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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 24, June 1, 2013

Left and the Tribal Question

Saturday 1 June 2013


by B.K. Manish

While discussing the open invitation of the proposed Bastar Study Tour, which is an assertion by anthrophiles of visiting rights to a part of Dandakaranya, a virtually declared No-Go area by both the police and revolutionaries, two JNU professors postulated that the only hope of tribal autonomy is within revolutionary polity, and certainly not in bourgeois polity. Now this is a question which has perplexed at least two generations in the last thirty years so it could be either the location of the dialogue or the boldness of the statement which made possible this sudden realisation that cannot be farther from the truth.

Root of Confusion

Now, the inability of the Left to grapple efficiently with the women’s question and Dalit question has been amply highlighted by scholar activists of the respective streams but the incompatibility of the revolutionary polity with the tribal ethos is a hitherto untouched subject. Public intellectuals like Arundhati Roy confess in private conversations that the scenario in Bastar is merely a marriage of convenience but cannot go about elaborating this as that would be inconsistent with the impassioned support of her ilk to the cause of the ultra Left. The annihilation of the class enemy aside, even the compatibility of the basic revolutionary ideals with the tribal ethos is difficult. Since tribal ethos is a term missing in Marxian discourse, this statement might sound revolting to many dyed-in-the-wool Leftists but if they must blame someone for this historical mistake then the first person is Ms Godavari Parulekar. The very casually generic title of her celebrated 1975 book Tribal Revolt has done such harm to tribal interests that it is, in quantum, second only to the Constitution of India. There isn’t much wrong with the said book except that it failed to recognise the difference between the pastoral classes of yore and the peasantry, and then painted it red. Since the release of her book there has been a glut of books and papers on numerous small and big uprisings of disparate tribal communities in the last three hundred years. Indeed an attempt was made to locate a latent historical Indian tradition of revolutionary endeavours by stringing together the so-called tribal revolts.

Before the Maoists developed roots in Bastar in the late eighties and soon after in the Surguja region of Chhattisgarh, the tribal angle in revolutionary discourse wasn’t that prominent, despite the fact that both West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, hotbeds of Maoist activity, had sizeable tribal populations. Another fillip to this claim came from an unexpected quarter, the bureaucrat-turned-activist Dr B.D. Sharma, whose name is synonymous with the Fifth Schedule and statutory-administrative aspects of tribal welfare. In 1991, he finished his last government assignment and walked over to other extreme end of the spectrum, to preach revolution of all kinds. On one hand, he actively took part in Maoist-backed public functions in the Maharshtra and MP sections of Dandakaranya and on the other hand continued through his colleagues in the administrative service the search for constitutional measures for tribal emancipation. This dichotomy confused his followers to some extent and led to the ultimate withering of his Bharat Jan Andolan but the arrival of PESA and enthusiastic propaganda and funding of it by the governments smothered the dichotomy for the people outside the circle of his immediate influence. He still manages to get away with statements like, ‘even Maoists want better and proper implementation of Fifth Schedule provisions’, despite the apparent position of Maoists of being antithetical to democratic constitutionalism.

Unwilling Bedfellows

As for the tribals themselves, despite refutations by both revolutionaries and governments, repeated appeals by numerous community and panchayat representatives from Bastar have made it clear that tribals are badly trapped in the civil-war like situations created by the warring parties. They aver that once upon a time the Maoists were indeed the saviours of tribals from the tyranny of lower ranks and contractors of the Forest Department but when they turned to violent cleansing of the tribal society it bred dissatisfaction. Undue levels of brutality in administering instant justice was seen as a major factor of the alienation but inhabitants and rare local experts stress the fact that excessive interference in cultural affairs had a deeper and greater impact. Condescending of comrades resorting to traditional practices like Ghotul in this sense is as Victorian in nature as the missionaries decrying tattooing and female polyandry. The recent book of Shubhranshu Chaudhary (Let’s Call Him Vasu) clearly indicated that questions of tribal autonomy are creating differences of opinion within the organisation of the movement. The emerging young tribal leadership in the Maoists’ ranks wishes to engage with the question but Comrade Ganapathy categorically denied even taking up this matter in the Central Committee. Even known pro-Maoist thinkers in Delhi are wary of the emerging plank of tribal autonomy as it threatens to put fissures in the mass organisation. Yet it must be pointed out that this mild opposition to the tribal autonomy is not emanating entirely out of selfish or opportunistic considerations of revolution, rather the reason lies in poor under-standing of the slow yet definitely evolving anthropological studies in general academia.

Anthropology has evolved in India way too close to the federal government for any objectivity. Benevolent bureaucrats and some Census Commissioners like Risley and Hutton, who have considerably impacted the official policy on tribal welfare, came from the tradition of Edmund Taylor who defined animism and considered it to be an immature thought. From here came the thinking that tribals are backward and underdeveloped. Right-wing anthropologists like Nirmal Bose and G.S. Ghurye took advantage of the ambiguity in the categorisation of tribals in early censuses to introduce the religious element; maybe as a counterweight to the British Government-sponsored missionaries’ expansion. Verrier Elwin is notable because he sided with Gandhiji and therefore faced the ire of both the missionaries and Right-wing representatives. Nehru went so far as to admit that his entire political view on this subject was formed on the basis of Elwin’s inputs. Indeed the debunking of Elwin was complete decades later at the hands of Dr B.D. Sharma who castigated him for the apparently ‘anti-tribal’ interests report of the Statutory Commission headed by U.N. Dhebar and written by its secretary Elwin. The Assimi-lation versus Integration debate was the only distinctive difference among the anthropologists mentioned above. The Anthropological Survey of India and mainstream anthropologists like Dhirendra Mazumdar and S.C. Dubey rid their writings of Hindu or Christian strands yet remained within the confines of European Anthropology which placed much emphasis on comparative social behaviour. It wasn’t until the 1980s that American or physical anthropology, through the untiring efforts of Andre Beteille, started registering its presence in academic conclaves. This impact was faintly visible in the later writings of B.K. Roy Burman but was prominently seen in the celebrated papers of Virginius Xaxa who tackled the religion and language aspects of assimilation in independent India. It was Xaxa, preceded in a different way by another tribal scholar Ramdayal Munda and to a certain extent Joseph Bara, who posited the tribal identity and classification in the cultural frame, looking inside out. The influence of Emilio Moran’s ‘human adaptability to nature’ and Jean Piaguet’s genetic epistemology theories also contributed to the development of eco-anthropology in the country. Prof Savyasaachi and a clutch of non-academic scholars like the CSDS’ Narendra Bastar explained the tribal ethos through ‘primary labour’ and ‘free will sustainability’.

Activists: Ignorant or Hypocrites?

This anthropological understanding is amiss not just in mainstream academia but also in civil society and activist groups, leading to inaccurate political reading and posturing. Dr Binayak Sen and his ilk have repeatedly stated in public that they oppose violence perpetuated by both sides. For a fresher instance, the NAPM’s response to the Edasmetta massacre and Darbha Valley ambush can be read up to realise how the pro-democracy, anti-violence statements still play into the hands of the Maoists. It squarely blames the government for increasing militarisation and for the shrinking space of democratic resistance. Now, shouldn’t the activist community ask itself if they have the moral right of complaining for shrinking space of democratic resistance in the context of Bastar when they emotionally support the Maoist presence which is as undemocratic and authoritarian as, if not more than, the government? Celebrated activists readily accept the notion that the problem of tribal question is justice and not development and yet justify the armed resistance of Maoists in Bastar on the pretext that governments don’t listen in any other way. When the dirty work of corporates is done on the ground by governments enjoined for public service, why should our focus be on corporates instead of the governments?

Also, let’s not be fooled that Naxals are our security cover against corporate gobbling of the scheduled areas; they sleep with any corporate like Essar who pays well, and villagers have fought successfully in Niyamgiri and Raigarh without Naxal support. Narendra Bastar and Prof Nirmalangshu Mukherji correctly state that Maoists have done more harm to tribals than what governments had managed to do in several decades. Despite tall claims and counterclaims it is next to impossible to develop fighting units in jungles of concrete, in the face of the world’s largest corrupt middle class, so the revolution traders choose to run shop in convenient locale, consequences be damned! Disintegrating tribal ethos and using them as cannon fodder clearly makes the Maoists deadly enemies of the tribals. Indeed it is the Maoists who started the militarisation in an area where even law enforcement was not the felt need of any stakeholder. Turning the impassioned yet uncomplicated souls, who lived without caring for notions like pride, revenge, labour, valour, resources, equality and individuality et cetera as we understand these, into aggressive foot-soldiers out to loot, rape, torture and kill amounts to genetic tyranny.

White and brown sahibs worked to reform the tribals, Maoists are also working to reform them; neither bothered to think that if tribal ethos are lost, would the emancipated people, if at all, still be tribals? The ultra-Left and liberal Left are unanimous on the Marxian line of a classless society, so they can’t accord any more value to tribals than maybe a different epistemic group. They can’t accept that preserving tribal ethos is crucial to the survival of humanity since it provides us with the only functioning model of sustainable living. Maybe someday soon the JNU will have on its roll a social anthropologist of tribal descent, or more importantly of tribal sensibility, and we will move towards ending this cruel hypocrisy.

The author is a tribal rights activist and communications advisor based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. His public library was shut down when police removed him per force in August 2010; spent 10 days in jail in August 2012 for crawling outside the Raj Bhavan to raise the issue of tribal undertrials. His SLP on Tribes Advisory Council is considered the first theoretical case on the Fifth Schedule.

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