“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”
-Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), French economist
‘But are the tribals doing anything with that land?’
‘We need the steel, the adivasis need to be compensated for their land properly. And in my experience, I have seen the companies pay handsomely but the money is lost in the lower levels of governance.’
‘How much money would be enough for your land?’
‘The tribals are the ones responsible for destroying the forests.’
The above statements are some of the most common observations/insights made by non-tribals about tribals and the ‘largest land grab since Columbus.’ But before we get to them, I’d like to write about another story of murder in Dantewada, South Chhittisgarh.
On the 23rd of January, 2011, a Special Police Officer Ismael Khan was shot dead in Dantewada, as he watched a cock fight at the market. It was not a gunfight, it was a targeted assassination by all accounts. And while it was nothing new to Kalluri’s Dantewada, there was something that troubled me about this one particular SPO’s demise. I knew his name, I knew something else about him.
There is a story untold: the story of Ismael Khan is the story of Kottacheru, and the story of Kovasi Dhoole, and the story of Dantewada and the adivasis of Bastar – the danger of a single narrative is the danger of the constant narrative – of violence, and counterviolence. Yet the single narrative needs to be repeated as a vain elegy for every passing statistic that shall appear at the end of the year by the Home Ministry, about the Maoists killed, or those the Maoists have killed, or the Security forces killed in ambushes or assassinated, on the great canvas of the gaping divide between the rich and the poor, the fat and the dispossessed.
But what is the story of Kovasi Dhule and Kottacheru?
‘‘Nine of our people were killed in our village,’ Said Maala (name changed), another IDP (internally displaced person) from Kottacheru. But when I asked him for the names of the killed, he only gave me five names – the five people who were killed by the Salwa Judum (anti-Maoist tribal militia). Then another woman, reservedly gave me the name of ‘Kovasi Dhoole,’ a young woman who was coming home to Kottacheru. And she wasn’t clear about how she died.
‘Did she die when the Salwa Judum raided the village?’ I had asked.
‘Did the Maoists kill her?’
She was quiet.
Eventually, over the course of six months, after interviewing over 14 villagers of Kottacheru in three different locations in Khammam district, including Kovasi Dhoole’s sister, I managed to piece together the story of Kovasi Dhoole and the story of Kottacheru.
In 2007, Kovasi Dhoole was a young woman on her way from Nagaras to her village of Kottacheru. She was stopped at Errabor police station and allegedly detained against her will. She only reappeared two months later, as a SPO, married to another SPO, a ‘turrka’ or Muslim, according to the rest of the villagers of Kottacheru. They also alleged that she was forced to become a SPO, and there was no ‘consent’ in the marriage.
A while later, on the 9th of July, 2007, a combing operation was ambushed near the village of Gaganpalli by the Maoists. 25 security personnel were killed via the use of IEDs placed in the trees and small arms fire. The security personnel retreated out of the jungle and it would take them three whole days to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades. Kovasi Dhoole was one of the injured who was abandoned to the Maoists who found her bulletridden body. She was still conscious and breathing. Yet there was no mercy killing. For some reason, the Maoists took her injured body and left it at the road, hoping someone would take her to the hospital.
No one did.
Kovasi Dhoole from the village of Kottacheru, bled to death.’
The SPO, or ‘turrka’ who had married her was Ismael Khan. Before Salwa Judum, he was a shopkeeper at Errabor.
Death comes a full circle.
Every story without heroes ends simply with the death of the antagonists.
Yet why do I write about just another story of a dead soldier and a dead adivasi in Dantewada and what does this have to do with racism?
The story of Ismael Khan, is a manifestation of a cultural hegemony when it is armed – ‘join us,’ at the point of the gun. That the Salwa Judum is populated by young men, tribal and non-tribal with a state-as-god-given right to power is not a myth.
War has now become a way of life for a group of men living together in society. And they have created for themselves, over the course of the last few years a legal system that doesn’t need to work, and a media without any moral code but empty nationalism that glorifies their actions.
And when everyone from the Collector to the shopkeeper is an amateur anthropologist who knows what the tribals need and how they should live, one needs to wonder when it is openly evident that Operation Green Hunt, in its many forms, was a long way coming.
And why? Let us go back a bit and put things into context.
The furthest, darkest heart of central India is not where civilization or development hasn’t completely trickled down, it’s the place where the post-colonialist face of India is still stark-naked, where the mass delirium of India’s token democracy has not brainwashed people who’ve been very conveniently erased from national consensus.
The administration, when it functions, can only act as an anodyne for a superstructure that is almost entirely exploitative.
One of the most apologetic analysis of the situation in the jungle is that the people need ‘development’ or an administration that functions. Apparently if every village had electricity, a handpump, functioning ration shops and NREGA schemes devoid of corruption, there’d be no insurgency in the first place. Yet one thing that is missing in the entire narrative, is the explicit racism of the majority of the mainstream Indian population when dealing with the ‘other’ – a fascinating metanarrative of the mainstream believing that the adivasis don’t see democracy, or their rights, or their ‘development’ as ‘we’ do, just as the West believes about the East.
Firstly, both schemes, NREGA and the PDS, indirectly imply that the people cannot get work nor feed themselves. Yet why does that situation exist in the first place?
In the jungles, the state itself has been oppressive for decades. In many areas, the only face of the state visible to the tribal is the Forest Department that has routinely exploited, beaten, arrested and robbed the tribals of their land and forests not just for the last few years but for decades. The tribals would be happy as ever if such civilization never reached them. The Forest Department is a part of this same bureaucracy – Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service, Indian Forestry Service, all of the same crop of the most brilliant, brightest, minds or worst nightmares of the indigenous tribals of India – a ‘collector’, a word that denotes a collector of taxes, a post-colonial colloquism, but more importantly, a part of that same super-structure that has kept the adivasis away from their forests.
Recently, a survey by the Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy put India’s bureaucracy as ‘the worst in Asia.’ What a surprise. But are our bureaucrats really such special beings or are they merely a manifestation of the culture and society that they are coming from?
This is what one of the members of the Constituent Assembly, Professor Shibban Lal Saksena had to say about the tribals in 1949, during the Constituent Assembly Debates:
‘That these brethren of ours are still in such a sub-human state of existence is something for which we should be ashamed…..I only want that these scheduled tribes and scheduled areas should be developed so quickly that they may become indistinguishable from the rest of the Indian population.’
That apparently, was a much common point of view during the debates of the Constituent Assembly that was elected to write the Constitution – the tribes were ‘sub-human’ and they had to be like everyone else. In other terms, that is called cultural genocide.
Even today the non-tribals will happily go to the Schedule Areas to cheat, manipulate and exploit tribals. I still remember a non-tribal contractor happily telling me that ‘you just come to Dantewada to make money in whatever way possible,’ and in the very next breath, he mentions how, ‘everything this Manish Kunjam is doing is all futile.’ Fighting for tribal rights, is apparently futile. And when half his party workers are in jail, and their hartals in jail are met with beatings, the state is doing its best to tell him it is futile.
A prominent journalist working in Dantewada who has often written about fake encounters and state atrocities had another interesting observation about industrial development: after spending his entire day with villagers from Lohandiguda, who spoke about false cases and state repression, who openly said they had no desire for the 35 or 50 lakhs of rupees for their fertile lands; he would turn to a foreign correspondent and tell him that this district needs Tata’s steel plant and development: so mining is okay if you don’t shoot the tribals?
‘What development?’ I had asked surprisingly, ‘how would Tata’s plant benefit the tribals here?’
‘That it won’t.’ He responded effortlessly.
Let’s not forget that Home Minister Mr.Chidambaram had once accused a social activist fighting for tribal rights, for wanting to keep tribals as ‘hunters and gatherers.’ The intellectual bankruptcy in that statement alone is enough proof of Mr.Chidambaram’s utmost condescension of over 80-90 million people of the country. Adivasis are farmers, Mr.Chidambaram, and if they are hunting and gathering to survive, it’s because the Forest Department has kicked them out of the forests and built plantations over the land they cultivated.
But there is more, ‘Yes, we can allow the minerals to remain in the ground for another 10,000 years, but will that bring development to these people? We can respect the fact that they worship the Niyamgiri hill, but will that put shoes on their feet or their children in school?’ – Thus Spake Chidambaram.
‘Will that solve the fact that they are severely malnutritioned and have no access to health care?’
Apparently the massive exploitation and the dispossession of their forests doesn’t have anything to do with a tribal’s inability to feed his/her family. On the 22nd of March this year, over 64 tribals and Dalits from Bolangir, one of the hungry KBK districts (Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi) of Orissa, were rescued from virtual bonded labour at a brick kiln in Hyderabad. They had been working without pay for over five months and faced regular beatings by their contractors.
There are an estimated 600 brick kilns (2005 figures) populated with tribals and Dalits from Orissa in Andhra Pradesh, and there is an endemic debt-trap, brought on by advance payments by ‘sardars’ or middlemen – and the worker and his family has no choice but to work in the brick kiln until he can pay off the advance, and often faces abuse in an almost un-regulated industry thriving in the universe of unequal power.
On the 28th of March, 2011, 44 adivasis and Dalits from Bolangir and Nuapada had to be rescued from a brick kiln at Pattancheru Mandal after one of the contractor’s relatives tried to rape a tribal woman.
Apart from that, almost all the workers complained of meagre weekly wages, threats and beatings. The incident of attempted rape was merely the breaking point. The Muslim husband-wife contractor-duo responded by calling it all lies, and that the adivasis were all just drunk.
The adivasis wanted go back home. The contractors wanted them to continue working.
After the perpetrator was taken away by the police, every conversation with the mistrys and contractors attempting to bring better working conditions for the people were met with responses like, ‘these people are all cheaters.’
‘they lie like this all the time.’
‘they don’t understand reason.’
Nearby contractors who also ran a brick kiln sat on the sidelines gave their wholehearted support to the Muslim contractor and his family. And class, the great equalizer plays its role.
One Matang couple who live in a village in Nandurbar in Maharastra without land of their own, and work in Brahmin fields for Rs.50 a day during the harvest season, had quite easily filled his shoes as a contractor-exploiter for the adivasis at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh.
‘They were such nice people,’ She said, about the contractor-duo and their alleged rapist-relative, ‘these Orissa people had to ruin everything.’
Even their own workers caught up with me and told me that they weren’t treated well by them either. And while they went back to work, the 44 men, women and children from Bolangir and Nuapada were taken away by the government’s labour department and put on a train back to home – Bolangir, where droughts and hunger deaths had put the district in a spotlight, where all the recently-rescued said that they had no land, or if they did, there was no irrigation facility to help make it productive.
There are no figures on how many adivasis from the KBK districts migrate to work under adverse conditions at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh. There are independent estimates in thousands while they’re almost invisible to the government.
And funny how the starvation deaths in Kalahandi, were used as arguments by Vedanta’s lawyers to justify the mining of Niyamgiri.
And yet ‘they’ – the ‘rulers of the country’, want an Adivasi battalion formed for the Dantewadas and Lalgarhs – like there hasn’t been enough fratricidal violence in the Red Corridor.
Instead of starving them, let them kill each other while we mine their mountains.
The state is not just oppressive, but the people have been for decades. The adivasis are seldom treated as equals by non-tribals and it’s not just ‘development’ or a corruption-free administration that the tribals need to rescue them (and themselves) from insurgencies.
There is more.
Insurgencies are symptomatic of the very idea of a nation-state. The fantasies of nationalism, these post-colonial hangovers, along with a bunch of elitist clowns with delusions of grandeur have drawn imaginary lines across communities where the majority literally drives minorities into the hole, and there will be identity-driven self-assertions of rights. A thousand times over, I’ve heard adivasis call themselves Muria, not Maoists, Kondhs, not Maoists, Muria, not ‘Indians’, Kondh, not ‘Indians.’ The Maoists from Andhra Pradesh in Dantewada had managed to build a base because they spoke Muria, they spoke Koya, they let the tribals remain tribals (to an extent) + (apart from entirely militarizing their society).
Now, has the Indian mainstream ever allowed minorities to be minorities? Have they allowed the tribals to at least decide their own fate?
Yes, we have. The Indian Constitution has one of the most progressive laws in the world –PESA or Panchayat (Extension to Schedule Areas) Act, where the tribals are allowed to govern themselves with their own Gram Sabhas. The Supreme Court would not have the right to veto a decision of the Gram Sabha if it said it didn’t want Tata or Jindal or Essar to build on their land. And yet, these Gram Sabha resolutions have been violated by the administration repeatedly across the Fifth Schedule, with complete impunity, often in the favour of big business, as well as the upper caste landlords, thekedaars and non-tribals.
So now as I brought it up, I must ask, why is our administration routinely flouting PESA resolutions?
This is what one of the Collectors of Bastar, J.P. Vyas had to say to Anthropologist Nandini Sundar, in 1992 about a proposed Steel Plant being set up in Bastar and the displacement it would cause.
‘If the people were consulted beforehand and asked for permission, inherent in this, is the possibility that they might refuse. And then where would the government be?’
He had gone on to tell her that the people were ignorant and once the experts decided where the project would be, there was nothing more to be said – (from her book on Bastar, ‘Subalterns and Sovereigns’).
Today, there are state-organized public hearings, where the representatives of big companies often tell the tribals, ‘there are other things here that are too technical to understand.’
Another brilliant expert, I had encountered, worked in the ITDA (Integrated Tribal Development Authority) Badrachalam, who didn’t know who the Murias were, and he requested that I tell the tribals to leave the jungles and come and live closer to the road so the government welfare programmes can reach them.
All of it pretty much summing up that the ‘tribals don’t know any better,’ that they ‘need to do something with their land’, or that land, life and livelihood can be equated with money.
I wonder where that idea comes from.
What becomes only too evident, is that we have a social apartheid, where we have an invisible, un-written set of value-judgements upon an entire class of people who live out of sight and out of mind, and we’re aping the West who’ve colonized, butchered, enslaved, and murdered indigenous societies for centuries, and we are too far from evolving into a democracy they have never been, and could possibly never be – one that is egalitarian, just and equal, impassioned yet restrained, and where the words ‘development’ would belong to the people.
To be a nation that is simply accepting of diversity, not just by shallow pretence but by substance. But we are just another half-democracy, half-republic and half-nation that needs to cannibalize itself to survive.
Javed Iqbal is a Mumbai-based journalist who wrote this article for The New Indian Express.