Mourning Rashmi Dwivedi: Living Among the Baiga Adivasis of Chhattisgarh

Sisterhood of the Baiga Mahapanchayat, Chhattisgarh

The Sad Demise of Rashm iDwivedi Of Baiga Mahapanchayat, Chhattisgarh!
Mahasamund, June 15, 2016

Rashmi Dwivedi’s sudden death this morning at Lormi, Mungeli District of Chhattisgarh came as a shock and surprise to many of us who had known her as an energetic, lively and firebrand woman social activist having dedicated her life for the rights and justice of Baiga Adivasis in the Achanakmaar Wildlife Sanctuary area of Chhattisgarh[1].

Rashmi has left us at a young age of about 50 years, and the loss to social movements in Chhattisgarh will be permanent, as not many are willing to commit themselves to work in remote areas of the land categorised as backward among Adivasis living in utter poverty and neglect, where the patients are still brought to the nearest government run primary health centre on kanwar (a bamboo carrier kept on the shoulders of two persons) covering some ten to twenty kilometers.

Ironically, the Baigas are the traditional medicine folk, and known for their ancestral knowledge of herbal medicines.  It is among them that Rashmi resided. Rashmi suffered from certain ailments, and without displaying her pain, she continued with her struggles for the rights and justice for Baiga Adivasis. As a result, she was forced to face indignities and isolation by the powers that be – forest and police officials, contractors and big business, politicians and patriarchs!   

Rashmi had the commitment with courage to work with Baiga Adivasis and together they formed a peaceful-democratic organisation called the Baiga Mahapanchayat, Chhattisgarh. In December 2007, the Baiga Adivasis had taken out a Long March called “Gaon-Gaon se Paon-Paon Tak” (from villages on foot) from Birjunagar in Lormi area to Raipur, the capital city of Chhattisgarh. Hundreds of Baiga Adivasis – men, women and children—walked miles-and-miles during the day and camped in the night, cooking their own food, dancing and singing liberation songs.

Birju Baiga is a martyr having been killed in a conspiracy by the Van Suraksha Samiti and forest officials as the Baiga adivasis in his leadership were settling down in what is now known as Birjunagar. This was in the year 2002, just two years after the Chhattisgarh was accorded the status of a separate state on November 1, 2000.

It is well-known that the Forest Rights Act, 2005 is a result of people’s struggles to assert their right to life and livelihood on jal, jangal aur zameen (water, forest and land). The unique struggles for forest rights and the contribution of Baiga Adivasis under the leadership of Rashmi Dwivedi is recognized not only in Chhattisgarh but all over the country. Rashmi’s oft repeated statement was:  “The Baiga needs access to forests more than electricity, roads or piped water.” 

Rashmi has been closely associated with various regional and national level initiatives to promote linkages and solidarity among various people’s movements for freedom, justice, peace and democracy. She has held prestigious positions in People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF), Ekta Parishad, etc. She was also part of a larger alliance of socialist-secular-democratic organization : Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM).

After graduating from Bilaspur, Rashmi  joined Ekta Parishad established by P V Rajagopal, a well-known Gandhian who had played a prominent role in the surrender of dacoits in Madhya Pradesh (Bhind-Morena) along with Mr. S.N.Subba Rao, noted Sarvodaya leader from the State, who had worked with JP in bringing about the surrender of about 500 dacoits.

Rashmi has been working with the Baiga tribe for many years in the Lormi tribal area, which falls between Kawardha and Bilaspur. She stood vehemently opposed to mining in Dulduli by the Vedanta group. The mining is resulting in large-scale displacement of the Baiga tribes, as is the policy of driving out tribals from the Kanha-Kisli and other national parks.

Married to Ratneshwar Nath who was also part and parcel of Ekta Parishad, but independently ran Parivartan, a non-government organisation based in Kanker, headquarters of what used to be the Bastar district. For several years, Rashmi worked with Ratneshwar Nath on forest and rights issues. Trained tribals for self-employment since their land is being denied to them as part of the Malik Makbooja scam in which Salwa Judum leader Mahendra Karma was one of the accused.

Nath died on May 3, 2009. They had a daughter named Deepshree, who died in a tragic road accident a day after Deepavali in 2002 at the age of 7. This tragedy brought her back to her home town Lormi, to continue to work amongst the Baiga Adivasis.

I had the opportunity to meet and work with Rashmi Dwivedi when we were involved in the rehabilitation of thousands of bonded labourers in the then Raipur district, released by a historic judgment of the Supreme Court of India. Ekta Parishad was responsible for rehabilitation of released bonded labourers in Saraipalli Block of the then Raipur District, close to the borders of Odisha.

Rashmi had impressed me with her clear analytical understanding of the bonded labour problem, and a good grasp of rural Chhattisgarh. Fluent in Chhattisgarhi, she was capable of communicating with the released bonded labourers at the grass-roots level, inspiring them to play a pro-active role in their self-development rather than bring mere objects of government programmes. On the other hand she demonstrated her courage in confronting the government officials who were otherwise hostile to the entire process of release and rehabilitation of the bonded labourers due to their class and caste prejudices.

Though I was working for the rehabilitation through the Multi Niketan(A self-development programme of the released bonded labourers), Rashmi and her team were in constant interaction with us. I remember an incident when we had a night meeting in a village of all activists and workers involved in the rehabilitation work. Mr. P V Rajagopal of Ekta Parishad was to take the meeting.  During sharing, she told us that she had walked some 17 kilometers with others to attend this meeting. Later, I had the opportunity to be a co-worker in various organizations like the PUCL, INSAF and CMM.

Over time, my wife Shashi and I developed a deep bondage, both personal and organizational relationships with Rahsmi and Nath, enriching each other in our common commitment, and also sustaining and upholding each other in times of trials and tribulations.  With this generation of dedicated social activists like Rashmi passing away, there exists a void that will be rare to replace. People like Rashmi are a product of their deep devotion to a transformed world for themselves, their children and fellow human beings, where peace, justice, freedom and dignity would prevail.

Rashmi had kept her house open for children in distress. Some 9-15 children stayed with her as part of the family, and she took motherly care of them. She had not raised any funds for their welfare, but shared her own limited resources to keep them healthy and happy. That was the true woman in her who cared and shared like a mother!

Peace and Rest, Rashmi…

[1] In Chhattisgarh, Lormi and Mungeli Blocks of district Bilaspur have the largest Baiga population. The majority of them live in 42 forest villages within the Achanakmar WLS and which is also considered one of the most backward regions of the country. The lifestyle of the Baiga community is deeply connected with the forests wherein they practice agriculture without the use of the plough and grow 12 different kinds of crops using this method. They practice shifting agriculture, where they cultivate one piece of land for 3 years and then move to the next patch, allowing for forest regeneration. It was during the British rule when the forests were declared the property of the State that the community was pushed to poverty. To facilitate the cutting of forests for timber, the British brought the Baigas from the highlands to the foot of the hills and settled them in forest villages. The Baigas of Chhattisgarh have repeatedly faced displacement due to various projects first in Bhoramdeo in district Kawardha, Bodla Block in district Kawardha and now in Achanakmar WLS in district Bilaspur.



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