Tribal journalist-activist Dayamani Barla’s tale of courage and fight for truth

 By Akshay Pratap*

 Driving past the busy Siromtoli Club Road in Ranchi, it is easy to miss this small roadside hotel  where you find fantastic Dhuska (a traditional snack from Jharkhand- fried batter in mustard  oil) and Balushahi (a sweet delicacy). If you care to stop by, a lovely, smiling couple greets  you when you enter this small hotel, which holds just four or five benches to sit. Most people  come there to have their meals and some to discuss their daily lives over a cup of tea. They are  primarily working-class people working in the vicinity. The lady that greets you seems to be  humble and friendly and in her mid-40s. Her calm demeanour hides the fire that she carries in  her heart. She is Dayamani Barla – a name held in high regard in Jharkhand – an epitome of  grit and determination. She readily accepts to answer my questions about her life, work, and  struggle.           

Dayamani Barla is a tribal journalist and an activist hailing from Jharkhand; her name is  synonymous with the struggle of the indigenous people of the Chotanagpur Plateau region.  Born in a tribal family in Arhara (Gumla), a small village in Jharkhand, Dayamani Barla has  dedicated her life to helping people overcome their struggles. She was subjected to the struggles  that every Adivasi in the region faces to date – struggle for their land, life, and dignity. As a  child, she had seen land taken away from her father by the upper castes because he was  illiterate. She has worked multiple jobs to survive and continue her education – sold tea, worked  as domestic help, plucked and sold fruits from forests to sell in the market. She completed her  Masters in Communication from Ranchi University some 25 years ago and is the first tribal  journalist from her state.

Over the years, she has lent her voice to the indigenous people of  Jharkhand – to fight for their rights and empower them. She has published multiple articles to  raise awareness among the masses about their rights. Most of her literary work is in Hindi. She  is the founder of Jan Haq Patrika and also leads the Adivasi Mulvasi Astitva Raksha Manch  that works for the upliftment of Adivasis, Dalits and farmers. She won the Counter Media  Award for Rural Journalism in 2000 for her work.  

Dayamani Barla has been involved in multiple movements and protests against the land  grabbing and displacement of the Adivasis in Jharkhand. A major part of Jharkhand is under  the Fifth Schedule of the constitution, which safeguards the land rights of Adivasis by  prohibiting the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the  Santhal Pargana Act (CNT/SPT) prohibit the sale of tribal agricultural land for commercial use  in this region.

There have been instances where the State and Central Governments have tried  to amend the law to provide tribal land to big corporations. She first got involved with the  people’s struggle 26 years back, in 1995, starting with the Koel Karo movement and has not  looked back since. Many issues haunt the Adivasi lives in this region, threatening their cultural  identity, livelihood, their social and economic capital. “I must continue working so that the  Adivasis can fight for themselves”, she says. She wants to empower the Adivasis by making  them aware of their rights.

Dayamani Barla wants Jharkhand to prosper, people to get educated  and work for the upliftment of society. But not at the cost of Jal, Jungle and Jameen –  corruption in the name of development and unsustainable development.    The Adivasi’s cultural identity is linked to land- the very basis for the formation of the state of  Jharkhand in the year 2000. “To separate the Adivasi from his land is to stop his breathing.”,  asserted by Jaipal Singh Munda, remains the cornerstone of the foundations of Jharkhand and  the continued assertions within the state against illegal land grab. Dayamani Barla works at the  grassroots levels to raise awareness among the Adivasis by going from village to village and  telling them about the rights accorded to them by the Constitution of India. She writes regularly  and has been a journalist for over two decades now. She works towards helping Adivasis live  a dignified life in the state by advocating the concept of oneness, of Adivasi autonomy through  the question of land and livelihood.

One may think this a fairly obvious concern for a state     formed after a decade-long movement, yet figures like Dayamani Barla stand for truth and keep  asking questions to those in power.   Dayamani Barla has often been slapped with multiple cases of sedition over the years and even  jailed. During her days of protest against the land grabbing of Adivasi land by corporates, she  has faced multiple death and abduction threats. An image of her laughing with the prison guards  when entering prison, arrested for her participation in the Pathalgadi movement, was splashed  across newspapers. A regular affair for her, you may think.

She is certainly unmoved,  determined in her mission to fight for Adivasi rights and for their dignity, lending her voice  and labour to several movements. “ I cannot quit!” she says. She stands for the courage to speak  the truth, to persist in the face of hollow rhetoric and falsehoods.  As for her livelihood, she runs this hotel with her husband. She started selling tea to support  her education and continues to run the hotel even today. As I finish my cup of tea, she must  move on to discuss important matters about her visits to nearby villages the next day. I bid  adieu hastily as she has other commitments to honour. 

If you ever visit Ranchi and want to  have a chat with her, just walk into this place, and you will be greeted with warmth. Remember  Barla’s cup of tea is not for everyone, even as it is in another sense; remember her perseverance  and humble reminders to truth while enjoying the Dhuska and Balushahi.

*PGP 2020-22, IIM Bangalore

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