For years, communist ultras have been raging an anti-state war in India that has claimed thousands of lives. In the backdrop of this unrest, youths in a central Indian state are reviving a forgotten ritual that binds them into eternal friendship.
Bhanupratappur: Kiran Gota, 26, of Baijanpuri village in central India’s Chhattisgarh state, is getting married soon. It will be a traditional, arranged wedding for Kiran and there is a lot to arrange for in less than two weeks: decorating the house, distributing letters of invitation to relatives, shopping for clothes, gifts, and finally, preparing food for over a hundred odd guests who will accompany the bridegroom.
Yet, Kiran isn’t worried because, to take care of all these duties, she has not one, but two families. One of these families is Kiran’s own, while the other is one that she ‘inherited’ through ‘Mitaan Badhai’ – the tribal ritual of eternal friendship.
‘Mitaan Badhai’ which literally means the ‘bond of friendship’ is a ritual that involves two individuals who accept each other as friends for life. The friendship is then extended to their family members who become relatives as well. The relationship runs through generations and must be honored with life.
Kiran says, “This is rituals that brings together for life not just two individuals, but also two families. I must love, respect and care for my mother’s ‘Mitaan’ as my own mother and her children as my own siblings. In turn, they will do the same. Breaking any of these rules is a sin.”
Kiran Gota, with her mother's 'mitaan' Mahantin Sori whom she also calls 'Mother'.
It is this rule of love, care and protection that makes ‘Mitaan’ a much-needed peace-making tool in Chhattisgarh which is currently reeling under an armed movement led by communist ultras, also known as ‘Maoists’ and ‘Naxalites’ that has killed hundreds of people in the state in past one decade, feels Ajay Mandavi, a local. Since 2008, Mandavi has been promoting the ‘Mitaan’ ritual among local tribal youths. An acclaimed artist who also belongs to the Gond tribal community, he has encouraged over two hundred young people across Kanker – a district that has been severely affected by the Maoist movement - to become friends for life through ‘Mitaan’.
Says Mandavi, “This is a ritual with a huge potential to bring peace and end violence. When two people undergo this ritual, they can never treat each other with hatred or violence. Even if a few thousand youths follow this ritual, the future of this state will be changed forever because they will be permanent advocates of peace – something we badly need at this point.”
A reflection of Mandavi’s thoughts can be seen in Baijanpuri. Almost everyone in this village of 900 residents is related to each other, thanks to the ‘Mitaan’ ritual. Of them, 200 are youths in the age group of 18-28 who took the oath of friendship in 2008, under the guidance of Mandavi.
Anesa Gota, 24, is one of these 200 youths. Anesa’s ‘Mitaan’ Hem Lata, also 24, was her neighbor. Though they grew up in the same village, the two girls were not exactly friends. But having observed the ritual, they have become like soul sisters.
“It is exciting when someone comes and says, I want to enter this bond (‘Mitaan’) with you,” says Anesa, “when my ‘Mitaan’ said that to me, I felt deeply honored because she had chosen me over others as her friend. But, it is also a responsibility because, I must now ensure that she is never, ever hurt by either me or my family. If such a moment ever arrives, I must protect her with my own life.”
So what is the ritual like?
Explains Subbati Balam, 19, from Dantewada – the district that has borne maximum brunt of the Maoist conflict with hundreds dead and thousands rendered homeless: “The ritual can happen either during an ongoing social event like a wedding or, can also be a standalone event. The two who are to become friends, will greet each other with a flower or a handful of water. They then touch each others' feet as a gesture of mutual respect and then hug each other.
From that moment on, they must not call each other by name, but must address as rose or Jasmine – the flower they offered to each other. If it was water, they would call each other ‘gangajal’ meaning river water. Balam herself entered ‘Mitaan Badhai’ when she was 16, with a girl in her neighborhood whom who calls ‘Gangajal’.
Like Mandavi, Balam also believes that ‘Mitaan’ can be an effective way to turn people away from violence to peace. “Once you take the oath of love, you cannot turn away from that. So, when in ‘Mitaan’ we become friends with someone, there is no way we can hurt that person, no matter how many differences we have. For example, if you are in an armed outfit, before an operation, you start thinking, ‘where am I going? Is there anyone from my Mitaan’s family?’ And that kind of thought ensures peace.”
Kaushal Kishore Mishra, a local who has been documenting the contemporary cultural trends of Bastar, throws more light into the uniqueness of the ritual. According to Mishra, the most interesting fact about ‘Mitaan’ is that it is not restricted to tribal communities. For that matter, caste, community, religion, language or financial status are no bars in ‘Mitaan’.
“There is only one rule in ‘Mitaan Badhai’: love the one you have accepted as a friend yourself and then pass it on to your next generation of relations,” says Mishra who has witnessed over a hundred youths following the ritual.
However, despite all the good factors and pro-peace features, little is known about ‘Mitaan’ ritual outside of Bastar. There are no books, no journals, or any other published form of sources that can provide information on this very unique ritual.
In fact, other than Mandavi, nobody in the known history has made any attempt to promote this ritual either at local or the state level.
But it is this lack of promotion and awareness that Mandavi sees as an opportunity for the future. “It is true that few of our youths know about ‘Mitaan’. But then, youths are curious by nature and since ‘Mitaan’ and if we can explore this curiosity, we can make them try this ritual rather easily,” says Mandavi assertively.
The story of Dhaniram Bhusandi, a 22-year old Muria Gond tribal man is a proof of this.
Bhusandi, who currently lives in Hyderabad, originally comes from Kurmed village in Bijapur district –which is a stronghold of the Maoist rebels. In 2010, during a visit to Damkara – a village in Kanker district, he came to know of the ‘Mitaan’ ritual. He then made a ‘Mitaan’ in that village called Sahadev Pradhan – a 24-year old youth. After they became friends, Pradhan told Bhusandi that he had been a Maoist activist for four years, but had surrendered two years ago to live a ‘normal’ life.
After he returned to his village in Bijapur, Bhusandi was called by the local Maoists to join them. But, Pradhan helped him escape.
“Eight months ago, the Maoist leaders were repeatedly calling me to become a cadre” says Bhusandi, “I do believe that they (Maoists) are fighting for the rights of us tribal people. But I don’t believe that only an armed movement can solve all our problems. But if I told them that, they might have punished me. So, I contacted my Mitaan who supported my decision not to take up guns and helped me flee the village.”
Our youths need Mitaan to find love and peace, says Ajay Mandavi who is promoting the ritual
Today, Bhusandi lives with a relation of Pradhan in Hyderabad and is training to be a motorcycle mechanic. “When I followed that ritual, something happened in me; I felt ‘why fight? Why not win people with love?” he says when asked how ‘Mitaan’ helped him change.
According to the statistics published by the Ministry of Home Affairs, 4350 people have been killed in India between 2008 and 2012 in the Maoist conflict, of them 1591 in Chhattisgarh alone.
But, Mandavi believes that this grim picture can be changed to a great degree if ‘Mitaan’ is promoted and practiced by the youths across the state. “We can’t end violence with guns. There has to be a change of heart and mind. People have to believe in peace. ‘Mitaan badhai’ can transform one’s heart and make one want peace,” he says with confidence.
Written under the aegis of ComMutiny Media Network for ComMutiny - The Youth Collective, a collective of youth centric organizations advocating for democratic and self governed spaces for young people: 5thSpace.in