Nation Building Leaves Out Tribals

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An interview with National Advisory Council member Virginus Xaxa, recently appointed head of a committee on the state of India’s tribes

There is bad news for sections within the Government and mining conglomerates who await dilution of access to Tribal land in Central India (Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha). National Advisory Council member Virginius Xaxa, recently appointed to head a ‘high powered committee’ on the status of tribes, identifies land alienation and displacement post-liberalisation as the key reasons for the growth of Maoism in these resource-rich states. Professor Xaxa spoke to Sandeep Bhushan in what is perhaps his first interview, shortly after taking charge. This is the third such committee since independence, comprising seven members. Professor Xaxa is a leading Tribal intellectual originally from Chhattisgarh and is currently also serving as Deputy Director at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati.

Q What are the terms of reference or mandate of the committee?

A Our mandate is basically to look at the health, education and social status of Tribals, who comprise roughly 8.6 per cent of the population. Of these, 84 per cent are in Central India (Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra). The Northeast has another 12 per cent.

Q This is being seen as a political move in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections...

A I don’t think so. It is not going to make any difference. The report will be ready only around April-May 2014, when elections are due. I don’t think this will influence the outcome in any way.

Q What, according to you, are the main problems confronting Tribals in India?

A There are a number of them. In the main, the developmental model followed in the last six decades or so has been flawed. The problem at the policy level has been that all kinds of diverse groups have been clubbed together as ‘tribes’ by the Government. Tribes across India differ on the basis of language, size, habitat, occupation, etcetera. Anthropologists, on the other hand, have emphasised diversity, which has emerged from their fieldwork. Like all fieldwork, they have ended up stressing upon the unique.

Our approach will look at combining both these.

Q You have argued that different Tribal developmental models were followed in Central India and the Northeast.

A Yes. In the Northeast, the State is militaristic in nature. It is violent and coercive. In the mainland, the State is developmental in orientation. Yet the irony is that the developmental indices are much better in the Northeast. This is mainly because of the vision enshrined in the Fifth and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

The fifth Schedule mandates intervention by the Governor in matters relating to Tribes, in tandem with the recommendations of his Advisory Council. The Sixth Schedule, on the other hand, lays down the Autonomous District Council, which is a sort of mini-state that can enact laws. It also has a developmental role.

As is clear, the Governor’s Advisory Council never meets and there is no Tribal participation whatsoever.

Q Is there a lesson therein?

A I would like the Northeast pattern to be replicated in mainland India.

Q What explains the rapid growth of Maoism in Central or mainland India?

A Maoism is largely a product of the alienation of mainland Tribals for the past six decades. They have not been beneficiaries of nation building. Land alienation is one of the biggest problems in states like Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. This has fuelled resentment and rebellion. In the Northeast, this has not happened. Displacement on account of various private and government projects is another factor. Nearly 46 per cent of Tribals have been displaced between 1950 and 1990. The process has especially accelerated since liberalisation began.

Q How has liberalisation impacted Tribals in Central India?

A As I mentioned earlier, land has changed hands from Tribals to non-Tribals in utter violation of all laws. The Government has also relentlessly acquired land for mining and other purposes. Major new projects have been initiated since 1991. And add to this the violence of the State bureaucracy. Forest and police officials have served as the most oppressive arm of the State. Contractors have flourished.

The worst part is that Tribals have been unable to unite in the face of daily oppression. In the Northeast, Christianity gave space to Tribals to expand their identity. An Angami Naga could combine with other Naga tribes since both were Christians. This is how the Naga Students Union was formed in Nagaland. But in Central India, all powers rests with the Chief Minister, who often depends on the non-functioning Governor’s Advisory Council for policy inputs. This has prevented the forging of a broader identity among them.

Tribes in the Northeast have not lost control over their land and resources, which is why they are much more integrated. That is not the case in Central India, where land alienation is acute.

Q What has been the role of the State?

A The State has not taken any steps to curb land alienation. You have to realise that Tribals are scared and distrustful of courts. They cannot fight land alienation. The State should step in and fight on their behalf. But this has not happened. Look at the small towns that have mushroomed in and around Tribal areas. Not one resident or shop owner is a Tribal. Tribals have never been beneficiaries of nation-building. Tribals have given their resources without benefiting in return. In the building of modern India, they have given their balidan (sacrifice) but have got nothing in return. There have been reports that the implementation of the Forest Dwellers Act of 2006, which gives land rights to Tribals, has been tardy. What is your understanding?

I haven’t followed this very closely. But my sense is that the Act has been successful wherever Tribals are aware and have pushed the local administration. But in states like Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, forest officials are actively stymieing the implementation of the Act.

Q Both mainstream political parties have hurt the Tribal cause. While the Congress sees them as vote banks, the BJP sees them as a population to be converted. Do you agree?

A Actually the ‘vote bank’ adjective is applicable more to BJP politics. It has been pushing to proselytise Tribals into the Hindu fold. This has also led to problems between Christians and non-Christians.

Congress, on the other hand, has lost the support of Dalits and Adivasis. If you look at Tribal constituencies in the last elections, most went to the BJP. Tribals are dissatisfied with the Congress for reasons already mentioned—land alienation, displacement, etcetera. They feel Congress has been unable to protect them. In fact, had there been regional parties, Tribals would have shifted their allegiance to them. But this has not happened.

Q Staying with regional parties, do Tribals fit into the ‘Dalit’ category, as the BSP is trying to fit them?

A Generally speaking, if ‘Dalit’ is a term used to represent the oppressed like Schedule Castes, Tribals and women, then it is fine. But otherwise it does not work, since Tribals themselves don’t see themselves that way. In fact, in terms of literacy, health, mortality under five years [of age] and poverty levels, they fare worse than SCs.

Q Will the committee be able to finish its task in nine months?

A The task is difficult. But we will try our best.