Tribes and Tribulations – by Graham Davey

How do we bring peace and justice to the dispossessed and who is responsible?

Those who came to the Annual General Meeting at Kingsley Hall on 10 July 2010 were privileged to hear two presentations on the plight of the indigenous peoples of East India. The Adivasis are the tribal people of Orissa and Jharkhand state (formerly South Bengal). They live mainly in the forests and small villages preserving a culture that goes back for several thousand years and maintaining a balance between meeting basic human needs and preserving the natural environment. The Adivasis worship Nature and the spirits of their ancestors. Their megaliths and wall paintings are evidence of an ancient and sustainable civilisation.

The tragedy is that the land they occupy has been found to contain 40% of all India’s mineral wealth. Multinational companies have moved in to exploit huge reserves of coal, bauxite and other metal ores with scant regard for the needs of the Adivasi people. Photographer Robert Wallis showed a sequence of pictures which hinted at the rich culture of the past but vividly portrayed the depths to which the Adivasis have sunk. A people who lived sustainably on the land have been driven from their villages, seen their sacred spaces destroyed, had their water polluted and been forced to scavenge for bits of coal in the spoil heaps of the mines so that they have something to sell and obtain money for food.

The second talk was given by Felix Padel who emphasised the scale of the mining operations – open-cast coal mines, for example, several miles across and moving relentlessly across the landscape, destroying everything in their path. Felix recalled how Gandhi had seen the improvement of the villages of India as being the key to the welfare of the people. He warned Nehru that an industrialised India would never be independent. Nehru saw it differently. For him, the villages were concentrations of poverty and ignorance and therefore providing employment through industrialisation was necessary for the country to advance.

Nehru’s view prevailed and gradually more and more of the countryside has been given over to industry with few benefits trickling down to the poorest people. Roads and ports have been constructed to ship the minerals (and the profits) away to China and the West. In recent years the process has accelerated, driven by increasing costs for mining companies in other parts of the world and futures trading on the London Metal Exchange. The demand for steel is a major problem with firms like Tata and S R Steel exploiting a situation of rampant capitalism and being given support from the World Bank. Since 1947 some 30 million people have been displaced, about a third of them tribal people. Compensation or help with resettlement is rarely given. Inevitably, opposition has grown and the term ‘Maoists’ is used to refer to a range of disparate groups who are seeking to restrict the operations of the mining companies and the government that supports them. Most of the Maoists come from outside the area and have little knowledge or respect for the Adivasi culture. Some groups are well organised and ideologically driven while others are bent only on violence, attacking the police and committing atrocities against innocent people. The mining industry uses other militia gangs to protect their installations and control the population.

Felix saw little scope for effective action in relation to this dangerous and volatile situation. A new minister for environmental affairs in the Indian government showed promise and there was increasing opposition in Britain to British-based mining firms that are active in India. But the overall picture was depressing as a major part of one of the largest countries in the world appears to be sliding into a state of civil war.

For further reading:

  • Out of this Earth: the East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel by Felix Padel
  • Listening to Grasshoppers by Arundhati Roy

Graham Davey is Treasurer of the Gandhi Foundation and has also organised many Gandhi Foundation Summer Gatherings.

Searching for Justice and Peace in Eastern Central India – by Felix Padel

© copyright, Robert Wallis 2010

People outside India as well as inside it are becoming aware that there are thousands of local movements of people trying to save their land from being invaded and taken over by big corporations, and the contractors, subcontractors, NGOs, media firms, biofuel and seed companies, banks, hedge fund/private equity fund investors and others who serve and finance the mining companies. Living in India, Anthony Sampson’s title comes to mind from his Anatomy of Britain series: Who runs this place? The Governments or the Companies and Banks?

Village people (tribals and non-tribals alike) are trying not just to hold onto their land and homes, communities and age-old systems of cultivation, but also, as part of the same thing, to prevent ecocide: the long-term destruction of every aspect of the land and environment where they have lived for centuries (http://www.thisisecocide.com/hotspots/). If they accept displacement, even World Bank statistics show that displaced villagers’ standard of living drops drastically (in India, and as a worldwide pattern), and that they hardly ever regain their standard of living, let alone improve it (which by the Bank’s own standards, is meant to be a key requirement of any project). These movements are aimed at saving the people and their environment – “for what future will our grandchildren have if our mountains and streams are destroyed?” This is the land of their ancestors over thousands of years.

It is also the heartland of tigers, leopards, bears and elephants – the whole cast of Kipling’s Jungle Book. But the hunting mafia has taken a massive toll on all the cast, and these animals survive as best as they can, as far as they can get from Man. Even wildlife sanctuaries cause conflict, displacing yet more tribal villages from their forest. Tribal people and their forest are one: damage that bond and the culture and environment are slowly but surely killed, together: cultural genocide and ecocide.

British geologists in the 1900s named the base rock of south Orissa’s bauxite-capped mountains ‘Khondalite’, after “those fine Hill men the Khonds”. These mountains are classed as one of the world’s best deposits for making aluminium – prime strategic metal for the arms industry (‘Mining as a Fuel for War‘ at War Resisters International.

Preventing a whole series of mining projects are the movements. The war against the Maoists, ‘Operation Green Hunt’, acts as a filter that often draws attention and support away from these movements, as the situation escalates towards a classic resource war.

2,270 years ago, the “first recorded event of Indian history” was Ashoka’s massive attack on the Kalinga people in Orissa. By his own admission – was he really repentant, or was he just doing his own PR for history ? – he killed 100,000, and enslaved 150,000, while many more died of disease and hunger. The Kalinga did not have kings and they put up a terrible fight to try and keep their freedom. Ashoka’s two inscriptions in Orissa threaten the ‘forest tribes’: the Kalinga who could retreat to the mountains and forests to preserve their independence as best they could, and have lived there till today. The Konds’ name for themselves is Kuwinga, and there is no doubt they are essentially the same people. So the ongoing takeover of tribal land now conjures a structural memory of Ashoka’s terrible violence.

The PR now is gross. ‘Kalinganagar’ is the name of the steel complex with a dozen new plants in various stages of planning and operation, that has already displaced thousands of Adivasis of the Ho and Munda tribes (whose heartland is in Jharkhand), just beside the Sukinda chromite mines in Jajpur district of Orissa, characterised as “one of the ten most polluted places in the world” (by the Blacksmith Institute, USA).

Kalinganagar is where Adivasis who refuse to shift to make way for a huge new Tata steel plant have got together as the People’s Platform Against Displacement. They were fired on and 14 killed on 2nd January 2006, when police and contractors tried to start construction of the plant. Last November, Orissa’s Chief Minister conveyed his public thanks to the steel companies for constructing a new hi-tech Kalinganagar police station (making clear a collusion that was already clear, though rarely spelt out).

Police with goondas started an attack on the 20 or so protesting villages on 30th March, breaking houses, stealing possessions, wounding many with a new type of rubber bullet, and taking over people’s land and villages in the guise of building a big road across the area. The People’s Platform Against Displacement has made it clear throughout that they are not Maoists, and have kept their movement non-violent (e.g. http://orissamatters.com/2010/04/11/foul-play-exposed/) The events unfolding now in Kalinganagar and the lack of cover in the media is a national disgrace and a severe blot on Tata’s name.

Who made proper mention at the Copenhagen summit on Climate Change about Orissa’s 40 new steel plants and the carbon emissions from making 60 million tonnes of steel per year – Orissa’s stated target ? Or are these essential for ‘India’s development’? How can it be ‘development’ to destroy ecosystems and communities of people whose lives are based on long-term sustainability – who have sustained in the face of assaults from Ashoka to the EIC to now, and who are fighting these projects with everything they gave?

Knowing one’s Indian history, what we witness is a return of the East Indian Company. It took power here on the east side of India in Bengal and Madras in the 18th century, taking over Orissa from 1803 onwards. And the subsidiary company it formed was called the Government of India, based around collecting tribute, and implementing the laws being made to facilitate this all over the country. The senior administrator of a District in India is still called the Collector or District Magistrate.

Analysing the causes of the current conflict, and the reasons why many tribal people join the Maoists, the following are some of the main ones:

1. The system of endemic exploitation of tribal people, coupled with ingrained disrespect for tribal culture.

2. The escalating dispossession of tribal people from their land and resources – by numerous industrial projects but also by the war itself. No one disputes the figures of 644 tribal villages burnt by Salwa Judum and an estimated 200,000 tribal refugees from these burnt villages.

3. The atrocities perpetrated on tribal villages by the Salwa Judum (a tribal militia created by a section of the government) and security forces, and the impossibility of getting justice through the courts. The case of Sodhi (she was one of a dozen villagers lined up and shot by the police – she survived, but as witness to the case at India’s Supreme Court, has been kept under ‘police protection’) and the villagers killed at Gompad has highlighted this impossibility of bringing security men responsible for atrocities to account, and the appeal of Maoists arises directly out of this impunity to prosecution. Numerous human rights reports and courageous journalism have highlighted a definite pattern of attacks on tribal villages, in which most of the village flees, and the women, old and young who don’t get away are raped, killed, tortured or taken away. The best aspect of Arundhati Roy’s recent article Walking with the Comrades is that she brings out the voices of young Maoist women and men. These voices need to be heard. All of them witnessed close friends and family raped and killed, and were motivated to join the Maoists by these atrocities. Having suffered such loss and witnessed such horror, if there is no chance of bringing the perpetrators to account, and the Maoists are there, offering comradeship and guns – who wouldn’t go with them?

4. However, the Maoist ideology and leadership believes in war, exactly as many do in the mainstream and military. War has an attraction, and we all need to fight internal as well as external battles to resist this attraction. What is happening is a polarisation into two sides who both believe in war, leaving no space for neutrality, truth and peace. The recent attack is a deliberate escalation of war. We should not blame the individual Maoist fighters, any more than the individual CRPF men: both are pawns in a game where leaders actually believe in sacrificing people’s lives, on a huge scale. Mao himself was one of the worst tyrants: during his rise to power as well as his ‘great leap forward’ (upping steel production, causing a massive famine) and cultural revolution, he was responsible for millions of deaths of innocent people and even loyal party supporters. He was a superb propagandist though, and in that, very similar to mining companies’ PR machine, turning truth on its head. The ideology he created promotes war, and promotes an escalation of war. We must not let this happen. Maoist attacks instigate huge-scale counterinsurgency attacks on villages. This pattern must stop.

5. In other words, the attack on tribal communities as a strategy to wipe out Maoists is paradoxically a principal cause of the growing strength of the Maoists. This mirrors the worldwide ‘war on terror’ (in Afghanistan, Iraq etc), where everyone can see that attacks on ‘terrorists’– and the ‘collateral damage’ on countless civilians whose outrage has no outlet through judicial process – have increased the number of ‘terrorists’ exponentially. In Dantewara, the systematic attacks on tribal villages are a campaign of terror. In other words, the primary perpetrators of terror are the security forces rather than the Maoists. In the recent attack, the Central Reserve Police Force people killed are human beings too and their death is very sad. Police in the area live in fear of attack. The difference is – armed policemen have signed up for a job that involves high risk of killing or being killed. Tribal villagers have signed up for no such thing. Current news portrays this Maoist attack as an outrage, and the CRPF armed policemen killed by the Maoists as ‘martyrs’. What of the countless villagers who have been killed and terrorised by the CRPF and other ‘security forces’? The tribal villagers living in the eye of the conflict are essentially innocent. If they often support the Maoists, they do so because they experience an invasion and atrocities in which they lose their land, food, families, culture – everything. We get to hear of only a tiny percentage of the atrocities committed by security forces in villages, while every killing by Maoists gets high publicity. (See some excellent examples of such journalism published in the New Indian Express, at http//:moonchasing.files.wordpress.com – e.g. ‘Operation Tribal Hunt?’ 11 November 2009)

Arundhati Roy’s writings have come under fierce criticism, but she is not uncritical of the Maoists. While contrasting democratic features about how Maoists operate in terms of people’s councils and meetings where anyone can and does speak, she also comments that the present phase may well be a honeymoon period in which Maoists are wooing the people, and history shows this honeymoon doesn’t last. The voices of tribal Maoists and accounts of atrocities need to be heard a lot more widely if a Sri Lanka situation of all-out war and genocide is to be avoided, and Roy’s article has done an excellent job of bringing them out.

If there is a genuine move for peace, one essential step will be repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – this has often been called for, especially from the Northeast and Kashmir. This has become essential for the war in Dantewara. If it can be seen that security personnel who commit atrocities are punished this will automatically take wind out of the Maoist sails.

Human rights work is a prerequisite for peace. Tribal culture places a high value on Justice and Truth. Some kind of Truth and Reconciliation process will have to take place if the escalation towards war is to be halted. Responsibility lies on both sides. Where it does not lie is with the tribal communities, and when they know they can get Justice, Peace will prevail.

Dr Felix Padel is an anthropologist who has lived in India for 30 years. His latest book ‘Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel’ by Felix Padel and Samarendra Das has just been published by Orient Black Swan. ISBN: 9788125038672

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