B.D. Sharma – an Indefatigable warrior of Adivasis’ Rights

January 10, 2016

by Varavara Rao (Translated by V. Subramanian)

The voice over phone stopped already a year ago. When a journalist called me to inform that he would no more be seen too, grief erupted. After he returned from Dandakaranya, in the wake of Maoists taking Alex Paul (District Collector, Sukma district, Chhattisgarh State) into custody, he called me regularly enquiring when we would be able to go again to Maad [1] and when Haragopal [2] would be free to accompany him. Once he said over phone “Now a days, I am unable to remember things. One day, while speaking in a forum, I collapsed on the dais. Before my memory power is completely crashed, les us visit Bastar once.” In fact, he was not in a state to go anywhere, let alone Bastar. But his undiminishing love towards adivasis always wanted him to move out and stay with people. He was B.D. Sharma a Gandhian and an affectionate human being to all who loved this world.

Perhaps, he is one among the first generation of IAS officers. He was once the collector to the Bastar district. Now comprising 7 districts, Bastar is bigger than Kerala State and larger than many European countries. Since his stint began in Bastar, he created a niche in Adivasi hearts.

His book on Bailadilla women, written in the backdrop of iron ore mining, during 1960’s in Bailadilla of Bastar, meant for exports to Japan and Korea, captured the battered lives of women. The book shook many intellectuals. He developed great respect on the adivasis’ concerns towards nature, land, livestock and their strong inclination towards natural life. He realized that ‘jal, jungle and zamin’ is not a mere slogan. Not just a political program. It is a mode of life. On that mode, nature and humans coexist, though there is perennial struggle as well. When he stepped into Bastar as an administrative representative of the State, he experienced the bitter truth that the State is but an instrument of oppression and never is an aid to people’s amelioration.

That was why he strongly believed that like in the USA, making of the Constitution began with the deprivation of indigenous people’s rights. Because, the State’s interference followed capital penetration centuries ago. This interference changed the history of adivasis and trampled the freedom of adivasis. He often said that with the inception of Indian Constitution, the forest itself became a prison for adivasis. His book on how the clan life of adivasis was broken in the Republic unmistakably reflects this view. In his long span of life, he reached high echelons, he faced insults too. He utilized these highs and lows to put his outlook into practice.

As a collector of Bastar, as Chairman of National Commission for SCs and STs, or as the vice-chancellor of NEHU (North-East Hill University) in whichever position he might be, he commanded profound respect from all the Prime Ministers from Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi. He got this reverence as a representative of adivasis who declared his partisanship with adivasis fearlessly. When he exposed the State supported conspiracies of industrialists to establish industries in Chhattisgarh he took in his stride the ignominy of stripping and parading with garlands of chappals. When Chhattisgarh Chief Minister commented that why B.D. Sharma was being allowed to roam in his State, he quipped: ‘the rulers have become servile to the corporate and hence these atrocities.’

He prepared a comprehensive report delineating that adivasis take collective decisions and implement them; that they have their own general administrative self-rule and hence the ‘gram Sabhas’ (the village assemblies) should have all the powers to be able to decide what adivasis want in the forest. He got the report introduced through an adivasi Member of the House. This report later came to be known as Bhuria Commission Report. Today, ‘whether it is the case of Narmada project or Polavaram project, the ‘Gram Sabhas’ have become nominal. He was appalled to see the government’s interference. The mandatory approvals of adivasis in acquiring land, etc., were gotten by the Collectors and Revenue Officials with the help of police. The Collectors and the Revenue Officials would not even care to visit the villages. He took voluntary retirement and began his ‘Bharat Jan Andolan.’ Its head quarter is in Bastar and he opened an office near Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway station in New Delhi.

What is people’s sovereignty? What is self-rule? What kind of freedom and needs that adivasis and dalits aspire for? He wrote 70 books in English and Hindi depicting his deep knowledge of adivasis and their entwined relationship with ‘jungle and zamin.’ The books reflect his long experience with the countryside.

Since one and half decade he had been moving with a file in his hand. The file contains a resolution adopted by the UN Security Council. He reads that resolution in all the meetings. Our Constitution recognized the rights and powers of adivasis on jal, jungle and zameen in the 5th and 6th schedules; it is also recognized the autonomy of North-East, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and separate states were formed too; but the UN went ahead by drawing territorial powers of the adivasis from the world history of indigenous people’s struggles, ratified the territorial rights.

That means – the 1/70 act, that recognized rights of adivasis over forests, which came into effect in the backdrop of Srikakulam Adivasi Peasant Struggle; and the Samata judgment, according to the Supreme Court, that says that not just the non-adivasi private individuals, but even the State can neither purchase nor sell the adivasi land; now the UN Security Counsil asserts that the private individuals and even the state could not enter the adivasi region without adivasis’ consent. B.D. Sharma time and again was saying that the territorial rights are defined by the UN in such a way. Then even the army has no right to enter the North-East region without people’s consent, let alone the special powers given to the army. Even the Central government cannot interfere. The centre has no powers to deploy paramilitary forces into Jangal Mahal, Jharkhand, Dandakaranya, Odisha, North-Andhra and Telangana regions. Without adivasis’ consent, neither any corporate power nor the government could enter. This ideal concept of adivasi territorial power concept might be shrugged off as a utopian one by the contemporary mindsets, but B.D. Sharma lived and died to implement these ideas. In his journey of six decades he dedicated his life – when he was in position or sans any position; with government’s help and its wrath – receiving both with equanimity – serving the country to his last breath.

He well understood the government, the constitution and the centralized rule are shackles to the adivasis. At the same time, he has the knack and creativity to utilize this system and its institutions in the service of adivasis’ cause. If that were not possible, he preferred to participate in people’s resistance movements. In this endeavor, his Gandhism was never a hurdle in working with revolutionaries. The Maoists who are straining every nerve to build up alternative people’s political organs since 35 years – never looked him as a government officer or an outsider. That was why when Sukma’s collector Alex Paul was in their detention, they chose B.D. Sharma and Haragopal as mediators who could talk to the government to press their demands. After discussions with this duo the representative from Dandakaranya Special Zone Committee (DKSZC), Vijay Madkam, released the collector showing deference to B.D. Sharma and Haragopal.

In 1992, we formed the All India People’s Resistance Forum (AIPRF). AIPRF was aimed to fight the imperialist dictated policies of globalization, privatization and liberalization as the government’s model for country’s development that had come into vogue in the name of New Economic Policy, was declared in 1991. Ever since the formation of the Forum, i.e. for 23 years, B.D. Sharma has been working like an young activist in our mass organizations. As it is their want, the imperialists in their efforts to manufacturing consent and later of course manufacturing the dissent, formed forums like – World Social Forum, Asia Social Forum. Exposing this conspiracy, we held Mumbai Resistance in 2004 (MR-2004). During this period of about a month, from December 2003 to January 2004, he stayed in our office, dined with us in our Commune, energetically participated in all our deliberations. He was a man of lofty ideals but with plebian attire. His simple life inspired everyone.

Since these twenty three years, from 1992, B.D. Sharma has been fellow travelling with us, not only in the movements, but organizationally too. We too worked with him. In this process, he shared joys and grieves; troubles and tribulations; rigors of repressions with us.

He came to Bihar to participate in Muzaffarpur’s meeting. He alighted at Patna and reached his former student’s house. The former student was the then Secretary to the Home Ministry, Bihar government. In the evening the government declared that permission was denied to the meeting. The meeting was planned by ‘Committee Against War on People’ in protest against the Operation Green Hunt. The media enquired the then CM Nitish Kumar why he disallowed people like B.D. Sharma to participate in that meeting and why the government was objecting to hold the meeting. When the CM declared that there was no such Operation Green Hunt in Bihar. Immediately the government withdrew the orders prohibiting the meeting. We learnt all these developments only when we reached Muzaffarpur.

When we invited him to become part of the People’s Alternative Forum at Hyderabad, on the occasion of the completion of 10years of formation of the Maoist Party, B.D. Sharma consented to be the member of the Forum and expressed his readiness to come as a speaker to that meeting. By then, his health deteriorated considerably. He was shifted to Gwalior. Now everyone knows that permission was denied to that meeting followed by large scale arrests and repression.

When there was a raid by the intelligence personnel from Maharashtra and the Centre on Saibaba’s residence in Delhi, he stayed at his place and strongly protested the police action. Despite seering temperatures of May month and his feeble health condition, he was stubborn to go to Nagpur to meet Saibaba in the prison. He lived in the people’s movements and he loved the activists. Such a quintessential human being, B.D. Sharma was. He longed for the aspirations of people’s sovereign powers. Can we believe that he is no more? As the human being who yearned for fellow human beings, he will live forever in the aspirations of the sovereignty of the people of this country.

Foot Notes:

(1) Maad: Earlier known as Abhuj Maad (unknown hill) one of the most backward pockets in Bastar Region in Chhattisgarh State.
(2) Haragopal , Retired professor, Central University, Hyderabad and Civil Rights Activist.

[This is a translation from an article published in Telugu Daily, ‘Saakshi’ on 9th December, 2015]

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