LEFT AND THE TRIBAL QUESTION

B K Manish is a tribal rights activist and communications advisor based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. He can be contacted at cgtribal[at]yahoo.in.

B K Manish

B K Manish

While discussing the open invitation of proposed Bastar Study Tour, which is an assertion by anthrophiles of visiting rights to a part of Dandakaranya, virtually declared No-Go area by both police and the Maoists, two JNU professors postulated that 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 of university youth in last thirty years so it could be either the location of the dialogue or the boldness of statement which made possible sudden realization that nothing can be farther from the truth.

Root of confusion

Now, inability of Left to grapple efficiently with Women’s Question and Dalit Question has been amply highlighted by scholar activists of the respective streams but the incompatibility of revolutionary polity with tribal ethos is a hitherto untouched subject. Public intellectuals like Arundhati Roy confess in private conversations that scenario in Bastar is merely a marriage of convenience but cannot go about elaborating on this as that would be inconsistent with impassioned support of her ilk to the cause of ultra left. Annihilation of the class enemy part aside, even the compatibility of basic revolutionary ideals with tribal-ethos is negligent. Since tribal-ethos is a term missing in Marxian discourse, this statement might sound revolting to many dyed-in-wool leftists but if they must blame someone for this historical mistake then the first person is Ms. Godavari Parulekar. 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 it failed to recognize the difference between pastoral classes of the 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 last three hundred years. Indeed an attempt was made to locate a latent historical Indian tradition of revolutionary endeavors through stringing together of the so-called tribal revolts.

Members of Kamar Tribe/Photo:Pankaj Oudhia

Before Maoists developed roots in Bastar in late 80’s and soon after in Surguja region of Chhattisgarh, the tribal angle in revolutionary discourse wasn’t this prominent, despite the fact that both West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh hotbeds of maoist activity had sizeable tribal population. Another fillip to this claim came from the unexpected quarter, the bureaucrat-turned-activist Dr. B.D. Sharma whose name is synonymous with 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 spectrum, to preach revolution of all kinds. On one hand, he actively took part in maoist-backed public functions in Maharshtra & MP sections of Dandakaranya and on the other hand continued through his colleagues in administrative services searching constitutional measures for tribal emancipation. This dichotomy confused his followers to some extent and led to ultimate withering of his Bharat Jan Andolan but the arrival of PESA and enthusiastic propaganda and funding of it by governments smothered the dichotomy for 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 apparent position of Maoists of being antithetical to democratic constitutionalism.

Unwilling Bedfellows

File: A woman sits outside her house amidst her ruined possessions, allegedly burnt by the security forces. Photo: Aman Sethi/The Hindu/2011

File: A woman sits outside her house amidst her ruined possessions, allegedly burnt by the security forces. Photo: Aman Sethi/The Hindu/2011

As for 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 warring parties. They aver that once upon a time Maoists were indeed saviours for tribals from the tyranny of lower ranks and contractors of forest department but when they turned to violent cleansing of tribal society it bred dissatisfaction. Undue levels of brutality in administering instant justice was seen as a major factor of alienation but inhabitants and rare local experts stress on the fact that excessive interference in cultural affairs had a deeper and greater impact. Condescending of comrades of the traditional practices like Ghotul in this sense is as Victorian in nature as decrying by missionaries of tattooing and female polyandry.  Recent book of Shubhranshu Chaudhary (Lets Call Him Vasu) clearly indicated that questions of tribal autonomy are creating differences of opinion within the organization of the movement. Emerging young tribal leadership in maoists’ ranks wish to engage with the question but comrade Ganapathy categorically denied even taking up this matter in 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 organization. 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 understanding of slow yet definitely evolving anthropological studies in general academia.

Anthropology has evolved in India way too close to 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 thought that tribals are backward and underdeveloped. Right-wing anthropologists like Nirmal Bose and GS Ghurye took advantage of the ambiguity in categorization of tribals in early censuses to introduce religious element; maybe as a counterweight to british government-sponsored missionaries expansion. Verrier Elwin is notable because he sided with Gandhiji and therefore took ire of both missionaries and the right wing representatives. Nehru went so far as to admit that his entire political view on this subject is 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 statutory commission headed by UN Dhebar and written by its secretary Elwin. Assimilation versus Integration debate was the only distinctive difference among the anthropologists mentioned above. Anthropological Survey of India and the mainstream anthropologists like Dhirendranath Mazumdar and S C Dubey rid their writings of Hindu or Christian strands yet remained within confines of European Anthropology which placed much emphasis on comparative social behavior. It wasn’t until 80’s 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 latter writings of BK 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 cultural frame, looking inside out. Influence of Emilio Moran’s ‘human adaptability to nature’ and Jean Piaguet’s genetic epistemology theories also contributed to development of eco-anthropology in the country. Prof. Savyasaachi and a clutch of non-academic scholars like CSDS’ Narendra Bastar explained tribal-ethos through ‘primary labour’ and ‘free will sustainability’ respectively.

Activists: Ignorant or Hypocrats?

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 response on Edasmetta massacre & Darbha Valley Ambush can be read up to realize how the pro-democracy, anti-violence statements still play into the hands of Maoists. It squarely blames the government for increasing militarization and for 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 context of Bastar when they emotionally support the maoist presence which is as undemocratic and authoritarian if not more than the government? Celebrated activists readily accept the notion that problem of triabl question is justice and not the 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 corporate is done on ground by governments enjoined for public service why should our focus be on corporates instead of governments? Also, let’s not be fooled that naxals are our security cover against corporate gobbling of scheduled areas; they sleep with any corporate like Essar who pays well and, villagers have fought successfully in Niyamgiri & 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 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 maoists deadly enemies of tribal. Indeed it is the Maoists who started the militarization 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? Ultra left and liberal left are unanimous on the Marxian line of a classless society, so they can’t accord anymore 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 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 hypocrity.

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