Godavari Parulekar addresses the rebellion in Talasari; (left) the banyan tree and the stone on which she stood.
There is no memorial at the banyan tree around which the Warli Adivasi Revolt of 1945 began in Talasari taluka’s Zari village. Nearly 5,000 indentured tribals who gathered here from Thane, Vikramgad, Dahanu and Palghar had refused to work on landlords’ fields until they received 12 annas a day in wages, their resistance sowing the first seeds of rights-based movements among the region’s indigenous communities.
Today, the younger generation in Zari, 150 km from Mumbai, has no more than a faint acquaintanceship with their ancestors’ historic struggle but a blend of that history and contemporary circumstances keeps Talasari’s adivasis loyal to those who led that revolt, the Communist Party and the All India Kisan Sabha.
“More than a lifeless memorial, our tribute to those who gave us freedom from bonded labour is that Talasari is the solitary taluka in Maharashtra to have a CPI(M) administration for an unbroken 58 years,” says Shankar Gowari, Zari resident and former president of the Talasari Panchayat Samiti.
In mid-February, candidates of the CPI (M) were once again elected president and vice-president of this key panchayat samiti in Palghar district. The party won eight of the 10 panchayat samiti seats and four of the five zilla parishad seats in Talasari. While the CPI(M) continues to have small pockets of influence in tribal-dominated regions across the state, Talasari is a rare pocket borough, its panchayat samiti chaired continuously by CPI(M) representatives since 1962. The only other Maharashtra taluka with a semblance of continuing Left dominance is Surgana in Nashik, where the panchayat samiti has been with the CPI(M) for nearly three decades.
Newly elected panchayat samiti president Nandkumar Hadal says one reason for the party’s success in Talasari is simply its track record. “Even neighbouring Dahanu does not have Talasari’s well-maintained roads and 100 per cent electricity coverage. Also, most of us are third or fourth generation CPI(M) workers, so there is a deep level of trust in our commitment,” he says. “There are comrades on every street in every village.”
In Talasari’s 41 villages and 214 hamlets, thousands of villagers across generations are affiliated to party units — factory employees are members of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU); student activists work with the Students Federation of India (SFI) and the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI); women are busy preparing for an International Women’s Day event under the aegis of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA); and tribal cultivators are enthusiastic All India Kisan Sabha members.
“A perfect cadre-based system,” says senior party member Barkya Mangat, “with 20-25 activists in charge of every unit that corresponds to a polling centre’s voters.”
Talasari, one of Palghar district’s eight talukas, sits right by the state border. Ninety per cent of its residents are tribals, mainly Warlis, Katkaris, Dhodias and Kokanas. Jobs are not easy to come by for educated young tribals, and many pile into Maruti Eecos and Tata Tiagos to cross over everyday into Gujarat, heading to the manufacturing units of the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation zone in Umargam or Umbergaon, just 16 km from the Mumbai-Ahmedabad NH-08 that cuts through the taluka. Hundreds belong to families that will lose tracts of land to the coming Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project.
“Land, and any claim on it, is central to adivasi life,” says Smita Walvi, chairperson of the Talasari Nagar Panchayat.
“Whether it is the bullet train now, or the Mumbai-Vadodara Expressway earlier, so many dam projects or the gas pipeline, tribal lands were affected each time. And every adivasi here knows that CPI(M) workers do no indulge in the cut practice common among other politicians who offer to help resolve land disputes or negotiate for compensation on their behalf,” says Laxman Dongre, party secretary for Talasari taluka. “It is one of the things that has kept voters faithful to the party.” About 4,500 families in Talasari’s villages also occupy forest land for cultivation and party activists’ intervention has helped 70 per cent receive land titles as guaranteed by the Forest Rights Act, 2006, says Walvi.
‘Marxwaad’, or Marxism, is discussed in an annual party-organised lecture in Talasari, but most tribal families’ ties to the Left here are more intuitive, almost an automatic choice handed down through generations.
“For over a hundred years, practically every tribal in Talasari and nearby worked as bonded labourers, almost owned by upper caste Maharashtrians or Parsi landlords — this was then Umbergaon taluka, in present day Gujarat. It was Godavari Parulekar’s call for rebellion in May 1945 that changed their lives. The oral history of that oppression and the Warsi Adivasi Revolt is told in every tribal household,” says 81-year-old L S Kom, former Lok Sabha member and former Member of the Legislative Assembly from Dahanu,