16 December, 2011

Gandhi Peace Award and Adivasi Consciousness

By Uddipan Mukherjee

This evening’s meeting went well…
I did not have a good hearing, 
the acoustics were not brilliant 
and, on top of that, I am unable 
to decipher many Indian accents. 
There were some very 
strong opinions expressed. 
There will be a report posted 
on our website fairly soon.

—John Rowley, 

co-ordinator of Special events and projects of 
The Gandhi Foundation (November 10, 2011)

The ‘acoustics’ were confidently shrill, if not sounding cacophonous 

sometime back. However, Rowley was quite optimistic and polite in 
his approach while dealing with the postponement of an award, 
which generated more debate than eulogy.

The Gandhi Foundation is an organisation based in London. 

It does not even need to boast about the presence of mentors 
of the stature of Lord Bhiku Parekh and Lord Richard Attenborough, 
amongst others. Every year, the Foundation painstakingly scripts a 
peace award in the name of one of the messiahs of tranquility—Gandhi.

The year 2011 was no exception. November 9 was scheduled to 

host the bestowal of the recognition at the Human Rights 
Action Centre, London, amidst the august presence of Lord Parekh 
and sublime applause of the ‘au courant’ audience.

However, it couldn’t be worked out in that manner. Right from 

the outset, the award faced vehement criticism from certain 
quarters in India. Prominent among them was the 
Jharkhand Human Rights Movement (JHRM) based at Ranchi. 
As if a lone crusader in the fight of the ‘unheard’ Adivasis, as if to 
un-tarnish the allegation of a ‘lack of consciousness’ of his Adivasi 
brethren, and most visibly to negate the imposition of external 
elites on the Adivasi fabric, Gladson Dundung on behalf of the 
JHRM took up the cudgels to counter the noble composition of the 
London-based foundation.

The initial wordings of the Award [probably not willfully] contained a faux pas: “…the Gandhi Peace Award 2011 is being conferred to the tribal people of India, on behalf of whom, Dr Binayak Sen and Mr Bulu Imam would receive the honour…” The tribal groups strongly retorted: “It is extremely painful to know that the foundation has decided to award Binayak Sen and Bulu Imam on behalf of Adivasis of India……we would not like them to receive the award on behalf of Adivasis of India”. They appealed to uphold the dignity of Adivasisby changing either the wording or bestowing the award on someone else.

The foundation then made the first retreat. It re-worded the award script.

Thereafter, the top story on the home page of the organisation’s website read thus, “Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award 2011 will be presented to Dr. Binayak Sen and Bulu Imam”. The mention of the ‘tribal people of India’ was missing.

Nevertheless, even such a re-posturing couldn’t satisfy the India-based organisations like JHRM and others. A flurry of e-mails and letters was exchanged. Arguments posited, debated and permeated through the cyberspace. A pastiche of opinions overwhelmed the clime of intelligible argumentative contestations.

Instead of indulging in prolixity, cogent articulation needs to be put forward regarding the matter in contention. First, this author felt privileged to be part of the cyberspace-debate raised by Gladson Dungdung et al. and intellectually defended by Anand Patwardhan et al. (if causality could be ordered in that manner). Gladson is known through his writings and his ‘ground-level’ materials are useful for strategising and theorising regarding the Maoist movement in India.

Definitely, an ‘arm-chair theorist’ with a laptop, pen and loads of research paper all around is visibly different from Gladson, who doesn’t stroll, rather toil in the woods, collate data and then write, however, with elan and exuberance. Theorists are based within the confines of urbane-laxity, whereas Gladson had battled it out in the jungles of Jharkhand and still probably, battles.
At the other end, most of us know Dr Sen through the media. Our opinion about him, his family and other activists spread around the Naxal heartland is shaped up from the news articles, both in the national and international circuits. Mr Bulu Imam, on the other hand, may be accepted to be a less familiar name in the rights-circuit.

Dr Sen is yet to be totally absolved of the charges of sedition. And an award for him at the international arena could have engendered a mess for the Indian judicature. Sen, however, voluntarily relinquished the award. Imam, on the other hand, was probably pragmatic enough not to let off the prized

Here, the question is of an ‘award’. And the safe presumption could be that intellectuals were coerced into this debate more so because the ‘award’ was being given by a phoren organisation, and because the Father of the Nation’s name was associated with it. However, after Mr. Obama received the Nobel, do we really need to be serious regarding awards? At least, about awards which may not have objective analysis encrypted on them?

As far as the award for Dr Sen and Mr Imam is concerned, it surely was a decision taken by a coterie of sociologists, anthropologists and activists. It does not reflect the ‘will’ of the autochthonousAdivasis. Nevertheless, such a process is inherent in any award, ranging from the insignificant to the highest. Thus, the conferment does not elevate Dr Sen and Mr Imam as “messiahs” of the Adivasis.

Furthermore, even if the Adivasis had ‘voted’ Sen and Imam for this award, the duo wouldn’t have become their “messiahs” for a simple reason: the Adivasis have not bartered away their ‘consciousness’ to any external elite. The subaltern may be ‘unheard’ and ‘unheeded’, but it is always hard to ‘unravel’ and ‘understand’ him (her).

Political philosopher George Lukacs believed that the element of ‘revolutionary consciousness’ was required in the proletariat. That would grant them the necessary wherewithal to de-codify their status as an ‘object’. Once they fathom that they are being treated as ‘objects’ in a capitalist structure, they can turn themselves into ‘subjects’ and hence become ‘agents of change’. And in no way, this process could be aided and abetted by any external elite—either the rights activists or the Left-wing ultras.

Ranajit Guha, an acclaimed Indian historian, backs this argument of Lukacs with literary strength. He maintains that peasants and tribals do possess ‘consciousness’ and if they rebel, they do so on their own and not under the influence of any external elite. Lukacs and Guha thus sternly refute the Leninist dogma that consciousness needs to be pumped into the proletariat through a set of ‘enlightened’ individuals.

An Ulgulan in the tribal heartland goes on as an undercurrent in the socio-economic and political strata of the country. It may be ‘interpreted’ by the powerful, authoritative elite as an intricate set of matrices of insurgency and its reactionary counterpart—the counterinsurgency. It needs to be discussed why Sen and Imam did not lodge a protest to the Gandhi Foundation themselves as far as the original ‘award script’ was concerned.

Gladson and others may defocus on the actors receiving the award; rather stress on the contentious issues and keep on working for the Adivasis, let them rejuvenate and let them come up as the real heroes. There are innumerable unsung heroes amongst the Adivasis. In any movement, unsung heroes and heroines remain. We need to appreciate that it’s not only those protagonists on whom the camera flashes are the real ones. ‘Reality’ always needs a critical analysis.


  1. New Delhi based International Healing Foundation Awarded the PEACE INTERNATIONAL AWARD, 2010 for World Peace and Human Resource Development to Vianna Stibal, Founder of ThetaHealing in a Gala Ceremony at a prominent Five Star Hotel in New Delhi on November 25, 2010.