Fate of tribals unchanged since independence: Mahasweta Devi

By Om Gupta, IANS

New Delhi : She has been a staunch leftist for 60 years, yet writer Mahasweta Devi minces no words when it comes to criticising the communist government of West Bengal, be it over land acquisition in Nandigram or trading of the dancing girls of Purulia.

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"The fate of one-sixth of India is the same as it was at the time of independence. The state and central administrations have failed to deliver," the Jnanpith award winner said talking about her life-long passion for tribal India.

She was in the capital to deliver the 2007 Durgabai Deshmukh Memorial Lecture on "Fundamental Human Rights for the Nautch Girls of Purulia".

"Tribal land is being appropriated without compensation. Nandigram and Singur are the worst examples of the state's apathy for the poor," Mahasweta Devi, 82, told IANS in an interview. She was referring to land acquisition for industrialisation in these two pockets of West Bengal.

Mahasweta Devi, despite her advanced age, is busy either writing or travelling to far-flung places to intervene on behalf of tribals. She is self-effacing and shuns publicity. Thus it did not come as a surprise when she declined an honour at the recently held World Hindi Conference in New York saying there were more deserving Hindi authors.

The author of celebrated works like "Hajar Churashir Maa" and "Aranyer Adhikar" has taken up the cause of the Purulia dancing girls, saying trading them was an illogical outcome of the tradition of tribal folklore.

Comparing these girls to the Devdasis or temple dancers of South India, Mahasweta Devi said, "In the heart of West Bengal, a Left Front-ruled state for 30 years, this cruel practice of purchasing a young girl, making her sing and dance to please her male clientele, taking all her money and treating her like a pariah goes on and on."

She said their buyers make them dance at public functions to augment their income but do not provide basic amenities to their children born out of wedlock, ostracise them and dump their bodies as garbage, "depriving them even a dignified funeral".

She wants the state government to grant these women the right to property, health, education, equality and dignity in life and death.

She said she is not a feminist but strongly believes that half of humanity – namely, women – is suffering because of their physicality. "Unless we give dignity to that, nothing will change," she said.

Mahasweta Devi, who has organised tribals in Bengal and Bihar, wants the rest of the country to follow suit. She is a popular columnist in Bengali daily newspapers, often forcing the establishment to take note and act.

"The state government has deliberately failed to do even the minimum for the people of the state. No roads, no electricity, no doctors. Universal primary education is a part of the package of failures," she said.

Recently Kolkata Police notified her as a Maoist but had to withdraw after strong protests from artists and writers all over the country.

She wishes to see a hospital built in the Palamu district of Jharkhand, which she believes is the most backward district of the country. She has concentrated on this area and much of her creative writing is also based on its people.