Fading footprints

Print edition : September 29, 2017

Tribal people protesting against the Chotanagpur and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts in Ranchi on October 22, 2016. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

The well-researched articles in this volume look at the shrinking space for tribal rights from various vantage points.

YOU hear a desperate trumpeting every day, from tribal India.

Jailed and refused bail, Medha Patkar has been prevailed upon to end her fast seeking justice for the 1.5 million evictees of the Sardar Sarovar Project, Bhilala tribals among them. The State of Jharkhand, which was created to acknowledge the indigeneity of its tribal population, has banned Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a book on tribal travails.

The 15 writers of the intensively researched papers in First Citizens : Adivasis, Tribals, and Indigenous Peoples of India climb down the rocky chasms of tribal history and observe their precarious contemporary situation from different vantage points. In the book, edited by Meena Radhakrishna, their combined perspective attempts to bring the reader up to date on this civilisational predicament of a republic committed to egalitarian goals. This is an ongoing saga of how these many and diverse peoples have responded to, protested and rebelled against and negotiated with not only the Indian state but also with powerful social and economic forces for years. The appendix offers a staggering view of all the relevant laws and judgments—a veritable second jungle in which India’s “first citizens” now find themselves. More than 100 million of them.

Tribal identity

Who are these indigenous peoples amongst us? This question is almost never properly asked by most Indians, but pat comes the answer, masked by preconceptions, prejudices and patronising stereotypes. Despite the breast-beating about India’s cultural diversity, what prevails is sheer ignorance about the many ethnicities and their languages and cultures. It calls to mind the fable about the elephant and the blind men.

Virginia Xaxa covers a range of nomenclatures and plunges into the question of identity as it has been defined for centuries, and is being articulated today in India and the world at large. Since 1989, the right to tribal peoples’ identity as separate peoples with distinct cultures has been gaining wider acceptance than before. As vulnerable minorities, assimilation at the cost of their lands and livelihoods, traditions and religions causes extreme anomie. This is because of their “extreme marginalisation in the economic, political, social, and cultural domains”. In India, they possess constitutional rights over land and territory, which come in the way of majoritarian agendas. As a result, there are increasing pressures on them to submit and conform.

Religious affiliation has been a traditional way to blur ethnicities. In pre-colonial times, Hindu kings often made feudatories of tribal chiefs, inducting them as Kshatriyas, and endowing them with mythical lineages. The historian Biswamoy Pati has described the Sanskritisation process in Odisha, where Hindu identity depends on both exclusion and inclusion, with Adivasis sometimes seen as non-Hindus outside the varnasrama hierarchy, and sometimes as Hindus of inferior castes on a par with Dalits.

In general, Hindu society has not exactly welcomed Adivasis into its upper castes, although tribal deities might get accommodation in the outer prakaaras of temples. Pati, who died earlier this year, has zeroed in on recent attempts to erase their ethnic footprints altogether with the claim that all tribal peoples are Hindus to begin with. Co-opting some and subjugating others is a recognised strategy of assimilation by dominant cultures, worldwide.

In the north-eastern region, as in Jharkhand, the major Christian sects encouraged under the Raj are now facing serious competition from “bourgeois spirituality and new-style faiths”, in David Zhou’s words. By and large, these Christian converts have retained their Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) status, with its constitutional safeguards, but of late they are being exhorted to return to Hinduism, minus the S.T. status. Jharkhand has passed an anti-conversion law with a four-year prison term and Rs.1 lakh fine. S.T. status with its constitutional safeguards can crumble with a single denotification order. The classification of Gujarat’s Rathvas as an S.T. was cancelled by a State government order in 2013 that substituted the word “Hindu” for “Rathva”, spelling an end to reservation in jobs. Arjun Rathwa and his co-authors assert that denotification will pave the way for corporate exploitation of the dolomite, fluorite, sand and granite in the Chhote Udaipur region.

Migration & changes

Rudolf Heredia, Indrani Mazumdar, Neetha N. and others point to changes taking place in erstwhile homogeneous and isolated Adivasi societies, with migration on the rise. Sudha Vasan says: “The inequalities embedded in all community identities, hierarchies, exploitation and oppression… exist in Adivasi communities as in others.” Landowning tribal elites make their own deals with outsiders and their agents, as well as with revenue and forest officials. There are pressures on Adivasi gram sabhas, both internal and external, that empower some at the cost of others. Colonial, casteist and even class stereotypes are not easy to apply any more.

It is the “poor recognition of customary communal tenures and resource rights in the private-property-based system of revenue administration introduced by the British…. [which] is at the root of their poverty,” according to Madhu Sarin. But such informally held custom-based land rights are difficult to hold and validate, with the bottom falling out of tribal society today. The state’s prior right over land has come to be taken as self-evident. Not so self-evident is the right to compensation and rehabilitation of those who were moved out of that land to make way for roads and railway tracks, dams and state-run projects and private industry.

Unquestioned also is the state’s prerogative to allot that land on lease or to sell it outright. Protected areas, reserved forests and wildlife sanctuaries are other categories of state-appropriated, originally tribal-occupied territories. Such “development projects”, whether private or state-run, according to Felix Padel, are “the opposite of real development… [tribal people] are flooded out. Money comes in, they go out.”

In principle, the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act of 1996 (PESA) and the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 uphold the concept of land being held in common under the supervision of gram sabhas. But recent amendments have eroded that commitment. In several States, PESA has not even been notified and many tribal people have lost access to food supplies and livelihoods. Protests such as the Chipko movement of the 1970s led to laws proposing to restore the balance, but there have been several non-statutory strategies such as the Joint Forest Management policy, which are used by Forest Departments to evict forest-dwellers and label them as “encroachers”.

Invasion of mining companies

Indigenous peoples as “encroachers”? It has happened time and again in other countries, too, with nation states greedy for land and resources simply criminalising and exterminating whole populations. Once taken over, the hills of Jharkhand and Odisha, looked upon by Adivasis as manifestations of the divine and guarded by regulatory taboos, are leased out to mining companies.

The rocks are gouged out to extract bauxite and the pits formed by this activity are often left unfilled and they become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Cerebral malaria is endemic among Adivasis of Jharkhand.

The Tribal Affairs Department is notorious for its susceptibility to corruption, and this encourages mining companies to flout stipulations regarding filling the pits. The estimated bauxite reserves in India are 2.9 billion tonnes, with Odisha having over 50 per cent of them. No wonder governments turn a blind eye to infringements of mining laws by foreign as well as Indian corporates. This gives rise to warnings that such exploitative mining activities will exhaust mineral sources. Every once in a while comes a reproof from the judiciary. The Samatha judgment of 1996 restored land rights taken away by mining companies from tribal people and ruled that the Andhra Pradesh government issue title deeds to them. “The stalling of the large Vedanta and POSCO projects (in 2013 and 2010) due to the assertion of forest rights has made state agencies and private corporations apprehensive,” says Madhu Sarin.

Supreme Court order

Recently, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to revisit its National Mineral Policy of 2008, which “seems to be only on paper and is not being enforced, perhaps due to the involvement of very powerful vested interests or a failure of nerve”.

Ordering that those who indulge in illegal mining in Odisha provide compensation to the extent of 100 per cent of the price of the extracted iron ore and manganese, the court has added to its earlier observations in Goa and Karnataka that rapacious mining depletes the country’s resources. While the environmental impact of mining is mentioned in the order, there is nothing said about the effect on the people who have been living on that very land.

One wonders if it is a case of “a failure of nerve” when it comes to defending tribal rights. No doubt, this order of the highest court in the land is a much-needed rap on the knuckles of those who despoil the environment. But without acknowledging the stake of tribal people, it may not amount to much. For most tribal peoples, state policy since Independence has thrown up challenges that have not transformed into opportunities to survive and thrive.

That ecocide and what Padel unequivocally terms as “genocide” go together is the consensus among these writers.

But global capital has a silver tongue: Vedanta Alumina came out recently with a cover page newspaper advertisement, promising clean energy and women’s empowerment. It might very soon be business as usual for the United Kingdom-based company, even after a setback in the Supreme Court.

Armed rebellion

As their world comes under the juggernaut of a crude model of development, some Adivasis have turned to armed rebellion. Fifty years ago in Naxalbari village in West Bengal a landlord fired into the air to scare off a crowd of angry farmworkers claiming rights to lands that had been common. Perhaps the most compelling passages in this volume offer glimpses of the fire that has smouldered in central India for five decades, sending out sparks from time to time.

Maoism may not have brought together class, caste and tribal issues in a countrywide upsurge, but as Madhu Sarin says: “Today, India’s central forested tribal belt, which is also rich in mineral resources, has the country’s highest concentrations of poverty, as well as left-wing militancy.” On April 24, 2017, 26 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed in a Maoist ambush in Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. Salwa Judum, the quasi-state anti-Maoist militia in Chhattisgarh, destroyed 640 villages in 2005-06 and was outlawed by the Supreme Court in response to a public interest litigation petition by concerned citizens. Some of its former members are reported to be working for the District Reserve Guard in Chhattisgarh. According to Archana Prasad, Maoism in Bengal has thrived despite land reforms and democratisation of forest management under years of communist rule. She attributes it to “a relative gap that persists between the tribal people and others in the State”.

The gap in awareness, however, is filling fast: human rights demands of Adivasis and tribal people in India have meshed with a network of local, national and international organisations to advocate needed legislation, as well as to press for implementation of existing laws. Ironically, the remarkable support the embattled indigenous peoples of the world, who are mostly hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers, are getting in terms of global opinion is itself sourced in communication science and technology, which is a product of the phenomenal growth of global capital.

Meena Radhakrishna suggests that this paradox holds the key to its resolution. It has nurtured non-governmental organisations such as the Jibika Bachao Andolan, which consistently maintains that land acquisition for industrial projects ought not to lead to loss of livelihoods.

Says Savyasaachi: “Adivasis are not opposed to modernisation, but to subordination to the rationale of the dominant systems in the world.” Padel and others call attention to tribal sexual mores, which show a lack of double standards, and ecologically sustainable forest management and agriculture practices. “Sacred groves”, for example, were set apart by them as bio-reserves. Surely the rationale of such practices can be re-applied in wider contexts? Not being able to use and preserve these lands any longer, Adivasis not only want a share in the wealth but also a role as responsible participants in a democratic and sustainable model of development.

Will the FRA restore the tribal “elephant’s” habitat? That does not look likely, judging by Sudha Vasan’s critique of the 2012 amendments to the Act, which “make a mockery of the powers of the gram sabha”. And yet, the same writer holds out a larger hope: that the FRA remains a potential force for meaningful integration of Adivasi societies: “Modern universal identities such as ‘citizenship’ have the potential in theory to create less exploitative societies.”

“In theory”, that is a bit of sugar cane being held out to a wounded and angry elephant. What is an Indian jungle without elephants, and what is India without these peoples?

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