Peter Popham: A Gandhi of the Indian jungle

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The Independent Online

He is a brilliant, spiky, stubborn Indian Muslim who has devoted his life for the past two decades to defending the rights and culture of the tribal people of the state of Jharkhand, in eastern India.

His peaceful home amid high forest trees on the outskirts of the town of Hazaribagh, thronging with children and small animals, is a sort of al fresco university for anybody interested in sharing the wealth of his capacious brain and crossing swords with him over the great issues of the day.

So deeply buried was he in the Indian bush that we thought Bulu Imam, his museum of tribal art and his cottage industry of books, essays, poems and tracts would remain a treasure known only to a few. But now he is on the verge of fame: it is reported that he is in line for the International Peace Award awarded annually by the Gandhi Foundation.

Imam is the grandson of an Indian high court judge who was also a president of India's Congress party, and as such he is a child of the Indian elite. He spent much of his early life helping his father organise tiger hunts in what is now Jharkhand, formerly southern Bihar, an Indian state with a majority population of Adivasis or tribal people.

As he explained to me some years ago, his view on life was transformed during the journey he undertook across the state with the British travel writer Mark Shand and his elephant. It was vividly borne home to him how the once-pristine jungle of this high plateau was being systematically destroyed by the state mining enterprise for the coal that lay underneath it.

In the process, the tribal culture which had prevailed here for centuries was being rapidly wiped out. Though raised as a highly westernised Muslim, Bulu has a strong affinity with the culture of the Adivasi villages, partly explained by the many visits he paid to such villages as a young man during the tiger hunts. He also has not one but two tribal wives. With the likely extermination of this culture staring him in the face, he decided to dedicated his life to saving it.

Twice a year, at harvest and at marriage time, the Adivasi women of Jharkhand paint their mud homes inside and out, in a ritual of sanctification which is also a demonstration of rich artistic gifts. Twice a year the paintings are erased and the process starts again, but in 1993 Bulu set up what he called the Tribal Women Artists' Cooperative to encourage the women to value their work and to make money by doing paintings of the same sort on card which could then be sold. He has travelled the world with the artists, demonstrating the work and gathering support and funds.

He also began an intensive lobbying campaign, telling anyone who would listen about the beauty and archaeological importance of the Karanpura Valley, the area of central Jharkhand under immediate threat, where many caves richly decorated with Neolithic art have never been studied by experts and risk disappearing for ever.

Today Bulu, his family and his friends in the tribal villages that still survive find themselves under siege from three different directions. In addition to the threat from mines, the region has become infested by the Maoist rebels who now have a huge swathe of the forested regions of central India under their control. And since last November the Indian government has decided to seek a military solution to the Maoist challenge, described by prime minister Manmohan Singh as India's number one security threat, sending in tens of thousands of paramilitaries to hunt the rebels down – and doing further devastating damage to the Adivasis in the process.

“Security in Jharkhand is dead,” says Imam. “We are living in an emergency situation of civil war with open loot of the state’s coffers and resources. The extremists have also taken the law into their own hands with public executions. It is impossible to have a positive vision for Jharkhand in the coming decade.” Peace award or no peace award, Imam’s fears for the apocalyptic end of his beloved region are steadily coming true.