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Who owned the forest?

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komuram bheem

Komuram Bheem the lesser known Gond rebel, who fought the British is perhaps getting his due thanks to the books on Komuram Bheem’s life. ‘Forests, Blood & Survival – Life and Times of Komuram Bheem’ by Bhoopal is a book that as Fullbright Nehru Visiting Scholar, Penn University – Bhangya Bhukya says – a fine blend of ballad, myth, and storytelling. The book illuminates the world of the Gonds – the tribes from the Telangana region of Telugu land during the 1930s.

komuram bheem

From the many stories – it is perhaps Komuram Bheem’s story in Rajamouli’s film RRR that is amongst the most criticised ones. This is despite Komarum Bheemudo song penned beautifully by Suddala Ashok Teja.

However, the more historically inclined narratives are throwing light on the lesser known story of the Telangana hero. The Penn scholar says, “Bhoopal shows us how a sensitive writer can transform narratives of the past that are alive in communities into compelling historical fiction.”

The book Forests, Blood & Survival – Life and Times of Komuram Bheem by Bhoopal has been translated into English and published by Hyderabad Book Trust.

Bhoopal brings together tales of the oppression and exploitation of tribals by colonial forest officials and their Indian collaborators of traders. For long Komuram Bheem has been a little-known Gond tribal warrior who mobilized and led people in revolt against the British. Bhoopal retells these historical narratives of the making of Komuram Bheem in a fascinating narrative.

Here’s an extract of a story from Komuram Bheem’s childhood from the book Forests, Blood & Survival – Life and Times of Komuram Bheem 

Just then, the chief of the gudem, Komuram Chinnu, arrived to greet the men, saying “Ram, Ram, inspector. This is the only Arju we have in our gudem.” Komuram Chinnu was Bheem’s father. The gangrenous wound on his leg dripped and caused him pain.

“Then that brat is not of this gudem. We will deal with him later… Hey! Chinnu! These brats are felling trees in the forests. I have told them hundreds of times not to pluck even a leaf in the forest. I sent the watchman and sardar to caution you. Today, I myself have come. What do I see? I see trees being felled with my own eyes. Do you know the punishment for felling trees?” The inspector shouted angrily at them.

By then, all the people of the gudem had gathered there, and stood watching fearfully. Pyku was sobbing.

“Sir! These foolish and ignorant children are no doubt at fault. Why should we fell all the trees in the forest? Our boys might have cut a branch or two to feed the goats! Please pardon us,” Chinnu entreated.

The watchman, who had been silent until then, ordered the sergeants, “Men! Cut off his fingers so that he will not cut the branches again.”

The inspector laughed, while Pyku’s weeping father and mother fell at the inspector’s feet. Komuram Chinnu pleaded, “Please pardon him sirs, for this is his first misdeed. If the boy loses his ability to work, what will he eat? Please pardon him this once. He is only a little fellow, you can thrash him if you wish.”

There was a chorus of pleas as the other members of the gudem fell at the feet of the forest officials. All the children began crying. Pyku struggled to free himself while the sergeants held him fast. The inspector casually ordered, “Proceed”.

The sergeants held Pyku’s right hand down on a teak log on the ground. Even though he squirmed, crying loudly, and tried to push them away, they cut off his fingers. The whole forest shivered with the echoes of Pyku’s screams.

Mercifully, Pyku fell unconscious.

Bheem, Madu, and Kondal got a good thrashing, and were then released.

Komuram Bheem

The watchman read out the names of various people from a list, specifying the amount that each had to pay to the government. He demanded that the arrears be paid immediately. The inspector threatened them with severe punishment if they failed to pay the taxes. They would be beaten to death; they would be driven away and their gudems burnt down. Some of the gonds brought grain and gave it to the authorities. The forest officials raided the huts of non-payers and conducted a search. They broke the pots, collected whatever grain they could find and carried it away to the cart. They tied four goats to the back of the cart and caught hold of a dozen of the chickens. The officials loaded the cart with the goods and prepared to leave. The middle of the cart was cushioned with soft grass. The inspector sat there, while the watchman sat at the back of the cart. The tax collector walked in the front, while the sergeants followed the cart.

The entire gudem looked as if it had been plundered. Much like its people, it, too, groaned with pain. Bheem sat near Pyku and wept. All the people stared angrily at the departing forest officials.

Why did the officials hate them so much? How were they at fault? Who owned the forest? What was the relationship of the government with the forest? How could it belong to the government alone? Why cut Pyku’s fingers for cutting down the twigs and branches? Bheem’s mind was crowded with a flurry of questions.

These forest officials demanded taxes, but why should one pay taxes at all? And who decided how much to pay? They demanded a goat-tax, cow-tax, an ox-tax, a plot-tax, and a field platform-tax! And after demanding those taxes, why impose taxes for grass, for land, and even for the hut? If they paid the taxes, then what would they eat? If the officials could take away all the produce in the name of taxes, wouldn’t they, the people of the gudem, die of hunger?

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