Wednesday 27 July 2016

Unacknowledged Victims

More deprived and dispossessed than the Dalits - or Muslims - the Adivasis remain not just marginal but invisible. Crushed in the violent war between the State and the Maoists

This essay was first published in the Economic and Political Weekly (August 11, 2007) under the title, "Adivasis, Naxalites, And Indian Democracy" and is republished here with the author's permission as it - unfortunately - remains as relevant today. The essay argues that adivasis as a whole have gained least and lost most from six decades of democracy and development in India. It presents evidence that they are even more deprived than the Dalits. However, unlike the Dalits, they have been unable to effectively articulate their grievances through the democratic and electoral process. The failures of the state and of the formal political system have provided a space for Maoist revolutionaries to move into. After analysing the reasons for the rise of ‘Naxalite’ influence, the essay concludes that there is a double tragedy at work in tribal India. The first tragedy is that the state has treated its adivasi citizens with contempt and condescension. The second tragedy is that their presumed protectors, the Naxalites, offer no long term solution either.

On 13th December 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru moved the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly of India. This proclaimed that the soon-to-be-free nation would be an ‘Independent Sovereign Republic’. Its Constitution would guarantee citizens ‘justice, social, economic and political; equality of status; of opportunity, and before the law; freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship, vocation, association and action, subject to law and public morality.’

The resolution went on to say that ‘adequate safeguards shall be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes…’. In moving the resolution, Nehru invoked the spirit of Gandhi and the ‘great past of India’, as well as modern precedents such as the French, American, and Russian Revolutions.

The debate on the Objectives Resolution went on for a whole week. Among the speakers were the conservative Hindu Purushuttomdas Tandon, the right-wing Hindu Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the Scheduled Caste leader B. R. Ambedkar, the liberal lawyer M. R. Jayakar, the socialist M. R. Masani, a leading woman activist, Hansa Mehta, and the communist Somnath Lahiri. After all these stalwarts had their say, a former hockey player and lapsed Christian named Jaipal Singh rose to speak. ‘As a jungli, as an Adibasi’, said Jaipal,

I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of the Indus Valley civilization, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the newcomers—most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned—it is the newcomers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness….The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.[i]

Sixty years have passed since Jaipal took Nehru and all the others at their word. What has been the fate of his people, the adivasis, in this time? This essay will argue that, in many ways, the tribals of peninsular India are the unacknowledged victims of six decades of democratic development. In this period they have continued to be exploited and dispossessed by the wider economy and polity. (At the same time, the process of dispossession has been punctuated by rebellions and disorder.) Their relative and oftentimes absolute deprivation is the more striking when compared with that of other disadvantaged groups such as Dalits and Muslims. While Dalits and Muslims have had some impact in shaping the national discourse on democracy and governance, the tribals remain not just marginal but invisible.

TRIBHUVAN TIWARI/Gorgondarengapur


There are some 85 million Indians who are officially classified as ‘Scheduled Tribes’. Of these, about 16 million live in the states of north-eastern India. This essay, however, focuses on the roughly 70 million tribals who live in the heart of India, in a more-or-less contiguous hill and forest belt that extends across the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, and West Bengal.

The tribes of the north-east differ from their counterparts in other parts of India in several crucial ways. First, they have, until the recent past, been more or less untouched by Hindu influence. Second, they have, in the recent past, been exposed rather substantially to modern (and especially English) education; as a consequence, their literary rates, and hence their chances of being advantageously absorbed in the modern economy, are much higher than that of their counterparts elsewhere in India. Third, unlike the tribals of the mainland they have been largely exempt from the trauma caused by dispossession; till recently, their location in a corner of the country has inhibited dam builders and mine owners from venturing near them.

‘Adivasis’ generally inhabit upland or wooded areas and they generally treat their women better than caste Hindus

There are, of course, many different endogamous communities—more than five hundred, at last count—that come under the label ‘Scheduled Tribes’. However, despite this internal differentiation, taken as a whole the tribes of central and eastern India share certain attributes—cultural, social, economic and political—that allow us to treat them as a single segment, distinct not only from north-eastern tribals but also from all other Indians. In everyday language, this commonality is conveyed in the term ‘adivasi’. It is not a word that can be—or is—used to describe a Naga or a Mizo. However, it comes easily to one’s lips when speaking of a Gond or a Korku or a Bhil or an Oraon. For these (and other) individual tribes are nevertheless unified, in the Indian imagination, by some common characteristics. Usually, what they share is denoted in cultural or ecological terms—namely, that these ‘adivasis’ generally inhabit upland or wooded areas, that they generally treat their women better than caste Hindus, that they have rich traditions of music and dance, and that while they might occasionally worship some manifestation of Visnu or Siva, their rituals and religion centre around village gods and spirits.

The basis for these everyday understandings of the adivasi lie in a series of ethnographic monographs written over the years.[ii] From the perspective of Indian democracy, however, what unites the adivasis is not their cultural or ecological distinctiveness, but their economic and social disadvantage. As a recent book by the demographer Arup Maharatna demonstrates, when assessed by the conventional indicators of development, the adivasis are even worse off than the Dalits. For example, the literacy rate of adivasis is, at 23.8%, considerably lower than that of the Dalits, which stands at 30.1%. As many as 62.5% of adivasi children who enter school drop out before they matriculate; whereas this happens only with 49.4% of Dalit children. While a shocking 41.5% of Dalits live under the official poverty line, the proportion of adivasis who do so is even higher—49.5%.

With respect to health facilities, too, the adivasis are even more poorly served than the Dalits. 28.9% of tribals have no access whatsoever to doctors and clinics; for Dalits the percentage is 15.6%. 42.2% of tribal children have been immunized; as compared to 57.6% of Dalit children. Again, 63.6% of Dalits have access to safe drinking water, as against 43.2% of tribals.[iii]

Apart from large dams and industrial townships, tribals have also been rendered homeless by national parks and sanctuaries

On the one hand, by not providing them with decent education and health care, the Government of India has dishonoured its Constitutional guarantee to provide the adivasis equal opportunities for social and economic development. On the other hand, the policies of the government have more actively dispossessed very many adivasis of their traditional means of life and livelihood. For the tribals of the mainland live amidst India’s best forests, alongside many of its fastest-flowing rivers, and on top of its richest mineral resources. Once, this closeness to nature’s bounty provided them the means for subsistence and survival. However, as the pace of economic and industrial development picked up after Independence, the adivasis have increasingly had to make way for commercial forestry, dams, and mines. Often, the adivasis are displaced because of the pressures and imperatives of what passes as ‘development’; sometimes, they are displaced because of the pressures and imperatives of development’s equally modern Other: namely, ‘conservation’. Thus, apart from large dams and industrial townships, tribals have also been rendered homeless by national parks and sanctuaries.[iv]

How many adivasis have lost their homes and lands as a result of conscious state policy? The estimates vary—they range from a few million to as many as twenty million. Even if we cannot come up with a precise, reliable number, to the question ‘How many tribals have been involuntarily displaced by the policies of the Government of India’, the answer must be: ‘Too many’. The sociologist Walter Fernandes estimates that about 40% of all those displaced by government projects are of tribal origin. Since adivasis constitute roughly 8% of India’s population, this means that a tribal is five times as likely as a non-tribal to be forced to sacrifice his home and hearth by the claims and demands of development and/or conservation. [v]

Adivasis displacement has continued from the time of the state occupying the commanding heights of the economy to now, the era of liberalization and globalization

Adivasis were displaced from their lands and villages when the state occupied the commanding heights of the economy. And they continue to be displaced under the auspices of liberalization and globalization. The opening of the Indian economy has had benign outcomes in parts of the country where the availability of an educated workforce allows for the export of high-end products such as software. On the other hand, where it has led to an increasing exploitation of unprocessed raw materials, globalization has presented a more brutal face. Such is the case with the tribal districts of Orissa, where the largely non-tribal leadership of the state has signed a series of leases with mining companies, both Indian and foreign. These leases permit, in fact encourage, these companies to dispossess tribals of the land they own or cultivate, but under which lie rich veins of iron ore or bauxite.

TRIBHUVAN TIWARI/Tribal women from Polampalli


The sufferings of the adivasis as a consequence of deliberate state policy have been underlined in a series of official reports down the decades. A decade after Independence, the Home Ministry constituted a committee headed by the anthropologist Verrier Elwin to enquire into the functioning of government schemes in tribal areas. It found that the officials in charge of these schemes ‘were lacking in any intimate knowledge of their people [and] had very little idea of general policies for tribal development’. Worse, there was ‘a tendency for officials to regard themselves as superior, as heaven-born missionaries of a higher culture. They boss the people about; their chaprasis abuse them; in order to “get things done” they do not hesitate to threaten and bully. Any failure is invariably placed at the tribal door;… the Block officials blaming everything on the laziness, the improvidence, the suspiciousness, the superstitions of the people’.

After studying twenty blocks spread across the country, the committee concluded that ‘of the many tribal problems the greatest of all is poverty’. Much of the poverty and degradation they saw, said the committee, was 

the fault of us, the ‘civilized’ people. We have driven [the tribals] into the hills because we wanted their land and now we blame them for cultivating it in the only way we left to them. We have robbed them of their arts by sending them the cheap and tawdry products of a commercial economy. We have even taken away their food by stopping their hunting or by introducing new taboos which deprive them of the valuable protein elements in meat and fish. We sell them spirits which are far more injurious than the home-made beers and wines which are nourishing and familiar to them, and use the proceeds to uplift them with ideals. We look down on them and rob them of their self-confidence, and take away their freedom by laws which they do not understand. [vi]

Not long afterwards, the senior Congressman (and former Congress President) U. N. Dhebar was asked to chair a high-powered committee to look into the situation in tribal areas. Its members included six Members of Parliament (among them Jaipal Singh), and some senior social workers. The committee identified land alienation, the denial of forest rights, and the displacement by development projects as among the major problems facing the adivasis. Sometimes, state policy had failed to come to rescue of the tribals; at other times, it had only worked to impoverish them further. The state machinery had been unable to prevent the loss of land to outsiders, or to check the exploitative activities of moneylenders. Meanwhile, the major power projects and steel plants set in motion by the Five Year Plans had ‘resulted in a substantial displacement of the tribal people’. The Committee was concerned that this form of industrial development would ‘sweep [the tribals] off their feet… We have to see that the foundations of tribal life are not shaken and the house does not crash.’ Because of the dams and mills already built,

The tribals were dislodged from their traditional sources of livelihood and places of habitation. Not conversant with the details of acquisition proceedings they accepted whatever cash compensation was given to them and became emigrants. With cash in hand and many attractions in the nearby industrial towns, their funds were rapidly depleted and in course of time they were without money as well as without land. They joined the ranks of landless labourers but without any training, equipment or aptitude for any skilled or semi-skilled job.

The Dhebar Committee’s most eloquent passages concerned the suppression of tribal rights in the forest. As a consequence of the forest laws introduced by the British, and continued by the governments of independent India, ‘the tribal who formerly regarded himself as the lord of the forest, was through a deliberate process turned into a subject and placed under the Forest Department’. The officials and their urban conservationist supporters claimed that in order to protect the forests the adivasis had to be kept out. The Dhebar Committee commented:

There is constant propaganda that the tribal people are destroying the forest. We put this complaint to some unsophisticated tribals. They countered the complaint by asking how they could destroy the forest. They owned no trucks; they hardly had even a bullock-cart. The utmost that they could carry away was some wood to keep them warm in the winter months, to reconstruct or repair their huts and carry on their little cottage industries. Their fuel-needs for cooking, they said, were not much, because they had not much to cook. Having explained their own position they invariably turned to the amount of destruction that was taking place all around them. They reiterated how the ex-zamindars, in violation of their agreements, and the forest rules and laws, devastated vast areas of forest land right in front of officials. They also related how the contractors stray outside the contracted coupes, carry loads in excess of their authorized capacity and otherwise exploit both the forests and the tribals.

There is a feeling amongst the tribals that all the arguments in favour of preservation and development of forests are intended to refuse them their demands. They argue that when it is a question of industry, township, development work or projects of rehabilitation, all these plausible arguments are forgotten and vast tracts are placed at the disposal of outsiders who mercilessly destroy the forest wealth with or without necessity. [vii]

Already, by the 1960s, reports commissioned by the Government of India were demonstrating the utter failure of the state in providing a life of dignity and honour to its tribal citizens. Nor was this a generalized critique; rather, the specific problems faced by the adivasis were identified—namely, callous and corrupt officials, the loss of land, indebtedness, restrictions on the use of the forest, and large-scale displacement. The evidence offered in these (and other reports) should have called for a course correction, for the formation and implementation of policies that ensured that India’s industrial and economic development was not to be at the cost of its adivasi citizens.

Leave alone acting on various reports documenting the problems faced by the adivasis, the government has often not even tabled the reports in Parliament

That these reports and their recommendations would be met with a deafening silence had not been unanticipated. As the Elwin Committee noted, past reports on tribal problems had been ‘ignored in practice’. It ‘is extraordinary’, it commented, ‘how often… a recommendation sinks into the soulless obscurity of an official file and is heard of no more’. [viii] Or at least not for another twenty or thirty years. For in the 1980s another series of official reports commented strongly on the continuing deprivation of the adivasis. These were written by the then Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Dr B. D. Sharma, a civil servant with wide experience of working with and alongside tribals. As documented by Dr Sharma, the major problems faced by tribals were still land alienation, restrictions on their use of forests, and displacement by dams and other large projects. He pointed out that ‘the tribal people are at a critical point in their history…’. They were ‘losing command over resources at a very fast rate but are also facing social disorganization which is unprecedented in their history’. And yet the ‘tales of woes from tribal areas are hardly heard outside, And when they come they are not taken seriously…’. What was worse, ‘the State itself sometimes tends to adopt a partisan role and become a privy even for actions not quite legal simply because the matter concerns voiceless small communities’. [ix]

This time, the Government’s response to these well documented and soberly worded indictments was to refuse to table the reports in Parliament.



Those are some facts about the neglect and exploitation of the adivasis in independent India. Let me turn now to the history of rebellion and disorder. In the colonial period there were major rebellions in tribal areas, as for example the Kol and Bhumj revolts of the early 19th century, the Santhal hool of 1855, the Birsa Munda-led ulugulan in the 1890s, the uprising in Bastar in 1911, the protests in Gudem-Rampa in the 1920s, and the Warli revolt of 1945-6. Most often, these protests had to do with the alienation of land or the expropriation of forests. They were quelled only with the use of force, often very substantial force. [x]

The first two decades after Independence were, comparatively speaking, a time of peace in tribal India.

The first two decades after Independence were, comparatively speaking, a time of peace in tribal India. Perhaps, like Jaipal Singh, most adivasis took the Government at its word that with freedom a new chapter would begin, where ‘there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected’. However, as the evidence mounted that the benefits of development were unevenly distributed, and that the costs were borne disproportionately by tribal communities, discontent began to grow. Thus, for example, there was a major uprising of adivasis in Bastar in 1966, led by their recently deposed Maharaja, Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo. Then, in the 1970s, a militant movement took shape in the tribal districts of Bihar, demanding an end to exploitation by moneylenders and the Forest Department, and asking also for the creation of a separate state to be named ‘Jharkhand’. In the same decade, tribals in Maharashtra were organized in defence of their land and forest rights by groups such as the Bhoomi Sena and the Kashtakari Sanghatana. Also in the 1970s, there were the protests against the Koel-Karo projects in Bihar. Then, beginning in the 1980s, and coming down to the present day, the plight of tribals ousted by development projects (and by large dams in particular) has been highlighted by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Most recently, adivasis threatened by mining projects in Orissa have organized a series of processions and boycotts to reassert their rights over land handed over by the State Government to mining companies. [xi]

Above and beyond these various protests, Maoist revolutionaries have been active in tribal areas. The village Naxalbari, which gave the ‘Naxalites’ their name, itself lies in a part of West Bengal which has a substantial tribal population. Another major centre of Naxalite activity in the late 1960s was the tribal districts of Andhra Pradesh. In the 1970s, the Maoists spread their influence in two main areas—the caste-ridden districts of central Bihar, and the tribal districts of the southern parts of the state. In recent decades, as the Maoist insurgency has spread, its major gains have been in tribal districts—in Maharashtra, in Orissa, in Jharkhand, but above all in Chattisgarh. [xii]

Over the past four decades, the adivasis of central India have often expressed their public and collective discontent with the policies and programmes of the state. Their protests have sometimes (as in Bastar in 1966 or in Jharkhand in the late 1970s) taken recourse to traditional means and traditional leaders. At other times (as in Maharashtra in the 1970s, or in the Narmada Andolan), adivasis have been mobilized by social activists from an urban, middle-class, background. More recently, however, tribal disaffection has been largely expressed under the leadership of armed Maoist revolutionaries.[xiii]

Ambedkar with Maulana Hasrat Mohani: 1949


Section II briefly compared the economic and social situation of the Dalits to that of adivasis. When the comparison is extended to the domain of politics, one finds that adivasis appear to be even more disadvantaged. The weakness and vulnerability of adivasis is made even more manifest when one further extends the comparison to include a third marginalized minority—namely, the Muslims.

Unlike Muslims and Dalits who are considered pan-Indian, tribal claims remain confined to the states and districts in which they live

Consider, for example, the constitution of various Union Cabinets from 1947 to 2007. In this time, there have often been Dalits and Muslims who have held important portfolios. Dalits and/or Muslims have served, sometimes for long periods, as Home Minister, Defence Minister, Agriculture Minister, and External Affairs Minister in the Government of India. On the other hand, no major portfolio in the Union Cabinet has ever been assigned to an adivasi politician.

Likewise, both Dalits and Muslims have held high Constitutional posts. One Dalit and three Muslims have held the highest office of all—that of President of the Republic. One Dalit and three Muslims have served as Chief Justice of India. No tribal has ever been made President or Vice President, or Chief Justice. So far as I know, no adivasi has been appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court. And many more Dalits and Muslims have served as Governors of states than have tribals.

These facts are manifestations of the much wider invisibility of tribals from the political process. Muslims and Dalits have been able to constitute themselves as an interest group on the national stage—they are treated in popular discourse as communities that are pan-Indian. On the other hand, tribal claims remain confined to the states and districts in which they live. Unlike the Dalits and the Muslims, the adivasis continue to be seen only in discrete, broken-up, fragments.

In most states of the Union, and in most districts in these states, Dalits command between 10% and 20% of the vote

The Dalits, in particular, have effectively channelized their grievances through Constitutional means. They have successful political parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is now in power in Uttar Pradesh, and which is rapidly extending its influence and appeal in other states. Dalits also have nationally known leaders, such as the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mayawati, who is now being spoken of as a possible future Prime Minister of India. On the other hand, the adivasis have neither a successful political party nor a well-known political leader. Back in the 1940s, a Jharkhand Party was formed under Jaipal Singh’s leadership. While it did reasonably well in the first General Elections, in 1952, it remained a regional party. It fought sixty years for a separate state, but its effectiveness was undermined by a series of splits. In any case, when the state of Jharkhand was created in 1998, it consisted only of the tribal districts of Bihar, rather than being, as Jaipal had hoped, a much larger province consisting of the contiguous tribal districts of Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh as well as Bihar. As finally constituted, this ‘moth-eaten’ Jharkhand has an overwhelming majority of non-tribals.

If, as is commonly (and justly) acknowledged, Dalits and tribals are the two most disadvantaged sections of Indian society, why have the former been more effective in making their claims heard by the formal political system? This contrast is, I believe, largely explained by aspects of geography and demography. The tribals of central India usually live in tribal villages, in hills and valleys where they outnumber the non-tribals among them. However, in no single state of peninsular India are they in a majority. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, adivasis constitute 6% of the state’s population. In Maharashtra, the proportion is 9%; in Rajasthan, 12%. Even in states professedly formed to protect the tribal interest, such as Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, roughly two-thirds of the population is non-tribal.

The tribal vote may matter only in 50 or 60 constituencies, whereas the Dalit vote matters in perhaps as many as 300

The Dalits too are a minority in every state, but unlike tribals they live in mixed villages, alongside other castes and communities. This means that when election time comes, they can have a decisive impact even on constituencies not reserved for them. In most states of the Union, and in most districts in these states, they command between 10% and 20% of the vote. Therefore, political parties have to address the Dalit interest in a majority of Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies. Tribals, on the other hand, can influence elections only in the few, isolated districts where they are concentrated. In a General Election, for example, the tribal vote may matter only in 50 or 60 constituencies, whereas the Dalit vote matters in perhaps as many as 300.[xiv]

Dalit mobilization on a provincial and national scale is also enabled by the structural similarities in the ways they experience oppression. For the caste system operates in much the same manner across India. In villages in Tamil Nadu as in Uttar Pradesh, Dalits are alloted the most degrading jobs, made to live away from upper-caste hamlets, allowed access only to inferior water sources, and prohibited from entering temples. It is therefore possible for them to build links and forge solidarities horizontally, across villages and districts and states. On the other hand, there are many variations in the forms in which tribals experience oppression. In one place, their main persecutors are forest officials; in another place, moneylenders; in a third, development projects conducted under the aegis of the state; in a fourth, a mining project promoted by a private firm. In the circumstances, it is much harder to build a broad coalition of tribals fighting for a common goal under a single banner.

The Dalits have also been helped by the posthumous presence of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. He has been for them both example and inspiration, a man of towering intellect who successfully breached the upper-caste citadel and who, long after he is gone, encourages his fellows to do likewise. Indeed, the figure of Ambedkar is a rallying point for Dalits across the land.

It may not be nuanced or substantial but newspapers and television give a fair amount of coverage to Dalit and Muslim issues

The tribals, on the other hand, have never had a leader who could inspire admiration, or even affection, across the boundaries of state and language. Birsa Munda, for example, is revered in parts of Jharkhand; but he is scarcely known or remembered in the adivasi areas of Andhra Pradesh or Maharashtra. One advantage that Ambedkar enjoys over tribal icons is that he was a builder of modern institutions as well as a social activist. He burnt copies of the Manu Smrti and formed labour unions; but he also founded schools and political parties and, above all, directed the drafting of the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar has become an all-India figure in part because of the similarities in the way his followers experience oppression; but also because they can can follow him both in protesting injustice and in building a better future.

One might say that the weak literacy rates among adivasis have been accompanied by a weak ‘articulation ratio’. They do not have national leaders; while such men as do represent them are not conversant enough with the languages and discourses of modern democratic politics. On the other hand, in the case of the Dalits the presence of Ambedkar, in the past, and of Mayawati, in the present, has been complemented by an articulate second rung of activists, who know how to build political networks and lobby within and across parties.

As argued, above, at a national level another minority that has had an significant political impact is the Muslims. Outside the Kashmir Valley, Muslims, like Dalits, live in villages and towns alongside Indians of other creeds. As their depressed economic situation shows, the state has not been especially attentive to their material interest. However, politicians have necessarily to be attentive to their votes. In the last Bihar elections, one leader promised to appoint a Muslim chief minister if his party won. No such promise has ever been made by politicians to tribals, even in states such as Madhya Pradesh where they form as much as one-fifth of the population.

The adivasi concerns are rarely discussed or highlighted in talk shows, editorials, reports, or feature articles.

Also relevant to this discussion is the history of Indian nationalism, and in particular the history of the Indian National Congress. Even before Gandhi assumed its leadership, the Congress had to face the charge that it was essentially an upper-caste, Hindu party. To combat this criticism it had to reach out to Muslims and low castes. This imperative became even more pronounced in the Gandhian era, when the Mahatma’s claim that the Congress represented all of India was strongly challenged by M. A. Jinnah, presuming to speak on behalf of the Muslims, and by B. R. Ambedkar, who sought to represent the lowest castes. The rhetoric of Congress nationalism, before and after Independence, always had space within it for the special interests of Muslims and Dalits. (The operative word here is ‘rhetoric’: what happened in practice was another matter.) On the other hand, the Congress has never really understood the distinctive nature of the tribal predicament. Down the decades, matters concerning adivasis have rarely been given prominence in AICC or CWC meetings.

The contrast between a relative Dalit and Muslim visibility on the one hand, and tribal invisibility on the other, can also be illustrated with reference to the mainstream media. Both newspapers and television give a fair amount of coverage to the continuing victimization of Dalits and the continuing marginalization of the Muslims. It is sometimes argued that the coverage of Dalit and Muslim issues in the media is not nearly as nuanced, nor as substantial, as it should be. These criticisms are not without merit. However, in comparison with their adivasi compatriots Dalits and Muslims are actually quite well served by the media. In real life, the tribals are unquestionably as victimized and as marginal; yet they rarely have their concerns discussed or highlighted in talk shows, editorials, reports, or feature articles.

Maoists at a temporary base in the Abujh Marh forests, in Chattisgarh. AP


The increasing presence of Naxalites in areas dominated by adivasis has a geographical reason—namely, that the hills and forests of central India are well suited to the methods of roaming guerrilla warfare. But it also has a historical reason—namely, that the adivasis have gained least and lost most from sixty years of political independence. [xv]

In fact, the two are connected. For the state’s neglect of the adivasis is in many respects a product of the terrain in which they live. In these remote upland areas, public officials are unwilling to work hard, and often unwilling to work at all. Doctors do not attend the clinics assigned to them; schoolteachers stay away from school; magistrates spend their time lobbying for a transfer back to the plains. On the other hand, the Maoists are prepared to walk miles to hold a village meeting, and listen sympathetically to tribal grievances. As a senior forest official was recently constrained to admit: ‘In the absence of any government support and the apathetic attitude of the forest management departments towards the livelihood of forest-dependent communities, the Naxalites have found fertile ground to proliferate…’.[xvi]

The estimates about Maoist numbers are imprecise, and widely varying. Perhaps between 10,000 and 20,000 full-time guerrillas, many of them armed with an AK-47

That the Maoists live among, and in the same state of penury as, the tribals, is unquestionable. That some of their actions have sometimes helped the adivasis can also be conceded. This is especially the case with rates for the collection of non-timber forest produce, such as tendu patta, which have gone up by as much 200% in areas where the Naxalites are active and the contractors fearful of their wrath. However, the principal aim of the Maoists is not the social or economic advancement of the adivasis, but the capture of power in Delhi through a process of armed struggle. In this larger endeavour the tribals are a stepping-stone—or, as some would say, merely cannon fodder.

From its origins, the Naxalite movement was riven by internal discord, by sharp and often bloody rivalries between different factions, each claiming itself to be the only true Indian intepreter of Mao Zedong’s thought. However, by the end of the last century the Peoples War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Co-ordination Committee (MCC) had emerged as the two groups which still had an functioning organization and a devoted cadre of revolutionary workers. The PWG was very active in Andhra Pradesh, whereas the MCC’s base was principally in Bihar.

The Naxalite movement gathered force after the merger in 2004 of the PWG and the MCC. The new party called itself the Communist Party of India (Maoist). That its abbreviation (CPI (M)) mimicked that of a party that had fought and won elections under the Indian Constitution was surely not accidental. We are the real inheritors of the legacy of revolutionary Marxism, the new party was saying, whereas the power-holders in Kerala and West Bengal are merely a bunch of bourgeois reformists.

The new, unified party has been a mere three years in existence, but in that time it has rapidly expanded its influence. The erstwhile MCC cadres have moved southwards into Jharkhand and east into West Bengal. Those who were once with the PWG have travelled into Orissa and Chattisgarh. This last state is where the Maoists have made the most dramatic gains. Large parts of the district of Dantewara, in particular, are under their sway. On one side of the river Indravati, the Indian state exercises an uncertain control by day and no control at night. On the other side, in what is known as Abujmarh, the state has no presence by day or by night.

Dantewara forms part of a forest belt which spills over from Chattisgarh into Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. The region was known in mythical times as ‘Dandakaranya’, a name the Maoists have now adopted as their own. Under the Special Zonal Committee for Dandakaranya operate several Divisional Committees. These in turn have Range Committees reporting to them. The lowest level of organization is at the village, where a committee of committed workers is known as a ‘Sangam’.

According to a senior functionary of the party, the Sangams in Dantewara seek to protect people’s rights in jal, jangal, zameen—water, forest, and land. At the same time, the Maoists make targeted attacks on state officials, especially the police. Raids on police stations are intended to stop them harassing ordinary folk. They are also necessary to augment the weaponry of the guerrilla army. Through popular mobilization and the intimidation of state officials, the Maoists hope to expand their authority over Dandakaranya. Once the region is made a ‘liberated zone’, it is intended to be used as a launching pad for the capture of state power in India as a whole.[xvii]

How many Maoists are there in India? The estimates are imprecise, and widely varying. There are perhaps between 10,000 and 20,000 full-time guerrillas, many of them armed with an AK-47. These revolutionaries are also conversant with the use of grenades, land-mines, and rocket-launchers. They maintain links with guerilla movements in other parts of South Asia, exchanging information and technology with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam and, at least before their recent conversion to multi-party democracy, with the Nepali Maoists.

What we know of the leaders and cadres suggests that most Maoists come from a lower middle class background. They usually have a smattering of education, and were often radicalised in college. Like other Communist movements, the leadership of this one too is overwhelmingly male. No tribals are represented in the upper levels of the party hierarchy.

Like other Communist movements, the leadership of Maoists too is overwhelmingly male. No tribals are represented in the upper levels of the party hierarchy.

The General Secretary of the now unified party, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), calls himself ‘Ganapathi’. He is believed to be from Andhra Pradesh, although the name he uses is almost certainly a pseudonym. Statements carrying his name occasionally circulate on the Internet—one, issued in February 2007, reported the ‘successful completion‘ of a party Congress ‘held deep in the forests of one of the several Guerrilla Zones in the country…’. The party Congress ‘reaffirmed the general line of the new democratic revolution with agrarian revolution as its axis and protracted people’s war as the path of the Indian revolution…’. The meeting ‘was completed amongst great euphoria with a Call to the world people: Rise up as a tide to smash Imperialism and its running dogs! Advance the Revolutionary war throughout the world!

In pursuit of this ‘protracted people’s war’, the Maoists have conducted daring attacks on artefacts and symbols of the state. In November 2005, they stormed the district town of Jehanabad in Bihar, firebombing offices and freeing several hundred prisoners from jail. In March 2007, they attacked a police camp in Chattisgarh, killing 55 policemen and making off with a huge cache of weapons. At other times, they have bombed and set fire to railway stations and transmission towers. 

However, the violence promoted by the revolutionaries is not always aimed at the state. A land mine they set off in Gadchiroli in May 2006 killed many members of a wedding party. The Maoists have also maimed and murdered those they suspect of being ‘informers’.

Police personnel at Bariatu Firing Range in Ranchi | PTI


How can a democratic state fight the rise of Maoist extremism in the tribal areas? It might do so, on the one hand, by bringing the fruits of development to the adivasi, and on the other hand by prompt and effective police action. However, the policies currently being followed by the Government of India are the antitheses of what one would prescribe. Instead of making tribals partners in economic development, they marginalize them further. State governments, themselves run and dominated by non-tribals, are signing away tribal land for mining, manufacturing, and energy generation projects. And instead of efficient police action we have the outsourcing of law and order, as in the Salwa Judum campaign in Chattisgarh, where the State Government has set up a vigilante army that runs a parallel administration in the region.

State governments, themselves run and dominated by non-tribals, are signing away tribal land for mining, manufacturing, and energy generation projects.

In the most peaceful of times the state has often failed to uphold the law in tribal areas. Schedules V and VI of the Constitution provide for a substantial degree of self-governance in districts where adivasis are in a majority. Yet their clauses protecting tribal rights in land and forests, curbing the activities of money-lenders, and mandating the formation of village and district councils have been honoured only in the breach. These Schedules provide for local councils to share in the royalties from minerals found on tribal land;, what happens in practice is that the adivasis do not get to see or spend a paisa from mining, whose proceeds are shared between the contractors and the state-level (and usually non-tribal) politicians. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system is in a state of near collapse; as witness the murder of Shankar Guha Niyogi, that selfless striver for the rights and dignity of adivasi workers in Chattisgarh. It was widely believed that Guha Niyogi was killed by assassins hired by capitalists; yet those who planned and executed the murder have gone scot-free.

Even with this kind of record, Salwa Judum marks a new low. In the past, the state failed to sincerely uphold the law of the land in tribal areas; but now it has gone so far as to actively promote disorder and lawlessness. The impact of Salwa Judum in the Dantewara district of Chattisgarh has been studied by several fact-finding committees composed of activists, academics, journalists, and retired civil servants. Their reports have demonstrated that the campaign has led to an escalation of violence. On the one side, Salwa Judum cadres have burnt villages and abused women; on the other, Naxalites have attacked and killed those they see as working in the service of the state. An atmosphere of fear and insecurity pervades the district. Families and villages are divided, some living with or in fear of the Maoists, others in fear of or in roadside camps controlled by the Salwa Judum. As many as fifty thousand people have been displaced from their homes. These tribal refugees live in a pitiable condition, in tents exposed to the elements, and with no access to health care or gainful employment. Thousands of others have fled across the border into Andhra Pradesh.[xviii]

In the district of Dantewara a civil conflict is under way, which threatens to turn into a civil war. With a veil of secrecy surrounding the operations of the state and the revolutionaries, and with the adivasis too scared to file First Information Reports, there are no reliable estimates of the casualties in this war. Perhaps between five hundred and a thousand people have died unnatural deaths in Dantewara in the past year alone. Among those killed or murdered, some are security personnel and others are Naxalites. However, the vast majority are tribals caught in the cross-fire.

The Maoists will never be able to plant the Red Flag on the Red Fort. The tragedy is that it might take them years to come to this conclusion.

Ironically, by arming civilians, the state has merely reproduced the methods of the other side. For tribal boys in their teens have joined Salwa Judum for much the same reason as other boys had previously joined the Naxalites. Educated just enough to harbour a certain disenchantment for labouring in field and forest, but not enough to be absorbed with honour in the modern economy, these boys were enticed by the state into a job which paid them a salary (albeit a meagre one—Rs 1500 a month), and gave them a certain status in society. Gun in hand, they now strut around the countryside, forcing those without weapons to fall in line.

In this manner, the machismo of revolution is being answered by the machismo of counter-revolution. Call them Sangam Organizer or Special Police Officer, the young men of Dandakaranya have been seduced by their new-found—and essentially unearned—authority. In the Dantewara district alone, there are now several thousand young males punch-drunk with the power which, as Mao said, flows from the barrel of a gun.

There is thus a double tragedy at work in tribal India. The first tragedy is that the state has treated its adivasi citizens with contempt and condescension. The second tragedy is that their presumed protectors, the Naxalites, offer no long term solution either.

Can the Communist Party of India (Maoist) come to power in New Delhi through armed struggle? I think the answer to this question must be in the negative. Corrupt and corroded though it is, the Indian state, c. 2007, cannot be compared to the Chinese state, c. 1940s. It is highly unlikely that a revolution based on Maoist principles will succeed in India. In fact I would say it is impossible. In dense jungle, the Maoists can easily elude a police force that is poorly trained, poorly equipped, and running scared to boot. It is not inconceivable that they will, at some stage, manage to establish a ‘liberated zone’ in some part of Dandakaranya. But once they seek to expand their revolution into more open country, they will be mowed down by the Indian Army.

Corrupt and corroded though it is, the Indian state, c. 2007, cannot be compared to the Chinese state, c. 1940s.

Of the commitment of the Maoists to their cause there should be no doubt. These are young men (and occasionally women) who have lived for years on end in the most difficult circumstances, in pursuit of their dream of a successful revolution. I believe that, in military terms, this dream is a fantasy. The Maoists will never be able to plant the Red Flag on the Red Fort. The tragedy is that it might take them years to come to this conclusion. While the Maoists will find it difficult to expand outside their current areas of operation, the Indian state will not be able to easily restore order and legitimacy in the tribal areas that have passed out of its grasp. A war of attrition lies ahead of us, which will take a heavy toll of human life—lives of policemen, of Maoists, and of unaffiliated civilians.

Such is the prospect in the short-term. From the longer-term perspective of the historian, however, the Maoist dream might be seen not as fantasy but as nightmare. For the signal lesson of the twentieth century is that regimes based on one-party rule grossly violate human dignity and human welfare. By common consent, the most evil man of the modern age was Adolf Hitler. The holocaust he unleashed and the wars he provoked cost some thirty million lives. But in the mass murder stakes, Stalin and Mao are not far behind. In fact, some estimates suggest that revolutionary communism has claimed even more human lives than fascism and the extremist ideologies of the right.[xix]

That multi-party democracy is, if not the best, certainly the least harmful political system devised by humans is appreciated by some adivasis themselves. On a visit to Dantewara in the summer of 2006, I had a long conversation with a Muria tribal. He was a first generation literate, who had been sent to study in an ashram school across the river. After graduation he returned to his native village, to teach in the school there. At the same time he obtained a B. A. degree through correspondence. A teacher, if he does his job well, is among the most respected men in rural India. This Muria teacher was that, but when the Maoists came to his village he experienced an abrupt fall in status and authority. For in their eyes he was an official of the Indian state, and thus subject to harassment and extortion.

Last year, at the age of twenty-five, the Muria teacher fled the village of his forefathers and crossed the Indravati into the sarkari side of the district. His qualifications allowed him to get a job in a still functioning school. He lived near where he worked, at first in a tent, and then in a house built by himself on government land. In fact, I first came across the Muria teacher while he was painting the walls of his home, pail in one hand, brush in the other.

A slim, dark man with a moustache, clad in a simple lungi, the Muria teacher talked to me while his two little chldren played around him. He told me that when the Maoists had first come to the district, they were full of idealism and good intentions. Over time, however, they had been corrupted, turning from defenders of the tribals to their tormentors. I answered that we could say the same of the Salwa Judum. It may have once been a people’s movement, but it had since been taken over by contractors and criminals, these mostly non-tribal. We argued the point, back and forth, while a crowd of interested parties gathered. Finally, the Muria teacher said that while he could contest what I was saying in public, and in front of other people, among the Maoists such free exchange of views was simply impermissible. As he put it: ‘Naxalion ko hathiyar chhodné aur janta ké samné baath-cheeth karné ki himmat nahin hai’.

Indeed, the Indian Maoists do not have the courage to put down their arms and state their case openly before the people.

A war of attrition lies ahead of us, which will take a heavy toll of human life—lives of policemen, of Maoists, and of unaffiliated civilians.

How then might the Maoist insurgency be ended or at least contained? On the Government side, this might take the shape of a sensitively conceived and sincerely implemented plan to make adivasis true partners in the development process: by assuring them the title over lands cultivated by them, by allowing them the right to manage forests sustainably, by giving them a solid stake in industrial or mining projects that come up where they live and at the cost of their homes.

On the Maoist side, this might take the shape of a compact with bourgeois democracy. They could emulate the CPI and the CPM, as well as their counterparts in Nepal, by participating in and perhaps even winning elections. Comrade Prachanda appears to recognize that the political ideology most appropriate to the twenty-first century is multi-party democracy. Admittedly, the cadres in Nepal are yet to disarm. Yet a reconciliation of extremism with electoral democracy seems even more urgent and necessary in a country like India, which is much larger and much more diverse than Nepal.

As things stand, however, one cannot easily see the Indian Maoists give up on their commitment to armed struggle. Nor, given the way the Indian state actually functions, can one see it so radically reform itself as to put the interests of a vulnerable minority—the adivasis—ahead of those with more money and political power.

In the long run, perhaps, the Maoists might indeed make their peace with the Republic of India, and the Republic come to treat its adivasi citizens with dignity and honour. Whether this denouement will happen in my own lifetime I am not sure. In the forest regions of central and eastern India, years of struggle and strife lie ahead. Here, in the jungles and hills they once called their own, the tribals will continue to be harassed on one side by the state and on the other by the insurgents. As one Bastar adivasi put it to me—‘Hummé dono taraf sé dabav hain, aour hum beech mé pis gayé hain’. It sounds far tamer in English—‘Pressed and pierced from both sides, here we are, crushed in the middle’.[xx]

Notes And References

[i] Constituent Assembly Debates, Volume I, pp 143-4.

[ii] On anthropological constructions of the tribe in India, see, among other works, Verrier Elwin, The Baiga (London: John Murray, 1939), idem, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin: An Autobiography (New York: Oxford University Press 1964); G. S. Ghurye, The Scheduled Tribes (third edition: Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1959); K. S. Singh, editor, The Tribal Situation in India (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1972); C. von Furer Haimendorf, The Tribes of India: Struggle and Survival (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); K. S. Singh, Tribal Society in India (Delhi: Manohar, 1985); Andre Béteille, ‘The Concept of Tribe with Special Reference to India’ in his Society and Politics in India: Essays in a Comparative Perspective (London: Athlone Press, 1991); Ramachandra Guha, Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999); Nandini Sundar, Subalterns and Sovereigns; An Anthropological History of Bastar, 1854-2006 (second edition: Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[iii] Arup Maharatna, Demographic Perspectives on India’s Tribes (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), Chapter 2 and passim. Maharatna’s estimates are based on studies and surveys conducted in the 1990s.

[iv] Cf Mahesh Rangarajan and Ghazala Shahabuddin, ‘Relocation from Protected Areas: Towards a Historical and Biological Synthesis’, Conservation and Society, volume 4, number 4, 2006.

[v] Fernandes, ‘Development-induced Displacement and Tribal Women’, in Govind Chandra Rath, editor, Tribal Development in India: The Contemporary Debate (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2006).

[vi] Report of the Committee on Special Multipurpose Tribal Blocks (Delhi: Manager of Publications,. 1960), pp 20, 192, etc.

[vii] See Report of the Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes Commission (Delhi: Government of India Press), especially Chapters 11 and 12.

[viii] Report of the Committee on Special Multipurpose Tribal Blocks, pp 191-2.

[ix] Cf the twenty-eight and twenty-ninth reports of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (New Delhi: Government of India Press, 1988 and 1990).

[x] See, among other works, J. C. Jha, The Kol Insurrection of Chota Nagpur (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink, and Co., 1964); idem, The Bhumij Revolt 1832-3 (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1967); A. R. Desai, editor, Peasant Struggles in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1979); David Arnold, ‘Rebellious Hillmen: The Gudem Rampa Risings, 1839-1924’, in Ranajit Guha, editor, Subaltern Studies I (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982); Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983); K. S. Singh, Birsa Munda and His Movement 1872-1901: A Study of a Millenarian Movement in Chotanagpur (third edition: Kolkata: Seagull Books, 2002); David Hardiman, The Coming of the Devi: Adivasi Assertion in Western India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987); Ajay Skaria, Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers and Wildness in Western India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999); Sundar, Subalterns and Sovereigns.

[xi] For a general overview, see A. R. Desai, editor, Agrarian Struggles in India Since Independence (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986). On Bastar, see Sundar, Subalterns and Sovereigns; on Jharkhand, Susan B. C. Devalle, Discourses of Ethnicity: Culture and Protest in Jharkhand (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1992), and Nirmal Sengupta, editor, Jharkhand: Fourth World Dynamics (Delhi: Authors Guild, 1982); on the Narmada Andolan, Amita Baviskar, In the Belly of the River: Adivasi Battles over ‘Development’ in the Narmada Valley (second edition: New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004). The mining conflicts in Orissa are the subject of a forthcoming book by Felix Padel.

[xii] The early phase of the Maoist movement in India is ably treated in Sumanta Banerjee, In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 1980). There is, as yet, no comparable work on Maoism as it has evolved in the 1990s and beyond.

[xiii] In the remainder of this essay I use ‘tribal’ and ‘adivasi’ interchangeably, as also ‘Maoist’ and ‘Naxalite’.

[xiv] These estimates are not offered on the basis of a scientific study, but are an educated guess. A detailed statistical analysis of individual constituencies would of course revise these figures upwards or downwards, but I suspect by not very much.

[xv] Notably, while they have made major gains in states such as Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, the Naxalites have no real influence in the western adivasi belt—that is, in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the populations are more closely integrated with caste peasant society, and where the terrain is much less suited to guerrilla action.

Of course, it is not merely in tribal areas that the Naxalites are active. For instance, they have a strong presence in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, and in central Bihar. In both areas they work chiefly with sharecroppers and agricultural labourers of low caste origin, mobilizing them in opposition to the upper caste moneylenders and landlords. (Cf Bela Bhatia, ‘The Naxalite Movement in Central Bihar’, Economic and Political Weekly, 9th April 2005.) However, in recent years their greatest gains appear to have been in districts where adivasis are in a majority. In any case, this essay’s focus on the tribal predicament means that it necessarily has to give short shrift to Naxalite activity in areas where the principal axes of social identification are caste and class.

[xvi] D. Mukherji, ‘If You Look After Forest People, You Kill Naxalism’, The Asian Age, 28 June 2005.

[xvii] These paragraphs are based on an interview conducted in Bastar in the summer of 2006, with a Maoist leader calling himself ‘Sanjeev’.

[xviii] See, among other works, Peoples Union for Democratic Rights, When the State Makes War on its own People: A Report on the Violation of People’s Rights during the Salwa Judum Campaign in Dantewada, Chattisgarh (New Delhi: PUDR, April 2006); Independent Citizens’s Initiative, War in the Heart of India: An Enquiry into the Ground Situation in Dantewara District, Chattisgarh (New Delhi: ICI, July 2006)

[xix] Cf Robert Service, Comrades: A World History of Communism (London: Macmillan, 2007).

[xx] The arguments in this essay were first presented in a series of talks across the country in the first months of 2007—in the ‘Challenges to Democracy’ series organized by and at the Nehru Centre, Mumbai (January); as the seventh ISRO-Satish Dhawan lecture at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore (also in January); as the annual lecture of the Raja Rammohun Roy Foundation in Jaipur (February); and as the first Rajiv Kapur Memorial Lecture at the India International Centre, New Delhi (March). I am grateful to the audience at these lectures for their questions and comments. The present text has also benefited from the comments and criticisms of Rukun Advani, David Hardiman, Sujata Keshavan, J. Martinez-Alier, Mahesh Rangarajan, and Dilip Simeon. I am especially indebted to Nandini Sundar, from whose work on adivasis I have learnt a great deal over the years. The usual disclaimers apply.


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OUTLOOK 14 April, 2010
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