“So I draw my own picture, and invent my own grammar,
I make my own tools to fight my own battle,
For me, my people, my world, and my Adivasi self!”
With sadness we remember our friend and colleague, Dr Abhay Xaxa, who passed away on March 14th. Abhay was an educator, leader, and activist for the rights of Adivasis in India. We had the great fortune to know Abhay when he studied with us as a postgraduate student, and have kept in touch over the years. In his frequent Facebook posts, Abhay let his friends and supporters share in his tireless work on behalf of indigenous, tribal, and Adivasi rights. Abhay’s fortitude as an advocate was underlined by his gentle and introspective nature, which could be seen in his writing and poetry.
Born in the Jashpur district, Chhattisgarh, Abhay’s activism emerged from his own experiences as a young Adivasi man. He excelled academically, and won a Ford Foundation fellowship to study for a Masters in Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex in 2007, followed by a PhD in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University. In addition to being a research scholar at JNU, Abhay served in many roles as a campaigner, advocate, and educator, including most recently at the National Campaign on Dalit Human rights.
We share below some of the reflections and memories from those who knew Abhay from his time at Sussex.
My heart swells with pride to have had the chance to be Abhay’s friend. When I met him in our MA programme, we connected over discussions on Marxism, food, South Asian politics, and our course materials. I sometimes waited for Abhay to get a coffee first in the Arts C cafe, because he would insist on paying for my drink every time we queued up together (how many coffees did we consume during the write-up seasons!). Abhay always encouraged me to opt for “controversial” topics to write term papers, and on one occasion he went out of his way to get me a specific book from the library. His encouragement continues to inspire me even today. Abhay told the most fascinating stories, and he had a talent for lifting spirits, and making people feel good about themselves. I am remembering Abhay with the fondest memories. I cannot imagine the loss his family and his community must be feeling with this sudden departure. What an incredible human! Gone too soon! Abhay, I will miss your infectious smile. Rest in power my friend.
– Samara Khan, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Abhay was among the first postgraduate students I taught at Sussex after completing my PhD in 2007. Having so recently been a student myself—and not much older than many of the Masters students in my classes—my instinct was not to lecture and instruct, but to sit at the table together, to listen, probe, problematise, and discuss. Thank goodness for that. Abhay took my spring seminar on “Households and Livelihoods,” where we studied poverty through the lens of households, labour relations, gender and generation. By then Abhay was already an experienced activist, researcher, and a scholar in his own right, even though it would be years before his PhD from JNU made it official. Abhay talked especially about his work on bonded labour in Odisha; we debated the value of juridical activism, and the bitter injustice of employment that makes workers poorer and deeper in debt. Abhay had much to say, but spent a lot of time listening too—always inquisitive and open-minded to the contributions of peers with less knowledge and experience than he had at that time. Abhay, as I knew him, was the best kind of scholar: remarkably accomplished but always unassuming. From Abhay and students like him, I have learned that listening can be a mode of teaching, and that you can choose never to relinquish being a student even when you become an educator. With enormous pride I have watched Abhay’s onward journey from Sussex. His death is an immeasurable loss to so many people.
– Dr Rebecca Prentice, Brighton, UK
Abhay was a profound presence – he was capable of intense political debate and carefree laughter in equal measure during our days at Sussex. Since those days in the Downs, Abhay had become a tireless advocate for Adivasi rights – challenging everything from governance failures that harmed Adivasi, to their marginalisation within the Indian “academy,” to their popular representation in Indian culture. His death comes as a terrible shock. But although his days were far too few, Abhay’s influential work will serve as a lasting inspiration for other indigenous activists – and indeed for others who seek to dedicate their lives to creating a more just world.
– Dr Jon Sward, Brighton, UK
When I first met Abhay, what immediately struck me about his presence was his eyes. They were kind and gentle, and his smile was surprisingly coy. As we were part of the same small cohort, we would meet for gatherings on occasion, usually organized by our friend, Samara Khan, and through these encounters I caught glimpses of a man currently trying to figure out his future role as a mediator for his people. Growing up in the Jesuit tradition he was keenly aware of the discord that existed between the Roman Catholic Church and the Adivasi community. As respectful as he was of the Church’s intentions, we spent one evening outside my house discussing religion and our belief in God. It was there that I learned about Abhay’s concern for the Adivasi community and their way of life and that their belief in animism might be wiped away if action was not taken. This internal conflict to do what is right was a big part of his personality, along with the love for his wife and daughter, and future child who was on its way.
But there were other aspects to his personality that even his colleagues may not have known: like the fact that he used to read his classmates’ palms when he was younger in return for a handful of coconuts. Apparently, his palm reading became so widely known that he had more coconuts than he knew what to do with. Classmates would come asking if they were going to pass their exams before going in to take their tests. One evening at a pub while I was living in Brighton, UK my friend asked if he would read her palm and that is where we learned that Caucasian hands are much harder to read as the lines are not as visible compared to darker skin. As silly as that memory might seem to the reader, it is a memory that warms my heart and reminds me of a man who left an indelible impression, even after all these years.
– Dr Ann Wand, Oxford, UK
Links to learn more about Abhay’s life, work and poetry:
Poetry: “I am not your data”
Poetry: “The republic of memory lost”
Poetry: “I refuse, I reject, I resist!”
Poetry: “Beautiful damaged people”
From Youth Kiawaaz: Madait: The Adivasi Spirit of Volunteerism and Cooperation
From Citizens for Justice and Peace:
- Spaces of Higher Education are the New Battlegrounds of Inequality: Abhay Xaxa
- Citizens for Justice and Peace mourns the untimely demise of Dr. Abhay Xaxa
From The India Forum: In Memoriam: Sociologist and Activist Abhay Xaxa
From The Wire: Remembering Abhay Xaxa, a Fiercely Unapologetic Adivasi Scholar-Activist