Of human bondage

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

The international decade for indigenous peoples has just been ushered in with the usual brouhaha that accompanies all such gala events. vips will make speeches, money will be asked for and perhaps allocated. But the fate of millions of indigenous peoples all over the world will probably not change unless their exploitation by their own nations is challenged and stopped.

The process of colonisation of the indigenous peoples is as old as the history of colonialism itself, perhaps a wee bit older. As guardians of natural resources, the close links which shape their cultures and their very identities, they have always been a thorn in the flesh of colonialists, administrators and developmentalists. Not only the forests which provide these peoples their sustenance, but the people themselves, have been looked upon as raw material, a cheap labour to be exploited for the so-called betterment and welfare of the selfish outsiders. Exploitation necessitates subjugation and control, and the world has seen many variations of the ruthless ways of doing so. Glaring examples abound in the history of the British rule in India or of the Dutch in Java.

Colonialists later abandoned the sword and the torch and took convenient recourse to legal instruments, all ostensibly to protect nature as well as to develop the indigenous peoples. Globally, invasion of the territories of the indigenous people has been justified by using the legal principle, or rather excuse, that these lands were terra nullius -- they belonged to no one and therefore, the 'civilised people' had the right to capture them. This was a deliberate twist in the understanding of the notion of common property of the indigenous world and an imposition of the concept of private property. Simultaneously, upholding of the rule of law and maintenance of order, was emphasised upon.

In actuality, this meant that protests by the people whose very lives became definitionally illegal had to be quelled with a strong hand. Yet, benevolence was necessary; the paternal image of the coloniser could not be allowed to be tarnished.

Thus the image of the noble savage was born, of a person who was sublimely unaware of what was best for him -- an image reinforced through stereotyping by zealous colonial ethnographers. The state did intervene to protect nature as well as the subjects. Behind it all was the object to get the tribals to cut and cart their own forests which, in the case of British India, was done by creating a brilliant notion of scientific forestry.

It is only in 1993 that the Supreme Court of Australia derecognised the validity of the terra nullius principle in the famous Mabo case. But in India, the methods of colonisation and control, complete with its stereotypes, persist even nearly 50 years after the British left. The only difference -- while the oppressed remain the same, the colonisers are Indians.

Babus, seths or dikus, call them by any name, they are to be found in all the jungle districts of the country from south Bihar to Karnataka. They all look down upon the local indigenous peoples as junglis who need to be controlled. And if they protest against the rape of their environment, they have to squashed. These babus are the nation, and today protests by the indigenous peoples are branded anti-national. Brute force and the plethora of draconian laws like the National Security Act and the Terrorist and Disruptive Acts apart, they are always the subjects of cases like detention for vagrancy and loitering, used to harrass those who protest.

The most shocking example of this internal colonisation comes from the Dangs district of Gujarat. Tribals constitute 94 per cent of the district's population of 1,44,091, yet the Forest Department is the reigning lord here. It owns 98 per cent of the total area of 1,764 sq km of the district. Some ninety eight per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, yet the state earns Rs 19,90,900,00 annually from the district, out of which Rs 19,15,300,00 comes from the sale of forest products alone. Developmental activity is virtually nil and corruption is the rule of the day. The local populace lives in the shadow of state terrorism. Even ngo activity has halted.

It is not a matter of pumping in money and facilities, which is being done for many of the indigenous peoples. What is crucial, is keeping the morale of the indigenous peoples high, and prevent their mass surrender to external oppressors, especially when the worst excesses of internal colonisation raise their ugly heads. This can be achieved by restoring to the indigenous peoples their rights as custodians of their natural resources, the agenda of many tribal movements throughout the world. The people concerned about this have an important role to play. They can create the pressure necessary to liberate the bureaucracy from its colonial hangover.

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