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Leave the adivasi alone!
By Narendra Bastar

The poor adivasi is suffering more in Independent India than ever. But the government, civil society, corporates or Maoists, every group has its own agenda and vested interests to fulfil at the cost of vulnerable adivasi.

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Rich traditions and sustainable living of adivasi communities are under attack

After the initial hullabaloo post the Guardian newspaper report on exploitation of the Jarawa tribals, the people have gone back to their indifferent mode towards the poor adivasis of India. The Guardian report described how the semi-clad Jarawa tribesmen and women were forced to dance by local policemen to entertain the tourists. There is also a video footage which shows bare breasted Jarawa women dancing awkwardly as the tourists throw bananas towards them and the hungry women lunging for the fruit. The feminine shame and hesitation is evident on their faces and in their body language.

Expectedly, the news was followed by a lot of righteous indignation by politicians, civil society, human rights activists, and media alike on the injustice against Jarawa and other adivasi communities. For a few days, several political and social activists, along with ‘awakened citizens’, transformed into defenders of adivasi rights, only to forget the poor tribals within few days!

The issue is not merely about exploitation and inhuman treatment of Jarawa adivasis alone. Despite independence and end of British misrule, the plight of adivasi communities has only increased. Much publicised tribal development schemes have failed to make any positive impact as these are not really adivasi in their content.

Jawaharlal Nehru had assured the adivasi communities that the state would not interfere in their lives by forcing its agenda down their throats. But today the situation is entirely opposite to Nehru’s promise. Everywhere in India lands, waters, animals and forests which have sustained adivasi communities for centuries are increasingly being destroyed or captured by government or private agencies in the pretext of tourism, mining, development or privatisation.

There was much noise generated in 1955 in Nehru's Panchasheel on Tribal Development, but probably not a single tribal knows about it even today; just as not many may have heard of PESA (Panchayati Raj Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996); and what use are Panchasheels and PESAs in a society obsessed with its own mores, creating "beneficiaries" and doling out patronages, followed later by moral indignations. While planning for social justice, welfare, sustainability, rights etc, the tendency to club the adivasi with other disadvantaged groups as dalits, women, fishermen, farmers, artisans, or as yet another ‘interest-group’ has invariably worked to the disadvantage of adivasis.

The self-sustaining rhythms and flows have been replaced by corporate plans and schemes on one hand, and political, religious and economic ideologies on the other; invigorated by a plethora of Acts, Laws, Court precedents and media jingoism to “promote” adivasi life. Apart from PESA, FRA, Commissioner for Scheduled Tribes, Forest Settlement Officer and rest of the vast predictable coverage, there are constitutional obligations too, to “promote” the Adivasi. Yet, having been evicted from their home and hearth, adivasis are the most displaced community in the country, and the most plundered.

The self-sustaining rhythms and flows have been replaced by corporate plans and schemes on one hand, and political, religious and economic ideologies on the other; invigorated by a plethora of Acts, Laws, Court precedents and media jingoism to “promote” adivasi life.

So immersed has adivasi life become, and yet so empty, there is no space - physical or conceptual - left now to conduct his life around land, trees, water and animals, the defining attributes of adivasi life. It is their way of engaging with Nature and its elements. For him it is not easy to think of himself minus the wilds, trees and plants, waterways, animals, open spaces, spirits and the sky, and self-esteem that comes from such mode of engagement. To an adivasi, engagement with the world at large has meant deluge of the unthinkable. Where is the space for adivasi to be himself? Relegating the non-ethnic and non-sectarian adivasi to being only ethnic adivasis, they have also been reduced to a bundle of economic rights under protection from the Constitution. This is yet another form of violence against a community so democratic and tolerant.

PESA was intended to hand over greater powers to adivasis over land, forest and water; what in our sensibility are understood as 'resources'. Like many other Acts, it has remained a paper tiger. Amongst other things, it was an admission that general laws of the land are inappropriate and the adivasis are better off with their customary practices, traditional beliefs and ethos. It would have helped bring things a step closer home as compared to all other adivasi-related Acts and legislations; though as a legislation PESA is not the panacea - nations do but societies do not live by legislations. But PESA has been relegated to the background while FRA (Forest Rights Act 2006 is being talked about.

Why did the civil society or media not press as hard for the adivasi-oriented PESA which had a far greater potential to revitalize the adivasis than the FRA which has a state-corporate agenda, a product of the market and neo-liberal policies? That is why the Jarawas are made to dance by some policeman, forest beat guard or a BDO; or a Madia ghotul shut down under a Maoist diktat. Given the intent and purpose of all other laws and Acts, the adivasis would continue to be treated as "human zoo" or their traditional practises as counter revolutionary. The state subverts its own mandate by bringing in a new mandate; the civil society and media remain silent and begin 'grappling' with the new one. By default or otherwise the focus continues to be the state and not the people though, ironically, all three swear by them. This needs deeper contemplation by all concerned.

Why did the civil society or media not press as hard for the adivasi-oriented PESA which had a far greater potential to revitalize the adivasis than the FRA which has a state-corporate agenda, a product of the market and neo-liberal policies?

For the last about two decades there is a large-scale intrusion of another kind, of the outsider attached to a different axis of power, and for extracting, controlling and exporting profits as links in the global corporate chain. For him, being located in a definite landscape, memory or its associated ethos and values is not the reference point wherefrom life and its measures are to be ascertained. This changing profile of adivasi regions has triggered the lesser known and alien issues as ethnicity and ownership and economic and religious divides.

Economy, polity and ethnicity and ownership of 'resources' are now becoming a presence in everyday living and conversations. This is causing explosive social tensions, percolating down to the indistinguishable non-adivasi of times immemorial, and the composite pluralism that owed much to the measures of composite ecology and nature. The problem is acute at the village level where they have lived side by side for centuries; and this ‘other’ is being asked to return to wherever his ancestors had wandered away from. With the coming of a new lexicon - alien to the local sensibility - mores are changing. The debate, now, is also on ‘adivasi’ and 'non-adivasi’. The dialect that nurtured in ecological - almost mythological - experience is being displaced by the constitutional-political-civil lexicon.

Anyone who has stayed even a week in a Maoist infested adivasi areas would know that despite its protestations the government as well as the articulate sections of civil society ‘need’ Maoists, albeit for different reasons. Interestingly, the adivasis don't want them and the corporates don't want them, again for different reasons. These are strange convergences, albeit for different reasons.

Except in a few small pockets in the country no adivasi wants the Maoists; just as prior to their emergence no adivasi wanted the government in their areas. Culturally, morally and economically, their regions have been plundered and raped relentlessly. The ongoing Maoist civil war has, amongst other things, pushed the adivasi into an intense and unprecedented engagement and eliminated the ‘last isolation’ for the community.

Except in a few small pockets in the country no adivasi wants the Maoists; just as prior to their emergence no adivasi wanted the government in their areas.

Have we missed out on something? Does the “own” of a community come from Acts and Statutes, ideologies and schemes and the unthinking campaigns and other modernistic devices of raising them to the status of 'holy cows"?

Whereas the state and corporates have not failed in their plans, all through the past 65 years the civil society has failed to bring out even a draft blue-print of an alternate plan which is adivasi in spirit and respects them in a way that a human respects another human. How frequently it has failed to re-affirm the value adivasis place in the rapidly disappearing richness of his traditions and sustainable cultural-ecological practises; often how little the civil society treasures them; and how much the modern statutes and protocol marginalises them. The uniformed Indian state and the ill-informed civil society have together enabled the loot and plunder.

If one looks at Bastar, the tribal universe in India, just as he wants the state to 'go away' the adivasi now also wants the civil society of all hues to ' go away' whether it is represented by a gun toting Maoist, a Medha Patkar or Swami Agnivesh or their more rampant ilk spread across the face of the region. Simply saying that the Traders Association or government's hired goons assaulted them is conspiratorially camouflaging the issue. The increasing power of global forces beyond their control and the joint decimation of effective institutions and political processes to resist them threaten the natural, historical and ecological sustainability of adivasi life.

Like the rest, the remaining pristine hills in adivasi regions will disappear into fatal mining pits and change the nurturing landscapes forever. There are political parties, tourists and corporates, Maoists and Missions, Satsangs and civil society, media and all other forms of modernity operating in the same area and with the same agenda. A semi-clad Jarawa woman will have to dance and a Santhal, Khond or Muria woman will be raped. Does it require a cultural anthropologist to help us understand why women of New Delhi or London are not forced to dance as such for fruits thrown at them? We would continue co-enablement and co-indignation.

Have we erred somewhere or something right under our nose has eluded us?

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

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Adivasi rights

The adivasi has a right to be left alone. But unless he is educated in the wily ways of the world, how can he speak up for himself? He will continue to be manipulated for the rich lands he lives in, and the forests he calls his home.

Posted By: Rina Mukherji
Dated: Tuesday, January 31, 2012

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