The Adivasi in the mirror

Within a few hours of the dastardly killing of Madhu, a 27-year-old Adivasi by a lynch mob in Kerala, Davinchi Suresh, a sculptor and artist, made a sculpture of Madhu in clay and noted painfully: “In God’s Own Country, we are not able to create you again, brother.” The fact that news of the sculpture went viral online was not surprising. In the sculptor’s masterly hands, even the lifeless clay reflected the pathos of the original photo of Madhu — standing in front of his attackers with his hands tied together, the emaciated body, the helplessness and fear on his face.

What the image says

Sometimes a photo or a work of art can convey a historical condition better than a treatise. The ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph of the Vietnam War laid bare the horrors of American hegemony. The sculpture of Madhu points to the fundamental but hidden truth of Indian modernity and development: that it is built on an unprecedented dispossession of, and violence against, the nation’s Adivasi communities.

Sadly, this feature equally marks Kerala, the State with the highest human development indicators (with Adivasis making up 1.1% of the population), and ‘backward’ States like Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand which have substantial tribal populations. Thus, Madhu is not, unfortunately, alone. The Madhus of the world suffer violent deaths not because we failed to modernise them, but because of the intrinsic connections between their terrible fate and well-being — in 70 years after Independence, post-colonial governments have virtually replicated colonial government policies towards the Adivasis.


Various estimates put the number of development-induced internally displaced people in India over 50 years between 20 and 50 million. Of this, tribals, who are only 8.6% of the population, probably make up more than half the number. They are the sacrificial lambs that the dominant majority society offers at the altar of development. Dispossessed, they become a part of the army of cheap, daily wage labour.

In Kerala too, there has been a systematic expropriation of indigenous lands since the 1940s by settlers from the plains. This, is in a State which has implemented the most comprehensive land reforms in South Asia.

Behind the (justifiably) much-lauded secular model of development in Kerala lies the hideous reality of racism/casteism in which an Adivasi or a Dalit becomes the other. Adivasis are a constant butt of jokes in commercial cultural productions like the 2002 low-brow Malayalam comedy film, Bamboo Boys.

Again, this is something that has national resonance. Adivasis are not full persons, but mere exotic props in mainstream films. The contact with mainstream society is absolutely damaging for the cultural self of the Adivasis. Their children are often traumatised because of persistent discrimination in schools.

Is it surprising that Madhu lived as a recluse in a cave in the forests? Reports indicate that a few years ago he worked as job trainer in a tribal development centre until he was attacked, suffering a head injury in the process. Crimes against Scheduled Tribes in Kerala increased substantially between 2014 and 2016.

There cannot be a mere developmental/economistic solution to the Adivasi ‘problem’. But that has been the dominant approach to mitigating their condition. Nearly ₹5,000 crore has been allocated in the Kerala State Budgets alone (excluding Central government and other project funds) in the last 10 years but with hardly any demonstrable results.

Adivasis cannot be equal citizens until they are considered holistically as a part of cultural and ecospheres with unique customs and practices, and not just as welfare recipients receiving doles. Further, there cannot be the liberation of the Adivasi until the fundamental material issue of land alienation is addressed. But that is precisely what is being hidden.

Capitalism, especially its neoliberal versions now, will not allow the resolution of such a question, for accumulation of capital and land is built on such expropriation. And the state is an active accomplice in this predatory capitalism unleashing extraordinary levels of ‘legal’ violence against the Adivasis. If we hear regular stories of tribal resistances against corporations mining minerals in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, it is because these States alone account for most of India’s bauxite, coal, iron ore, and chromite reserves. Scholars Rajesh Bhattacharya, Snehashish Bhattacharya and Kaveri Gill have shown how these movements have forced the Indian state to finally make radical legislations which accept the cultural and forest rights of the Adivasis, and grant self-governance to them. But as they argue, these have either been poorly implemented or completely diluted in practice.

Time for reparation

Thus, we see explosive struggles by Adivasis for land taking place in Kerala now. Kerala civil society is vibrant compared to most other States. There is an outpouring of anger, and calls to memorialise Madhu through Davinchi Suresh’s sculpture. But the discourse around Adivasis must shift more towards substantive measures like reparations and restitution. This is something which Western democracies are moving to, but is hardly discussed in India.

Madhu should sear our modern consciences which now revel in technologies of hate. After all, the lynch mob not only killed him, but also took ‘selfies’ of the act. Madhu is asking us to look in the mirror, and see the brutality of our own modernity.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is Chair, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University, Canada

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 12:42:33 PM |

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