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Home / Books / Essay: India’s tribal communities and the battle against Covid

Essay: India’s tribal communities and the battle against Covid

From preying on vulnerable populations with low immunity to infusing new life into once-deserted hamlets, the pandemic has affected the country’s tribes in different ways

books Updated: Sep 18, 2020, 20:30 IST
Nidhi Dugar Kundalia
Nidhi Dugar Kundalia
Hindustan Times
An Apatani woman at Hari village in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh.
An Apatani woman at Hari village in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh. (Subrata Biswas/ Hindustan Times)


256pp, Rs 399; Penguin
256pp, Rs 399; Penguin

India’s tribal population is outnumbered by its deities, so it makes sense that during troubling times, they turn to a goddess for solace. For the Hallaki tribe of north Karnataka, the leading pandemic goddess is Mari, a hot tempered deity brandishing a sword to behead the demons of illness. When the news of Covid-19 arrived, the older Halakki women with their bare dark backs and beady necklaces glinting in the sun made a customary visit to a Mariyamma shrine with thambittu offerings and neem leaves. But this apart, the nationwide lockdown had no implications for this forest-dwelling tribe. They went about their daily activities of collecting forest goods, working in the fields and gathering food by the sea. The markets in Ankola, where they usually sell their surplus goods, were shut but the carefree Halakkis were only grateful for some spare time to repair their thatched huts.

“I don’t care”, dismisses Padmavati, an elderly Hallaki with a wave of her hand, when requested to wear a mask by the local officials. “Why should I take a bath every day? We have never done this. People here rub their hands with the mud to clean. No need of soaps; they have an ungodly, terrible smell. What is to worry? People die of diseases all the time.”

Epidemic diseases often find mention in Halakki songs and folktales appearing most vividly in metaphorical expressions of rage and disgust. Children, particularly obstinate ones, are told to eat quickly or Gumma (syphilis) will come. One of the rituals of the annual Marihore festival is the disposal of garbage from the Halakki hamlet; the pile gets bigger as it moves from village to village until it reaches the sea. For the Halakkis, the pandemic is less of an existential horror. Deeply familiar with its features, they accept it as an unavoidable sore of everyday life.

Meanwhile, the tribals deep in the forests of Bastar, Chattisgarh, battled Covid by summoning the goddess Sheetla, who carries a cooling water pot, broom, neem twigs and a jar of ambrosia for eternal life. The local gunia, or witch doctors, wanted nothing to do with Covid and dismissing it as an alien disease found consolation in locally-brewed mahua liqour. The Abhujhmaria tribes, who live in the Naxal-infested thickets of Bastar that are as yet free of phones signals, were among the last to know of the pandemic. In March, when a government bike went by with the announcement of the lockdown crackling on its loudspeaker, villagers let the faraway sound wash over them. “It’s only when we went to sell chironji seeds in April at nearby markets that we heard of Corona,” says Ramesh Usendi, from the police quarters in Orchha, where he works as a peon. As news spread, sal leaf masks were quickly fashioned and charota, a local medicine was widely distributed by the panchayat. For months, road making and other jobs were halted. The younger members of the tribe who use the money they earn working on these projects to buy biscuits and clothes did feel the pinch but mostly, they cherished the ceasefire - after years - between the Naxals and CRPF, as supplies were cut off.

Ramesh says Covid hasn’t reached their villages yet. “How will it? People in jungles walk in long rows, not in groups; boundaries between homes are wide and we leave chappals outside before getting in homes; washing feet and cleaning hands with ashes from the hearth before cooking or eating is customary”, he laughs. “People in the jungles here have been following social distancing all their lives.”

In the Nilgiris, where education seems to be the social demarcator, the browbeaten Kurumbas lament the shutdown of schools. The tribe, whose members are believed to practise sorcery, has recently emerged from the forests and are not familiar with smart phones. “Children used to walk six kilometres through reserved forests to reach schools in the Badaga tribe’s villages. While the children of that affluent tribe will start high school soon, most of our children will miss a year; many might drop out too,” remarks Mani, a Gudalur-based Kurumba activist. Floods around their village in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, in July had already pushed them deep into poverty as they couldn’t collect honey, on which they depend for their livelihood, from forests engulfed by the swollen rivers.

Anthropologists from the Andaman Islands are on tenterhooks. Reverse migration, Covid-19’s much-highlighted consequence, has the potential to wipe out indigenous tribes with naturally weak immune systems. The return of some Jarawas who worked in Port Blair, back to their isolated settlements 100 kilometres away, has caused the number of cases to flare up. Officials are now tracking deaths in the sparsely-populated tribe. The same phenomenon of reverse migration has brought back life to the ghost villages of Pauri district in Uttarakhand.

Jina Devi, the sole inhabitant of Ghiri lives alone in a dimly-lit room. Members of her Juansar tribe left for towns and cities years ago. She usually locks herself in after 6 pm as panthers prowl the hillside village. It would seem that Covid has changed things for the better here. Jina Devi’s son who returned after losing his job in Gurgaon is now excited at the prospect of farming. Years of weeds were removed from the fields and seeds have been thrown in. For now, he works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The Uttarakhand government is firm about not letting its people flee again and has been proactively launching subsidies in manufacturing, agriculture and animal husbandry in an attempt to turn this disaster into an opportunity.

The nomadic tribe of Changpa, a stateless community, has hardly feared anything - the cold waves, cruel snow or the unforgiving Himalayan terrain. When rivers dry up or the grass disappears, when they can’t find food and water in a particular place for their yaks and goats, their caravans simply move on to their next destination, another green grassland. “It’s the way of the mountains,” Nurgugu says, “to deliver death to us with merciful swiftness, but with Covid, for the first time in my life, the rule has failed,” he says on a wavering phone line from the Changthang region of Ladakh. “We’re not allowed to move and winter isn’t far away; every day we see a new goat falling sick, thinning down and slowly succumbing to the inevitable. The pain only seems prolonged.” Beijing’s belligerence on the Indo-China border has further restricted movement as well rendering massive chunks of land unavailable for grazing. The stateless tribe is deprived of socio-economic schemes such as the National Food Security Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, rations under the Antoyadaya Scheme, and health facilities like Ayushman Bharat.

The members of the Konyak tribe in Longwa, Nagaland, hold dual citizenship of India and Myanmar and cross the border every day to attend school, sell produce, visit a hospital or even work for their army. For the first time in decades, the border was closed, separating families and friends, not at the whim of the BSF but due to COVID-19.

In India’s towns and cities, racism has developed new tentacles against north easterners. In Bengaluru, a Manipuri group working for a hotel was ridiculed for eating meat, were forced into quarantine without showing symptoms, and threatened with eviction, apart from being heckled with names like ‘Corona’.

Author Nidhi Dugar Kundalia
Author Nidhi Dugar Kundalia ( Courtesy the publisher )

Locked in their own settlements, away from these class and colour battles, the African-Indian Siddhis of Karnataka couldn’t be happier. Spare evenings have been dedicated to the tribe’s favourite pastime – song and dance. Nodding their heads in unison, two women in Honnavar sing their latest composition to the beat of the dammam (deer skin drum):

“There is no chilli powder, no salt. Police is charging us with lathis. What do we do? I got the locked down, Bangalore got the sealed down… China got the locked down, Bangalore got the sealed down…”

Nidhi Dugar Kundalia’s latest book is White as Milk and Rice- Stories of India’s Isolated Tribes

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