Born in 1924, he has witnessed the struggle of five generations of his tribe to ensure that they are counted. A day before the Toto tribe — nearly extinct and one of the most ancient in the country — goes to vote in Jalpaiguri district, the tribe’s oldest member claimed Indian democracy has “has no space for minorities”.
Gujru Toto (92) lives in a small elevated bamboo hut near Puja village — one of the six villages that constitute Totopara, which falls under Madarihaat Assembly constituency. Surrounded by dense forests and the Bhutan border on one side, the only road leading to the village is currently under construction. But come monsoon, residents promised, the river near the village would swell up, cutting them off completely from civilization.
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As a means of coping with the annual marooning, almost everyone in the “primitive tribe” has cellphones. And an Army base near the border means good cellular connectivity. Such contradictions, Gujru said could be seen everywhere in the Toto tribe.
“I was what you would call a priest for my tribe… I was also a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party. The party was atheist, but then I don’t believe in God. So, it never mattered. I had joined the party hoping that I would be able to share the problems of my community with people,” he added.
But this wasn’t to be. The party he had joined introduced land reforms under ‘Operation Barga’ in the late 1970s. Reserved land that the Toto tribe traditionally cultivated was “given to Nepali migrants”. “We had 1993 acres… now, we have only 347 acres,” said Gujru. He claimed that ultimately it always boiled down to numbers. “Bigger numbers meant more votes, more votes meant better chances in electoral politics,” said Gujru.
The Toto total is estimated to be around 1,563 — of which, around 800 are voters. In 1951, the Census found that their number had dropped 321. It increased to 926 in 1991. “That is electoral politics. The tag of minorities has been created to preserve our identity, but politicians only care about numbers. We have 800 votes. Who cares about us? People come here to look at us. We are the odd one out,” said Gujru.
The community’s demands have remained the same over the past five decades — preservation of their language, better connectivity with the rest of the state, access to education and health facilities.
In 2014, scientists of Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) found that Toto language was even more threatened than the tribe, particularly because of the influence of other languages and communities — particularly Bengali and Nepali.
“We didn’t have a script for our language until recently. But even now, it is not taught here. We have a high school, which is Bengali medium. But we need better access to education and jobs, which will take our culture into account. Otherwise, we work in Bhutan and learn Bhutanese… we work with Nepalis and learn their language and so on. They want us to learn about their culture, but who will help us teach our children?” said Shyamol Toto, a local.
Ashok Toto, a panchayat member belonging to the Trinamool, admitted a lot of work still needed to be done. “The biggest problem apart from connectivity is the hospital. Only the pharmacy is functioning. The two doctors who are supposed to be here, are rarely seen. Three nurses and the pharmacist try and make do,” he said.
Ashok added that the community’s battle is to negotiate between the act of “becoming civilized” and retaining “the culture of a primitive tribe”. “It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? I agree with you,” he added.