From aboriginals to tribalism: Why India needs to clean up its house before accusing others



Right at the start, let me take up the example of Canada, which is celebrating the 250th anniversary of The Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued by King George III – a landmark document which is considered by Canada’s aboriginal leaders as the bedrock of their rights. Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (a body of leaders of First Nations in Canada, which aims to protect the rights of aboriginals in Canada) said on this occasion, “We need a robust agenda of change. Now is the era of action… We set out the priorities that will lift us up and carry the country forward.”

While reading this, I got thinking about the dismal picture of our very own aboriginals – or should I say tribals – as the term “aboriginals” is not used in the Indian context. The tribes living in India can be traced back to the primitive times, satisfying the similar condition of genesis, as has been the case in Australia, Canada and United States. Tribal communities in India make up 8 per cent of our population, and are mostly concentrated in central and eastern parts of India, in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal. But such an expansive presence is of not much significance as tribes and tribal communities in India have been kept historically marginalised and deliberately disadvantaged. The marginalisation of Indian tribal communities has taken place not only in the economic and social spheres, but also in the cultural arena. Like European settlers, we also discriminated them on the basis of their culture, beliefs, customs and values. They were and are never accepted in the mainstream of our society. What to say of that, even the Indianness of their culture and heritage is questioned.

SubmitFor centuries, the ‘superior’ connotation attached with the ‘upper’ echelons (whatever that means) of the Indian society bred discrimination, marginalisation and despicable persecution of the tribal groups – in some cases, historical and religious texts are forwarded as justification for such persecution. I am sure you must have read some or the other of our mythological scriptures depicting the tribal clan as some kind of a bad omen to the non-tribal. If that’s not discrimination, then what is? We keep harping about racism and subjugation of the disadvantaged by Western nations. Are we any different than these Western nations in our treatment to the adivasis? What is more disturbing is that despite an equitable Constitution giving equal rights and privilege to all citizens, the intolerance for adivasis in our society is abound. It is not that successive Indian governments didn’t take measures for redemption (led by the example that Mahatma Gandhi set while preaching equality of classes), but the genuineness in applicability of these measures is still far from being desired.

By allocating education and employment quotas through various schemes, the Indian government has played its part for improving the living conditions of tribal communities. However, it has failed to integrate these programmes with their socio-cultural background. The culture factor is not taken into consideration at all, resulting in a gap between the implementer and the implemented. To put it simply, we just cannot impose our own culture on the century-old traditions and values of tribals and expect them to tread on our path by abandoning their own. The cultural and value mismatches have happened both at the macro and micro levels. Take education as an example. By blindly wallowing in the procedural supremacy of our current education system, and by simply giving a quota to an adivasi for studying, our education policy fails to realise that such an attempt to annihilate the belief systems and traditions of tribals is bound to fail. Why should a tribal imbibe a value system that we believe is the so-called mainstream of today? Why can’t we develop a competent, empathetic support system that, without requiring tribals to change their way of living, ensures that they still can obtain what is their right? Let me draw an analogy. What if tomorrow, a foreign culture asks us to forget all of our beliefs, values, education (claiming ours is backward and theirs is superior) and swallow theirs blindly? Should we oblige? If your answer is a no, then why should a tribal say yes to our requests (through the quota system) for joining the mainstream? This was the macro-level issue.

When the government implements overhyped projects to ‘uplift’ the tribals, the mismatch between the values, language and beliefs of programme coordinators, teachers and instructors with the tribal groups constitutes the micro-level conflict of cultures. The active and passive discrimination by non-tribal people responsible for implementation of various welfare schemes on the tribals, dilutes the effectiveness of the programmes.

SubmitSo what’s the solution? Bringing the tribal groups into the core of our society can’t be achieved with dictates and imposition, but by integrating them at multiple levels of decision making. We have to work together with the groups, giving full respect to their culture and background. Article 25 of the Constitution of India provides for freedom of conscience and free practice and propagation of religion “subject to public order, morality, and decency and other such provisions.” India has signed several other such international declarations, but as always, most of them are confined to papers and fail in execution. For instance, although the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 – also known as the Tribal Rights Act or the Tribal Bill, and a key piece of forest legislation – was passed in India on December 18, 2006, it hasn’t been of much help. In fact, it stands like a tiger without teeth. The act gives authority to the communities to own and manage a resource, but they are not aware of it. It is ironic that even after 60 years of Independence and planning, and despite making several legislative provisions to improve the state of tribal communities, the majority of the forest dwelling communities still rely on marginal agriculture lands for empowerment. The State has failed to live up to their expectations. Recently, while addressing a tribal convention in Bastar (Chhattisgarh), Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi urged the tribal youth to join mainstream politics and fight for the issues of their tribal brethren, stressing that he would remain firmly with them in any such efforts. He even promised to implement the Tribal Bill after coming to power to prevent illegal acquisition of tribal land. But then, haven’t such promises been made by several leaders in the past, which still remain to be fulfilled? One crying example that vividly speaks volumes about the problem is the month-long foot march in 2012 by around 50,000 homeless labourers, who travelled 340 kilometers from Gwalior to New Delhi to ask for their rights over their own land.

If we really want to give a good future and empower our backward tribal groups, then we must not make mere promises to garner more votes in 2014. It took fifty years post Independence to set up a Ministry of Tribal Affairs. There’s no more time to waste anymore. To begin with, the government – both at the Center and State levels – should come out with social solutions that are tailor-made for them in all aspects of their lives – be it education, healthcare, child welfare or employment opportunities. And that’s possible only when adivasis are included in devising policies for themselves. Instead of rolling out schemes manufactured in the South Block, their cultural identities must be recognised, respected and integrated into the system only with their informed consent. Otherwise, their detachment can’t be revoked and we shouldn’t stand in the podium and make critical remarks about racism practiced elsewhere. Our own house needs to be in order first. It was romantic nationalism that divided Europe, and in the case of India, the same could well be due to our attitude towards tribal communities!

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