A Man of the People

Heera Markam’s fight for the political empowerment of Gonds

illustration by kevin ilango
01 March, 2021

On 28 October last year, Heera Singh Markam, a former member of legislative assembly from a constituency now in Chhattisgarh and a co-founder of the Gondwana Gantantra Party, passed away at a hospital in Bilaspur after a prolonged illness.

None of the short obituaries published in the national newspapers or the tickers on news channels did any justice to the legacy Heera left behind. They mentioned that he was a “prominent tribal leader,” that he “served as the national president of the GGP,” and that he is “survived by his wife and two sons,” among other inane details. Even in Chhattisgarh, Heera’s native state, no single obituary seemed to show any grasp of his legacy and work. Among the English-language national media, only Outlook India, The Week and Republic World covered his death, and all of them carried only a short piece put out by the news agency Press Trust of India. There were no opinion pieces by public intellectuals discussing his contribution to the Adivasi cause. Even Hindi media platforms, such as Navbharat Times and Dainik Bhaskar, only spared a few hundred words covering the news of his passing.

This is no surprise, since it mirrored a clear vacuum even in academic writing. There is no comprehensive work on the GGP’s contribution to Adivasi society, or even to Gond history. The media and the academy have long invisibilised the Gonds’ political assertion in the larger national discourse, and even in the discourse on Adivasis.

Heera Singh Markam was the most prominent political voice of the 12-million-strong Gond, or Koitur, community—the second largest Scheduled Tribe in the country. The Gond tribe, which has a long history and a rich cultural past, has found itself marginalised in the postcolonial Indian state. Even though the community shares a common language and religion, it has been fragmented across seven different states: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. This has led to the imposition of new linguistic identities on Gonds. It has also contributed to the dispossession of their land through increasing migration and the settlement of non-tribal people, making the Gonds “minorities” in their own historical territory and creating a rupture in the community’s relationship with its land and culture.