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State Policy and Adivasi Resistance in Contemporary India

Indra Munshi (indramunshi@yahoo.co.in) is an independent researcher and former faculty and head at Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai, Mumbai.

First Citizens: Studies on Adivasis, Tribals, and Indigenous Peoples in India edited by Meena Radhakrishna, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016; p ix +444, ₹ 995.

As its title suggests, the book uses the nomenclature First Citizen, in preference to terms like Tribal, Adivasi, Scheduled Tribe (ST), or Indigenous People for a number of reasons. In the introduction, Meena Radhakrishna, editor of the volume, explicates the historical-political context of each of these terms, from colonial to contemporary, on global but especially the Indian scene. Bringing together discussions among colonial and postcolonial administrators, anthropologists, sociologists, and political activists concerned with Adivasi communities, she argues in favour of using the term which is somewhat new in the discourse on Adivasis. Radhakrishna observes,

The phrase “first citizen” derives from the understanding that all such communities, including in India, are amongst the world’s first, original people, and so by definition, the world’s first citizens. Terms like “tribe,” “adivasi,” and “indigenous” have genealogies which arise from specific historical-political Indian contexts. (p 2)

However, as the studies in the volume show, these communities may prefer one term over another, for different cultural or political reasons, to best identify themselves at any particular time. Of course, they are neither uncontested nor unchanging.

The volume brings together studies by well-known scholars, and scholar activists seriously engaged with questions of Adivasi identity, livelihood, right to resources, gender issues, impact of “development,” state action and growing discontent and its articulation among them. Fifteen articles are organised into three sections titled “Categories and Identities as Historical Process”; “Destruction, Loss, Dislocation”; and “Negotiations and Redressals.” The introduction and the concluding paper titled “Epilogue: Violence of ‘Development’ and Adivasi Resistance: An Overview,” are written by Radhakrishna, providing a context and an overview of the assault on the existence of these communities in rapidly changing India, and the emergence of new alliances to assert their democratic and human rights.

Ethnicity and Conversion

In the first section, Virginius Xaxa highlights the implications of the use of different terms, reminding us that “the label used often becomes an issue in the politics of identity.” He elaborates on
the question of indigenous, its usage in international and Indian situation, the controversy surrounding its applicability in many countries, including India and China. In India, Xaxa points out, the complexities of regional diversity make the use of the term problematic. So that communities which are indigenous to the country as a whole may not be indigenous to the region/territory of their present settlement, making a group “indigenous” and “non-indigenous” at the same time. The distinction is important because it is tied up with rights and privilege of the communities and significantly, with their identity.

Issues related to Adivasi identity, ethnicity, conversion to Christianity or Hinduism, and the assimilation and modernisation agenda of the Indian state are highlighted by Biswamoy Pati, David Vumlallian Zou and Rudolf C Heredia, from historical and contemporary perspectives. For Heredia the Adivasi question raises more fundamental issues for the whole society: economic sustainability, cultural autonomy, democratic integration that need to be addressed. Neither assimilation nor isolation can be the answer. Pati explains the aggressive phase of conversion by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Odisha, especially in the recent decades, with reference to the virtual abdication of responsibility by the state to provide livelihood, education, and healthcare. The space is taken over, partly by schools and ashrams run by the VHP, Christian missionaries and non-governmental organisations. In addition, the VHP has created a narrative that tribals are in reality Hindus who were converted to Christianity by the missionaries—so they must be reconverted. This goes along with the terrorising of Dalits who had converted to Christianity—to escape discrimination—to now reconvert.

In the North East, conversion of tribals to Hinduism and Chrisitanity is old, going back centuries, but Zou finds that most of these groups retain some of their indigenous practices and beliefs. This can be said for the rest of India, too, where a peculiar mix of the old and new seems to have evolved over time without creating difficulties. The recent conversions by Hindu organisations, however, present a different picture.

Zou also highlights the dynamics of power politics in post-independence India, the contest between the new modernising elite, the old traditional chiefs and the majoritarian politician. But, importantly, he tells us that the tribal groups of this region “constitute a heterogeneous body with distinct historical lineage and divergent political trajectories” (p 122). The plains tribes are not prepared to share the benefit of being STs, a politically privileged identity in post-independence India, with Assam’s tea tribes, also known as Adivasis.

This section on categories, Adivasi, tribes, indigenous communities, offers a new perspective which views “indigenous” and “Adivasi sensibility,” “outside the frame of primitive accumulation of capital,” which subordinates both labour and nature to the ever expanding need of capital, by converting use value into exchange value. In this economic organisation, both nature and labour are degraded and destroyed because profit must be made. The indigenous and Adivasi perspective, therefore, emphasises the value of and need for preservation of ecological balance, labour potential, human rights, and right to means of subsistence. The Adivasi sensibility recognises that the

life support system cannot be defined satisfactorily either by the market or by the state, or by both of them put together. The state and the market perpetuate and deepen the contradiction between equity and
development. (p 65)

To achieve equity and development that creates conditions for the regeneration of labour and nature, Savyasaachi forcefully argues, “Adivasi people need to be engaged not only as members or as cultural identities alone, but also as persons of knowledge and skills” (p 65), as people who have an alternative to offer.

The havoc that can be played by arbitrary de-notification of a tribe by the state government is well spelt out in the article on the Rathvas of Gujarat. Using the ambiguity surrounding the nomenclature Hindu–Adivasi, the government has not only deprived the Adivasis of their rightful benefits but even more seriously, it opens up the renewal and non-renewal resources in the areas inhabited by them for commercial exploitation by big business interests. This process is likely to continue in many other regions of a country, despite the resistance put up by Adivasi organisation. Arjun Rathva et al rightly point out,

The Fifth Schedule and PESA are proving to be significant hurdles. Therefore, a new method is being embarked upon—that of denotifying communities from the list of Adivasis as declared by the president and mentioned in the Constitution. (p 156)

‘Development’ as Disaster

It is amply clear by now that “Development,” a misnomer, has spelt disaster in the form of loss of life, livelihood, and deep-rooted ecological culture among the Adivasi communities. The second section closely examines the process and consequences of what Felix Padel terms “Investment-induced displacement” in different regions in India. He argues that, in a situation where megaprojects have invaded and destroyed the largely sustainable tribal economies, any attempt like the Panchayats (Extension to Schedule Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 to introduce a democratic self-government in these communities can only succeed minimally.

And although, dispossession and forced migration resulting from redesigned land and forest tenure and rights, and rampant usury, can be traced to colonial administrative system. It has not only persisted in new forms, but even gathered fresh momentum in recent decades.

In an insightful article, Indrani Mazumdar observes that the intermittent, survival-oriented migration of Adivasis, of whom Adivasi women form a large proportion, only deepens their insecurity, exploitation, and bondage. She writes,

... the particularly degraded conditions of adivasi women’s migratory employment in agriculture and non-agriculture, the chronic cycle of debt/advance-based recruitment, low income, wage-reducing dependence on contractors, and related unfreedoms do not seem to be capable of providing any security of livelihood or settlement outside agriculture. (p 203)

Employment as domestic servants in urban households, does not enhance their economic or social position in any way, on the contrary, traps them in an alien culture causing “acute identity crisis and social isolation” (Neetha). Even for the plantation labour, after decades of employment and despite the growth of trade union politics in West Bengal, Sharit K Bhowmik does not find a marked improvement in the quality of their life. In fact, the unemployed youth, he reports, are forced to migrate to distant places like Haryana, Bengaluru, and Kerala, moving from one place to another one job, to another as per the wish of the contractor.

The growing invasion, ever more violent, on their lives, livelihoods, rights, dignity, and identity, by the state and national and global capital, has evoked a widespread resistance from many Adivasi groups. This has taken many forms, the last section and the epilogue address issues related to ideologies, strategies, demands that characterise these protests, struggles, negotiations and initiatives.

In this context, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA) 2006, a remarkable legislation, has been an important step forward in recognition of their individual and communal rights. Two articles, by Sudha Vasan and Madhu Sarin, critically evaluate the act, its limitations and successes. Apart from its overall tardy implementation, which most articles in the volume point out, Vasan emphasises that while FRA encourages the demands for individual rights from the state, it fails to establish the mechanism and institutional process for promotion of collective rights of Adivasi communities. Sarin’s examination of the ground reality in several states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, West Bengal and others, however, leads her to a more optimistic conclusion. For,
although the act suffers from inherent limitations and poor implementation, it has strengthened the hands of the Adivasi communities to challenge the authority of the forest department. I quote her at length,

the assertion of rights by organised communities, even where these are yet to be recognised formally, is changing the balance of power between communities and the forest bureaucracy. Over one million households are already enjoying tenurial security over their cultivated lands obtained under FRA, while community control over forests is beginning to expand to areas beyond the pockets in which it was achieved initially. (p 305)

It has empowered and encouraged forest communities to adopt creative ways of defining and exercising democratic control over forest.

Archana Prasad’s analysis of the trajectories of Adivasi politics, the multiple forms of protests against state policy and Adivasi resistance in contemporary India, is a useful addition to the volume. The complex interplay of class consciousness and Adivasi community consciousness is important to understand Adivasi political mobilisation in the context of the larger economic-political processes at work. The larger structural changes like crisis in the agrarian sector, reduction in the state welfare measures, and the expanding control over resources has “increased the likelihood of overlap between Adivasi and working class consciousness,” but Prasad is quick to add that this emerging politics is more a critique of “modern” development, than the “capitalist form of modern development.” Neither the Adivasi elite, totally absorbed into the neo-liberal framework of the state, nor the Marxists in Central India, Prasad argues, “Can provide a credible opposition to neo-liberal market on which they partly depend for their survival” (p 330). But there have been cases like Vedanta and POSCO where grass roots Adivasi organisations have confronted the Indian state and the corporate houses. These and later struggles have taken diverse forms, legalistic and militant, brought together scholars, mass organisations, activists, local committee to resist the attack on their communal as well as democratic rights by the nexus of state, business interests, and the aggressive Hindu nationalism promoted by the right wing. One can only agree with Prasad that there “is an urgent need to build a unity and ideological cohesion between class-based struggles and the communitarian Adivasi politics of Adivasi workers.”

Adivasi demand for rights to resources like land, forest and water for subsistence, has also been challenged by the hardcore environmental groups. But, there is a growing realisation among many of them that Adivasi rights are not incompatible with protection of natural resources and biodiversity. Ashish Kothari and Neema Pathak Broome hope that a more inclusive conservation may evolve, which would protect both nature and peoples’ livelihoods from the destruction by aggressive and unbridled economic growth. Small steps in this direction by communit-based initiatives and few official efforts, the authors believe, give cause for hope that a paradigm shift at the national level may occur in the future. 

Adivasi Identity under Attack

Summing up, what stands out from the volume, despite the complexity and the variation, is the Adivasi mode of existence, habitat, culture, identity are under attack by the state and the dominant classes since centuries. The trend has only deepened and become more violent in the recent decades of globalisation and privatisation. Adivasi resistance to it is also growing and giving rise to wide alliances, creative initiatives and experiments. Radhakrishna concludes on a hopeful note arguing that

this remarkable movement, which will be an ongoing one for the foreseeable future, has entrusted itself which the historic task of watching over not just the rich ecology of Adivasis’ habitats, but over their value
identity and dignity. (p 408)

The volume is a valuable addition to the growing literature on Adivasi issues. It brings together well-researched articles, which are not just well-argued and substantiated but also reflect a deep concern. Scholars, students, activists and administrators will find it useful to understand the predicament of a large section of our population who somehow remain far from our consciousness.

However, repetition of facts and arguments in the articles makes one want to skip pages. But more importantly, a larger discussion on the North East, which presents a highly complex and a different picture for the rest of India, would have been useful. Lastly, it is also important to recognise that although Adivasi assertion is growing, one can notice the erosion of the “Adivasi sensibility” within the Adivasi communities, so that a large section of the youth feel totally alienated from their material and cultural existence, and values. But, this is a challenge for the organisations that are struggling to restore the pride and confidence of the Adivasi people.

 

 

Updated On : 5th Oct, 2018

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