“(Mahasweta Devi) holds a mirror to the conditions of the world as we enter the new millennium” – Nelson Mandela
Who was Mahasweta Devi? Writer. Social Activist. Journalist. What did she speak about? Caste. Tribals. Farmers. Land Reforms. Emergency. History. Corrupt Bureaucrats. What drove her to action? The Oppression of the common people. The article traces the hard-hitting missions, journeys and goals of Mahasweta Devi by revisiting what she said in the years that have come to pass.
Who was Mahasweta Devi?
Devi was known for not beating about the bush. What was wrong, she condemned it. What was right, she commended it. Known for her honest, unbiased and formidable scrutiny, Devi has been a saviour of truth.
“Here was a no-pretence, no-rhetoric, no-nonsense person, whose compassion and clarity were an invitation for action. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi alone, among great Indians, spoke like her. …she spared no one, in particular snobs, ministers, insincere journalists and literary aspirants”. (GN Devy, “The adivasi Mahasweta” 2004)
Devi on India: Clash of Old and the New
Devi has always appreciated the cultural diversity of India. In one of her speeches at a renowned Book fair, Devi stated that there are many versions of India in our country. And such a fact is not to be debated or criticised but acknowledged. As she aptly justified it by quoting the famous Raj Kapoor Song.
“This is truly the age where the joota is Japani, patloon is Englistani, the topi is roosi, but the dil… dil is always Hindustani … my country, torn, tattered, proud, beautiful, hot, humid, cold, sandy, shining India. My country.” (2006 Frankfurt Book Fair)
Devi on Tribals: No Independence for them.
From pre-colonial to postcolonial India, Devi has traced the erased, hidden and unrecorded history of the aboriginals in India. Why were they branded as criminals by the British? Why even today they face discrimination? What can be done? These are the burning questions, Devi has diligently tried to expose thereby shaming the institutions for not doing anything about it. She has asserted:
“Tribals…I have sought to bring the harsh reality of this ignored segment of India’s population to the notice of the nation. I have sought to include their forgotten and invisible history in the official history of the nation. I have said over and over, our Independence was false; there has been no Independence for these dispossessed peoples, still deprived of their most basic rights.” (“A Writer’s Testament of Faith” April 9, 2010)
Devi on Indian History: The Hijacked Truth
According to Devi, history is power. Those who run it, control power. In India, history has been written from the point of view of the elite. History of the independence struggle only mentions the elitist factions but has no record of the tribals, the peasants, and low castes who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the country. Such a blatant, shameless and shocking obstruction of history is what Devi has attacked.
“History should be re-written, acknowledging the debt of mainstream India to struggles of the tribals in the British and even pre-British days. The history of their struggles is not to be found only in written scripts but in their songs, dances, folktales, passed from one generation to another.”(Dust on the Road 109)
Devi on Land, Landlords and Farmers: Tragedy of India
Why is the farmer poor? Why is the farmer landless? Why he is still oppressed? Devi has always demanded that a land reform which includes the voices of the farmers is initiated as then only the tragedy of India can be solved. In her words:
“Globalization is not only coming from America and first world, my own country has always wanted to rob the people… The tragedy of India at independence was not introducing thorough land reform. A basic feudal land system was allowed to stay… A feudal value system is anti-women, anti-poor people, against toiling people. It is the landowners who formed the ministry, and became the rulers of the country, why should they do anything else?” (Chotti Munda and His Arrow xv)
Devi on Prostitution: Who are they? Who visits them?
Devi has traced this ancient custom from pre-colonial to postcolonial era. In her findings she has explored how the prostitutes fought the orthodoxy, the patriarchy and time-worn diktats of the country to empower themselves. But there is no mention of this in History. Why? There are still many who are forced into this ugly profession. Should the whores be blamed? Or the people who abuse them?
“Prostitutes, Whores. Kept women. And who are they, who visit them? Who enter their rooms? Young men, from homes like yours and mine…freedom is not far…but how can you fight when your hearts are weighed down with ancient custom?…Each prostitute, each sex worker, has the right to light, to break free of darkness. They must know this. They must earn this for themselves.” (Bedanabala. Her Life. Her Times.)
Devi on Caste System: High Castes Command, Low Castes Obey
Devi has been vehement in her attacks against caste and its shameless system. How it is used as a tool of exploitation by the higher castes? Why, even in modern times, caste system persists? From farmers to kept women, caste has been a shocking a violation humans rights. Devi has throughout her life exposed this irony of independent India. She wrote:
“…the lower castes had different roles to play at different times; sometimes these men and women were bonded labourers, sometimes debtors, sometimes they were landless farmers evicted from their land, sometimes kept women – these roles were decided by the higher castes. Who usually spoke while the lower castes listened.” (The Glory of Sree Sree Ganesh 28)
Devi on Emergency: Dictatorship in Democracy
Unafraid to speak the truth, Devi had pointedly indicted the era of Emergency and exposed the mayhem it wrecked on the lower strata of the country – the tribal and low castes areas. She attacked the government, the institutions as police and law-makers and did not pull any punches while exposing the truth. Devi had declared:
“I have seen with my own eyes what Emergency meant, what was done. The criminalization of politics, letting the lumpen loose in the lower caste and tribal belts. Inhuman torture and oppression.” (Chotti Munda and His Arrow).
Devi on Naxalites
Devi has meticulously traced the rise and fallout of naxalite movement. What caused it? How was it distorted into a fragmented revolution? Why it fell apart. And what we need to learn from it? According to her, Naxalite movement is a continuity of the various tribal movements in the past which however were either ignored or warped. And as there has not been a permanent and just resolution, history repeats itself.
“In the Seventies, in the naxalite movement… I saw history in the making and decided that as a writer it would be my mission to document it…I did not consider the naxalite movement an isolated happening…in the Naxalite movement I saw only a further extension of the movement of the past, especially the Tbhaga, Kakdwip, and Telenga uprisings…”(Hearing ‘Subaltern’ Voices 80)
Devi: Fighting for the Oppressed
Who was Devi? Why did she fight the system? Even when we decipher who she was, we can never follow her footsteps unless we mean it. It was her selfless, unstinting and exacting search for justice, that empowered the tribals, the low castes, and the underprivileged of the society. Justice was Devi’s reason of existence.
To speak the truth without any fabrication.
To help the marginalised tell their story without political hindrance.
To expose the shams, the lies, and chicanery of the system and correct it.
It will be fitting to read in her own words – Who was Mahasweta Devi?
“I find my people still groaning under hunger, landlessness, indebtedness and bonded labour. An anger, luminous, burning and passionate, directed against a system that has failed to liberate my people from these horrible constraints is the only source of inspiration in all my writing. All the parties to the Left as well as to the Right have failed to keep their commitment to the common people… I had such a great asthirata in me, such a restlessness; an udbeg: I have to write…So that I can face myself without any sense of guilt and shame.” (“Writing as Social service” 2011)