in 1986. I told him I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to handle the job. “I have just joined college,” I said. Then, in December 1986, I was appointed as a campus reporter for the newspaper. I used to do the work part-time.
It may have been a coincidence but the school my father had got me admitted to was really good. It was a Hindi-medium school but I received a quality education there. I did my matriculation from there. As I studied in the Hindi medium, my English was not very good. But once I became associated with women’s organizations and social movements, I gradually picked up the basics of the language. Until 15 years ago, I could not converse in English. But now I have a good command of the language. I can both speak and write in English. My Hindi was excellent, thanks to my school. That stood me in good stead during my stint with newspapers. In 1990, I joined Jansatta. There, all reporters were trained in proper use of the language. They were asked to choose appropriate words and use an appropriate style. For instance, a murder was to be referred to just as a murder and not as a “heinous murder”. My Hindi improved further while working with Jansatta. This, in brief, is an account of my life as a child and as a young adult.
Why did you decide to join the field of literature and social service? Did you face discrimination of any kind? Did you ever feel you were being exploited?
This is a good question. You see, my father was no more and my mother was unlettered. My brothers decided that after educating me up to the college level, I should be married off so that they were done with their responsibilities. So, after I joined my BA in 1988-89, boys started visiting our home to see me. I told my brothers that they didn’t do anything for me after our father’s passing. I had put together money for my education by doing odd jobs. I completed my education with the help of a scholarship. A Punjabi family used to live behind our home. They were facing a problem. My eldest brother suggested that I help them out and make rotis for them. For many days, I went to their home to make rotis. I don’t remember whether I was paid for the work. That was how I completed my studies, and I wanted to become someone who counted. I had by then met Sudha Sinha and knew that women were subjected to all kinds of atrocities. With my father no more, it was even more necessary for me to achieve something in my life. I did get support from many quarters. Many people backed my stand. In 1986, a series of dowry deaths and rapes were reported from Ranchi. There was this professor of geology at the Ranchi Women’s College. She took the initiative to mobilize women and girl students and told them that keeping quiet won’t do. They all took to the streets. Gradually, a large number of people joined their movement. The “Mahila Utpeedan Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti [Committee for struggle against oppression of women]” was formed. On behalf of New Message, I used to meet the committee members for updates on their activities. Reporting on their activities introduced me to many new facets of the issues facing women. In 1990, three Adivasi girls were gang-raped in the Kantatoli area of Ranchi. The incident made headlines and a Ranchi bandh was observed in protest. There were many demonstrations. I wrote a lot on this issue. A woman called Nivedita Dutta was tortured and killed for dowry. A Punjabi woman named Reena Arora was burnt alive for not fulfilling dowry demands. Nivedita’s husband was an engineer with Metallurgical & Engineering Consultants Limited (MECON). The Mahila Utpeedan Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti took up both these cases. We held a demonstration outside the offices of MECON. The Samiti’s meetings were held every Saturday by rotation at the homes of its members. I told the committee about my problems. I told them that I was being put through torture to get married and my family didn’t want me to be educated. When I reached home around 6-7pm after completing my work for New Message, my mother and my brothers abused me. They asked me why I needed to run around the whole day to write for a newspaper. They thought that I was roaming with men. I said they were free to visit my workplace to see that I was not doing anything wrong. Sudha Sinha had visited my home three-four times but my family members did not pay attention to what she said.
From then on, I started becoming more confident. When I moved out of my home, there were many restrictions on women. They were expected to confine themselves to their homes. There were so many restrictions in my family, too.
At the time, besides Mahila Utpeedan Virodhi Sangarsh Samiti, New Message and the Jharkhand movement, many Adivasi movements on the issue of displacement were underway. I became associated with all of them, albeit as a reporter. But it deepened my knowledge of and association with social issues. I felt that I should work on these issues, there was a lot of scope. I became associated with the movement for the emancipation of women in 1993. The Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in 1995. By then, I was associated with almost all leading women’s organizations of the country. I was also associated with the protest against the displacement of Adivasis for the construction of the Koel-Karo Hydroelectric project. Of course, I met people and visited different places only as a reporter but I had a good rapport with the leadership of these movements. I helped them in strategy-making and in exchanging information. My work as a reporter made me realize what problems the Adivasis were facing, how Adivasi women were being exploited and how women of other communities had to endure violence and oppression. All women, whether Adivasis or non-Adivasis, are victims of violence. Only the nature of violence is different. Also, it changes with time. For instance, in this digital era, the nature of violence has changed. In 1988, I took part in the Netarhat Firing Range Hatao movement as a leader. Twenty-eight years on, this movement still continues. A march was held from 21 April to 25 April 2022. The former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had registered cases against three or four of us for an earlier visit to Netarhat. Then, in 2015, I led the movement against plans for a “core capital”. Again, a case was registered against me. Both these cases were fabricated. The first case pertained to our visit to Netarhat for “Janjutan”, which is held there every year on 22-23 March. The second case was about us observing Aashadi Puja in our fields, for which we were accused of giving provocative speeches and falsely implicated. This is how my social concerns developed and I became associated with social service.
Adivasi literature has a very unique character now. It all began in 2002 at the Sahitya Akademi. Discussions were held and Adivasi writers began raising their respective issues. I used my personal contacts to get the works of many Adivasi authors published. I wanted this literature, which has been unknown to the people at large, to see the light of day. The problem was that the Adivasi authors used to write in their own languages. Since 2002 to date, we have compiled literature in 40 Adivasi languages. Recently, I got the All India Literary Forum registered and we are going to hold a programme on the 30 June and 1 July.
You have also been a political activist and were active in the Jharkhand movement. Please tell us about those times.
When I was studying in college I was also writing and associated with different movements. So, I was aware of the issues. At that age you are impressionable. Some things I could understand, but not all. But I could see that the movement for a separate Jharkhand state was a struggle against exploitation and oppression and against moneylenders and loan sharks, which had been given a political form under the banner of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. What emerged from these movements was that we became conscious of the fact that Jharkhand, which was part of Bihar and was known as south Bihar, had immense subterranean wealth in the form of various minerals and coal, yet the people of Jharkhand were poor and miserable. It was a rich area with poor people. Why? It was because 75 per cent of the annual budget of Bihar was spent on the rest of the state and only 25 per cent on Jharkhand – this, when minerals and coal extracted from Jharkhand contributed to a significant portion of the state’s income. Why this step-motherly treatment with Jharkhand! Villages were facing a drinking-water crisis. The region fared poorly on all indicators of development, including roads, schools, hospitals and power supply. The Adivasis were being exploited mercilessly. If an Adivasi took even Rs 100 as loan from the mahajans, he wouldn’t be able to repay it in his entire lifetime. The interest on the loan always remained overdue. The movement against moneylenders began in 1760 and lasted until Shibu Soren was its leader. Decades and centuries had passed but we were still struggling to break free from the unpaid labour extracted by the moneylenders, from their exploitation and oppressions. An Adivasi woman, carrying a small child in her lap, came to Sobran Manjhi, the father of Shibu Soren, and told him that Vishnu Sav was taking away her entire harvest of paddy even though she had paid the interest on her loan. Sobran Manjhi immediately went to the woman’s field, gave the moneylender a sound thrashing and warned him of further consequences if he continued the practice. Soon, everyone in the area came to know that Sobran Manjhi had beaten up a moneylender. This incident united the Santhals. They felt that they would now be able to mobilize against the loan sharks. That was how the bugle for the movement against the moneylenders was sounded. The moneylenders had Sobran Manjhi murdered. This happened before the eyes of Guruji [Shibu Soren]. That turned him into a fiery opponent of the moneylenders. He launched a campaign against the moneylenders and it is due to this movement that today we are living happily in a separate Jharkhand state. Other people also cooperated with Guruji.
If I were to speak from my experience, nothing has changed. It remains the same. Just see how the Santhal revolt happened. There were two big businessmen – Kinaram and Becharam. Kinaram carried a big sack and Becharam a small sack. They used to give Santhals salt and other things in exchange for paddy. The Santhals noticed that when they took things from them, the businessmen used the big sack and when they gave things to us, they used the small sack. So, this tendency to loot the farmers is still there. These two characters from the time of the Santhal revolt – Becharam and Kinaram – still exist, though they have taken other forms. Now, large companies take away the land of the Adivasis in return for a paltry sum. Jharkhand is a Fifth-Schedule area. In Fifth-Schedule areas, the Adivasis have the right to follow their beliefs, customs and rituals without any hindrances. But the provisions of the Fifth Schedule are being violated with impunity. You are depriving them of all their resources – forests, minerals. And what are you giving them in return? A job to a member of each family! If there are four brothers in a family, what will the remaining three do? How will their parents survive?
Jharkhand becoming a separate state has not put an end to the loot of the Adivasis by corporate and capitalist forces and the elite. As soon as the Adivasi woman arrives at the market with her basket of vegetables, the middlemen pounce on it and pay her a pittance. They then sell the fruit of her labour at much higher rates. Kinarams and Becharams still control Jharkhand. This is my experience. That is why the Adivasi economy is not growing. Adivasis are not able to start businesses. Suppose a 10-acre piece of land has been the source of livelihood for an Adivasi family for generations. Now, you take it away and give Rs 10 lakh and a job. For how long can the family survive on it? If there is coal under the land of an Adivasi, make them its owner. Adivasis have sacrificed a lot while opposing the concept of “core capital”. You said that poverty would be reduced. But hunger increased. You said illiteracy would be wiped out. But illiteracy grew. You said prosperity would come. But misery, displacement increased. Several new companies have cropped up but no Adivasi was appointed a manager or general manager. You are bringing them from outside. You don’t build the capacities of the Adivasis. The outsiders who are named managers, did they emerge from their mother’s wombs as skilled people? For this, it is necessary to educate the Adivasis. But you don’t want them to progress, to grow. You only want to usurp their land and their mineral wealth. Adivasis want to progress on their own terms. Let them do it. These are my bitter experiences. Bloodbaths took place before and after the formation of Jharkhand. The blood of the Adivasis is still being spilt. At least 60 incidents of firing by security forces have taken place – all of them under the rule of the BJP. You can see the data of the Union Home Ministry. No Adivasi community of the country is even 50 per cent literate. When are you unable to make them even literate? Where is the money being spent in their name going? These are some questions the government doesn’t have answers to. Whether it is the Congress or the BJP, all have exploited the Adivasis. Only their methods have been different. The Congress didn’t even listen to its leaders. Jawaharlal Nehru had put forward the principle of Panchsheel. Had that been accepted, today, the Adivasis would have been the owners of their land and mineral wealth, and the administration of the Adivasi areas would have been based on the beliefs and the customs of the Adivasis. The Congress wronged the Adivasis and the BJP followed in its footsteps.
(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)
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