Second disempowerment

Tribals have lost their decision-making power twice; first to the state then to the Maoists

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

imageTribals have lost their decision-making power twice; first to the state then to the Maoists

India has developed a fatal attraction for tribal areas. A gruesome event is usually what gets the country to talk about tribals. Maoist insurgents, the most talked about contemporary residents of India’s forests, apart from tigers, ambushed a convoy of Congress leaders, wiping out Chhattisgarh’s top rank leadership. Mahendra Karma, known more as the founder of the illegal and brutal anti-Maoist peace movement Salwa Judum, died in the attack. Attention poured over the dense forests of Bastar. The tribal residents have seen this earlier many a time. The debate over development of tribal areas rages in digital spaces far from their imagination. Outside their desperate lives they remain the invisible objects of debates and discussions that unfold to die a natural death until the next such incident occurs.

These spells of attention have harmed tribal concerns for the simple reason that the debates are highly polarised and revolve around ideology than ideas of development. Such debates have shifted the strategic decision-making power from the community to groups, both government and non-government, that assume mandate on their behalf. This is an antithesis of constitutional recognition of tribal right to self-governance. Solidarity has almost turned into subversion.

Contemporary debates over tribals usually end up with a state-versus-Maoist fight. The government’s argument that Maoists hinder development hardly has a rationale as its own policies and programmes invariably lead to alienation of tribals from their resources. On the other hand, the argument of non-government groups that alienation creates space for Maoists does not exactly lead to tribal development. It only perpetuates the action-reaction mode of events, while pushing real concerns of tribal regions into oblivion. Rather it has legitimised Maoists as the champions of tribals. There is no visible evidence to show that tribal communities have conferred on Maoists such a privilege.

The end result is that any development in India’s tribal areas is seen as a contest between two powers—the state and the Maoists. Tribals are just the right instrument. For all functional purposes, these debates do not bear any meaning for either the tribal population or their development. This is because the tribals, or their opinions, hardly feature in either of the warring faction’s agenda. In a way, this is the second disempowerment of the tribals—first the state resumed mandate on their behalf, and now the Maoists have done so. Both the sides overtly fight for power. In an ideal tribal council, local communities would have excommunicated both the players.

There are many Maoist-infested areas where local communities are in agreement with government programmes. But they do not support the government because Maoists are sure to hound them. For example, Maoists oppose construction of roads for strategic reasons. Many forest villages need roads for faster access to health centres and to local markets for their produce. These are everyday needs that cannot be postponed till the elusive revolution. In Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh there are villages where roads were sanctioned a decade ago but work has not started. Its impacts are diametrically opposed to the tenets of the Maoists. Minor forest traders now come to the village, pick up tribals’ produce at cheap rates, and sell them in nearby market at high profit. It is a matter of another revolution that Maoists collect “taxes” from the traders in the very market. The longer the road construction faces local resistance, the more is the police brutality on people suspected to be Maoist sympathisers.

This blurs the difference between a gun-toting policeperson and a Maoist in the eyes of a tribal. But the debate raging outside conveniently ignores this. One is either with the government or with the Maoists. Maoists’ killing Karma does not reduce the risk of state unleashing another bout of violence in tribal areas. Reports suggest some 10,000 security people are entering the Bastar forests to flush out Maoists. Similarly, by showing a high rate of Maoist casualties in an operation, government cannot ensure there will be a feeling of less alienation among tribals.

A few months ago, tribal rights activist and former bureaucrat B D Sharma said in an interview to Down To Earth that tribals’ alienation did not start with Maoists so it will not end with their defeat. In fact, the tug of war has continued for so long that it sounds clichéd now to talk about development as an antidote to Maoists. The need of the hour is to allow tribal communities what they cherish most—self-governance. This does not mean absence of government but less of it with more power to tribals to govern. There are many villages in Maoist areas which have resisted both the government and the Maoists to regain control over local affairs. They need to be celebrated.

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