On Wednesday, as hundreds of Adivasis marched through Mumbai’s Aarey colony to mark World Indigenous Day, many shouted slogans asserting their rights over jal, jangal and jameen – water, forests and land. But some carried placards highlighting a tragedy that had unfolded thousands of kilometers away – the sexual assault of Kuki tribal women in Manipur.
“Our rights are being violated across the country,” said Aarey resident Rupali Bhonsle. “Those women in Manipur are also Adivasi, so we are demanding justice for them.”
In July, after the video of two Kuki women being paraded naked emerged on social media, disquiet spread across Adivasi groups in the country. In a show of solidarity, protests were held in Adivasi-dominated areas of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
“When I watched the video, I was too shocked,” said social worker Kirti Vartha who organised a protest rally on July 24 in Maharashtra’s Palghar. “Those women were violated to attack the entire community.”
In Sundergarh, Odisha, a protest was held outside the collector’s office on July 27. “The ones being attacked in Manipur are Adivasis and also Christian,” youth leader Shilpa Ekka told Scroll in a phone interview. “So we thought it was important to show support.”
While both Adivasis in the mainland and tribals in North East India identify as indigenous and share cultural similarities, they have not previously united over their common concerns, explained Adivasi sociologist Virginius Xaxa.
“Violence against the Kukis in general and women, in particular, has shaken the consciousness of the tribal people beyond their narrow boundaries,” Xaxa said.
He noted that this is the first time that there have been protests across Adivasi-dominant areas of mainland India to demonstrate solidarity for a tragedy occurring in the North East.
“Whether it is a great leap forward, in the history of pan-India tribal solidarity, only time will tell,” he added.
The Manipur atrocity dampened the usual celebratory spirit of the Vishwa Adivasi Diwas or World Indigenous Day events organised by many Adivasi groups this year. Several groups decided to forgo grand celebrations in favour of somber protests for Manipur and other pressing problems.
On July 23, Adivasi collectives in Ranchi, Jharkhand’s capital, formed a human chain to show solidarity for Manipur. On August 9, various Adivasi youth collectives chose to skip the celebrations organised by the Hemant Soren government in the Birsa Munda memorial park in Ranchi. Instead, they held a bike rally that roared through the city’s key junctions.
“We sing and dance every year, but this year we thought it was important to showcase our collective anger and display Adivasi unity,” said social activist Shashi Panna.
In Rajasthan’s Udaipur and Banswara districts too, Adivasis observed the day without the usual musical performances and dancing. “Many people wore black bands on their foreheads to show their anger for Manipur,” said Kusum Rawat, chairwoman of the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, an umbrella organisation for Adivasis in Western India.
On August 12, Rawat will be joined in Delhi by Adivasis from various states at a protest rally in Jantar Mantar. Along with Manipur, their concerns include the recently passed Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act that they say will dilute Adivasi land rights and the potential imposition of a Uniform Civil Code that would undermine customary marriage and inheritance rights.