Chhattisgarh Government's 'Live Exhibition' of Baiga Tribals Draws Criticism

The Special Backward Tribes section of the Department of Tribal and Scheduled Castes Development showcased the Baiga tribe by putting up a live display.

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Raipur: How do you celebrate the traditions and culture of a tribal group which has been marginalised for years? According to the Chhattisgarh government, by treating members of the tribe as nothing more than live mannequins, to be stared at and photographed with.

Recently, the state government organised a departmental exhibition at the Science College in Raipur amid celebrations to commemorate the state’s foundation day. In the exhibition, aimed at showcasing the government’s various plans and achievements, the Special Backward Tribes section of the Department of Tribal and Scheduled Castes Development showcased the Baiga tribe by putting up a live display.

The exhibition where Baiga tribals were made to sit as exhibits. Photo: Special arrangement

The presentation was meant to highlight the tribe’s style of living, food habits, dance forms and festivals. Instead, the government department made Baiga tribespeople to sit on display while visitors clicked selfies with them.

Naresh Biswas, a member of the Samagra Vikas Karya Samuh of the Special Backward Tribal Group, says that the spectacle was completely unethical. “It was a murder of tribal culture for the entertainment of urban people,” says Biswas. “Tribal people dance as part of rituals or festivals and not for spectators. It is a form of expression of joy in their festivals and not meant for any exhibition.”

Pointing a finger at the government, Biswas asked whether the government did anything to preserve the tribe’s culture in the villages where they live. “This culture is on the verge of extinction. Yet the government is merely putting them on display in exhibitions instead of making real efforts to preserve their culture. The red saris worn by the Baiga women in the exhibition stall were woven by members of the Panka community. The tribe no longer weaves the fabric but the state government has done nothing to restore or preserve the tradition. Then what does the government intend to show by making Baiga women sit at the stall dressed in that attire? Today, while the Baiga culture is going extinct in Baiga Chak, putting the members of this special backward tribe on display in exhibitions is a gross human rights violation by the government.”

Archaeological researcher Binu Thakur, who visited the Rajyotsav, said, “While the National Tribal Dance Festival is a celebration, there were some disturbing elements in it. The government gathered different aspects of tribal life and put it on display at one place for the urban spectator. But are we, the tribals, no better than animals, who are picked up from their habitats and made to sit on display for three days in the capital city? Looking at the Baiga tribals in the stall, it struck me that it was a tribal dance festival and not an exhibition of the forest-dwelling tribe. Visitors of all kinds were pouring in, clicking photos, making videos, but none of them asked the tribespeople if they had been facilitated, whether they had food to eat and a place to rest.”

“I saw an elderly person who silently sat there while his eyes expressed sadness. Amid this crowd pouring in just to see how Baiga tribals looked, he must be missing the calm of his own village. They are humans too, you know, like you and me. The only difference is that these poor and innocent tribals are the ones on display in the exhibition and not us. They have been degraded to the level of any other artefact. Could photos or inanimate models not have sufficed that the government felt the need to bring tribespeople for the presentation? When it is time to find solutions to the problems of the tribal communities, why doesn’t the government show a similar eagerness? For them, the tribals are only pawns to earn accolades. The government is ready to spend crores of rupees on such exhibitions, but when it comes to real problems of water, forests and land, it turns silent.”

The exhibition where Baiga tribals were made to sit as exhibits. Photo: Special arrangement

Yogesh Nareti, president of the youth division of Sarva Adivasi Samaj, said that the Baiga tribe is known for its culture all over the world, but at present, like all other tribal communities, they are also fighting a battle for survival.

The exhibition where Baiga tribals were made to sit as exhibits. Photo: Special arrangement

“The Baiga tribals have suffered the agony of displacement over decades, while their areas known as Baiga Chak are devoid of basic facilities such as roads, drinking water and electricity. What does the government want to prove by putting these people on display for the spectators? Do they want to show how they have failed to even provide basic amenities to this community? Many times the forest department takes action against them for collecting forest produce. Does the exhibition intend to show the treatment meted out to a vulnerable tribal group like the Baigas and how they have been thrown behind bars?”

Bobby Luthra Sinha, a social anthropologist and political scientist who is co-chair in the Scientific Commission of Migration at the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnographic Sciences, also criticised the government’s exhibition.

“[The exhibition] is totally unacceptable and wrong. Such a display has a long history in the world since colonial times. For instance, affluent white people in Europe used to make a show of power by bringing animals from colonies in Asia and Africa, including India, and putting them on display in their homes or in zoos. In fact, they even shipped tribal people from these places and kept them encaged as displays. Such acts of the Europeans were hugely criticised and the struggle for freedom ensued. Besides, it is also a gross violation of human rights. While the intention of the Chhattisgarh government may have been correct, they should have been cautious. According to psychologists as well, it is unethical to turn tribespeople into live models for display,” Sinha said

When The Wire tried to contact tribal commissioner Shammi Abidi for comments, no response was received. The story will be updated as and when he responds.