One of the decisions at the CPI(M)'s 17th party congress in Hyderabad that went largely unreported but could have some significance in the times to come is to set up its organisation among the tribes in India.
This apparently follows an initiative from the party's high-powered central committee, which had prepared a document outlining the need for reaching out to the tribals.
Party sources in Kolkata claim that they alarmed with recent political trends among the tribals. In some parts of the country, the tribes are under the direct influence of Christian missionaries and of late, the sangh parivar too has set up its parallel organisations.
While one group seeks to westernise them, leading to separatist tendencies, the parivar is happy to have them under the Hindutva flag, ignoring tribal customs and religious sentiments.
Or there are other political groups active among the tribals who believe mostly in armed insurgency, such as the Peoples War Group, the MCC and other, in Andhra, Orissa and Bihar. The tribes in Tripura and Assam fall under the influence of the church and are openly secessionist.
The CPI(M) claim is that extremist and separatist tendencies flourish among large sections of the tribals in India mainly because they have been kept out of the mainstream by exploiting landowners, rural moneylenders and others who have fleeced them mercilessly over generations. The CPM thinking goes that many have lost faith in social justice in the present political order and therefore opt for extra-parliamentary tactics.
There are estimated to be over 80 million tribals all over India, but the Left record regarding tribal aspirations has been a mixed one. The CPI(M) in Tripura set up the powerful Tribal Autonomous Council, with administrative powers unmatched in India among similar tribal bodies, but it has not helped in dampening tribal militancy.
In Bengal, despite the Left Front encouraging the use of the Santhal "Alchiki" language, its success has not been noteworthy.
For a party that professes to champion the cause of the poorest of the poor, which the tribals in India are, the recent CPM decision implicitly acknowledges its own failure over the years to access the tribals, despite enjoying power for a long period in Bengal and for lesser periods in Tripura.
According to a party spokesman, leave alone the tribals, the party has no major base even among khet mazdoors (daily rural wage labourers), found at the bottom of the rural economic pyramid. Land reforms in Bengal gave security to a section of poor cultivators, but not to all and not necessarily to the poorest. And, the number of landless peasants in Bengal has been increasing.
In fact, the CPI(M)'s neglect of tribal interests in the past has led to the growth of the Jharkhand Party among tribes in Midnapore -- mostly people who supported the Left parties earlier.
Perhaps it could be cynically argued that tribes were left broadly untouched by the Left political appeal because many among them were not educationally equipped to grasp the essentials of the Marxist interpretations of society, the forces that dominate society and economics and so on.
The party claims to have come up with some major ideas in a proposed 13-point programme to help the tribals. Among major steps envisaged are protection of tribal-owned land and holdings, prevention of land alienation, ensuring the rights of tribals to live and work in forests, ensuring equal rights and economic security among their women.