Dayamani Barla speaks to the Real News about her work, activism and her hopes for the future indigenous struggles in India
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Don’t let 46-year-old Dayamani Barla’s humble roots fool you. From the Indian state of Jharkhand, she once worked as a domestic servant to pay for her schooling, and since has won numerous international awards, accolades, and recognitions for both her activism and journalism. She’s known as the “voice of the Jharkhand” for amplyifying her community’s struggles against corporate and government-led land grabs and other injustices threatening their survival, dignity, and livelihood. This past May, she was awarded the Cultural Survival’s Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award in recognition of her, quote, “outstanding human rights work, dedicated leadership for Indigenous Peoples rights, and a deep life commitment to protecting, sustaining, and revitalizing Indigenous cultures, lands, and languages.” Her many accomplishments include helping successfully block a proposed $9 billion dollar steel plant that would have spanned up to 12,000 acres of land and could have displaced 40 villages, in addition to causing untold environmental hazards. Considered a hero by many around the planet, her work has made her an enemy of the powerful, and she was even imprisoned by the Indian government in 2012 on what her supporters say were trumped-up charges meant to punish her activism.
The Real News recently sat down Dayamani Barla. We started by asking her about the path that led her to become a journalist and activist.
DAYAMANI BARLA, ADIVASI JOURNALIST AND ACTIVIST (VOICEOVER TRANSL.): The Adivasi (indigenous) society I come from and the Adivasi village I come from has always been victimized. There has been some kind of repression or the other in Adivasi society.
And by virtue of being born in an Adivasi society, my parents were illiterate. And because of this, I saw, because my parents were illiterate, they were cheated and their thumb impressions taken on a blank sheet of paper in the court. On the next day, authoritarian people got the land in their name, and then the land got taken away from my parents’ hands completely. So then, when the land got taken from their hands, then they fought the case, then to fight the case in the court. An Adivasi family or a farmer’s family has land, but as the remaining land for cow, bull, goat was taken away in acquisition, after acquisition our family had nothing left. And when there was nothing left, my whole family scattered. I have three older brothers. Out of my three older brothers, my two elder brothers, my mother, my middle brother, all these people in front of my eyes–my mother traveled 150 kilometers from my village and became a servant. My father became a servant. In this way my whole family got scattered.
So what I had seen in my childhood made me a journalist in the newspaper and also made me an activist.
NOOR: So you’re known as voice of Jharkhand, and you’re the first tribal journalist from the state. Why do you think it was so important for your community’s perspective to be heard in a time, as you said, wherein journalism is so corporate and it’s about profit, it’s about getting across the corporation’s point of view?
BARLA: I’m very happy to talk about this question you raise. I’ve understood that there was talk of there being exploitation and repression everywhere in Adivasi society. There is exploitation and repression all around. So we have to uplift the Adivasi society from all this and help it come out of this repression. And what I had seen in my childhood, how the people suppress the Adivasi society, and how I have to struggle against it, and our people who are scared and timid, I have to inspire them to become strong, to raise their voices.
When I was studying for my masters of commerce in my student life, from then it was in my mind. And when I completed my MCom, I participated in the movement directly in our area under Koel Karo project. A dam was being constructed fully in our Adivasi area. Two and a half lakhs of people were displaced from that place and 55,000 hectares of agricultural land destroyed, and 27,000 hectares of forests come to the front. An Adivasi’s own heritage is there. But also their own traditional and spiritual history is linked to our place sarna sisan diri (which are religious sites), and in this, what we Adivasis say: that forest and land and the river and mountains are not our property, but they are our heritage. Our language and history are linked to them. Our culture is associated with that. Our identity is connected. So when this will be completely wiped out on their part, so Adivasis will be wiped totally from their roots. Totally.
So when the talk of construction of the dam came up in the movement during my college life in 1995, with people revolting against the dam, I directly entered that movement. And when I was in the movement, I saw that it was published daily in the newspapers. In one column was published this news every day, where it was written that Adivasis are protesting against Koel Karo Dam. But it was nowhere written how much damage would be caused due to the construction of this dam to that area, and how many people would be displaced by it, and what would happen to their language and culture and what would happen to their identity, and after, I mean, after being displaced, where they will go. All those things were not mentioned anywhere.
So then it came to my mind that, after all, while these newspaper reporters write that these Adivasis are protesting against the dam, the context was missing. And so then, while staying in the movement, we had met with S. L. Anurag Ji, a senior journalist, and then did this planning, and in a way I was part of it. After that, the laying of foundation stone that was to happen to start the construction of how the dam would be stopped. After the work stopped, we will write our history with our pen. Then we, the Adivasis, will survive. We will write about our issue with our pen. We decided on this.
I’m very happy that in my name and my friend’s name we took a loan from the bank and started publishing Jan Haq Patrika. And so I began reporting for Jan Haq Patrika. And also for that magazine, we used to prepare stories after extensive research, going from village to village to prepare content for it. So by continuing to write, I got on the editorial board. And so I’m happy that I did not write for other newspapers. We will do our own struggle for our language and culture, we’ll do our own heritage. So keeping this in mind, we started publishing our magazine.
This was our first step. After that, we started taking out this publication. And along with this, the biggest Hindi newspaper in that area is Prabhat Khabar. So then I felt that along with writing in my own publication, I have to expand my sphere so that the issues facing Adivasis reach mainstream journalism. So I started writing for Prabhat Khabar and mainstream publications as well. In Prabhat Khabar I started to write regularly about all our philosophies, thoughts, and issues in life, and Prabhat Khabar devoted prominent space to all our topics. And we also continued to take the publication forward for a long period of time. And then also lots of our stories continued to be published.
In 2001, I was honored with Counter Media Award under the Rural Journalism category. Before I was honored by Counter Media Award, then I felt that no one wants to hear this Adivasi’s voice, poor people’s voice, and this voice of the oppressed, downtrodden people. But after writing for them, we received the award on behalf of rural journalism and was awarded $10,000, and every single reporter received a camera and was allotted an audio recorder. I realized that this is not Dayamini’s award, that this was a poor people’s voice, Adivasi’s voice and the ones suffering. Those who are oppressed, their voice has been given recognition and has been honored by the attention that they deserved.
Then my recognition increased, and compared to how much I used to visit various villages, I started roaming much more now. If for some reason our issues did not get published, I used to go straight to the editor and I used to ask why our stuff was not published. And after that I moved forward in journalism along with activism, and I felt that I received an award for this. In 2003 and 2004, I received an NFI Award as well. Then I felt that just writing is not enough, and all the issues that I raise–and I raise all the issues in society–they get published in papers as news, but the main cause still remains unresolved. No solution comes out.
Then the thought occurred to me that for this cause to have resolution, people should be mobilized and should unite. And for that I started mobilizing people, and also prepared them to fight that have to stand up to fight on the battlefield. I have seen in life that if we take up a struggle for an Adivasi society or any problem common to any society, then we would also like to work out a solution.
Then I realized that I have to stay in the battlefield–it won’t happen by staying at home–have to enter the battlefield, have to stay in the battlefield, and also have to stay on the ground to struggle and keep the power of the pen also alive, have to stand with both the pen and the battlefield. Both will walk together. Only then justice would be found for Adivasi society.
And I’m happy today that whatever issue I’ve raised–to save forest, land, save society at large, save language and culture, people–I mobilize people. I even fought against Arcelor Mittal. Out there also I gained victory. I started to fight against the dam and won the fight against the dam as well.
I feel proud. And I want to say it openly from my heart today that I’m not a journalist in the professional sense of the term, but today I’m an activist and journalist. This is the reason that I’m standing with the society today. What you’re saying, that I’m known as Jharkhand’s voice, I’m proud of the fact that I’m working toward making Jharkhand’s voice reach the battlefield and pen, newspapers, magazine, and mainstream media.
NOOR: So she’s the leader in a lot of ways, and she’s a woman. And I saw the video. It was women kind of taking the lead and smashing this brick wall down, and they were attacked. And she’s been in prison for two months and threatened and harassed. So talk about the fact that it’s women that are in many ways leading this movement and also facing violence and discrimination and the challenges she faces and women face.
BARLA: As far as the role of women in leadership is concerned, we all know that women have that power to create a man out of a small baby, give a small baby a new life, and to make them a human being. That is the role of a woman. Women have the power to make a family and along with it make a society. And when they make a society, they make a nation. And when they make a nation, they also make a country.
Now, if you look into any caste or religion, if you look into nation’s history or struggle, you will find that women have made the biggest contribution. Now, if we talk about India, then in India’s struggle for independence there were many women who were even ahead of men, were in command, and the Adivasi society I come from, if you talk about Adivasis worldwide, national and international.
So the characteristics of Adivasis are distinct from other societies. This is an equal society, and here women walk shoulder-to-shoulder with men. They work in the field, work at home. And the way they are open-minded, they keep on contributing wholly towards building the society.
I come from Jharkhand. In Jharkhand, when the whole of India was awakening against British rule, was fighting against the British for freedom, then even in our Jharkhand they started their uprisings against British from 1700. There, along with Adivasi ministers, Adivasi women used to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with men against the British. And that is history. If in the fight against Britishers in Jharkhand Siddhu Kanu’s name comes up, so also Phulo and Jhano, two sisters, their names also come up. Manki Munda’s name also comes up. And if you talk about having fought in Tana Bhagat with Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Nirmali, Tana Bhagat’s name also comes up. So in Adivasi society, in the history of sovereignty movements, women have always stayed in the front line.
Even now, post-independence, where they are protesting against displacement, where people are fighting against displacement–even I’m fighting against it–60 percent of women have a role in it. And because of 60 percent participation of women today in Jharkhand, the movement has won against the odds. And it’s inspirational because a woman has the gift to know how to run and manage her society, her home, and her nation and to save her community. Women never do any negotiations, never sell themselves, have never sold themselves to society, and this is the reason why in whichever movement I’ve been involved in, wherever men were leading that movement, it got shaky, but wherever women led the movement, we have gained victory in every movement.
PJ: So in the world’s largest democracy, what is her next plan, what is the movement’s next plan to make sure that every citizen has equal rights and corporations don’t have greater rights than people?
BARLA: You see, as far as the issue of democracy goes, I would like to make it clear here that whatever our fight is for, our fight against displacement, our fight to save villages, I would like to make it clear that our fight is not directed to only save the indigenous community; our fight is all about those communities linked to nature. I mean the communities that are nature-based, communities that are linked to agriculture. Our fight is to save all those communities. Our fight is to save every caste and religion. And when our fight is to save every caste and every religion, so this, our biggest democracy, then we are fighting in this democracy.
What we are saying in this democracy is that today you will see in the world that the nature-based societies, whether it is indigenous society or it be Adivasi society, it’s their ideology that the river does not belong to one tribe and the forest does not belong to one tribe. This is the heritage of the community. It’s not even property. I’m talking about heritage. So it’s a community heritage. So every caste and tribe, from community heritage, whatever their various requirements are in life, that requirement will be fulfilled, will fulfill, and alongside this heritage it will give only so much cooperation as is needed. We’re talking here about this culture of give and take. Here also the culture of give and take exists, that we will take only so much from the forests as we need, and we have to give forests enough for the jungles to retain their identity. So this society of ours, without forests, this Adivasi community, farmer’s community, or whichever nature-based community, we cannot live without forest; forest cannot live without us.
So you raise the question that what is our future plan. So we’ve undergone this long period of struggle to save this forest, save this land. I also learned in this democracy that on one side we are saving forest and land, we are saving villages; but also in this same democracy there exists political power, and where there is political power, all politicians, those politicians have no agenda lined up to save these forest, land, society, mountains, language and culture. They have only a money-making agenda. They only have agenda to indulge in politics for their self-interest.
Now, what I have learnt after a long period of struggle and after I’ve been to prison is that if I have to save land, save forest, save villages, save my people, save this heritage, then this democracy that they’re talking about, in this democracy where decision-making exists, there is no policymaking machinery in place. We’ll have to go to the policy-making machinery so that we can also make our own policy. And whatever policy we make, we will implement tomorrow the policy on our own. Then this long struggle that we’re fighting for, and whatever fight we’ll have to do tomorrow, it will be with full force.
Those who talk about protecting forestland, those who talk about a democratic society in true sense of the word, we will also have to bring the real democracy out. Those who promote national democracy want to give democracy in society. In that democracy, our people would be part of assembly seats, our people will be in Parliament, where our people, for their water, forest, land, for their language, their culture, and their society, will make policy for community. They will implement it. This is my belief. And apart from this, there is no other way out.
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