May 25th’s condemnable attack by the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, which ended up killing and injuring over 50 people from Congress politicians to migrant adivasi labourers, cannot be understood without recognising the Maoist party’s explicit political aims. These aims include zero tolerance for any competing political force in the party’s area of armed influence. Also, as stated often by male members of the party’s non-adivasi leadership, the polarising hardships created by military conflict are desirable since they hold the opportunity of swelling the party’s ranks.
But to make deeper sense of the attack, Indians must also acknowledge the routine stymieing of democracy and governance in adivasi India— the context that nurtures the current avatar of India’s four-decade-old Naxalite rebellion.
If the Indian establishment wishes to effectively end such attacks in the long run, it cannot sidestep a hard look at why it stands so discredited in the aam adivasi’s eyes across central and eastern India. If “democratic values” are what are at stake, as leading politicians argued in the wake of the attack, their parties must also act to uphold and defend such values in numerous adivasi blocks where the Maoists neither challenge the writ of the state nor hold out the threat of political assassinations.
Here are some specifics dos and don’ts:
1. Implement land rights safeguards: From the adivasi bonded labour agitations in neglected western Orissa to the struggles against losing land and livelihoods for mining and industrialization across the bauxite, coal and iron ore-rich tracts of central and eastern India, land is at the heart of much of the ongoing violence adivasis suffer. This despite clear safeguards in the Constitution, dedicated land alienation laws and the atrocities act, all of which are meant to prevent and redress adivasi displacement and dispossession. Existing constitutional and legal provisions have to be seriously implemented to address this growing crisis.
2. Fast-track the Forest Rights Act: From the adivasi perspective, the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) was arguably the most meaningful legislation of independent India. It overturned colonial notions of the state as owner of the forest, and recognised adivasis and other forest-inhabitants as rightful cultivators of forest produce and key actors in forest conservation. But states have been reluctant to cede control— as per the government’s latest status report (April 2013), under 50% of land title claims filed by villagers in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Orissa have resulted in titles. On the ground, this translates into deliberate neglect. In a mid-May interview with one of the columnists, residents of a Gond village in Orissa’s forested coal belt said they had filed FRA claims in 2010 but there was no administrative action to process them. Instead, forest officials had been making rounds of the village with officials of a private mining company. The other important aspect of the law—giving adivasi communities the right to market their forest produce—has been implemented in only a handful of villages across India.
3. Stop criminalising legitimate spaces of expression and protest: A wide spectrum of non-violent adivasi movements today exist on the ground, agitating on multiple issues including forced displacement, the loss of access to natural resources, the absence of meaningful economic and social rehabilitation, below-minimum wages, government liquor shops and indebtedness. Many of these struggles get little public or media attention. The state’s common reaction is to throttle and intimidate such agitations, often through outright physical assaults or by filing criminal charges against protestors, including those of Naxalism. In Chhattisgarh, such non-violent movements have had to coalesce under a single banner hoping for strength in numbers, given the perennial fear of imprisonment under the state’s harsh Public Security Act.
4. Pay closer attention to justice: The criminal justice system as it exists today is loaded against the adivasi. On the one hand, there is little recognition for crimes—from police atrocities to cheating and forced displacement—committed against the adivasi. NHRC’s April visit to Chattisgarh reinforced this principle of zero culpability when it did not recommend criminal charges in any of the questionable encounters that killed adivasi villagers. On the other hand, adivasis are routinely picked up and imprisoned, spending years in a hostile system they can make little sense of. Court proceedings often take place in a language they do not understand, the official legal aid system takes little interest in them, and private lawyers who can get them bail are beyond reach. This April, a year after a committee was set up to examine cases of adivasi prisoners, its head and former bureaucrat Nirmala Buch said she did not know if the Chhattisgarh government had acted on the recommendation that prosecutors not oppose bail for 110 adivasi undertrials in the 235 cases the committee had examined. Undertake a dedicated review of adivasi undertrials, and act on its findings. Create a distinctive legal aid program for adivasis with funds from the Tribal Sub-plan budget. Institute criminal charges on adivasi complaints.
5. Hold businesses accountable: Among the leading violators of human rights in India’s adivasi belt are businesses, in particular mining corporations who have made an unparalleled entry into these areas over the past decade. This presence will only expand in the coming years, but there is alarmingly little attention by the state on the profound implications of this for vulnerable communities on the ground. Corporate misdemeanours range from intimidating gram sabhas, falsifying records, fixing public hearings, nurturing land speculation and alienation, bribing politicians, the bureaucracy and the district media to facilitate violations, sapping natural resources including groundwater, and polluting without any notion of having to pay for it. All of these are open secrets through various levels of government. Yet a blind eye is turned since the consequences of these violations are primarily borne by adivasis. Businesses operating in adivasi areas need to be held to a code of conduct with clear principles of responsibility and accountability.
6. Address the head-on policy collision between mining and adivasi rights: There is a nascent but overdue debate within government on how mining in its current form is incompatible with the constitutional provisions for adivasis. V Kishore Chandra Deo, the most engaged Tribal Affairs Minister India has seen in a long time, has repeatedly pointed to the crisis of confidence and trust in adivasi areas mining is causing. He took this position most strongly in a letter on April 4 to the governors of all adivasi-populated states, men of power who have routinely ignored their constitutional mandate of ensuring ‘peace and good governance’ in adivasi areas. Deo’s concerns over mining have been publicly seconded by his colleague Jairam Ramesh. It is no coincidence that these are the only cabinet members who spend time in adivasi areas and see the damage on the ground first-hand. What is the larger strategic plan for our mineral resources and where might we draw the line on the social and economic costs adivasis bear for our extractive industries? Give these questions the seriousness they deserve, even though they are difficult ones to ask, when spoils from mining enrich individual MPs and MLAs across party lines, and bankroll electoral campaigns.
7. Engage, don’t exclude: Through a series of executive orders, the current government has shrunk the legitimate powers of gram sabhas in adivasi areas to participate in decisions over matters that affect them, from developmental and mining projects to diverting and destroying forests. None of these rollbacks were run by locals or justified to them. They orders came in response to high-level lobbying, and often after explicit PMO directives. The effective message to adivasis is that their participation is irrelevant, or an irritant. Dedicated area development funds in adivasi areas such as the Integrated Action Plan are imbued with a similar scuttling of participatory norms. IAP funds, hundreds of crores of rupees, are entirely controlled by 3 district bureaucrats, violating the legal mandates of local communities and elected panchayats. What proportion of IAP money and energies were spent to engage communities in key challenges like creating accessible and meaningful healthcare in their area?
8. Don’t patronise the adivasi: Adivasis are not our ‘backward’ siblings but full and equal citizens confronted with, and living through enormous inequality and injustice. Recognize that adivasi societies are home to deep and distinctive traditions, which add to the diversity India takes pride in. They also possess an evolved ecological awareness, acquired over generations of managing their environments and livelihoods— knowledge systems that arguably rival those of the most celebrated “development experts”. If the rest of India has the humility to listen, adivasi communities might hold valuable policy insights on how we could avoid replicating the fate of China, which has gravely damaged its environment on the path to economic progress. Incidentally, adivasi societies also possess better sex ratios than some of India’s most developed areas including South Delhi and South Mumbai. Don’t look down on adivasis for “staying aloof from the meanstream [sic] of modern society”, as one government document on Malkangiri’s IAP put it. The fundamental issue seeking resolution is not adivasi difference, but mitigating the inequality and injustice that compromise democratic values for them at every turn.
Chitrangada Choudhury is Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Ajay Dandekar is Professor, Central University, Gujarat.
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