For the citizens of erstwhile colonies, the “white man’s burden” is an abhorred phrase, notwithstanding Rudyard Kipling’s intentions in 1899. It has come to represent the colonisers’ disdain for their ‘subjects.’ The expression also betrays a certain naivety of the romantic writer about the colonies and the empires.
Over a century later, in the era of political correctness, many Indians take it as the liberal democrats’ burden to free the tribal people from the curse of ignorance and poverty. Some others believe that the primitive communities are better off without the stresses of ‘civilisation’ and must be therefore left alone. A small section even romanticises everything tribal – including witchcraft and child marriages – denying them such ‘trappings’ of modernity as jobs, schools or even vaccination.
Kipling also created Sher Khan, the fictional tiger of the Indian jungles, which is now at the center of the tribal welfare debate. While Kipling composed his jungle lore, the white man monopolised control over forest resources at enormous cost to indigenous people. Many historians including Ramachandra Guha, Madhav Gadgil and Mahesh Rangarajan have chronicled the last century’s countrywide tribal resistance against arbitrary colonial laws.
As tribal people continue to be evicted from their lands and livelihoods in independent India, they seem to be fighting the same battle: against policies that support outside commercial interests over forest resources, causing displacement and ecological disasters. Many communities have been uprooted more than twice in a matter of decades. More than tiger conservation projects, India’s industrial and mining policies – and pressures of urbanisation – are forcing simple tribal folks to violate their age-old customs. Some have fallen victim to international cartels of wildlife trade and many others, according to sociologist Ganesh Devi, have been used in sectarian violence at the behest of militant Hindu organisations.
Today’s tribal versus tiger debate remains highly ideological but many experts on both sides are beginning to see common grounds. Conservationist and director of the Wildlife Trust of India, Aniruddha Mookerjee, says that tiger conservation is about saving India’s ecosystem, its habitat, ethos and culture, and in the long run, the very survival of humans. Anthropologist and cultural historian Ramachandra Guha believes that a meeting ground does exist because the tribals and tigers have coexisted for centuries.
After 60 years of independence, India finally has an Act that seeks to undo the historical injustice without harming the wildlife. Notified early this year, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dweller (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, recognises the forest dwellers’ rights on their habitat though, significantly, it excludes the right to hunt. If implemented in the right spirit, it should raise the tribal peoples’ stakes in forest conservation, hopefully leading to more protection for the legendary big cat.