Terrorism Update
Show/Hide Search
    Click to Enlarge

The price of a tribal's life


Most of the major national dailies missed this news, and it barely registered even in regional papers: On June 18, a tribal, Jeevan Munda, was beaten to death by three forest guards at Hazaribagh National Park in Jharkhand, on the mere suspicion that he may have cut a tree. The 'evidence' of this offence was that Munda possessed (The horror! The horror!) a wooden cot. The forest guards dragged Munda out of his home and into the forest to 'interrogate' him regarding this 'grave offence'. His body, with signs of beating, was subsequently recovered from the woods. Local reports suggest that the Forest Department has 'agreed to pay' a princely sum of Rs 10,000 for Munda's last rites, and a 'compensation' of Rs 200 per month (for an unspecified period) to his widow, Etwaria. That, then, is still the worth of at least some lives in 'resurgent India'.

This is not a unique case of excess, though it would be one of the more extreme in the tribal and hinterland areas of this country - particularly in central and eastern India. The quotidian and appalling oppression of the Indian state is so pervasive that the Muria tribals of Bastar have a saying that goes something like this: "Heaven is a forest of miles and miles of mahua trees. And hell is a forest of miles and miles of mahua trees with a forest guard in it."

And while the agencies of the state have acquired such an often-deserved reputation for oppression, they are almost completely absent from widespread regions as benefactors or providers. For the tribal areas, this has been a matter, largely, of the well-intentioned but entirely misconceived policies inherited from the Nehruvian era, which sought to 'protect' the tribals from predatory interventions into their areas of traditional habitation, and to create a system of 'controlled contact' under which they would be prepared for 'full citizenship' in modern India. Under a string of unenlightened political successors, and in the hands of an increasingly ignorant, obdurate and corrupt bureaucracy, this system was transformed into a structure of isolation, neglect and, progressively, exploitation and abuse. If anything, the problems have been compounded by a series of judicial directives intended to 'protect forests', which offer little protection against the contractor-forest official nexus that is clear-felling vast tracts, but which divest the tribal of any right to the resources that have been his for the millennia, and that infinitely strengthen the petty tyrannies of local officials and Government extortionists.

Gigantic 'development' projects and industries are now making renewed inroads into tribal areas, but yielding little benefits to them. They are ousted from their homes, to which they have no legal title, since all their forest lands 'belong' to the Government, and are paid little or no compensation - a legally impeccable position, since they 'own' nothing. The state's record of rehabilitation of populations displaced by development projects is inexcusable and, of the millions displaced by dams, mines, industries and wildlife protection schemes only a fraction have been 'resettled' - usually under grossly ill-planned and mismanaged rehabilitation projects. The rest of them are simply left to their own devices, to migrate, survive, or starve, as the case may be.

It is ironic that, as the case of Jeevan Munda demonstrates, States that have been created in the name of tribal rights - such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh - are yet to accord a higher status, to significantly improve the quality of life, or to guarantee greater protection of rights, for their tribal populations.

The problem, in part, is perhaps that tribals remain relatively small and politically marginalised minorities in these 'tribal States'. Tribals account for about 28 per cent of Jharkhand's total population of 27 million, and about 32 per cent of Chhattisgarh's 21 million people. Deprivation, poverty, endemic shortages of the most basic resources needed for survival, ignorance and backwardness continue to stalk the tribal communities even in these States, where their status - political rhetoric and tokenism notwithstanding - remains abysmal.

It is these conditions, the administrative vacuum and enveloping neglect that exists in tribal areas, and the sporadic and overwhelmingly violent or oppressive state intercessions into the tribals' lives and communities, that have created the opportunities for the Maoist expansion across these regions and beyond. All their myth-making notwithstanding, the truth is that the Maoists have not 'liberated' any significant territories from effective Government control. All they have done is step into areas from where the Government has traditionally been absent, and from these, nibbled their way into some contiguous territories and populations.

A number of increasingly frenzied human rights, other non-governmental and political organisations have now taken up the 'cause' of tribal displacement by major development projects. Regrettably, their vested interests have provoked a polarisation and militancy that has yielded little benefit and, indeed, further isolated the tribals from any possibility of development and progress. Very few of these organisations genuinely have the interests of these oppressed communities at heart; a significant number of these are front organisations of the Maoists, interested only in harnessing these 'partial struggles' to the cause of their 'protracted war'; still others are run by mujra wallahs who join any protest that will get them a little media attention, funding or political prominence, with no interest in, or capacity for, sustained advocacy that could channel benefits to the communities they pretend to 'speak for'.

For all our failures in India's North-East, and the continuance of insurgent violence and persistent mis-governance in many States in the region, Mrs Indira Gandhi's policy of carving out tribal majority States from Assam has benefited the tribal people, whose condition in these new States is certainly better than that of the tribal communities who continue to live within Assam. Perhaps this is something that needs to be studied and applied to central and eastern India, where a political and administrative order that is capable of executing a stronger and more direct assault on poverty, backwardness and low productivity in predominantly tribal units needs to be created.

It is high time that our policies of asphyxiation of the tribes in the name of 'protection' were ended. The history and culture of tribal communities is, no doubt, unique. But their needs and aspirations are no different from ours. We were all tribals at some time in history.

(Published in The Pioneer, June 23, 2007)






Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.