Ksheerasagar, a friend of the Adivasis

Ksheerasagar, a friend of the Adivasis

The Living Stream

Chandan Gowda

“A festival called Haadi Habba was recently celebrated in Balle haadi (settlement). At this festival, the son of the headman got possessed by the ancestral spirit. He started abusing the Forest Department and the ‘outsiders’ for evicting them, and pointed how they had sullied the gods. Saying this, he started beating his head to the stone idol as a protest against displacement. Blood started oozing from his forehead. He fainted. The people of the haadi then applied some medicine.”

Ksheerasagar, an activist and organic farmer based in HD Kote, recalled this painful episode in an essay on Adivasis (tribals) that he had sent in for the Seminar issue on contemporary Karnataka that I guest-edited a decade ago. Noting the dire predicament of Adivasis – among other things, hundreds of families evicted by the government to create the Nagarahole National Park were yet to find rehabilitation -- he had written in earnest: “The Government of Karnataka should take up the cause of tribal people as its first and foremost priority.” Among the most committed activists for the Adivasi cause, Ksheerasagar died from brain haemorrhage earlier this month.

Born in Mullooru, Hunsur taluk, in 1949, Ksheerasagar came from a Marathi-speaking family that had traditionally done the work of measuring and surveying land. While studying in Mysuru -- he did his master’s in philosophy -- he came in close contact with the young socialist and civil liberties activists of the city. After working with a Bengaluru-based NGO that focused on land reform issues, he moved to HD Kote, where his wife had got a job as a nursery school teacher. He fell in love with local Adivasi communities, in particular, the Jenu Kurubas, the most numerous among them, and spent the rest of his life trying to understand their culture and aid them in various ways.

Between the mid-80s and 2000, Ksheerasagar worked for Fedina Vikas, an NGO that worked for Adivasi welfare in HD Kote. He and his colleague Nanjundaiah and the members of Budakattu Krishikara Sangha (Association of Tribal Agriculturists) helped Adivasi communities reclaim over 12,000 acres of land that had originally belonged to them. The slow, tense and risky experience of working through the bureaucracy, the courts and local vested interests can be guessed. Other tasks were achieved alongside: securing government pensions for elderly Adivasis, the promotion of water harvesting methods in the newly reclaimed land.

Siddhartha, the well-known social activist and founder of Fedina Vikas, introduced me to Ksheerasagar during a visit to HD Kote 20 years ago. They had worked closely on many occasions, including, most spectacularly, the successful halting, in the mid-90s, of a project of the Tatas to build a five-star hotel inside Nagarahole forest. Fair, slim and medium-built, Ksheerasagar was shy and friendly and self-effacing. His genuine care and understanding towards the well-being of Adivasis shone through the entire time.

Ksheersagar’s written works show his awe and love for the sophistication with which the Adivasis made their lives inside the forest. As a non-Adivasi who had learnt much from having worked with them, he wished that others, too, recognised the rich knowledge they had formed over the ages. Published in English as Playing with the Children of the Forest (translator: Nandini Srinivasan) Ksheerasagar’s Kaadina Makkala Odanaatadalli conveys a sense of the food-gathering practices and of the local animal and plant world that he had obtained during his visits to the forest in the company of Adivasi children. “The main hope of the book,” he wrote, “is that curiosity and wonder about the mysteries of nature become an integral part of (school) learning.”

Ksheerasagar’s novel, Jenu Akashada Aramaneyo, and award-winning monograph, Kadina Naadi Mididavaru, capture in graphic detail the forest milieu of the Adivasis of HD Kote. He also wrote a detailed report on how the Adivasis met their food requirements through the year. His idea was to demonstrate to the government that evicting them from the forests meant uprooting them from a highly evolved means of finding food. He and his fellow activist compiled Jenu Nudi, a book that introduced Adivasi children to the Kannada alphabet and elementary language lessons with references taken entirely from their cultural universe. His column, Harisarodala Dani (“Nature’s Inner Voice”), in Samyukta Karnataka, conveyed his intense romance with birds and butterflies. Most recently, in over 40 columns written for Andolana, the Mysuru-based newspaper, he did fascinating profiles of a living Adivasi elder every week.

Ksheerasagar’s quiet work among the Adivasis stands out as precious political legacy. It needs to be celebrated.

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