Betrayal of Adivasis in India@75
THE observance of the historic 75th anniversary of India’s freedom struggle is an occasion to remember the martyrs, the struggles and sacrifices of millions who fought the British colonialists so that India could be free. Among them are the adivasis, the tribals of India.(adivasi/tribal used interchangeably in this text). History books refer to the 1857 armed uprising as the First War of Independence. There were many battles against the British fought by the adivasis before that date which deserves a more prominent place in our reading of history.
GLORIOUS STRUGGLE OF TRIBALS IN FREEDOM STRUGGLE
One of the earliest armed battles was in the first Santhal Hul (uprising) between 1771-1784 led by Tilka Majhi who organised the Santhals challenging the British raj and their policy of backing the zamindars to takeover tribal land. After big armed battles, he was caught, tied to the tail of a horse and dragged all the way to Bhagalpur where his brutalised body was hung from a tree. The Kol rebellion took place in 1831 led by Budhu Bhagat who along with organising his own Oraon tribes was also joined by other tribes like the Ho and Mundas who fought the British with traditional adivasi weapons. He was shot dead by the British in 1832 along with his two sons, Girdhar and Haldhar. In Maharashtra in 1828, the Mahadev Koli tribes who were being ruthlessly exploited, their traditional rights eliminated, and their lands snatched away by moneylenders and zamindars backed by the British rose in revolt under the leadership of RaghojiBhangare and other leaders like Rama Kirwa who was captured and executed by the British. In this revolt, 150 tribals were killed. Raghoji was captured and hanged in 1838. In the North East, the Khasi rebellion of 1833 was led by Tirot Sing Syiem who fought against the British takeover of the Khasi hills. He was shot and captured by the British and deported to Dhaka where he died away from his people. In 1850, Telenga Kharia in the Chotanagpur area, led his people in a most inspiring ten-year battle till he was captured and imprisoned. On his release, he restarted the struggle undeterred and so enraged the British that they organised an agent from among his followers, who shot him dead.
Fromthose early adivasi rebellions in the late eighteenth century till August 15, 1947 (over 150 years), when the National flag was hoisted, the history of India’s freedom struggle is marked by numerous rebellions and countless adivasi heroes in the fight for independence. These were closely linked to the defence of adivasiland, forests and identity. Today instead of the fulfilment of the aspirations and dreams of adivasis for justice, what we witness is a virtual war on adivasi rights, on adivasi land, and equally on adivasi identity, this time by the government of independent India and the Indian ruling classes.
ASSAULT ON CONSTITUTION
The BJP claims that the choice of an adivasi woman leader as President of India reflects the Modi government’s respect for adivasis. On August 4, a little over a week after Madam President was sworn in as the 15th President of India, the government of India tabled the amended Rules of the Forest Conservation Act 1980, in the Parliament. As is known, these new Rules delete and eliminate the legal right of gram sabhas to give or withhold consent for any project which takes over/diverts forest land in their jurisdiction. This is an outright assault on the fundamental right of adivasis and their gram sabhas which are embedded in the Constitution, in various laws and Rules including the earlier Rules of the FCA 1980 as well the Forest Rights Act 2006. The assault on tribal rights has been there since independence under various central and state governments. These gathered pace with the BJP’s aggressive pro-corporate policies undoing any advances the adivasis might have made in the past.
The Fifth Schedule and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution provide some protection, even though inadequate to adivasis. It was adopted in the Constituent Assembly (CA) after much debate. The first draft was withdrawn and a second draft was placed by Dr Ambedkar in the CA on September 5, 1949. There were six tribal members including those from the North East. The most brilliant, articulate and multitalented member, Jaipal Singh Munda, supported by a few others, moved five amendments to the draftwhich have extreme relevance today. He had said that in giving protection to adivasis in Schedule V areas, all adivasis whether residing within or outside the boundaries of the Fifth Schedule areas, should enjoy the same protection. This amendment was rejected. At that time no one knew which and how many areas would be recognised as scheduled areas. Since then, 10 states have Schedule V areas and four States in the northeast have Schedule VI areas. But a larger percentage of the population of tribals live outside these areas. They do not have the benefit of the protection of land and other rights. Thus, when Jaipal Sing Munda raised this issue he was absolutely correct and adivasis are suffering the consequences today. The popular demand is for the extension of rights of Schedule V to cover all adivasi clusters and habitations. Another important amendment moved by Jaipal Singh Munda was that the governors of Fifth Schedule states who have been given special responsibilities by the Constitution should be guided by the advice of the Tribal Advisory Council in such states. This was there in the first draft but diluted in the final draft. The Advisory Council was reduced to just a toothless body with no powers. Jaipal Singh said “ the TAC should be a reality and not a farce. Let us not give a big name without any powers to do anything.”
Considering thattoday, the TACs hardly ever meet and are ignored while taking decisions, his concerns have been proved right. He also demanded that the governor should mandatorily place an annual report on the status of adivasis and it should not be left to “requirement” as mentioned in the constitution. This too is so relevant today, when governors almost always act as rubber stamps of the government in power and now more than ever before. Such is the contempt for tribal rights guaranteed in the constitution that Rules to implement the panchayat extension to Scheduled Areas law passed in 1996, only six states of the 10 have adopted the Rules for implementation. Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Odisha have still not adopted any Rules.
The capitalist path of so-called development has in fact been the prime driver against the implementation of even the inadequate guarantees for constitutional rights of adivasis. Natural resources of the forests were a target of the British who took over the forests for the provision of timber, minerals and so on. Today this policy has got a new aggressive avatar under the BJP rule with a large number of amendments to existing legislations to weaken if not delete rights of tribals and to hand over the forests and minerals to corporates. Thus, under the BJP rule, the list of such anti-tribal laws and policies includes: CAMPA Act of 2015 which takes away the rights of gram sabhas; Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act also in 2015. This Act also eliminates the right to consent of tribals for mining projects in their areas; the proposed amendments to EIA; the Forest Act and now the new Rules to the FCA. In the name of combating climate change, the central government has proposed a policy of handing over forests to private companies. Tribal lands are being forcibly taken over and occupied by the environment ministry and trees are being planted without any reference to gram sabhas.
During the BJP rule, between 2014 to 2019, 72,000 hectares of forest land were diverted for non-forest purposes. This includes mining projects which cause havoc in areas where adivasis live. The central government has also brought a new environment impact assessment draft notification which again basically gives licence to corporates to dilute all conditions for projects in forest areas, many of them inhabited by adivasis, without even a mention of the word “adivasi” or “tribal” or “gram sabha” in the entire document.
Earlier, in 2019, the central government had suggested atrocious amendments to the Forest Act 1927, which basically suggest handing over forests to the private sector and criminalising all tribal rights in forests. These amendments go even beyond what the British tried to do through this Act which is to make adivasis encroachers in their own forests, by militarising the forests. This is reflected in the suggestion of making the chief of army staff a member of the forest board—so now if these 93 amendments are approved, it will bring the Indian Army into the forests to confront adivasis, just as the British did in the past. In this period of the Modi government the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, which was, in any case, being subverted, has now gone into reverse gear. Less than 50 per cent of the claims made for pattas on forest lands have been approved; 52 per cent have been rejected or are still pending even after so many years. In some states like Telangana with the support of the central government, adivasis are being evicted from land used for “podu” cultivation. In other states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh even where pattas are given, it is much less than the land under occupation. In all states, the central government is pushing to use tribal land as areas for afforestation. The FRA is a major barrier to handing over forest land to corporates and is a major target of the government, to dilute, subvert and not implement.
DENIAL OF EQUAL RIGHTS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
Whileadivasis have lost land and constantly face the danger of displacement, no new avenues have opened up for adivasi youth. Even though the labour force participation rate of adivasi men and women is more positive than other sections, the work available is low-paid, manual work. Among women, adivasis make up the largest single social group of migrant workers. In spite of the policy of reservation, there is a huge backlog of recruitment of adivasi youth in government and public sector jobs. According to data given to parliament, between 2016 and 2019, the number of vacancies in ST posts in 10 central government departments doubled from 6,995 to 12,612. The policy of privatisation of government services, of contractualisation of labour in which there is no reservation for contract labour, is a policy which gravely undermines the affirmative policy and guarantees in the constitution. Thus, neo-liberal policies deprive and deny the constitutional right to reservation.
The Modi government has eliminated the entire concept of planning and therefore the tribal sub-plan which is an accepted norm to ensure resources for tribal development has been ignored in successive budgets of this government. Instead of 8.6 per cent of budgetary allocations, equal to the proportion of adivasis in the population, the budgetary allocation has never reached even 4 per cent. As a result, the social indicators of adivasis in comparison to other social groups are among the worst. For example, in literacy there is still a gap of 14 percentage points between tribals and other social groups with the gap between women even higher; in health indicators, more tribal children are underweight and stunted than others, and more tribal women suffer from anaemia than others. These shocking realities are reflected in official documents including those of the tribal affairs ministry.
IDENTITY, CULTURE AND DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS
The BJP-RSS-controlled central government is misusing State power to promote its central goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. To this end, it becomes essential to “assimilate” tribal identity within the overarching Hindu identity promoted by the sanghparivar. This is what adivasi communities have fought against historically. Jaipal Singh had said in the Assembly “ I am an adivasi. I call myself an adibasi. I cannot understand why you wish to give us another name." This was in the context of the Constituent Assembly refusing to use the word adivasi and using the word “janjatiya”. Today the BJP refers to adivasis as “vanvasis.” Jaipal Singh had objected “ I do not understand why this old abusive epithet of Vanjati is being used in regard to them-for till recently it meant an uncivilised barbarian." The reason the BJP refers to adivasis as vanvasis is that any use of the word adivasi contradicts their manufacturing of history that it was the Aryans, not the adivasis who are the original inhabitants of India. At present, the RSS is running a three-pronged campaign in adivasi areas, like a trishul against tribal identities. The first is to divide adivasis in the name of religion. It is mobilising at the block and district level across eastern and central India with the demand that adivasis who are Christians should be stripped of their tribal identity and of all rights as adivasis. This is blatantly against the constitution. The tribal affairs ministry’s annual report for 2021-2022 specifically mentions in its section on “Ascertaining ST status of individuals” that “He may profess any religion” ( page 49). The second prong of its campaign is to organise campaigns on texts of Hindu mythology to eulogise certain figures in the Ramayana and Mahabharata as being linked to adivasi culture. The effort is to saffroniseadivasi beliefs and practices. When the Jharkhand government moved a resolution in 2020 to amend the census to add a column which allowed for sarna/ adivasi as a religion, it was strongly opposed by the RSS. Its spokespersons have said “adivasis are Hindus, there are no ifs and buts.” The CPI(M) supports the demand for the inclusion of a separate column for sarna/adivasi. The third prong is the use of generous funds from corporates through CSR and to a host of RSS-affiliated NGOs to run schools and training centres in adivasi areas where children and youth are indoctrinated with Hindutva ideology. Under cover of welfare activities, funded activists are working in adivasi areas.
These efforts are combined with the use of draconian laws against adivasis in the name of curbing Maoists. Thousands of innocent adivasis across states, caught between the Maoists and the State, are rotting in jail as undertrials.
But this is not the only reality. The other side is the brave stories of resistance and defence of their rights by adivasis and their supporters. True to the tradition of rebellion against injustice, in this 75th year of India’s independence, adivasis will undoubtedly take their struggle forward with renewed unity and strength.