When the call went through, I visualised Bulu Imam, 80, sitting in his colonial house nestled in a grove of trees and lush bushes in Hazaribagh. This city in Jharkhand has been his home since 1942, the year he was born to a Franco-Indian mother and an Arab father.
“Technically, I am not an Anglo-Indian. I am a Franco-Indian. Cosmopolitan is the correct word, similar to what Shashi Tharoor is,” said Imam. This opening conversation set the tone for the rest of the interview.
An activist and a conservationist, Imam has dedicated his life conserving Adivasi art as well as the thick forests of Jharkhand. Imam became a strong advocate for Adivasis and wildlife in the 1970s when he witnessed how the coal mines in the region were displacing the local communities and affecting their livelihoods.
In early 1990s, he discovered ancient rock-art in caves near Hazaribagh that were more than 5,000 years old. He was awarded Padma Shri in 2019 for his art conservation work and environmental activism spanning many decades.
But when the interview commenced, we did not discuss this, to begin with. He first talked about his roots and what he feels about the Anglo-Indian community.
“My wife and I were discussing this some time ago. I was brought up as a European. Both my parents are of distinct origins. The analogy of an Anglo-Indian does not fit me. I have no chip on my shoulder, the Anglo-Indians do,” he said.
His rhetoric caught me off guard when he asked: “Does your family or relative offer a servant a seat on their dining table?” He answered his own question and said: “Most families that I know do not even allow their servants to wear slippers in their homes.”
Throughout the interview, he drew heavily from the race, class, and caste fault lines that run deep within Indian communities to explain the context in which one needs to talk about Anglo-Indians.
“Why is this community so neglected? While Kitty Texeira’s story of selling fruits will be glorified by the media and documentary makers, her children will forever be stigmatised,” said Imam.
Kitty is the most photographed and documented Anglo-Indian woman living in McCluskieganj— an Anglo-India town about 65 km from the Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi. She married a local Adivasi boy. Imam has a strong connection with McCluskieganj. His mother lived here for over a decade.
“I visited my mother in McCluskieganj many times but felt disassociated from the Anglo-Indian community. I felt more Indian than Anglo-Indian,” said Imam.
Despite his roots and family history that ties him to the community, he despises the ‘Anglo-Indian’ label. He delved into the factors that led to the shattered dreams of a community.
“The Anglo-Indian community has never been considered British enough by the Indians. They have always been considered third-grade Britishers, stripped off the privileges of being the defendants of the Britishers,” he pointed out.
Based on his research of the Mooluk that McCluskieganj aspired to be, he shared his observation saying that the topography outline of the estate bought from the Raja of Chhota Nagpur in the map is in the shape of Ireland.
Timothy McCluskie, the founder of McCluskieganj, was an Irish man. “Since many original Anglo-Indian settlers in McCluskieganj were of Irish descent, an Irish person will forever be an outcaste for Britain,” said Imam.
He recalled an episode from 2012 from a dinner invite to the House of Lords, after receiving the Gandhi International Peace Award 2011 in the House of Lords in London. Imam exposed the Irish-British conflict that continues in contemporary times. Imam’s second cousin, a British citizen, joined him for the dinner with his wife. “My cousin’s wife was not allowed entry to the dinner because she is from Ireland. You must go to the House of Lords to find out that your cousin’s wife will be denied entry upon reaching there. It’s not common knowledge,” he said bitterly. His cousin refused to come to the dinner and went home with his wife.
Drawing parallels, he said that most Indians, especially the upper caste and well-educated ones, look down upon Anglo-Indians. The complexities don’t end there. “The Anglo-Indians are looked down upon by the upper section of the Anglo- Indians. My aunt, an Anglo-Indian and the principal founder of a leading Indian school would differentiate among Indians,” he said.
Going deeper into the reasons for his own defense against being called an Anglo-Indian, Imam admitted that it also has been his attitude.
“Who am I to find faults when I have a psychological complex? I am one of them. That instigates me to defend myself saying I am Indian, a cosmopolitan. I gave away all my roots except for my Anglo-Indian ones because the community is underprivileged and marginalised,” he said and added: “At their first instance, an Anglo-Indian will always attempt to hide his or her identity because the moment people see it, the blue-chip gets associated. That’s something that I resent.”
He, however, has one regret.
In 1986, Imam was chosen as regional convenor for INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), a Delhi-based NGO. INTACH was founded in 1984 with the vision to create a membership organisation to stimulate and spearhead heritage awareness and conservation in India.
In 1987, he proposed to make McCluskieganj an INTACH heritage town. “Someone on the INTACH board back then shot down my idea. It is my deepest regret,” he said.
For the rest of the interview, he passionately talked about his work.
It was in 1979 when he first witnessed the razing down of forests of Jharkhand for coal mining. “I was traveling with British traveler-writer Mark Shand when I witnessed the open cast mining for the first time. This journey played a crucial role in my understanding,” he said. The episode had a lasting imprint on young Imam who started to explore ways to stop coal mining.
“It was here that I became an activist first. But I was also looking for sustainable options to engage the local people and generate a source of income. This would also keep them away from working at the mining sites,” said Imam. He was
Appointed as the Convener of INTACH Hazaribagh chapter in 1987, after which he undertook a padyatra (foot march) across the North Karanpura Valley to protest against coal mining.
In 1991, Imam discovered the first rock art painting in one of the mining sites, after learning about them from an Australian Jesuit priest, Father Tony Herbert.
After realising that the red markings were ancient rock art, Imam researched further to understand the pre-historic significance of the paintings. “I started meeting up with the locals and finding out more about their ancestry. I could also witness the historic relevance of the villages and their predicament. I witnessed the terrible socio-economic condition of the women who produced this art. They have no resources or even the bare minimum required for a marginal lifestyle," he said.
With his own background and knowledge of arts, Imam felt that he could do something to correct it. “I understood what these women were producing was of international standards and not only folk art. This led to my art project, which needless to say is legendary now.” Imam told me about the Sohrai and Khovar paintings that he managed to put on the world map.
Imam was first nominated for Padma Shri in 2002, but it was only in 2019 that he was conferred the prestigious award. He continues to be a guiding figure for all generations in the region with his insurmountable intellect, outspokenness, and frankness.
Despite the multiple accolades and appraisals from the government, Imam's work has never received any support from the government or administrations. He said he has no friends in the government.
Imam describes the Executive as a muddled group of people, engrossed in minting money for them than worrying about others. “This temperament has been there since British time. The babus who hold the string of power are not compliant or concerned people, so I will not blame the government entirely.” He asserted that his own hard work and international institutions have gotten him more help than any government.
At the end of the interview, Imam said: “I am the only paryavaranjeevi (environmentalist parasite), who has managed to get a Padma Shri.”