Continuing transgressions on tribals since the British era

September 01, 2014 10:45 pm | Updated September 02, 2014 03:26 am IST

SAVAGE ATTACK — Tribal Insurgency in India: Edited by Crispin Bates, Alpa Shah; Social Science Press, 69, Jor Bagh, New Delhi-110003. Rs. 725.

SAVAGE ATTACK — Tribal Insurgency in India: Edited by Crispin Bates, Alpa Shah; Social Science Press, 69, Jor Bagh, New Delhi-110003. Rs. 725.

The term ‘adivasi’ denotes the prime dwellers of an area since time immemorial. Despite ‘progress’ elsewhere, they were happy in their own abode, if not disturbed by the ‘civilised’ in the name of extending territories into ‘their’ forests.

The late 18th and early 19th century were a decisive period for the British rule in the Indian sub-continent. When the British were keen to expand their control, the conflicts over India’s forests were one of the most important forms of protest ascribed to tribals all over the sub-continent. With the introduction of the Forest Act 1878, subsequently amended in 1927, shifting cultivation, foraging, grazing and hunting were all banned, thereby eliminating the livelihoods of those living in and on the margins of the forests.

However, the adivasis were not passive to this development. Their armed rebellions and the active retaliation of the Andamanese in particular were branded as ‘savage attacks’ by the British even when the tribals were actually defending their long-standing rights over the forests. When the forests were finally brought under their control and the tribals were subdued, the British became paternalistic.

In such a background, Savage Attack Tribal Insurgency in India, edited by Crispin Bates and Alpa Shah, presents a kaleidoscopic view on the tribal issue . The 10 articles in this volume, written by various scholars, cover the British invasion into the Andamans, North East to the role of adivasis in the Maoist movement in Jharkhand.

Savage or savaged? In order to establish supremacy over the indigenous population, the British had started terming them as savages while themselves using methods of extreme savagery. To justify their actions, the colonialists cited many practices of the tribals.

The ‘Meriah’ rite of sacrifice amongst the Konds of Odisha was one such. It was often held up as the foremost example of savagery and depravity of the tribals in central India. It was not only a rite, but a powerful myth, used here as elsewhere to justify the colonization of areas of the globe defined as ‘savage’. In a sense, this rite was more than spilling blood to propitiate their deities and ensure good harvest, but instrumentally served both social and political functions.

Such was the case with the Andamanese too. The British colonial power and, in its footsteps, the state power post-Independence tried to control their lives. Extreme violence was used to impose ‘civilisation’ on the population and the idea of the savagery of Andamanese became clearly essentialised in order to legitimise the violence of such colonial policies.

The other spectrum of this sad episode is the constant fight of Jarawa people since colonial times till date against the attack on ‘their’ forests and their mobility within the forest. In a sense, the ‘savagery’ of the Andamanese is very much a reflection, even an imitation, of the violence to which they were subjected.

Another outspoken article in this volume on the condition of adivasi workers in the Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP) in Odisha explores ethnicity and inequality. It also exposes an ‘aristocracy of labour’ and the discrimination throughout of the adivasis who are relegated to work in the most dangerous areas of the plant. Their living conditions and the bleak future which their next generation faces implies the urgent need for serious introspection to find a solution. Indeed it is ironical that while there is always clarion call for assimilation of tribals into modern society, the ‘civilised’ are equally keen to keep them as ‘primitive’ as possible. A serious question lurks before the ‘modern’ society.

During the Communist movement for land and wage reforms in the 1960s in Kerala, the upper caste paternalist concern for Dalits and adivasis could still be considered revolutionary. With the rise of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha (AGMS), they had shown the party that it had to take them seriously. Their loyalty became strictly conditional.

Since 1980s, Central and Eastern India — also home to a large portion of India’s tribal population — became the perfect guerrilla terrain for the Naxalites. The Maoist movement spread in these tribal belts not just because it addresses their historical marginalisation but also because of the intimacy the movement has managed to build with local people, overriding differences of caste or tribe.

It may be pertinent to mention here that despite bringing the forests under their control, through the Govt. of India Act 1935, the British kept the tribal areas under their direct administration through Governors and kept ‘their’ forest almost intact until they left India.

Under the new economic policies, however, the UPA Government took away 1.14,484 hectares of forest land under Schedule V in the name of development to ultimately hand it over to MNCs and big business houses which affected the natural rights of the tribals’ and also invited severe ecological disasters such as the landslides from Uttarakhand to Malin. Nevertheless, now all eyes are on the Western Ghats.

Except a glaring omission about the uprising of Santhals and the revolt of adivasis of western India, more particularly of Warli tribes of Maharashtra under the leadership of ‘Ma Tai’ Godavari Parulekar and her husband Shamrao Parulekar, in all, this volume, in a unified voice, brings forth the urgency of the problems of some of the poorest and most seriously disadvantaged communities in the sub-continent that need to be properly addressed and urges a lasting solution.

Savage Attack — Tribal Insurgency in India: Edited by Crispin Bates, Alpa Shah; Social Science Press, 69, Jor Bagh, New Delhi-110003. Rs. 725.

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