A few years ago, the residents of Mumbai were barely aware that a forest existed within the city, let alone the fact that Adivasis lived in it. One can only imagine the problem of identity that young Adivasis would face living in a city. With one part of life enveloped within forests and another amidst the chaos of a city, the Warli tribe has spent their lives navigating this identity. The life of Manisha Dhine, a local Adivasi girl from this tribal community in Aarey, is a reflection of their struggles to fight for their rights.
Currently a student of Mass Media, Manisha is the sole Adivasi girl in her class. She is often confronted with the notions that students from relatively urban sectors have about Adivasi life and culture. Manisha was once asked by her professor about why an Adivasi would pursue a career in the field of mass media. She gracefully explained her motivations for choosing the field. Like this, she has to burst many myths around tribal life. It was in 2019 when her fight for her identity took a different turn.
Manisha got involved in the campaign to save Aarey forest (pictured above) from deforestation.
The campaign to save Aarey, the forest area adjoining the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, was going on for a while. But the cases at the Bombay High Court were further referred to the Supreme Court. Manisha did not know the intricacies of the case, yet like other youngsters in Aarey, she started participating in the routine protests and meetings against the Metro Car Shed. In the early stages of the Aarey movement, activists and environmental conservationists came to Aarey to speak to the tribal community and their leaders regarding the State Government’s decision to move the Metro Car Shed inside the Aarey forest.
They read out the problems that the concretization would cause to the forest. But more importantly, the tribal saw the dangers that this would pose to their way of life. The tribal leaders, using this information, made the people at Aarey aware of the issue. It is here that Manisha learnt about the metro car shed project. After a couple of more interactions and discussions with the activists, it was decided that they will lead protests in Aarey and in different parts of Mumbai. Manisha participated in the human chain formed at Marine Lines. “I saw all sorts of people – poor, rich, young, old – coming together for the cause. It inspired me to see that the young people of Mumbai, Adivasi or not, can actually unite,” shared Manisha.
By October 2019, the courts failed to secure the tribal community the faith that their land will be protected. On October 2, the Government ordered the felling of trees. Manisha along with her friends gathered at the spot. She tried to engage with the cutters, the authorities and then the police.
People and youth from all walks of life came together to fight for the Aarey forests.
It was here that Manisha learnt a valuable lesson – governments can sometimes be wrong. She knew she was doing a moral act. Hence, she joined the sit-in protest at the site. The police picked up everyone including her to the Dahisar police station. It was a horrible experience for Manisha. She felt like she was a criminal.
Manisha was only 19 years and it was her first interaction with the police, a terrible one to say the least. As she had an exam the next day, the lawyers had convinced the court to let her off for the examination.
Manisha managed to reach to her examination centre following some more complications but the Aarey fight occupied her mind. When you ask her why she would go through such a strenuous experience a day before her exam, she replies that it is what we get educated for – to stand up for what is right.
Manisha believes that nature is her god. The tribal life is not devoted to stones, but to nature which nurtures them. Adivasi life does not see nature as a conflicting entity with human beings. There is no “othering” of nature that takes place. Human beings are a part of nature and therefore they are in sync with one another. The leopards at Aarey do not scare them. On the contrary, the Adivasis worship them. The innumerable trees at Aarey are also worshipped.
Manisha recounted the festival of “Raksha Bandhan” at Aarey. Usually, this festival is between the sister and the brother and ties their bond as one protects the other. In Aarey, this festival is celebrated between the children and the trees, as each other’s protectors. One particular cultural aspect Manisha is interested in are the Warli paintings. Recognized throughout the world, Warli painting is regarded as one of the most important characteristics of life at Aarey. For Manisha, Warli painting is a special pride of her tribe.
“Nature is a part of us; like we have a bank balance, we also need to have a nature balance,” with these words Manisha sums up her philosophy and her idea behind the struggle to protect their identity, their nature.
This article has been written by Sahil Parsekar from Maharashtra for Charkha Features