Sad face on tree stump

Tribals in India

Some thoughts around tribals in India, and their relative political abandonment. Trying to look at the psychological influences on behaviour and what is possible to address that which is not working. A little hurried, because time is a big issue these days, but I’d like to share these thoughts. Also a comment on the thought provoking article by @sonaliranade: Where have India’s Adivasis disappeared?

I think part of the problem with integrating tribals is their relative isolation. Not just geographical, but in terms of culture and power as well. Humans have a tendency to take a dim view of anything not congruent with their reality or something they recognize as admirable. This also fits with our larger pattern of resistance to change, rigidity to integrate with each other, and other issues I speak of in other pages of this blog.

The tribals, with their own culture, no power to project it in order to make it familiar to more people, no means of evaluating which influences of the civilized world are dangerous and which helpful, etc. are at a natural disadvantage from those who have claimed voice on behalf of the entire country, them included. In theory, the government should be safeguarding the space for the well being of all, but at the end of the day, the government is elected from among the people. Missing thoughts cannot be compensated by a role in administration.

It is simple – no one sees it as wrong, or indeed a situation where right or wrong needs to be evaluated, because tribal interests are so unrepresented as to be the power equivalent of finding a coin on the street and picking it up – as opposed to taking a coin from someone’s pocket. The tribals protesting are the equivalent of someone coming after you pocketed the coin and saying that it was theirs.

It is not our understanding that the forests are the home of those who stay in them. We choose to see it as “national property” and the adivasis don’t have “proof of ownership”. This is wrong on many counts. Not only do we arbitrarily impose standards of one culture on another (rendering independence meaningless), we also destroy the diversity of cultures of our country.

This is also a problem faced by many nomadic tribes – some I have lived with personally in my time in the Himalaya. Gaddis, Gujjars, Khampas, Negis, Changbas…. all nomadic, are now dying as livelihoods, some more than others, because grazing grounds are becoming scarce and subject to permissions.

These are ancient lifestyles being sacrificed on the altar of standardization. People being uprooted and thrust into different environments where they are at a natural disadvantage. It is easy to shrug it off as survival of the fittest, but we are losing something precious, that their presence brings us. The claim to diversity. Today, culture is inexorably being herded toward a templatized version. Where people are similar, have same rules, etc. It isn’t going to be long before the much acclaimed plurality of India is going to be about similar people speaking different languages, having similar prejudices, similar lifestyles, similar opportunities, similar challenges, nationalized religions, demeaning those who don’t fit the format as something to be corrected.

Anyway, coming back to the point, this kind of disenfranchisement is not such a great idea for either the country or the people, because it creates a psychological fracture in the country. The tribals don’t experience the development of the country as a good idea for them. They don’t think owning land is more important than roaming free in the jungles. They don’t experience the disruptions of the ecology that is so closely knit with their lifestyle as a good thing – if we were listening, this is possibly the most knowledgeable alert – the alarm one who lives entwined with the natural life. Instead, we choose to “prove” with facts and figures of specific measures by people who observe expertly, but don’t have the nuanced “feel” that one participating has. And we use these numbers to contradict the knowledge of those who can’t make powerpoints. This creates a chasm that opportunistic elements like the Maoists exploit.

Arundhati Roy describes the disenfranchisement of the tribals well, but her description of the Maoists leaves much to be desired. I must admit that I did not ever meet a Maoist, so unlike her, I am speaking only on the basis of news reports.

However, a few things appear clear. Maoists are a separate entity from the tribals. Unlike the tribals, the Maoists cannot be called powerless. Unlike tribals, the Maoists control and defend territory. The Maoists are essentially fighting the government for control of a land that belongs to neither.

Some argue that tribals support Maoists. I think this is a stupid conclusion. If tribals are routinely being killed by Maoists, if children are being recruited by force, if the government is ineffective in projecting its control over the terrain, doing anything else is suicidal. It would be wrong to assume that the Maoists provide the tribals a government that is any better than what the country does.

Some have debated with me when I say the tribal land doesn’t belong to the government. The government is a governing body on behalf of people. While the land belongs in the country, I don’t see this as automatically meaning that the government can do anything with it. I hold it to about the same standard as mining being started next to my home. To put it mildly, I’d take a very dim view of the situation unless my concerns were answered and my well being safeguarded. Sure, I am a citizen, but that doesn’t mean my interests can be sacrificed to some objective irrelevant or worse, detrimental to me.

A rather hurried collection of thoughts, since I don’t have much time, but I think we have focused on integration, economy, development. It is high time we focused on well-being. On rights being respected. You wouldn’t take from someone’s home without being respectful and asking for leave. Similarly, we mustn’t forget that the land, though seemingly open is the home of many, and we should be negotiating best interests and arriving at joint decisions rather than making decisions and announcing compensations. If our arrogance thinks they cannot understand the nuances, efforts must be made to simplify them or develop capacity in representatives to bridge the gap. This isn’t about convincing them through reason or force, but arriving at a joint decision which can also require us to compromise. The use of force, blackmail, or plain old conning by exploiting ignorance… should be policed very strictly, because they may not object till too late.

Most importantly, we must learn to take NO for an answer.