Wild Ways

There are many Indias within India, and each has a different idea of freedom

The occasional absence of purpose also liberates us.

 |  Wild Ways  |  4-minute read |   15-08-2016
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If I have to encapsulate freedom for myself, it would be a combination of "I have a dream", from Martin Luther King and "Where the mind is without fear" by Tagore, while wearing a swish dress of my choosing. It may sound anachronistic, but the freedom to think sovereign thoughts, while wearing the clothes I choose, is still an important value to remember in my country, 69 years after independence - in both city and forest, and for both man and woman.

What makes freedom? Questions of freedom are unfailingly refreshed when I visit forest-dwelling communities and adivasis. Tribes that worship gods with no faces, that come face-to-face with tigers, that walk nonchalantly through life and death without air conditioning and sometimes, without midwives.

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But also, these are people, who like us, and perhaps more than us, want the sovereignty to think and dress as they choose. With one difference: some of them still have ambivalence towards the money economy, and want to live non-salaried lives.

The year was 2011. The monsoon was upon us. I was speaking with a Van Gujjar from the Sariska tiger reserve, as rain fell around us, and a huge, putrefying mound of cow dung turned into liquid slush. I was the audience for a 45-year-old man, who was born in the tiger reserve.

korku_081516032334.jpg A Korku man with his son. 

"Main yahan dole sakta hoon", (I can meander here) he was telling me, about life in the forest. "I can't meander in the city," he said. My mind turned to the few places available for me - a young, single girl in the city - for meandering.

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I can't meander on Delhi's streets, and certainly not generally in NCR. The places for meandering, without a path, like Wordsworth before he wrote "Daffodils", or like an explorer with just me and the urban ecosystem, are severely restricted.

It's so bad for us young women that some of us are part of a "loitering" programme, where we encourage women to loiter in public places, to break the male monopolies of "time-pass" at street crossings, paan shops, beaches and promenades. So I'll add one more freedom to my list: I want the freedom to think, freedom to dress, and the freedom to roam. Not walk. But to roam.

This monsoon, I had been to the Melghat tiger reserve. We were a group from Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD-India), a motley gathering of professionals trying to see if we could understand developmental questions of the region. Melghat tiger reserve, home to the Ghat tiger, is also home to the Korku tribe. The people of the tribe have their own medicinal systems, and their own names for biodiversity.

The tiger, for instance, is called Kula mama. "Mama" is a term of affection, usually used for a familiar elder. The tribals are to be relocated from the tiger reserve. They are ready to move, but they have certain riders.

waterfall-melghat-ti_081516032404.jpg A waterfall in Melghat tiger reserve. 

A 45-year-old Korku man was telling me his aspirations. He wanted the freedom to choose his relocation package, and the freedom to not wear a uniform. "I will move from here, and I will cultivate crops. Don't ask me to leave my forest if you don't give me a piece of land," he said.

Like the community feels towards the forest - which is theirs, though they do not have land deeds - they want their own land that they can till. Someone had suggested working jobs, but the man, like some others in his community, does not want to wear a uniform (chosen by a boss) or report to work (at a time not set by him). He is okay with not having material possessions, as long as he has his freedom of occupation. The one exception many of the second forest generation have from their parents is that they want their children to read and write both local languages and Hindi.

I can't tell the time looking at the sun in the sky. Many tribals can, even when the sky is overcast. Many of us feel pride in wearing sharp blazers to work, power-dressing the part, and slipping into something slinky on the weekends. If the personal is the political, then clothes certainly are political. Yet there are others for whom the freedom to dress means sticking to their traditional attire, and not wearing a polyester guard uniform, however embellished and all-weather it may be.

There are so many Indias within India. I reserve the right to work and get a salary, on which I plan my dreams. There are others who want to continue tilling their land or tending to their animals, not getting salaries, not wearing strait-jackets. This separates us.

But for both of these Indias, our freedom to define our personal purpose defines us; and the occasional absence of purpose also liberates us.

On this Independence Day, I hope India can make place for both.

Writer

Neha Sinha Neha Sinha @nehaa_sinha

Neha Sinha is a wildlife conservationist, and lover of the weird, wonderful, wordy and wild. She works with the Bombay Natural History Society and her views are personal.

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