Neel Kranti Media
(First published in the Dalit and Adivasi Students' Portal as 'Abhay Xaxa: A Role Model Par Excellence' in 2010)
Abhay Xaxa, age 34, born and brought up in Jashpur District of Chhattisgarh, is a researcher-activist based in Delhi. He is currently with the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, working on the status report of Adivasis in India after completing his post graduation in Anthropology from University of Sussex. At a very young age, Abhay became part of the Adivasi movement and in this interview he shares his struggles, vision and dreams towards the empowerment of his community.
Please tell our readers about your background.
I am from a village called Chitkawine from the state of Chhattisgarh. Both my parents were first graduates from our community. My father was in the law profession and later went on to become one of the first Adivasi Judges in the state of Madhya Pradesh. However, he lost his position as a Judge and was terminated. After this we were left with nothing and had to come back to our ancestral land and start from the scratch.
My mother discontinued her studies and had to take care of household chores. I also had to leave my studies for some time. But now both my brother and I are law graduates. Both my sisters are well educated and are into teaching profession. My brother has become a Judge just last year.
How old were you when your father had to leave his position as Judge?
This happened in 1990. I was in IX std, whereas my younger brother was in Vth std and sister was studying in 1st standard so we were all quite young when this happened.
What about your schooling? Where did you do your Matric and Intermediate from?
I studied in Loyola Higher Secondary School, Kunkuri; an old missionary school. This was known as 'Adivasi' school as around 90% of the students were from tribal background. Then I went to do my B.Com from Rani Durgavati University, Jabalpur (MP) as this city is one of centres for higher education in MP.
I had to choose commerce stream due to some funny assumptions of my school that forced students to take admission in Sciences if they score relatively high and Arts was for 'lesser' beings. I was interested in Arts subject and wanted to pursue my higher education in that stream. However, I got 65 % in my Matric and therefore the school authorities refused to give me admission in Arts (laughs). Then I had to choose commerce for my Intermediate as I was not much interested to do sciences.
During this period, you were quite involved with students' politics?
Yes I was quite involved as I got the opportunity to stay in a Adivasi hostel that was simmering with Adivasi consciousness and many of my friends, seniors were quite active there. We had our own Adivasi students' union which took up discrimination cases against tribal students quite seriously.
From my second year onwards I took a deep plunge in working for the group and mobilising Adivasi students on different issues. We also worked very well as pressure group and never hesitated to protest and gheroed even the District Collector who used to delay our scholarship grants.
Apart from the students' issues, we were also engaged with the larger issues like the monopoly and economic exploitation done by outsiders mostly non-Adivasi businessmen and money lenders. You might not even have an idea how exploitative they are. They openly cheat our people and maintain strong stranglehold on our people.
And with their money power, they also manipulate all the politicians and district administration very easily. Most of the Adivasi household are at their mercy. During our group meetings, we used to discuss and visualise on how to intervene in such scenario. How to face these money lenders and businessmen who are exploiting our people?
What motivated you to participate actively with the Adivasi students group?
I think one of the reasons was high dropout rates of my fellow Adivasi students. Since my early school days, I witnessed my friends, many of them much talented and studious, leaving their studies one by one. The only reason being their poverty. They started working in agricultural fields but most of them used to migrate to big towns in search for jobs to be able to feed their families back home.
To be able to continue studies and stay in Adivasi hostel, they just needed to give 100 kg of rice and 20 kg of pulses per year but that too they could not afford. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to complete my studies, though with some breaks in between due to finances. I think this issue created a deep impact in my mind and I was always very conscious about this and as I grow up I started looking for the answers.
Also my father losing his job as a judge was something that has huge impact on all my family members. We had to come back to our ancestral place and suddenly my family was not even in position to pay for my schools. But above that my father's long and lonely battle against the system remains deep rooted in my psyche.
What actually happened with your father? How did he lose his job as a Judge?
As I mentioned earlier, my father was one of the first Adivasi Judges of Madhya Pradesh and was about to get promoted to the High Court when few of his 'upper' caste subordinates conspired and got him suspended on flimsy grounds. He was a very hard working man and this was such a huge shock for him and all of us.
He fought against these charges for the next 12 years in different courts but lost the case and was terminated from the judicial services. No one from the legal fraternity came to his support and he was left alone fighting and finally losing the battle. At that time this issue did not seem to us as one of discrimination and prejudice against a fellow colleague who was also an Adivasi but more of personal vendetta of few individuals.
But with time, I realised what had actually happened to my father. Perhaps they were not used to seeing an Adivasi occupying a high seat, perhaps this was the only mistake my father had committed – to become a judge despite his Adivasi background.
By the time, I reached college I was very angry and bitter against the injustice that happened at personal level and could see the same happening to our entire community in different forms. Therefore, it was but natural that I joined the Adivasi students' movement.
However, I must say that despite going through this very rough phase in life, with father's court trials and all, we were still in better position as compared to majority of Adivasi students. My problems are nothing compared to what they face.
Thanks so much for sharing this Abhay. What were the precise issues your students' group took up while you were actively involved there?
During my first year of college only, I was selected as one of the official members of Adivasi Student Union. Most of the issues we used to take up were related to the practical needs of our students.
We fought for issues like proper implementation of government schemes for Adivasi students so as to prevent the dropout rates like scholarships, allotment of kerosene oil for our students, to run local study centres, to run discussion groups to strategise for empowerment of our communities and fought with administration on any case of discrimination against Adivasi students.
Then there were some larger issues that we have to deal like the infiltration of RSS in our area. You know, the district of Jashpur is called the laboratory of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram which is a subsidiary body of RSS. This was set up with the sole intention of drawing the Adivasi into Hindu fold and to communally polarise Adivasis as there is a strong presence of Adivasi Christians in this area. As an Adivasi student group, we tried to resist them but we had to pay a huge price.
One of our group members and a fellow student John Kerketta was dragged out of his home, while he was in his village on a holiday, by 200 RSS goons and after beating him mercilessly, they lynched him in front of everyone. This was in the year 1994. This was shocking for all of us. We tried to organise ourselves for justice.
We decided to circulate pamphlets and mobilise more people, make them aware that such a thing has happened. Then we wrote our demand about how the case might be investigated, about proper compensation, about bringing killers to task and tried to circulate them. But by that time the environment had become so vicious and difficult that we could not even campaign.
We could not even distribute the pamphlets there but we went to Jashpur and other nearby areas and distributed the pamphlets. The next 3-4 months were very tough for us and all of us were shocked by the brutality of the act and also of our helplessness to ensure justice. This incident forced us to start analysing about these issues, how to prevent them in future and why such things happen to our people only.
The students group was also very much concerned about the economic exploitation of the Adivasis by outsiders and moneylenders. You see, all these issues are quite interlinked and cannot be fought unless our community becomes strong in every sense.
What were the strategies/initiatives your group came out with?
Apart from education, economic factors are one of the most important one for empowerment of any community. One way to challenge the non-Adivasi hegemony and the economic exploitation done by baniyas and other outsiders is to run a parallel economy and compete with them. I thought why not to put my theoretical commerce knowledge into practice.
We came to know about SC/ST Finance Co-operation being set up in Madhya Pradesh then. It was giving loans for setting up business for SC/ST. There was a scheme under which one has to pay a down payment of 25000/- and get a commander jeep as taxi. Since I had some idea of commerce, I knew accounts; I decided to take the thought of economic empowerment into action. I was just 22 years then.
We went to the SC/ST Finance Co-operation, raised 25,000 Rs through loans at much higher interest rate than banks and applied there. After some lobbying, we did get a Commander Jeep as taxi. One of my friends volunteered to become a driver.
We took that to Kunkuri, one of the tehsil in Jashpur district where there were 40 jeeps already plying as taxi and controlled by people from non-Adivasi background, almost all from Hindu baniya background. They used to cheat us big time and I know of an Adivasi family that had to sell their land to be able to pay for taking one of their family members to a hospital in Ranchi. All this was our money, which they were earning and then using that against us. But our people had no options other than to go to these baniyas.
Within 2-3 months after plying our own taxi we started flourishing and became the market leader as we charged correctly without cheating our people. All the village elders came to know about our taxi and started hiring us. This news spread far and wide and 16 of our youth came and joined us. We had formed a union and our business became much stronger.
In the 8th month we bought another second hand jeep but the best was when five of our community people brought their own vehicle and put it under our agency. They realised that this was the only way to prove our worth before the hegemony of non-Adivasi businessmen.
Within one year, our group was able to support many of our young boys and girls to start small businesses like vegetable vendors and stationery shops. The whole idea was to groom the young Adivasi entrepreneurs. It was not only the issue of profit making and economics but a sense of solidarity; an issue of justice was also involved in it.
Then came politics. When we start business, politics can't be far behind.
So your group participated in electoral politics too?
As I mentioned, the dominance and exploitation against Adivasis is all pervasive. It is through the money power only that we get manipulated even in the political sphere. Then there was lot of harassment from the local police. They used to come and ask for 'hafta' otherwise they used to threaten us of arresting us for selling illegal liquor. We understood that you can't do business without politics and politics without business.
So, we thought that we need our people in politics too. One of our teachers expressed his desire to fight the election (panchayat election), a very prestigious post. Our group of entrepreneurs promised to back his candidature. So we went to village after village for campaigning with our jeeps. And for the first time the Adivasi leader defeated a non-Adivasi candidate. When the results came, that day I cried like anything. It was such an amazing feeling. We had pushed out limits and emptied our pockets to be able to savour this feeling. This happened in 1996.
However this excitement was too short-lived as within no time we witnessed that our leader sold himself to the same baniya candidate against whom we fought so hard and won. This was one very cruel lesson that we had at a relatively young age. Later I came to know that our candidate got manipulated as he had taken a loan of Rs 5000 from that baniya and was not able to repay back even after many years.
In between, what happened to your studies?
It was only after this incident that I thought to go back to my studies which I had been neglecting for so long. Also I was too much engrossed in the politics and could not concentrate on the agency which was then managed by some of my friends who probably were not so experienced and we suffered huge losses. Our taxi met with an accident, the reason is still unknown.
Also this election news gained too much prominence and brought big political players like Ajit Jogi who was then Rajya Sabha member and was raising the demand for Adivasi CM in Madhya Pradesh. He came to our village and declared that he would fight the next Lok Sabha elections from there. He even met our youngsters and interacted with them.
I also started getting lot of political offers, even from established national political groups like Congress for the seat of MLA. All these were very tempting offers but I somehow declined them as I knew I would become a puppet in other's hands. I knew, I would be used and abused like anything. I knew it as I saw our candidate changing within 24 hours of his getting elected.
That was the time I thought to go back to my studies. I cleared my B.Com with IInd division and then joined a law college at Jabalpur as a part time student. Now I could see the importance of education as a tool of our emancipation which didn't even occur to me earlier.
After completing your graduation, why did you choose to go for part time law course and not the regular one?
My immediate needs were about my own livelihood and security and also one needs to equip oneself well. This world is not simple, it is very much complex. You need to learn the tricks to survive as a young Adivasi activist. For the next three years, I worked with local organisations that were dealing with Adivasi empowerment and development while simultaneously carrying on my studies for Law.
This was the time when Chhattisgarh was created out of MP (year 2000). By that time I completed my Law course and I saw lot of scope to work effectively in the newly emerged Chhattisgarh.
How much you scored in Law?
I cleared LLB with good second Division.
What were your plans then?
I saw lot of scope in Raipur (the capital of the new Chhattisgarh state) to work for the interventions in state policies, to prepare documents and do advocacy. I thought this was the right time for any Adivasi group to influence the policy makers.
So we formed a group called CART - Chhattisgarh Research Team, in Raipur. Due to my past experiences of grassroots, I was able to analyse the policy impacts and also lobby for the need of many concrete measures. In the meantime, we were able to rejuvenate our group once again under Young Adivasi Entrepreneurs and started replicating our previous work.
Our group again fought panchayat elections. At present 8 of our group members are sarpanchs of their village panchayats and many have become small entrepreneurs. It is such a nice feeling to see young Adivasis growing in different fields including mainstream politics.
What is the present situation there in the area where your group is most active?
Kunkuri, the place from where I hail, is a tehsil in Jashpur district. There I did my studies, later did business and also did politics all in Kunkuri. With the formation of our group, you can see some improvement in the economic situation. There are number of our people who are doing small business and some are engaged in mainstream politics.
Many youth have come up now. But the dominance of non-Adivasis is still very strong and cannot be changed suddenly. We still have to go a very long way against their dominance but they do feel challenged now.
Coming back to your school and college days, most of us, Dalit and Adivasi students have to go through lot of identity crisis. Listening to you, we know this is not the right question to ask to you but still what was it like to be an Adivasi student inside the school and college premises?
During my graduation, I just used to go and give the exams. The college was a general college, hostel was for Adivasis and faculties were all 'upper' caste Hindus. After my exams, I never even used to see their faces. So I am not the right person to comment on life inside the college. See, I know, I have seen the problems, which I had tackled and responded in my own way.
But I do still remember my school days and do feel much luckier than my friends who have to leave their education to earn for living. Many of them were more talented than me and would have achieved much more if they got the chances to continue their studies. Whenever I visit my home, I go and meet them. Most of them work in agricultural fields; some have even joined the army as sepoys.
So your question of identity is something for me and will mean something else for them, my friends. I only know that if they had resources, they would have been more prosperous.
Also I feel that it was good for me that I didn't study in big places like JNU or Delhi University. Coming from my background, when I hear news about JNU or DU, it really scares me. I used to think that such things happen only in Chhattisgarh!
As a student you were engaged in a lot of action - economic, political, advocacy, mobilisation, student groups, then how did you shift towards academics and even go abroad for higher studies?
When Chhattisgarh was formed, I came in contact with some mainstream NGOs like Ekta Parishad, Bharat Jan Andolan, Nadi Ghati Morcha. These are groups fighting on the issues of land rights, forest rights, especially for the Adivasis.
This was a completely different world for me – different from the kind of activism that I had done, without any banner, by standing in front of collectors' offices etc. These are completely professional set-ups. I learnt many things by working with them like how a campaign is planned, how documentations happen, how advocacy is done in a professional manner.
Moreover my past experiences and activities also helped me to understand the political dynamics within these organisations as I had better exposure than most of the activists who were basically outsiders. In meetings people would be surprised when I used to give suggestions, they used to ask how such things come from my mouth!
For that they needed to understand we both did campaigns but these operated in different worlds!
At the end of the day, I learnt that the issues they were raising were ours but the leadership will always remain with non-Adivasis and we will always be foot soldiers. For them it is like business. I was totally against this.
So I tried to shift and during that period, I developed the habit of reading pretty well. Then I got a couple of research projects to understand the issue of bonded labour in Chhattisgarh and Orissa. That was my first step into academics. Not academics in a proper sense, but a kind of action research. This also gave me an opportunity to visit Delhi. This again was a completely new world for me.
During one of such visits to Delhi I came to know about the Ford Foundation's International Fellowship Programme for scholar activists from some particular states. Just out of curiosity, I filled up the form and applied. My research work on bonded labour was also at the finishing stage.
Fortunately I got selected and was provided full scholarship to do my post-graduation at University of Sussex, UK, in 2007. I chose anthropology as my subject there even without having any background, just in order to know what non-Adivasis have written about us (laughs).
What was your experience at International Ford Fellowship selection process?
They were shocked to see my profile – all this mixture. They asked me you are still exploring and want to study Anthropology? I told them whatever previous education I had, it was not a waste. All fields are used when it is required. In the selection process, I came to interact with so many students and activists from across the country and got to know their stories. It was on average a really good experience.
This was a 10 year programme of Ford, to select students from marginalised background (caste, class and gender wise) and from so-called backward regions of the country. That was the 6th year of this programme. The news about the programme took 5 years to reach to Chhattisgarh!
After University of Sussex, you came back to India and joined Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi as a researcher in 2009. What is your plan now? What are you currently working on?
Right now, I am working with IIDS and preparing a status report on Adivasis. This is a comprehensive report that deals with various issues related with Adivasis like what type of discrimination or issues one faces while in government job, what is the status of Adivasi women, how many Adivasis are able to access the basic amenities which are supposed to be their rights. It is coming out to be a big document and has taken a lot of time but has given me a new way to look at Adivasi issues.
Regarding my plans, one thing I will like to share, to put things in perspective. I have seen the articulation of the Dalit movement, their intellectuals, their activists, students group. We need to articulate well. I find that Dalit movement has Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jotiba Phule, who had penned down their thoughts, their struggles. These are now our Bibles and are giving future direction. On the other hand, we, Adivasis have our stories, which have not been documented. We had our leaders but they never wrote down Bibles for us to give directions to Adivasis.
All the stories we hear are from Oxford Graduates and 'upper' caste people. That is not our stories. But nothing is too late; we have to write our own stories, about our issues, from our own perspectives. It is better late than never.
One thing I have understood from my own experience, that education is the most important tool for all of us. To whomsoever I have spoken, I tell them to do whatever they can do to continue their education. You don't know when you would need it.
And then the second thing, which most people from Dalit and Adivasi background may not agree, that you have come till here because you were plain lucky. There are lot of our brothers and sisters who are more intelligent, more hardworking than us are not able to make it just because of their adverse circumstances.
See yourself as an advantaged section of your community. This is like a loan to us which we have to pay back. It is not that you are extra capable, there is someone who is still toiling hard for you and you need to pay back. Don't forget that nothing in this world comes for free.
Thanks so much Abhay !
[Courtesy: Dalit and Adivasi Students' Portal]