On the evening of 14 March, a wave of shock and grief gripped a vast number of people as social media was suddenly flooded with the news of the untimely demise of 43-year-old Abhay Xaxa—a scholar, activist, poet and lawyer, among other things. Xaxa belonged to Kurukh or Oraon tribe and was a native of Chhattisgarh. He was gone, much before his time. The loss was felt personally by many, especially those working on issues of rights of Adivasis, as the magnitude of it is immeasurable. Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Office of the Tribal Affairs under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India was with Xaxa moments before he suffered what has been said to be a heart attack. He was accompanying Xaxa for his speaking engagements in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri. Barla sent across a message to many friends of Xaxa, informing them of his demise, saying, “We have lost one of the tribal gems of India.”
The Victorian poet, Alfred Tennyson, in his classic poem “Ulysses,” wrote of the curiosity for knowledge and the unknown till the last moment of life. If there was a person who emulated this philosophy, it was Xaxa. He was one of the foremost intellectuals speaking succinctly on the issues of Adivasi self assertion, culture, identity as well as the economic hardships faced by the tribal communities in several parts of the country.
I started interacting with him about five years ago on various issues concerning Adivasis which included policies and laws impacting the community. I wanted to invite him to Mumbai for a discussion on land rights of Adivasis in Jharkhand. Hailing from the state, I have always felt that there is no visibility to the specific issues facing people from Jharkhand, especially Adivasis. The news that actually makes it to the media is that with sensational and voyeuristic headlines. However, the background and history of Adivasis’ tenurial rights over land is not understood well. Xaxa was the person to approach for that discussion. Since we first came into contact, we spoke on numerous occasions, mainly exchanging views and thoughts on several such issues.
In 2017, I had written an article about a reported case of an encounter killing, in which activists had alleged that the security forces in Chhattisgarh killed an Adivasi woman named Podiyami Jogi, alleging she was Kosi Sori—a close aide to Papa Rao, a top Maoist leader. Xaxa was deeply moved by this and encouraged me to keep writing. He was always helpful to anybody who was trying to highlight the discrimination faced by Adivasis. Xaxa was a catharsis for the grief that Adivasis have felt for centuries—being dispossessed from their lands, killed, encountered, sexually and physically abused.
We met for the last time in January 2019, when he had come to Mumbai for an event. He was dressed in a suit and a tie and told me, “You know, Sushmita, whenever people invite us Adivasis for any talks or seminars, they have an image in mind, may be with a bow and arrow, our traditional nagadas”—a traditional instrument.“I am breaking that image with my attire.” Indeed, he was breaking all the stigmas associated with Adivasis and forest-dwelling people, with poise and deep insights.