This article has been published in partnership with Samvaad 2019
गांव छोडब नही, जंगल छोडब नही
माय माटी छोडब नही लडाय छोडब नही
(We will not leave our village, we will not leave our forest
We won’t leave our soil, we will not back down from the fight)
The cry of Adivasi resistance that Bhagwan Maajhi once belted out as he protested the bauxite mining in Kashipur resounds through the open stage of Samvaad at the Tribal Culture Centre in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand.
Only this time, 23 tribes from India and across the world put their arms around each other in a circular formation, as they dance to its tune sung live by popular folk singer and lyricist, Padma Shri Madhu Mansuri Hasmukh. The song not only connects the story of the struggles, aspirations and dreams of the tribal communities gathered at Samvaad but also celebrates adivasiyat (tribal identity), culture, history and heritage.
And that is precisely what Samvaad set out to do.
What is Samvaad?
Deriving its name from the Sanskrit word for ‘dialogue,’ Samvaad, organised by Tata Steel, is one of the largest tribal conclaves or ecosystems in India. It has reached out to more than 10,000 people and 17 countries worldwide.
From the forest man of India, Padma Shri Jadav Payeng, who single-handedly planted the 500-acre Molai forest; to Anna Kujur, who fought fearlessly for the rights of forest-dwelling communities, and gave 16,000 Adivasis their rightful ‘patta’ – Samvaad has been instrumental in making the most critical voices of indigenous communities heard. Celebrating its sixth year in 2019, Samvaad also commemorates the birth anniversary of iconic tribal leader Birsa Munda. The theme of the annual event that once simply began with the idea of celebrating tribal identity has now transformed into a silent revolution for social change.
Among the few examples of the incredible stories that come out of the five day-conclave are those of young tribal men using music to break taboos about menstruation, women fighting for their right to education, women contesting in and winning panchayat elections, and entire villages coming together to build rainwater harvesting structures.
In addition to being a safe space for indigenous communities to open up conversations about culture, identity, language preservation, climate justice, legal rights and constitutional frameworks, it also brings together the joys of sharing tribal cuisine, handicrafts, healers and cultural performances at Gopal Maidan over five evenings.
In its visit to Samvaad 2019, The Better India (TBI) met with the driving forces behind the event and got a consensus on what makes it the first-of-its-kind open platform for indigenous communities.
Dr Ramaswami Balasubramanian, an Indian author, public policy advocate and activist, who is known for his development work with rural and tribal people in Mysore, beautifully summarises the purpose of Samvaad. He explains how it isn’t just about the song or the dance, the language, food or the dress that one sees from the outside, but something that runs much deeper. “For the last five years, Tata Steel has been quietly communicating its conviction to the cause of mobilising tribals for the larger good in a very silent, subtle way. Samvaad is unlike any other conclave because it is about love, respect, dignity and a genuine concern for positive change among indigenous communities. To help people believe that they must take control of their lives and not merely respond to the narrative that others fashion for them. It is invigorating to see thousands of young tribals from all over the country and outside come together to discuss, to debate, and participate in dialogue.”
55-year-old Mansaram Madari from the Gond tribe of Madhya Pradesh who has been attending the conclave for the last two years echoes Balasubramanian’s musings. “Samvaad brings together tribes who manifest the utmost love and respect for Jal (water), Jangal (forests) and Jameen (land). With changing times, many of our youngsters who are moving into bigger cities have forgotten their roots. Thanks to platforms like Samvaad that celebrate our identity, we can find ways to involve young people more. The many stories of struggles shared here give us hope that we aren’t alone in our fight to preserve our identity. It has inspired us to take charge of our lives. Today we are working with 600 tribal families in and around our village to preserve our culture and traditions.”
A first-time attendee, Kunal Singh from the Munda tribe of Nilgiris, Odisha, says, “We have never attended a tribal event held at this scale. The exposure is amazing, and the opportunity is huge. As we sat amongst our brothers and sisters from different tribes and corners of India, there were times; we couldn’t understand each other due to barriers of language. But the bond of kinship we felt surpassed it all.”
For Sourav Roy, the Chief of Tata Steel’s corporate social responsibility arm, Samvaad is all about building relationships and changemakers.
“The process of development over the years, for various reasons, has not been very kind to our indigenous communities. We, at Tata Steel, believe that the answers to the most vexing questions for modern-day problems lie in ancient tribal practices. And so, we want to bridge the gap and create a neutral platform that allows these voices to be heard. Samvaad doesn’t take any positions on issues, yet allows a safe space for tribes to speak their heart out, share their stories, gain strength from each others’ resilience and find solutions. We do not want to dictate to people from indigenous communities about what their identities are. Instead, we want to be facilitators who help people look deep inside and discover their identities on their own,” he says.
Samvaad has come a long way from being a celebratory event once conducted for tribal communities. Today, it has become a platform that is helping indigenous communities find solutions to modern-day problems. Another interesting offshoot of the event is to empower deserving tribal youth with the Samvaad Fellowship 2019. The fellowship provides financial help to tribal youth to undertake a project —through a research proposal or a social action initiative—to work on cultural aspects concerning their community.
With more than seven regional Samvaads being organised in Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Nagaland, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Meghalaya, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh in partnership with reputed institutions, the revolution is reaching out to more tribal communities in the hinterland. As said, one can only hope that it continues to reach more and more people on the margins and the ‘samvaad’ (conversation) never ceases!