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Angst writ large in tribal land

How 'tribal' is the ultra-Left movement in the Indian mainland? How politically 'Maoist' is it? Sanjib Kr Baruah asks. Revolts under British rule

delhi Updated: Aug 16, 2010 01:41 IST
Sanjib Kr Baruah
Sanjib Kr Baruah
Hindustan Times

More than a century ago, fed up with the meddling and exploitative ways of moneylenders and contractors and the imperialistic ways of the British machinery, a young Birsa Munda led a community of his tribesmen in a violent blitzkrieg that set fire to the jungled swathes of Chotanagpur. This was the Munda ulgulan or upsurge.

Indian history is pockmarked with hundreds of such rebellions by various tribes taking place at regular intervals, rocking the establishment of the day to its very core.

The latest unrest is no different. But definitely much more dangerous. The fires are raging this time in a 2,500-km-long 'red corridor' from north to south in the Indian mainland and 100 years after Birsa Munda, adivasis are posing key questions.

And increasingly the government is left grappling for answers to questions such as: Whom does it fight? The exploited communities or the motley band of Maoist fighters? What is the nature of the problem — is it a tribal upsurge or is it a full-blown socio-political struggle by the Maoists?

"Large-scale development and mining projects which displace people are no longer acceptable to tribal people now. They have for the past 63 years given enough for national development. What have they got in return? Nothing but impoverishment," says Virginius Xaxa, who teaches sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.

"The upsurge today is for control over land, forest and other resources. These are autonomous struggles of the tribal people. However, they overlap with the Maoist struggle, which questions the exploitation of resources by private capital, both foreign and indigenous."

Noted historian Bipan Chandra has a different take on the matter.

"The present movement has been organised around and among tribals. Guided by the political philosophy of Mao Tse Tung, non-tribal people are organising the tribals. Fundamentally, it is a Maoist political struggle. Just that the poverty of the tribals is being used."

Says Chandan Sarma, who teaches sociology at Tezpur Central University: "The mainstay in the present case is tribals. I don't think the ultimate overthrow of the state is the issue with them. The Maoists also seem to articulate the aspirations of the tribal masses despite their non-tribal background."

Prakash Singh, former director-general of police in Uttar Pradesh and Assam, is much more categorical.

"It is a Maoist movement for capturing power. Their talk of a democratic revolution is a sham intended to delude the people."

Agreeing with Singh, Mahendra Kumawat, former special secretary, Home Ministry, says the Maoists have created a false vision for the tribal populace.

"Tribal people have been taken for a ride by the Maoists."

But can it be labelled a tribal movement?

B D Sharma, former collector of Bastar (Chhattisgarh) and an avid fighter for tribal rights, states the obvious: "Why should the state call it a tribal movement? It will mean the state has failed to perform for its own people. But the warlike situation that we see now is nothing but a reaction to a history of broken and false promises."

Traditional rights
"This state is not prepared to accept the idea that the tribals have rights over their homelands, that it is essential for (them) to have those rights in order to subsist. There also has been a criminalisation of the entire community. Take the case of "mohua" liquor, a mainstay of the tribal communities. When a baby is born a few drops are sprinkled, and even at death liquor is sprinkled. And now you have made liquor brewing a criminal offence," says B D Sharma.

"There is nothing like traditional rights for the tribal communities. It is a continuous saga of exploitation right from day one," says E N Rammohan, former director general, Border Security Force.

But does the state see the writing on the wall? Has there been proper recognition of the traditional rights of the tribal communities since independence?

"Traditional rights have invariably been in the form of community control over land, forest and other resources. This has been de-recognised with the recognition of only private property and state property," says Xaxa.

"The progressive usurpation of the traditional rights of the tribal people that began in the colonial times has assumed a much larger magnitude in the recent times despite all political rhetoric," adds Chandan Sarma.

Development question
Bipan Chandra is clear on this: "Change has to take place. Economic development and preservation of culture and tradition is a dual process that has to go hand in hand."

Agrees B D Sharma: "Mineral resources have to be exploited. Without steel, there can be no development and industrialisation, no modern society. But if bauxite is to be taken out from my forest and my land, at least ask me. Take my permission."

Higher economic growth in India has fuelled greater demand for resources. The situation has become all the more complex because of the involvement of private companies that will finally become the de-facto controllers of these resources.

"Tribals want development but not of the type that the Indian state has been pursuing. They want development of the type where they have control over their land, forest and other resources. In short, development with identity," says Xaxa.

State response
Kumawat vouches for the much-talked-about twin-pronged strategy.

"This strategy is essential."

But the carrot-and-stick policy of ushering in greater development as well as of simultaneously trying to 'crush' the movement is increasingly being questioned.

None is more indignant than Rammohan.

"If you had ensured dignity for the tribals in the first place, do you think they would have planted landmines? Everybody should have land for cultivation, the adivasi should have full rights over the mineral resources in his forests."

If this is a battle for the hearts and minds, the first step to victory lies in according them their rightful place in history and recognising the rights that they have cherished all throughout their existence. Military options will perhaps leave no victors.

Says Bipan Chandra: "The onus lies on the Indian state to do something substantial and meaningful. But in a way, the Maoists have done a good job. Now, the Indian government is more aware of what to do." One surely hopes so.

Revolts under British rule

First Published: Aug 16, 2010 00:03 IST