Conversations surrounding Adivasi issues in India tend to get sidelined over reservation, overlooking generations of discrimination and exploitation. Sunita Bari writes of her experiences of making her own space as a tribal woman.
For much of my childhood and adolescence, I tried to hide my surname from people I had just met. My experience had taught me that if I revealed my surname, the conversation would progress in the following manner—first they will ask what kind of Adivasi I am, then the topic will move on to reservation and quota, and then they will refer to the image of an Adivasi as someone who wears leaves. It is as if I exist only to prove a point.
I was a kid growing up with my sister in a small town called Sindri where my father, a government employee, had just been transferred. There was a handpump in the colony from where we fetched our water. One day, my sister and I were standing patiently for our turn. In front of us was an older woman filling her water-pot. I don’t know what happened exactly but within a heartbeat I saw the woman fuming and getting angry. I must have accidentally touched the handpump which caused her to start scolding us. She then emptied her pot, washed the entire area and got her refill. Remembering that incident still pierces my heart.
There was no place safe enough to assert my identity. After leaving Sindri, we began living in Delhi. Back then, my best friend would frequently invite me to her home. When I visited, we always ate from the same plate as we loved to share our food. But one day, her family witnessed us doing so and it led to a big chaos.
I always asked myself: Why does my surname matter? Why does my color matter? Are not we all human beings and have much bigger issues like global warming or poverty or unemployment?
There are many more incidents of discrimination that makes me sad if I talk about it. For instance, in school, one of the classmates had remarked, “Why are you even studying? It's we who need to study harder. You guys will easily get a government job.”
Sometimes my identity caused much debate even among co-passengers. This happened while I was in Delhi. I was travelling in a carpool and one of the co-passengers was a guy who blamed tribals for his inability to secure a government job. We had a long argument about the reservation policy. The guy said that due to reservation he and his brother couldn’t clear a competitive exam and that a less meritorious person got a fancy job. When the argument got heated, he called us junglis and said we should wear leaves and take care of the jungles.
My younger sister also faced similar struggles, especially at her workplace. She used to work in a big reputed company in Vasai, Mumbai. She was harassed everyday, made fun of being Adivasi and expected to show up to the office wearing leaves. She used to cry everyday after work and had a hard time struggling with Mumbaikars. Later on she resigned despite the fact she had her contract for 4 years more.
Yet, despite such incidents, nothing prepared me for the incident that happened at my boyfriend’s home. My boyfriend is from the general category and had invited me for his sister's ring ceremony. As I was enjoying the evening, his grandmother in a loud voice said to other relatives, “Main to chahti hun ki ye nichi jaati ki ladki na laaye bas kyunki khana kaise khaungi fir.” She meant that if he marries me and I cook food she wont eat since I am from "neeche jaati". Her words broke my heart and I cried a lot that day. The incident permanently left a scar on my heart.
My father used to tell us never to think of marrying someone from another caste. He used to say, “You have no idea how your life will become after that. The family will harass you and your life will turn into a disaster”. I used to hear it and ignore, thinking people have become modern and they do not think like this. But when this incident happened my father's words began to make sense. Discrimination against lower castes and Adivasis run deep within other communities and I have closely experienced it.
Personally, despite all these incidents, I have grown up to be a stronger person who no longer feels the need to hide her identity. The struggles have made me a better person.
About the Author: Sunita Bari is a graduate in Journalism and Mass Communication from Noida. She is a traveler tribal women who carries with her a bag full of stories.