Tribal women and men of India have a long history of heroic struggles against the East India Company and British colonial rule and the comprador-feudal rulers of post-British India. [From 1774-1779 : Helba tribes uprising in Bastar of Chhattisgarh, Pahariya tribes of Chhotanagpur, Koli Tribes in Maharashthra, Tamars of Chhotanagpur etc.; From 1800-1895: tribal uprising of Chotanagpur region, Santhal, Munda of Bihar, Gond of Bastar, Bhil &Koli in western India, Synteng of Jaintia Hills, Mishi, Khasi, Dafla, Lushai, Singpoetc of North East India; Juang, Koya & Kond of Odisha, From 1911-1945: tribal revolt of Bastar, Tana Bhagat movement of Bihar, Koya, Naga, Gond, Naik, tribes of Andaman Nicobar etc. to name a few.] The significant roles played by tribal women were no lesser than that of men but their stories are seldom mentioned in the history books or literature.
In the oral history of tribal movement of Chhotanagpur in Central East India, spirited women fighters like Phoolo, Janoo, Champi, Sali, Sinagi Dai (princess of Rohtasgarh Fort), Kaili Dai etc. are fondly remembered for their bravery. During the Santhal Hul fight against the British colonial authority and upper caste zamindari system, Santhali women formed a chunk of 30,000 women and marched towards the Capital-Calcutta; many were arrested and killed [Santhal Rebellion, 1885]. Khadia tribal women are said to have fought in the famous Kalinga War [in around 260 BCE], which changed Ashoka's war expeditions and led him to pledge never to wage a war of conquest . As symbol of their victory over an encounter with Ashoka's army, Kadia women continue to tattoo on their forehead numbering 111.
Gond queen Durgawati of Garh-Mandal in Madhya Pradesh ruled Gondwana Kingdom with her wisdom and ability, bravely defended her territory from Muslim Conqueror in 1564. Down in the southern India, Kurichiyas of Kerala under the leadership of Nilli and her separate army of women fought against British army to the last drop of their blood [Gupta, Ramanika, 2007]. After the death of her husband, Kittur Rani Chennamma confronted British for safeguarding the rights of her adopted son, which was the first battle against the British in Karnataka. She was born 33 years  before the famous queen of Jhansi Rani Laxmi Bai, yet she is unknown to many of us.
In the Northeast, after the death of her husband, Ropuiliani  became the first woman Mizo Chief in the recorded history of Mizoram who refused to acknowledge the British authority. As a result she was imprisoned  in Lunglei and was later shifted to a jail in Rangamati, now in present Bangladesh where she died  and her body was taken home by her son, who was also imprisoned along with her. Even though Mizo is a patriarchal society, Ropuiliani had established her hegemony over nine villages in south Mizoram. The administration of the village never came under Ropuiliani or her descendants again.
Fearless Naga (Zeliangrong) freedom fighter and indigenous spiritual leader Gaidinliu [1915-1993] had joined the agitation at the age of 13 and headed the movement against the British in Manipur and Naga belts of North East India. In 1932, at the age of 16 she was arrested and put behind bars for life and was freed from the jail only after India's independence . She set up a resistance agitation against the Naga National Council (NNC)-led insurgents  and led the movement from underground. She also promoted indigenous culture and spirituality which was in peril due to the coming of Christian missionaries. Gaidinliu was respected by everybody for her role. She was named as a Rani (Queen) by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who came to learn about her during freedom movement. In 1993, Govt. of India honored her with the prestigious Padma Bhushan Award and also issued a postal stamp in her remembrance. She is also known as "Queen of Nagas".
Dashriben (1918-2003), from Bhil community of Gujarat had a long association with Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba and adopted the Gandhian way of life. From the age of eight, she followed Gandhian principle of Swadeshi and started spinning and wearing Khadi clothes. Being part of the Civil Disobedience Movement she and her friends were jailed for agitating to close a foreign textile shop in Surat. From Sabarmati jail they were transferred to Yerawada, Pune, where Gandhi and Kasturba were already imprisoned (1933), where she taught Kasturba the alphabets, how to read and write which Gandhi himself failed to teach her while living in South Africa [Interview to Jyotirmaya Sharma, The Hindu]. After coming out of jail when the Quit India Movement was declared , in Bardoli town she led a rally of five thousand strong mass holding the tri-colour aloft with the intention of planting it in front of the Police Station and was imprisoned again. After release, as a school teacher she taught thousands of Adivasi children and youth and raised awareness among them. After retiring in 1976, she once again became active in the social movement as the president of the Gujarat Khadi Gramod yog Board and Ekta Parishad. She died on 2nd September, 2013 at the age of 95.
Gaura Devi (1925-91), one of the pioneers of Chipko movement of Himalaya region which practiced the Gandhian methods of satyagraha and non-violent resistance, through the act of hugging trees to protect them from being felled. Born in a tribal Marchha family in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, Gaura Devi was illiterate and was only trained in her family's traditional wool trade. In keeping with the tradition of those days, she was married off at a young age. Unfortunately at the young age of 22, she became a widow with a two-and-a-half year old child to bring up. She took over the family's wool trade and brought up her son alone. She was aware of the poverty of the region and how it affected women; her own experiences of survival had taught her a lot. She was actively involved in the community endeavours. Hence, in the wake of the Chipko Movement , she became president of the Women's Welfare Group in her region. She and 27 other women marched towards the forests and hugged trees and prevented it from being cut down by the government and the outsiders. Eventually it spread across the region and became one of the biggest movements for ecological conservation.
Dayamani Barla, better known as the Iron Lady of Jharkhand has been a powerful voice of the voiceless adivasis of Jharkhand and global indigenous community. A self-made woman, who once worked as a domestic help to meet her school fees, is the recipient of many national and international awards and recognition for her incredible role in rural journalism and activism. In 2013, she was honoured with the Ellen L. Lutz Indigenous Rights Award by Cultural Survival at New York for her "outstanding human rights work, dedicated leadership for Indigenous Peoples rights, and a deep life commitment to protecting, sustaining, and revitalizing Indigenous cultures, lands, and languages". In 2001, she won the Counter Media Award instituted by eminent journalist P. Sainath for rural journalists who work to uplift the downtrodden and National Foundation for India Fellowship in 2004 followed by many others awards.
Her other accomplishments are - prevention of multibillion worth Keol Karo dam construction which would have displaced 2.5 lakhs people, destroyed 55,000 hectares of agricultural land, and 27,000 hectares of forests; Arcelor Mittal, a global mining giant's proposed steel plant, a $9 billion planned investment, which would have seized 12,000 acres of land and displaced 70,000 people of 40 villages and their generations, additionally harming the surrounding ecosystems and by extension the livelihoods and survival of tribal communities. She was even imprisoned for leading the Nagri movement to save fertile agricultural land from govt. land acquisition of 227 acre near Ranchi. As state coordinator, she works for the Aam Aadmi Party and contested Lok Sabha election in 2014.
CHEKOT KARIAN JANU, a social activist and leader of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, a socio-political-ecological movement that has been agitating since 2001 for re-distribution of land to the landless tribals and their rehabilitation in Kerala who lost their traditional land and forest to British for cash crops plantation, followed by large number of outsiders. The tribals were compelled to work in plantations as slaves, as they were illiterate and did not have any documentary proof to claim their land. From young age, illiterate Janu was influenced by the socialist ideology and became a political activist. She led Muthunga agitation demanding land for landless tribals and other poor people from the Govt. which ended with police firing, imprisonment and imposition of criminal cases against her. Janu is described as the first 'organic' leader of tribals and holds status among notable women political leaders. She spearheads the campaigns of Kerala's 3.50 lakh adivasis. She has attended UN Conferences, and given speeches in 120 places in various countries on behalf of People's Action Group. An autobiography, 'Janu: The Life Story of C K Janu, was published in Malayalam language in 2003, which was later translated into English under the name "Mother Forest: The Unfinished Story of C.K. Janu".
TULASI MUNDA (68) who never went to school has been providing education to hundreds of tribal children particularly girls in Keonjhar district of Odisha . She herself being a child labourer, at the age of 12, she earned Rs 2/- from cutting stones and sifting iron from the waste in mines. But in her free time, she tried and taught herself the alphabets and learnt to read and write from her brother's text book who was studying in a school. Inspired by the vision of Vinoba Bhave during the Bhoodan Andolan padayatra in Odisha , she visited house to house in the night and with great difficulty collected children of mine workers and started teaching under a tree. She released hundreds of children from exploitation as child labourers by setting up a school in mining area. In more than four decades of her activism, Tulasi Munda established 17 schools and succeeded in educating 20,000 boys and girls. She has been awarded with Civilian Padma Shri Award in 2001 by India government.
Soni Sori (36), a tribal school teacher turned political activist from Koya tribe of Sameli village in south Bastar, Chhattisgarh, was arrested by the police  on charges of acting as a conduit for Maoists. During her imprisonment, she was brutally tortured and sexually assaulted by police men. She also saw young girls whose nipples had been chopped and given electric shocks in jail. While trying to recover from the trauma, she came to know that her alleged torturer - the Police Officer was given a bravery award by the government. She dared to speak up the truth and fight back not only for herself but for the thousands of tribals who have been languished in different jails. Though the Supreme Court of India granted her bail [Feb. 2014], Soni Sori continues to stand for truth and justice and continues to fight for her people. She has been named "Prisoner of Conscience" by Amnesty International.
Shanti Tigga (35), from Siliguri, West Bengal outperformed her male colleagues in physical test to earned unique distinction and became the only woman combatant in India's 1.3 million strong defence forces [Territorial Army's first female jawan]. She was felicitated by then President Smt Pratibha Devi Singh Patil. Unfortunately, while on duty at the Chalsa, Shanti was kidnapped by a group of unidentified persons.She was later found tied to a post at the Deopani village railway track. Three days later, in May 2013 she died in a mysterious circumstance in a hospital.
M. C. Mary Kom (32), the famous Indian boxer, five-time World Amateur Boxing champion, the only woman boxer to have won a medal in each one of the six world championships; the only Indian woman boxer to have qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and won bronze medal. She became the first Indian woman boxer to get a Gold Medal in the Asian Games in 2014 in Incheon, South Korea. Born in to a poor landless agricultural labourer parents in Manipur, Mary's life story is one of relentless struggle and unflagging passion for the sports of Boxing. Her willpower and aggression carried her through the minefield of politics in Indian sports. Her autobiography, "Unbreakable" was launched in Dec 2013 and a biopic film "Mary Kom" was released in Sept. 2014.
Some of the other noted tribal women in the field of sports are Binita Soren - scaled the Mt. Everest at the age of 19, [May, 2013], Purna Malavath - world's youngest woman to climb Mt. Everest at the age of 13 [May, 2014], Jhanu Hansda - International Boxing Champion, Laxmi Padiya - International Archer, Samurai Tete, Asunta Lakra (29) and Jyoti Sunita Kullu (35) former Captains of the Women's Hockey India. Asunta played Jr. World Cup , Sr. World Cup and Commonwealth Games twice, and participated in the Asia Cup twice and has captained 110 national and international matches. Born in the Simdega village of Jharkhand to farmer parents, she left no stone unturned to be a national player. She is known as "Daughter of the Soil", and "Symbol of Tribal Hope". In 22 years of her career, Sunita has been f our times World Qualifier and Olympic Qualifier. A prolific scorer and most accomplished international hockey player i n 2007 she was given the "Arjun Award" by the Government of India.
Sangita Bauri became a real hero and was honoured by Smt. Pratibha Devi Singh Patel in Rashrapati Bhawan  for being a crusader against the child marriage practice and alcoholism in rural villages of Purulia district in West Bengal. After saying 'NO' to her own marriage, 16-year-old Sangita has stopped several child marriages although she had to face the ire of the locals for standing up against them and asking other girls to join her in her mission.
Today, many more women have shown excellence in the field of science, technology, media, education, art, literature and politics. On the occasion of International Women's Day, we are obliged to acknowledge and salute these brave women who enormously contributed to the success of India's freedom struggle, contributed in nation building and brought glory to our country.
[NOTE: This article is a summary and part of the research work by the author, who has attempted to gather the life sketches of such extra-ordinary women. Hence, copyright of the content remains with the author].
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.
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