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Lost in the woods

As studies have shown, the tribals of central India have gained least and lost most from six decades of independence and economic development, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2008 21:32 IST

Fifty years ago, in October 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a short note explaining what India’s policies towards the tribals should be. He urged that tribal rights in land and forest be protected, that tribal arts and culture be respected and renewed, that the tribals themselves be involved in their own administration (thus ‘we should avoid introducing too many outsiders into tribal territory’), and that government schemes in tribal areas ‘work through, and not in rivalry to, their own social and cultural institutions’. As Nehru pointed out, ‘people should develop along the lines of their own genius and we should avoid imposing anything on them’.

Nehru’s prescriptions have been comprehensively disregarded by the Centre, as well as by the governments of the different states that have significant tribal populations. The quality of schools and hospitals in tribal areas is abysmal. There has been little attempt to involve tribals in their own administration. Worse, state policies have worked actively to dispossess tribals of their land and homes, and to deny them their traditional rights in the forest.

As studies have shown, the tribals of central India have gained least and lost most from six decades of independence and economic development. Their access to education and health care is even more erratic than that of the Dalits. Again, unlike the Dalits they usually go unrepresented in the higher levels of the bureaucracy, the judiciary, or the Union Cabinet. Where the political system has ignored them, the economic system has discriminated against them. Tribal lands are submerged to provide water to Hindu farmers and electricity to urban residents. Else they are taken over by mining companies seeking to service the growing global market for minerals such as iron ore and bauxite. At other times, they are the victims of development’s equally modern ‘Other’: conservation. Thus a disproportionately high number of those displaced by national parks and sanctuaries are tribals.

The Indian state has treated its tribal citizens with contempt and condescension; so, too, have the major political parties of independent India. This neglect has opened up a space for other actors to move into. Thus, in recent decades, three different kinds of missionaries have sought to increase their influence in tribal areas. These are the Christian missionaries, the Hindu missionaries, and the Maoist missionaries.

These three groups each see in the tribals a vehicle for increasing their own social and political influence. Admittedly, each group does try to bring some tangible benefits to the tribals. From the late 19th century, the Christian missionaries have run schools and hospitals in adivasi areas. Since the 1950s, Hindu missionaries have emulated them, by opening their own set of pathshalas and clinics. The Maoists, for their part, do often attempt to get the tribals a higher wage

for labouring in a landlord’s field, and higher rates for the collection of forest produce.

These welfare-oriented activities, however, are merely a means. The end, in each case, is to convert the tribal to the religious or political philosophy of the group in question. The padre or nun hopes to make the tribal a Christian; the sant or sadhu hopes to make the tribal a Hindu; the comrade or party secretary hopes to make him a Maoist revolutionary. Thus, if the state and the established political parties have tended to treat the tribals as second-class citizens, Christian, Hindu, and Maoist missionaries tend to treat them as cannon fodder.

Conventionally, the term ‘missionaries’ is reserved for the Christians. However, in tribal areas, the VHP and the Maoists must be considered missionaries, too, in that they seek, by blandishments or by force, to convert the tribals to their own worldview. These three groups work energetically to augment their own flock at the expense of the others. Notably, each group has contempt for the history, culture, ideas, and aspirations of the tribals themselves. Each works not through, but in rivalry, to tribal cultural institutions.

Thus, Hindu and Christian schools teach tribals to forget their own Gods and embrace the Gods promoted by them. Maoist meetings urge the tribals to replace their deities with the revolutionary trinity of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. At the same time, sadhu, sant, priest, nun, comrade and revolutionary have all shown little interest in the beauties of tribal art, folklore, music, and craftsmanship.

Tribal India has increasingly become a theatre for the competitive harvest of souls. In this rivalry the Christians are placed at a severe disadvantage. This is because the Maoists have behind them the power of the gun, whereas the Hindutva groups can command the power of the State apparatus. Wherever the BJP is in government, whether by itself or in a coalition, it makes sure that it controls the Education and Home portfolios, the better to reshape the curriculum of government schools and to direct the actions (or, as the case may be, the inaction) of the police. This asymmetry lies behind the recent killings and beatings of Christians in Orissa, where the state administration has allowed the VHP and Bajrang Dal cadres to run amok for weeks.

Perhaps the violence in Orissa will soon stop; one certainly hopes it does. But it is hard to see how, within the present configuration, the adivasi will ever be treated with the dignity and respect that Nehru called for. Short-sighted state governments will continue to dispossess tribals to humour urban populations or mining companies. Arrogant missionaries will continue to demand that tribals abandon their own culture to embrace that of the outsider.

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and the author of India After Gandhi.