Review by Felix Padel
This collection of activist essays is out just when it is needed most: a book touching on every aspect of the Adivasi situation by an Adivasi activist prepared to take on the big questions and the key perpetrators of violence, from the big companies staging takeovers, headed by Tata, to the police increasingly serving these companies rather than India’s citizens, and the politicians facilitating the takeovers.
The book’s starting point is a recent Supreme Court Judgement that validates Adivasis’ identity as India’s original inhabitants. Significantly, this case involved an Adivasi woman stripped naked and shoved around a village in Maharashtra. Another piece focuses on the plight of Anna, a domestic servant, whose unheard plea for justice is symptomatic of mass exploitation and oppression of Adivasi women in domestic service. As for exposure to rape – what about rapists in uniform? Hasn’t rape been used against tribal people as a weapon of subjugation for decades? When tribal women are gang-raped by police or army personnel, are perpetrators ever punished? “Are these women too?” is one of the book’s strongest essays, covering the sexual abuse in a school in Chhattisgarh and other episodes that bring national shame.
The first essay starts at the beginning with the inspiring, yet harrowing story of the first Adivasi to oppose East India Company invasions, in 1779, with the words “Earth is our Mother”. Baba Tilika Manjhi paid for opposing the British with a gruesome death, giving the lie to the mastermind of this Paharia campaign, Augustus Cleveland, whose memorial in Bhagalpore claimed that he brought this tribal people under British rule “without terrors of authority”!
The book’s documentation of the many forms of violence and prejudice ranged against Adivasis fills a vital gap in literature. The detail is often sickening and will make any sane person extremely angry. It is shown how Adivasis are being displaced by dams, by industrial/mining projects, by continuing tricks of non-Adivasis, and – perhaps most outrageously of all – by the new University for the Study and Research of Law at Nagri. As Dungdung points out, the head of this university is also Jharkhand’s Chief Justice. If this isn’t a blatant conflict of interest, what is? This university’s takeover of land lays down a pattern of trampling on the Law that does not bode well for its future!
The book documents the situation in other states besides Jharkhand, such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Assam, where the Forest Department’s use of Boro tribal people to evict Adivasis from their forest land shows a typical colonial technique of turning one tribe against another. As the author asks, if Rahul Gandhi says he is Adivasis’sipahi in Delhi, he needs to speak up a lot louder and more often on Adivasi issues!
Dungdung rightly points out that in many ways Nehru is the ‘Architect of Adivasis’ misery’, through his ideology of dams as ‘temples of modern India’. The experience of tens of thousands of Adivasis whose lives have been ruined by dams forms a blatant contradiction to Nehru’s stated principle that tribal people should always be allowed to develop according to their own genius. However well-meaning Nehru was in his words, his violent actions towards tribal communities at certain times have yet to be recognised: apart from the horror of his big dams, he also sent in the troops against tribal communities in Telengana in 1948, destroying the achievements of 3,000 villages who had effected a democratic redistribution of land, and similarly in Nagaland and Manipur during the 1950s, where troops used extreme levels of violence to force submission. In each case, ‘security forces’ established a level of habitual violence, including use of ‘rape as a weapon of war’, for which thousands of perpetrators went unpunished. Operation Greenhunt is just the latest manifestation of the recurring patterns of state violence that these two operations initiated. Offering just military action and ‘development’ to counteract today’s Maoist insurgency is no solution at all ‘precisely because the injustice, discrimination and denial are the foundation of the violence’.
Gladson Dungdung records the starvation levels of hunger still faced by large numbers of Adivasis. As Binayak Sen has pointed out using medical and nutrition statistics, over 50% of Adivasis and Dalits are presently living under famine conditions of malnourishment. This being so, how can India’s rulers claim they have brought ‘development’ at all to these sections of society? To be real, development needs to be under local democratic control, not dictated by corporations and opaque government hierarchies.
As the two most discriminated-against groups in India, Dalits and Adivasis share many experiences. Yet the difference between the two groups is also important to be aware of: Dalits were more or less enslaved by mainstream society, while Adivasis maintained a high level of independence up to British times. As such, they developed their own diverse cultures and languages to a high level. Adivasi cultures are still too often perceived through stereotypes as ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’, when the reality is that they are extremely civilised and highly developed in areas of life where mainstream society is weak or degenerate. Centuries of development is often destroyed when Adivasi communities are thrown off their land by projects usurping the name ‘development’.
Adivasi society needs to be recognised for its formidable achievements, including an economic system that is based on and in accordance with the principles of ecology, and therefore sustainable in the true sense and the long term. Cultural Genocide is the term for what Adivasis are facing now all over India, and this book is a landmark in spelling out the injustice. By bringing out the truth, and documenting the situation from an authentic Adivasi perspective, it gives hope for a turning of the tide that will counteract the genocidal invasions and takeovers of Adivasi land.
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 is published by Orient Black Swan. ISBN: 9788125038672Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Gandhi Foundation.