Independent India: Warli Adivasi Revolt of 1945 -

Illustrated by Nafisa Ruheen

With Independence Day being right around the corner, it is ceremonial for us to look back into the annals of our history, musing over recollections that brim with patriotic fervour. Today, however, let us take a moment to inspect what it means to be independent.

Celebrating a day of independence in itself establishes the existence of two opposing forces - one that oppresses, and another that is oppressed. It is a display of triumph over the oppressor. The oppressed commemorate their debut as an independent entity, an important factor of which is securing acknowledgement from the international community. This essentially legitimises freedom through recognition. We must pause here to ask - what happens when the nation refuses to acknowledge the rights and freedoms of its own marginalised populations?

On the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence, we turn back the pages of history to unearth the adivasi struggle of 1945. In contemporary times, discussions about the freedom struggle in and outside the classroom usually tend to paint the Indian elite as leaders of change. In doing so, we tend to overlook how the bourgeoisie was in some part complicit in the colonial government’s systemic bureaucratisation. This refers to the privileged classes - the moneyed and landed gentry, the upper castes, and those educated in English - who benefited from the Raj’s policies and took advantage of the same, while those less fortunate had to pay the cost. 

In his paper, On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India, esteemed historian Ranajit Guha writes about how history remembers the nationalist movement as a war against colonialism led by the erudite elite who single-handedly mobilised the masses. “(It is) the goodness of the native elite with the antagonistic aspect of their relation to the colonial regime made (...) to look larger than its collaborationist aspect, their role as promoters of the cause of the people than that as exploiters and oppressors, their altruism and self-abnegation than their scramble for the modicum of power and privilege granted by the rulers in order to make sure of their support for the Raj. The history of Indian nationalism is thus written up as a sort of spiritual biography of the Indian elite.”

It then becomes a duty for us as readers and writers to bring to the fore peoples’ movements and mass rebellions instead of venturing in the direction of hero-worship. In Maharashtra, one needs to look no further than Dahanu taluka - home to the Warli tribe - to find a prime example of tribal rebellion against the barbaric regimes of native land owners.

The mistreatment of the Warli workers of Thane district was no secret. The practice of veth begar or unpaid labour was rampant, as was lagnagadi, which refers to an adivasi couple being enslaved by their employer in return for a small amount of money borrowed to fund marriage expenses. The latter practice often bound the adivasi to the employer for life - or even generations. In addition to these injustices, there existed a gendered component to the layers of dispossession experienced by the Warli. The women fell victim to sexual harassment and violence. Lagnagadi allowed the landlord to have sexual rights over the bride of the labourer. They often took liberties with the Warli women and considered them akin to any other asset or property. This led to the dehumanisation of the tribal women, who were also forced to entertain the employer’s personal guests. The unchecked spread of such activity led to the birthing of a special caste known as the Watla, which was assigned to the children born of these relations.

The British Raj in India was a harbinger of major administrative changes that took place at multiple levels of governance in the country. This included land revenue systems, many of which were concocted and implemented on a seemingly trial and error basis, often with hidden agendas beneficial to the rulers. Predictably, the community that suffered the most at the hand of these systems were the adivasis. Most tribes relied on a collective communitarian culture principally progressing on the basis of oral tradition. For this reason, they often had neither documentation, nor stipulated private owners for tracts of land. They became a vulnerable target for legalised tyranny. Under Lord Cornwallis, the Zamindari System exploited peasant workers as the landlords demanded more money from the peasants than they themselves had to pay to the government. The Ryotwari System implemented in the late 18th century was developed on the premise that the government would directly collect taxes. No middle man would be involved. The land was to be analysed and the taxation would depend on an estimate of productivity based on soil potential. This disregarded real-life circumstances such as crop failure due to drought, in which case peasants would be forced to borrow the sum from moneylenders. In addition to this, the Indian Forest Act of 1878 further alienated the adivasi populace by robbing them of their right to use timber. While the act was passed with the intent of conservation, it unfortunately overlooked Indian tribes’ dependency on forest produce.

British oppressing the Warli Tribe

There was indifference towards customs and practices that the tribes had carried out for generations due to their close relationship with nature. This also warrants another look at the definition of conservation, and whether or not it allows space for communities intrinsically, sacredly and peacefully linked to the natural dimension. It brings to light a need to differentiate between measures taken to conserve against rapid industrial demand versus barriers put in place to prevent disenfranchised communities from accessing traditional means of livelihood. 

The Indian Forest Act of 1927 posed a more active threat to adivasis as it allowed the government to subsume land which did not have documented legal owners. Rendered landless, some of the dispossessed became bonded labourers to the forest department, while others were deemed criminals for taking what they previously exerted natural rights over. By the 1940s, most adivasis were working as labourers on agricultural land and were either bonded to landlords, moneylenders or the forest department itself. 

Taking these violations into consideration, it is no surprise that when Godavari Parulekar started working in Thane in 1944, the impotent state of the adivasis greatly alarmed her. As the founder of the Maharashtra branch of the All India Kisan Sabha, she began to organise the Warli and other affected tribes in a revolt against their perilous exploitation. Thanks to her significant contribution to the Warli struggle and her rebellious spirit, she came to be known affectionately as Godutai - tai meaning elder sister in Marathi. 

Godutai protesting

The Warli Adivasi Revolt began with the tribals of Dahanu and Umbargaon gathering in Zari village in Maharashtra. On the 23rd of May, 1945, approximately 5,000 indentured labourers congregated to rebel against the landlords and moneylenders by refusing to work in the fields.

Godutai, along with her husband Shamrao Parulekar, encouraged the protestors to take up the red flag of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is the largest communist party in India till date. They demanded proper wages in return for their labour, and for the practices of bonded labour and lagnagadi to be put to an end. The rebellion continued into 1946, with the then Home Minister Morarji Desai sending in the army to combat a march consisting of 30,000 revolters. With the proletariats of Mumbai and Thane threatening to join Warli forces, the government had no choice but to withdraw the army. The revolt ended, and so did bonded labour, lagnagadi, and unpaid indenture. The victory was sweetened with the negotiation of a labour wage, which played a major role in eventually bringing about the Minimum Wages Act in 1948.
Warli Protest Victory

Testimonies of the revolt often highlight the bravery demonstrated by Warli women. Police, as well as musclemen hired by landlords, directed their cruelty toward the women. They were beaten and molested, and even then did not give up the fight. When tortured, they refused to divulge information regarding the whereabouts of men in hiding from the police. Evidence suggests that they tied packets of bhakri to the branches of trees in the jungle so that men on the run would not starve. They armed themselves with sticks to chase encroaching police and musclemen out of their settlements. 

In 1970, Godavari Parulekar documented the movement in her Marathi book Jevha Manus Jaga Hoto (The Awakening of Man), which won the Sahitya Akademi Award. In 2022, we celebrate 77 years of the Warli Adivasi Revolt. It is remembered as an uprising against exploitation - a fight for the right to work for wages, to be treated equally, and to be freed from shackles rooted in the colonial past. During the revolt, the women acted as a bastion - both physically and ideologically - against blows to humanity, dignity and culture. For their efforts, spirit and fire, they go down in history as the true custodians of liberty.






1 comment

  • yosha: August 12, 2022
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    So well written and beautifully illustrated !

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