Manmohan Singh may be the man of the moment, but he isn’t the flavour of the season. Last year, he had identified the Maoists as our biggest security threat. This week, at a meet on the Forest Rights Act, he publicly accepted the truth that has been obvious for decades — that Maoism will keep growing unless tribals get their due. An important meeting, given that Maoist attacks in the tribal areas are dominating the headlines, it was nevertheless ignored by the chief ministers of all the Maoist-affected states, with the sole exception of Naveen Patnaik. So is Singh the man of the moment or too far ahead of his time?
The day before this meet, the death of a man a 100 years old was announced in Paris. A man so far ahead of his time that he had broken with the past. Claude Levi-Strauss, who worked on ‘primitive’ societies, was relatively unknown outside intellectual circles. His name reminded ordinary people of a jeans manufacturer in San Francisco. But he casts a long shadow over the social sciences.
Levi-Strauss shifted the focus of inquiry from what institutions like marriage, a clan or an IIT are for, to the intriguing question of what they are made of. His structuralist analysis of myth, the oldest form of human knowledge, shared across peoples, made a radical break with the ethnocentrism which had marked the study of humankind since the rise of Europe. The identification of racial differences was popular well into the 20th century because it served the colonial project. But by the 1950s, when Levi-Strauss began to receive attention, the illogical link between race and culture just had to be broken. Why is it illogical? Simply because there are many more cultures than there are races.
But in our forest areas, we are still applying another colonial idea — terra nullius, which was used to beggar indigenous populations in the Americas and Australia. It posited that anyone could occupy lands over which no one claimed ownership. Or were perceived not to have the right to claim ownership, the pretext for the annexation of Oudh and Jhansi in India. Occupied lands were there to be exploited, the welfare of local people being secondary. Exactly as we have exploited the lands, minerals and forest resources of the tribal areas, with almost no regard for local populations.
They were squeezed between the Indian Forests Act and the Wildlife Protection Act, through which the government took away forest land and denied access to the commons without making proper reparation. More land was taken away for development projects and, in recent years, for special economic zones for land-hungry business. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 was supposed to right historical wrongs, but the tribals still seem to have a raw deal.
There was ample warning of trouble ahead. For example, the 1980s saw a militant phase of the Jharkhand movement in which, incidentally, the Naxals were involved. Now a lesser breed of Maoists with a tenuous interest in ideology, complete disinterest in the democratic process and a disgusting eagerness to commit murder has assumed control over tribal communities. Perhaps the Prime Minister is not ahead of his time. Maybe the rest of the country is running on Indian Standard Time.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine.
The views expressed by the author are personal.