What’s in a surname? Reflections on Adivasis’ history of Northern Chhattisgarh

 

Akash Poyam

 

akashWhen I was first enrolled in school my parents named me ‘Akash Kumar’, this remained until middle school when it was changed to ‘Akash Kumar Prasad’ and it had since then continued. After using ‘Poyam’ for almost a year on social media, I finally decided to officially change it. I belong to the 'Poyam' clan - one among the 750 clans of ‘Koitur/Gond’ tribe. Poya in Gondi translates to (dhuan) ‘smoke’ in English and one of the stories behind its origin goes as follows. A long time ago, an epidemic had spread across Koiturs’ territory. Its wrath had taken many lives and no one was able to stop it or find  any cure for it. At that point, it was the people from Poya clan who discovered that smoke (from burning leaves of a forest plant) could cure that disease. They travelled across villages and helped end the epidemic disease. Their relation with medicinal ‘smoke’ got them the name ‘poya’. (As narrated by elders to me in Kondagaon-Bastar during Bade Dongar Jatra.) In this article, I’d like to share the history of my region and community that alienated us from our clan name and instead made us adopt surname/s (Prasad/Singh etc) that in no way represented our Adivasi ancestry and identity.

My village Nawki is in Balrampur district (erstwhile Surguja) - the northern most part of Chhattisgarh that shares its border with UP and Jharkhand. The region had seen the intrusion of Brahminism probably earliest in the state. Brahmins had started flocking in from UP, Bihar into the area probably by end of 19th C. In many Koitur songs we find reference to this ‘caution’ e.g.

‘Bomna naa fandaate, geerja naa kundaate,

hile hanwa dada hile hanwa ro.

Sambhoo-na sangete Lingo-na pangete,

hile marungwa dada hile marungwa ro.’

This roughly translates to ‘Do not be deceived by Brahmins brother, do not fall into the pit of other caste (Hindus)... Do not forget the songs of Sambhoo brother, do not forget the teachings of Lingo’ [Sambhoo and Lingo are considered Dharm gurus of Koiturs]

Anti Brahminical articulations and the aim of safeguarding Koitur culture finally led to the formation of ‘Gondwana Mahasabha’ in 1916. Mahasabha assemblies between 1916-45 consistently cautioned about the threat of Brahmins, imposition of Hindu laws etc. The Gondwana Mahasabha – Mandala assembly of 1945 stated that “....since our community is caught in the clutches of other religions, if India gets independence tomorrow, only Christians will leave. But the colonizers of our land, culture and civilization- ‘the Hindus’ are going to stay and will continue exploiting us. Then what is going to be the benefit from freedom of this country?” (Kangali, 1986)

 By 1951 a movement led by ‘Rajmohini Devi’ had started in Surguja– it was supported by Congress that propagated Hinduism, Nationalism and Gandhian ideology. It also bared many similarities with ‘Tana Bhagat movement’ of 1920s. Rajmohini Devi Movement functioned through Bapu Dharm Sabha and called for - abandoning consumption of mahua and brewing liquor, giving up meat, worshiping cow, keeping away from dewar (traditional medicine man), wearing Khaddar, following non violence and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi etc. Rajmohini Devi was a Gond woman, who according to historians had a dream of Mahatma, who told her to follow his teachings in order to get rid of hunger, starvation at the time of severe drought in the region during 1950s. Soon she had become a popular figure with thousands of followers, and established more than 30 ashrams in the region for promotion of her teachings (at least 20 ashrams are still functioning). During the movement, village deities were ‘purified’ and converted into ‘Bhagats’ - thus ‘converting’ villages after villages. Adivasi community thus got fractioned into Bhagats and Sagats – Bhagats who followed Rajmohini’s teachings and Sagats who did not. This further caused antagonism and restricted marriage alliances between the two.

 All ancestral places of worship in various hills, over time were turned into ‘temples’ (with idols, statues – whereas Koiturs are nature worshipers and do not believe in idol worship) and Baiga (traditional priest) was gradually replaced by Brahmins. The Koitur origin and history of these gadh/gudas has been documented in detail by Dr. Motiravan Kangali and can be contrasted with ongoing practices in these places. Brahmins even propagated practice of wearing ‘Janeau’ among Adivasis, that is still in practice among men of that generation. [In a similar event, in September this year, Gayatri Pariwar organized a program in Badwani, M.P. - where 2000 Adivasis were given ‘Janeau’.] This process of ‘purification’ also symbolically ‘raised the status’ of Adivasis, and they became higher than ‘Ghasia’ (a Dalit community- also culturally rooted with Koiturs) in social hierarchy– thus practice of untouchability became integral part of village community. In 1952, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) was started by RSS in our neighbouring district Jashpur, apparently as a response to the growing influence of Christian Missionaries in the region. VKA promoted Hinduism through various campaigns and cultural programs that we grew up seeing in our village (theater and music programs about Hindu mythologies Ramayana, Mahabharata). Sarswati Shishu Mandir (run by RSS) was the only school nearby, other than government primary school, so many of us were enrolled to SSM. VKA presence in the region facilitated this process of 'assimilation' in upcoming years.

My great grandfather was a village tribal chief, who had generously given land to Brahmin, Bania migrants from UP, Bihar (who now occupy the major share of land/economy in the region). He was also the one who initially resisted Rajmohini Devi from entering our village but later became the first follower of Hinduism in the family, for reasons unknown to me yet. This did not however mean complete giving away of our traditional Adivasi rituals and practices, but few elements of Hinduism became part of our culture. Moreover, people started identifying themselves as ‘Hindus’, even though our ancestors practiced and followed ‘Koya Punem’ - Koiturs belief system (their own “religion”). The state policies and VKA programs socialized people to believe that Hinduism is a ‘higher’ form of culture and we needed to give away our 'primitive' ways of living. My grandfather, a firm believer of Hinduism thus did not carry our clan name and the same continued with me, while some used ‘shandilya’ others over time started using surnames like ‘singh’ – both of which did not correspond to our Poyam ancestry.

Since the surname ‘Prasad’ did not reveal my 'caste' identity, for most of my educational journey, teachers & students did not identify me as Adivasi and I rarely revealed it, knowing its consequences. I knew about our clan but did not know why we didn’t use it after our names. When I was enrolled for middle school in a town, few classmates of mine often laughed at my inability to speak ‘shuddh’ Hindi, I also got bullied after mentioning ‘poya’ name. While teasing and calling names could have been a joke, thereon I could never gather courage to mention my surname again. It was only during my MA, I was fortunate to meet and interact with Koitur elders from other regions. Dr Kangali’s books, Adivasi and Ambedkarite literature were not only empowering but also made me aware of the deep rooted oppression Brahminism caused to us and helped me to proudly assert my own Adivasi ancestry. Adivasi surnames are not mere surnames but represent clan ancestry; they signify our social location within tribe, they help identify and manage kinship relations, moreover they carry undocumented histories of the community and enable us to make sense of our past. And today, however small this act of changing surname might have been, it feels liberating.

 

References:

Kangali, Motiravan (1983), Gond Vasiyon Ka Mul Niwas Sthal, (Nagpur: Tirumay Chitralekha Kangali Publications).

Kangali, Motiravan (1986), Paari Kupaar Lingo: Gondi Punem Darshan, (Nagpur: Tirumay Chitralekha Kangali Publications).

~~~

 

Akash Poyam is founder/editor of adivasiresurgence.com- a news, media website engaging with various aspects of Adivasi/Tribal lives. He is MPhil research scholar at Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad.

 

Other Related Articles

Dalit Bahujan Missionary Efforts in North Karnataka
Friday, 19 May 2017
  Rohan Arthur And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. - Matthew 19:24 Religion is for man and... Read More...
Release of 'What Babasaheb Ambedkar Means to Me' eBook: Get your free copy!
Wednesday, 17 May 2017
  The Shared Mirror Publishing House We are happy to share news of the release of our second book. 'What Babasaheb Means to Me' is an edited volume that compiles articles by authors on Round... Read More...
Bahubali: Celebrating the grandchildren of Nehru and Savarkar
Monday, 15 May 2017
  Kuffir ~ Social and individual efficiency requires us to develop the capacity of an individual to the point of competency to choose and to make his own career. This principle is violated in... Read More...
Romancing the Caste Violence
Tuesday, 09 May 2017
  Dr. N. Sukumar Mr. Venkaiah Naidu in the Indian Express dated 1st May 2017 (Romancing the Maoists) took umbrage at the human rights activists maintaining silence over the killing of security... Read More...
मैं परस्पर सम्मान या जन सम्मान की राजनीति के पक्ष में हूँ: अशोक भारती
Saturday, 06 May 2017
  संजय जोठे (Sanjay Jothe) अशोक भारती, संक्षिप्त परिचय: अशोक भारती नेशनल कन्फेडरेशन... Read More...

Recent Popular Articles

Presenting Angela Davis, the Savarna Style
Wednesday, 21 December 2016
  Sukanya Shantha On Friday, a friend and I walked into a movie hall to watch an American romantic musical, La La Land. Enticed by the cinematic beauty and the dreamy two hours spent in the... Read More...
In the name of the Nation: Historicizing Caste in Indian Universities
Thursday, 01 December 2016
  Nidhin Shobhana In the name of the Nation: Historicizing Caste in Indian Universities (with special reference to Jawaharlal Nehru University) Setting up the Stage The 'idea' of a... Read More...
The cashlessness of the Bahujan
Thursday, 15 December 2016
  Kuffir How are you going to break up Caste, if people are not free to consider whether it accords with morality? ~ Babasaheb Ambedkar The saddest joke is Modi's promotion of a cash-less... Read More...
What’s in a surname? Reflections on Adivasis’ history of Northern Chhattisgarh
Monday, 19 December 2016
  Akash Poyam   When I was first enrolled in school my parents named me ‘Akash Kumar’, this remained until middle school when it was changed to ‘Akash Kumar Prasad’ and it had since... Read More...
How egalitarian is EPW?
Thursday, 12 January 2017
  Dilip Mandal "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." – Barack Hussain Obama, quoting... Read More...

Recent Articles in Hindi

पेरियार से हम क्या सीखें?

पेरियार से हम क्या सीखें?

  संजय जोठे  इस देश में भेदभाव और शोषण से भरी परम्पराओं का विरोध करने वाले अनेक विचारक और क्रांतिकारी हुए हैं जिनके बारे में हमें बार-बार पढ़ना और समझना चाहिए. दुर्भाग्य से इस देश के शोषक वर्गों के षड्यंत्र के कारण इन क्रांतिकारियों का जीवन परिचय और समग्र कर्तृत्व छुपाकर रखा जाता है. हमारी अनेकों पीढियां इसी षड्यंत्र में जीती आयीं हैं. किसी देश के उद्भट विचारकों और क्रान्तिकारियों को इस...

Read more

कृष्ण: भारतीय मर्द का एक आम चेहरा...!

कृष्ण: भारतीय मर्द का एक आम चेहरा...!

(कृष्ण की लोक लुभावन छवि का पुनर्पाठ!)मानुषी आखिर ये मिथकीय कहानियां किस तरह की परवरिश और शिक्षा देती हैं, जहां पुरुषों को सारे अधिकार हैं, चाहे वह स्त्री को अपमानित करे या दंडित, उसे स्त्री पलट कर कुछ नहीं कहती। फिर आज हम रोना रोते हैं कि हमारे बच्चे इतने हिंसक और कुंठित क्यों हो रहे हैं। सारा दोष हम इंटरनेट और टेलीविजन को देकर मुक्त होना चाहते हैं। जबकि स्त्री...

Read more

राष्ट्रवाद और देशभक्ति

राष्ट्रवाद और देशभक्ति

संजय जोठे धर्म जो काम शास्त्र लिखकर करता है वही काम राष्ट्र अब फ़िल्में और विडिओ गेम्स बनाकर बनाकर करते हैं. इसी के साथ सुविधाभोगी पीढ़ी को मौत से बचाने के लिए टेक्नालाजी पर भयानक खर्च भी करना पड़ता है ताकि दूर बैठकर ही देशों का सफाया किया जा सके, और यही असल में उस तथाकथित “स्पेस रिसर्च” और “अक्षय ऊर्जा की खोज” की मूल प्रेरणा है, यूं तो सबको...

Read more