This election is a turning point for the Bondas, or the naked tribe as some would say, living in the remote hills of Orissa’s Malkangiri district.
Dambaru Sisa, a 28-year-old from the reclusive tribe that remained untouched by civilisation for centuries, has not only become the first Bonda to contest elections, but chances are he may win the Chitrakonda assembly seat.
Orissa goes to simultaneous assembly and parliamentary elections in two phases starting Thursday. Chitrakonda votes in the first phase.
Sisa’s decision to join politics comes amid a festering debate between those who romanticise the Bonda tribe’s isolation and others who have been pushing for their integration with the mainstream.
Sisa, the first postgraduate Bonda, sides with the latter and argues that it’s possible to protect the unique culture and tradition of the tribe while giving them access to education and everything else that goes with modern civilisation. “I don’t want my people to be framed in images that decorate your drawing rooms,” he said over telephone from Khairput, the block that covers about three dozen villages inhabited by the Bondas.
At the same time, Sisa said, he also wants to fight against the exploitation of Bondas under the pretext of bring development to them. Despite several government programmes, only 6 per cent of Bondas are literates and life expectancy is so low that it’s threatening to make the tribe extinct.
Over time, the Bondas have come to be classified in two groups: the Upper Bondas living in inaccessible forests and the Lower Bondas, about 20,000 of them, who have moved down the hills and have seen growing interface with people from the plains in recent decades.
The Upper Bondas, totalling about 6,700, don’t wear any clothes. There is nothing that ties their livelihood to the world outside — 40 per cent of their food comes from hunting, their ornaments are made of metals found around their habitation, and the dialect they speak bears no similarity with that of any other tribe.
Sisa’s mother was an upper Bonda, before she married a lower Bonda, who paid a bride price — a custom for the tribe whose women marry younger men.
Sisa is a beneficiary of a 1977 government programme designed to end the isolation of the Bondas. Sisa worked for the CRPF for five years and for a co-operative bank for a year, before deciding to begin social work in his area in 2008.
He is popular and that showed when the ruling Biju Janata Dal offered him the ticket for Chitrakonda within days of hearing about him and his intention to contest. He is among the few candidates to have campaigned across the constituency, where Naxals hold sway and want people to boycott the polls.
“There is a high chance that Sisa will win,” said Saroj Mahapatra, a lecturer at a local college.