The Dang durbar (court) that opened this year on March 13, and continued till Holi (March 17) is an annual pageantry coming down from the Raj days. What actually happens here clearly symbolises the plains-people's and the bureacracy's patronising, condescending, yet authoritarian attitude towards forest tribals.
The Dangs durbar dates back to the 1830s. Colonel James Outram subdued the Bhil chiefs in 1830 and recognised them as independent rulers under overall British paramountcy. The chiefs were paid their haks (an indemnity of sorts) regularly by the colonial state. The Dangi Bhils were fairly quiet for a decade after Outram's expedition.
In the late 1830s, some local officials quietly pocketed the hak money. In retaliation, the new chief of Gadhvi, Udaisingh, raided British villages in 1838 and 1839. The Bhil Agent, Douglas Graham, realising that Bhil grievances hadn't been redressed, suggested periodic meetings between the chiefs and the administration, to be held on the border between Khandesh and the Dangs.
In the 1st such meet in 1843, Graham's successor, one Morris, met the chiefs at Pimpalner. Thereafter, this meeting became an annual event, at which the Agent, and sometimes the collector of Khandesh, met the chiefs and their followers, discussed grievances and distributed the annual payments. From 1870 onwards, it was described as the annual durbar.
The durbars soon became a tradition. The chiefs arrived pompously, followed by a retinue of bhaubands, or kinsmen. They camped at the place for several days and were feasted at government expense.
Today the bhaubands come and camp at Ahwa, bringing their own food. The government vehicles have to be sent to pick up and drop each Raja from his village. Of course, after the handing over of the cheques, there is a community feast in which the Rajas, the bhaubands and the officials partake of lunch squatting on the ground. The big-guns sit in a separate enclosure.
David Hardiman, noted historian from the School of Oriental and African Studies, says that the durbar was an instrument of impressing upon the chiefs the power of the British authorities. The durbar as an institution, enormously helpful to any coloniser, British or Indian in origin, has survived.
Barry Underwood, chief executive, Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, Ahmedabad, says, "This institution should be abolished. It reinforces a colonial patriarchal system of rule and ends up humiliating the Bhils." Many of the younger Bhils agree with him.