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Jal Jangal Jameen: Why these three words can’t be separated from India’s tribes

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Recently, in a roadshow in Jharkhand as part of his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi invoked the slogan of jal, jangal, jameen when addressing people. Not many of us know that the words, (water, forest, land) is a slogan coined by the Gond tribal hero Komaram Bheem in the early 20th century. Bheem hailed from the Komaram Bheem Asifabad district (renamed in 2016) of Telangana. The slogan was a clarion call by Bheem and his tribal folks for the restoration of their rights over forests and land. The tribals claimed a symbiotic relationship with the land and forests that they inhabited. Jal, jangal, and jameen were not “resources” to be “extracted” for “profit” but an inalienable part of their tribal identity, and thus had to be protected and nurtured.

Statue of Komaram Bheem at Tank Bund Road, Secunderabad, Hyderabad, India(Praveen Kumar Myakala/Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Statue of Komaram Bheem at Tank Bund Road, Secunderabad, Hyderabad, India(Praveen Kumar Myakala/Wikimedia Commons)

The tribal rebel

Komaram Bheem finds mention in the Union ministry of culture’s official website: We are informed that he was born sometime around the 1900s in the princely state of Hyderabad. The exact date of his birth is not known. His father was killed by the British when he resisted the acquisition of tribal land, heavy taxation and control of forests.

A young Komaram Bheem killed a jagirdar, who tried to confiscate their land. Following this, he fled and took refuge in a printing press in Chandrapur. He stayed put and learnt English, Hindi and Urdu from the nationalist owner. He went to work in a tea plantation in Assam after the press owner was arrested.

Inspired by the freedom struggle, he mobilised the Gonds against the Nizam and the British whose excesses against workers were well known. He led the Jodeghat tribal rebellion, inspiring the Gonds to refuse to pay the taxes either on the forest produce or on the crops that they cultivated.

The Nizam came down heavily on the rebels, and Bheem declared the autonomy of Jodeghat. The guerrilla war continued from 1928 to 1940. On October 14, 1940, Bheem was killed by the Nizam forces.

A detailed account of this final encounter was written by Christophe von Haimendorf, a German anthropologist who was commissioned by Nizam to investigate the incident. Haimendorf tells us that Bheem was an intelligent man — and a literate one — who had written several petitions to the Nizam. Haimendorf also documents the excesses of the forest officials and police and how they finally killed Bheem. Naturally, Komaram Bheem continues to be an inspiration for not just the Gonds but tribals as well as non-tribals across India. His slogan continues to guide people’s movements in contemporary contexts too.

Forest, land and the tribals

Before British rule, communities had a free hand in forests. Under colonial rule, forests became a resource that had to be controlled. Doing so enabled, for instance, the expansion of railways in India. The British government formally evicted traditional forest-dwelling and forest-dependent communities and restricted their use of forests through legislations like the Forest Acts of 1865, 1878 and 1927. In Komaram Bheem’s native area, tribals were either denied access to forests or the forest produce was taxed. The Nizam was also encouraging farmers from the plains to settle for agriculture in the tribal region leading to land alienation.

Post-Independence, the forest policy continued to maintain the precedence of national interests over local demands. The tribals in post-Independence India were asked “to suffer in the interest of the country” by giving up their land, livelihood and habitat for several “development” projects, particularly dams.

Post-liberalisation, tribals continue to be ousted for dams, mining, urban development and wildlife conservation and protection. The capitalist logic has taken over the state development policy: 90% of India’s coal, 80% of its minerals, and 72% of its forests are found in tribal lands, which is thus the target of private and public investment. The resulting land alienation has resulted in the continuation of people’s movements as well as armed struggles. Tribals across the central, eastern and western Indian states have raised the slogan of jal, jangal, jameen whenever they have rallied for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. One such exemplary struggle was that of the Dongria Kondh of southwest Odisha, who fought a six-year-long battle against the mining giant Vedanta to save the Niyamgiri mountain, a mountain which the Kondhs consider sacred. Vedanta had to retract in 2014. It is currently a matter of concern among many in the tribal community that the new Forest Conservation Rules, 2022, have diluted the provisions of FRA 2006, though the government claims that the rules are derived from the 2006 Act.

In the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894, the principle of eminent domain gave powers to the state to acquire private land if it could prove that the acquisition was for the “public interest”. Both the colonial and Indian governments used it, often against the most marginalised, including the tribals. The Act was repealed only in 2013. The Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (1996), the Forest Rights Act (2006) and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (2013) departed from the earlier law and vested much power in Gram Sabha to decide whether the land can be acquired. Its implementation, however, leaves room for improvement.

In the discussion about tribals and their right to natural resources, an often sidelined issue is the tribal demand for autonomy. Traditional institutions of self-governance have facilitated democratic decision-making quite effectively. In his fight against land alienation and expulsion from forests, Komaram Bheem had fought for the same autonomy. Schedule V and VI of the Constitution promise autonomy and protection to central and western Indian tribes as well as to the tribes of northeast India, respectively. In fact, both schedules became part of the Constitution due to the pressure exerted by the tribal movements of British India.

While Schedule VI has fulfilled its mandate to some extent, in Schedule V areas, the slogan jal, jangal, jameen remains popular as constitutional provisions have failed the tribals. For instance, land transfer from tribals to non-tribals was either prohibited or restricted in Schedule V areas, but from time to time, various state governments found ways to bypass these provisions. This was because the Tribal Advisory Council of the fifth schedule did not have any executive, legislative, or judicial power. The legislative power was vested with the governor and the President of India. This is unlike the sixth schedule, which gave substantial legislative powers to the Autonomous District Councils and the tribals there enjoy more autonomy as compared to the schedule five areas.

As a result, movements for autonomy in schedule five areas, such as the Patalgadi movement in tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, are many.

For Adivasi activists across the central and eastern Indian tribal belt, fighting for land and forest rights and tribal autonomy, jal, jangal, jameen rings a bell even after more than 90 years since the slogan was first used. Political parties across the board understand the resonance of jal, jangal, jameen, whenever they address members of the tribal community, especially in the states mentioned above.

However, it is doubtful whether the full import of the slogan and the politics around it is comprehended by the non-tribal Indian politician, activist, or indeed, filmmaker.

Rajmouli’s Telugu blockbuster RRR (2022) is a case in point. The period film, based on the fictional relationship between real-life characters Alluri Sitarama Raju (a non-tribal Kshatriya man who led the famous Rampa rebellion in Andhra a little before Bheem did) and Komaram Bheem, appropriates the slogan and attributes it to the former.

In the film, Komaram Bheem does not know how to read and write, follows barbarous practices and reveres Raju as a superior. In the final scene, when Raju offers to grant a wish in return for Bheem’s help, Bheem asks him for “education”. Raju writes the slogan jal, jangal, jameen with his blood in Devnagari script on a white flag — itself, a sacred Gond symbol. The origins of the slogan in mainstream history are taken away from the tribal man. But for the tribal communities, the slogan remains a vital part of their everyday cultural and political assertion.

Sai Thakur is assistant professor, Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, TISS, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal.


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