ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Who Is Concerned with Tribal Oppression?


The recent arrests of some of the leading social activists by the Maharashtra government have been condemned by many, especially because the police has not found any evidence that the activists were collecting arms or actively helping the Maoists in waging a war against the state. Their protests against the continuing pauperisation of tribals in Central India should not be interpreted to mean support for armed struggle and violence. However, advocacy strategy against the continuing vulnerability of the tribals in Central India needs to be reviewed in a wider context. 

India’s high rate of economic growth has not benefited four groups: Muslims, Dalits, women, and tribals. Their problems are different, so is the social context of their subjugation. Of these, Muslims and Dalits face a great deal of bias and discrimination in their daily lives, such as being denied drinking water from the village well, or not being allowed to ride a horse in weddings, or Dalit children being asked to sit separately at school. The police has generally been hostile to Muslims as described by various studies and commission reports on the Hashimpura, Bhagalpur, Bhiwandi, and Gujarat riots. Their problems of discrimination, physical insecurity and loss of livelihoods have considerably increased in the last four years. However, I do not know if the government in the last 70 years has passed any law or adopted a policy which could be interpreted as discriminatory against Dalits and Muslims (except, perhaps, the provision that Dalit Muslims are not included in Scheduled Castes [SCs]), though at the micro and societal levels their problems are immense.

The other two groups—women and tribals—face not only cultural subordination, but also have been harmed by various iniquitous laws and policies. For instance, laws relating to inheritance of agricultural land in Uttar Pradesh still do not allow married daughters to claim their share in their father’s inherited property. Section 46(1) of the Rajasthan Tenancy Act places women on a par with lunatics and idiots. Therefore, in addition to fighting patriarchy at the social level, one needs to get rid of gender discriminatory laws and practices.

Of all the disadvantaged groups, tribals, especially in Central India, have been the worst sufferers, primarily because of anti-tribal forest policy, displacement, and poor governance. There is much evidence to show that the tribals’ access to forests for meeting their basic subsistence needs has deteriorated in the last 70 years, and that this is fairly widespread. Some of the processes that have caused this are anti-tribal policies such as Forest Policy, 1952, preference for man-made plantations in place of mixed forests, diversion of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and forests to industries, nationalisation of NTFPs, and exploitation by government agencies and contractors in the marketing of NTFPs. Tribal women in Rayagada were once arrested in 1995 and jailed for keeping brooms in their homes.

The official land records are in a bad shape and have often ignored tribal occupation. For instance, in Odisha, cashew plantations were raised by the Directorate of Soil Conservation on 1,20,000 hectares of “Government Wastelands” in Schedule V areas. In many cases, such lands in the past were under cultivation by tribals but their rights were not recorded. When settlement took place, tribals, being unaware, were not in a position to get their possessions recorded, and thus the land under their possession was recorded as government land and the tribals were described as encroachers even on lands that were cultivated by their ancestors. These cashew plantations, raised on land that was supporting the livelihood needs of tribals, were handed over to the Odisha State Cashew Development Corporation for management. As the corporation could not run profitably, it started giving annual leases for harvesting of cashew crops to private parties through open auctions. This is land reform in reverse. It is ironical that these plantations that deprived the tribals of their possession were funded by a scheme called “Economic Rehabilitation of the Rural Poor.”

Despite Central India being rich in natural resources, minerals and forests, it is home to the poorest, who have actually been harmed by displacement due to industrialisation. Nearly 85 lakh tribals had been displaced until 1990 on account of some megaproject or the other, the reservation of forests as national parks, etc. Tribals constitute 8% of the population, but make up 55% of the total displaced people in the country. Cash payment does not really compensate them for the difficulties they experience in their living style and ethos. The repercussions for the already fragile socio-economic livelihood base of the tribals were devastating, ranging from loss of livelihoods and land alienation on a vast scale, to hereditary bondage.

The oppressed tribals, unlike other disadvantaged groups, either suffer silently or take to guns; the middle path of agitational politics has historically been unknown to them. They are unable to put democratic pressure on the bureaucratic and political system, from which they were historically protected due to their relative isolation. A few respond occasionally with anger and assertion, go underground, and get attracted to the Naxals. Unfortunately for them, Indian history in the last 150 years shows that terrorism and violent insurgency have never succeeded in achieving their aims (the creation of Mizoram may be the only exception), but overground agitational strategies have been the most successful, leading to the creation of new states, and changes in government policy (such as declaration of Emergency in 1975 due to the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan). Arvind Kejriwal is the latest example of success in agitational politics. Protest movements are used in India not when other avenues of communication have been exhausted, but when they have become “a court of first resort.”

One of the main factors behind the success of Dalits in India has been excellent leadership provided by the SC community, which has unfortunately not been the case for the Scheduled Tribes (STs). Whereas the SCs can boast of having produced leaders and administrators such as B R Ambedkar and Jagjivan Ram in the past and K R Narayanan, Buta Singh, Ram Vilas Paswan, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati in more recent times, it is hard to find any leader of national stature from the ST category who speaks for and leads the oppressed tribals. A few civil servants, such as B D Sharma and S R Sankaran tried to alleviate their conditions, but such efforts could not be sustained for lack of institutional support.

Though, in a few exceptional cases, Naxals have been able to improve tribal livelihoods, such as getting minimum wages for the tendu leaf gatherers in Andhra Pradesh, by and large they have degenerated into a terrorist outfit with little impact on the day-to-day agony of the local population. In the 1970s and the early 1980s, the Naxalite movement had ideological base, today they are just brigands. The tribals are often subjected to physical violence by both Maoists and state forces, and even get deprived of educational and health facilities or access to public distribution system on the grounds that the area has become unapproachable for normal “development” efforts of the administration.

Although there are some activist organisations (Dantewada Adivasi Mahasabha and Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group are good examples) who speak for the tribals openly through social media and do advocacy to stop their exploitation, their numbers and effectiveness are limited. They have been able to neither reduce the lack of trust between the people and the state, nor improve governance in the tribal belts. We need more democratic, well-informed, and overground grass-roots organisations for effective advocacy, both in policy and implementation. The tribals are today trapped between the Maoists on the one hand and the armed forces on the other. Mere sympathy for the Naxals is self-defeating as the path of underground violence is not the answer for tribal problems and will not end tribal oppression.

Genuine grass-roots organisations and tribals themselves must learn the strategy of agitational politics from the likes of Shiv Sena and Kejriwal.

Naresh Chandra Saxena

Former Secretary,

Ministry of Rural Development,

Government of India.



(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top