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Jharkhand: The failed promise of an adivasi state

By Richard Toppo

A tribal perspective from Jharkhand describes how the creation of the state, ostensibly for the welfare of tribal populations, has only led to their exploitation and displacement

Displacement of tribals

Almost a century ago, Katherine Mayo published a book titled Mother India that criticised the Indian way of living. Such were the author’s views that even Gandhi described it as “the drain inspector’s report” which examined only the drains of the country. Conflating with Mayo’s discriminatory work was another contemporary piece by Rudyard Kipling titled White Man’s Burden. Things would have been different had these works been considered the mere fancy of creative minds. But they were perceptions that became the paradigms of the western perspective, veiling the ground realities and on-going brutalities and actually making people believe that what the colonisers did was in the best interests of the colonised. As a result, most westerners were alienated from the plight of the colonised. Purpose well served -- unopposed exploitation.

Years later, India seems to walk the same line that it once so bluntly lambasted. Tribal communities in central areas of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh have been exploited, displaced and dispossessed of their resources by the state. But the government has successfully created an illusory perception of ‘development’ that has alienated the middle class from the plight of the tribals. As a result, the government ruthlessly exploits tribal populations, and does so almost unchallenged by other sections of society.

Placating tribals

On November 15, 2000, tribals, mostly from central India, had something to rejoice about. A demand articulated for over a century saw the birth of the state of Jharkhand.

Demands for separate statehood for Jharkhand were first raised in 1914 by tribals, as mentioned in the State Reorganisation Committee Report 1955-56. Tribal politicians vigorously took up the cause, supported by other indigenous communities. For long, the mineral-rich areas of Chota Nagpur and Santhal Pargana had been exploited and the tribal people displaced in the name of development. Racial discrimination of tribals by outsiders, referred to as dikus in the tribal tongue, was rampant. The demand for separate statehood was not merely to establish a distinct identity but also to do away with years of injustice. 

However, the creation of Jharkhand has only increased the vulnerability of tribals. The token concessions of a tribal chief minister and a few reserved constituencies were deemed a green signal to displace tribals for so-called ‘development’. According to reports of the Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights, a total of 6.54 million people have so far been displaced in Jharkhand in the name of development. The ongoing land acquisition at Nagri village (near Ranchi, Jharkhand) for the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and National University of Study and Research in Law (NUSRL) may seem like development projects in the eyes of the educated and the affluent. But these elite educational institutes have displaced over 500 tribal villagers. The displacement in the name of dams, factories, mining, etc goes largely unreported.

In a place where displacement and development have become synonymous, the strategic reasons for such oppressive measures go beyond monetary gain. One senses, quite palpably, consistent attempts by various corporate firms to exert control over the policy formulation process. This political-corporate nexus was very apparent when 42 MoUs were signed as soon as Jharkhand came into being. According to a human rights report published by the Jharkhand Human Rights Movement (JHRM), the state government of Jharkhand has so far signed 102 MoUs which go against the laws of the Fifth Schedule. Vast tracts of land will be required to bring these MoUs to fruition.

People’s opposition and various constitutional laws against land acquisition have always been impediments to the corporations. In 2011, a people’s movement forced Arcelor Mittal to pull out of a proposed project in Jharkhand. The corporate sector has been trying hard to change the status quo in its favour, and in doing so has adopted some dubious means. The Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act is one of several laws provided by the Constitution to safeguard tribal interests. It was instituted in 1908 to safeguard tribal lands from being sold to non-tribals. The law was meant to prevent foreseeable dispossession, and preserve tribal identity. Loss of land would naturally lead to loss of tribal identity as the issuance of a community certificate requires proof of land possession.

The private sector seems to have taken a special interest in drastically reforming or abolishing the CNT Act. Corporate-owned newspapers like Prabhat Khabar and Dainik Bhaskar have campaigned vigorously for reforming the Act to make transfer of land from tribals to non-tribals more flexible. Needless to say, any reform in this direction would directly benefit corporations that own mines in the tribal lands of Jharkhand, and pave the way for future land acquisition.

The state government, irrespective of party banner, has been part of such threats to tribal interests. Non-inclusion of the Sarna religion in the religion category of census data has drastically downsized tribal populations. There have been lapses on the part of the administration to provide accurate data on tribal populations, many of which are underreported.

With the never-ending displacement, the tribal population figure has dropped to a mere 28% on paper.

The dark side of anti-Naxal operations

There is little doubt that the Naxal menace has increased over the years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has good reason to declare Naxalism the biggest internal security threat. In Jharkhand alone, since its formation, a total of 4,430 cases of Naxal violence have been reported so far; 399 police personnel, 916 Naxalites, and 395 common people have lost their lives in such violence. The brutal way in which Naxal violence is perpetrated -- beheading, mutilating body parts, slitting throats -- has greatly amplified people’s fears. Splinter groups like the People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI), Jharkhand Liberation Tiger (JLT) and Tritiya Prastuti Committee (TPC) have further intensified the problem and led to the  administration using counter-violence.

The security forces deployed in Maoist infested areas face constant threat to their lives. While the terrain here is conducive to guerrilla warfare, the local police finds itself inadequately armed and trained to engage in such warfare. Hence, central forces armed with superior firepower and equipment and better training are called in.

People are told that the Naxalites wish to overthrow the government by violent revolution and undemocratic means, and that they need to be stopped to sustain India’s ‘bright future’. But some facts go unheard. According to a report by JHRM, since the creation of Jharkhand a total of 4,372 people have been arrested on the charge of being Naxalites. Of these, 315 are hardcore Naxals for whom the government had announced prize money. The remaining 4,057 have no record of any criminal offence; even the police has been unable to establish their Naxal involvement (1). In an extreme case, sources claim that the government was instrumental in sustaining the PLFI during the initial days of its formation, to counter the CPI (M). The move backfired and the PLFI became a prominent terror group in Jharkhand.

In other instances, countless innocent people (mostly tribals) have been killed during anti-Naxal operations. The incident that occurred on April 15, 2009 at Latehar, Jharkhand, exposed the dark side of these operations. Five tribals were picked up from their homes by the CRPF and district police, taken to a nearby place and shot dead. The initial police investigation tried to cover up the act, claiming the tribals were Maoists. Following protests, the Jharkhand police finally accepted that they were ordinary villagers who had no links with Naxalites.

The recent exposure of anti-Naxal operations in the Saranda jungle, home to over 125,000 tribals, is even more disturbing. Central and state forces deployed here under Operation Monsoon and Operation Anaconda destroyed homes and killed innocent people, not sparing even the food the tribals had. As revealed by JHRM, during Operation Anaconda, 33 villagers were arrested on charges of Naxal involvement. The police has been unable to provide any evidence to support this claim. 

The problem with an over-hyped ‘Red Corridor’ is that it justifies the actions of the security forces: they are seen as deployed in enemy terrain to ‘protect’ India’s ‘bright’ future. And so, a ‘few’ innocent casualties at the hands of the security forces are deemed inevitable. The victims are labelled ‘Maoist supporters’. As the Red Corridor mostly falls under tribal areas, a general, albeit fallacious, perception exists that the tribals in these areas are Naxalites or Naxalite supporters. What worsens the situation is the exclusion of such areas by the concerned state administration which, after 64 years of independence, has failed to establish any communication with people living in these areas. A district mostly falls in the Red Corridor zone not because the people here support the Naxal ideology, but because the administrative units in these areas are nowhere to be seen, giving a free hand to the Naxalites. It is the failure on the part of the state administration to reach out to rural tribal areas that has provided ample opportunity for Naxalism to flourish.

Decades after their exclusion, the government is trying to bring tribal societies out of their so-called ‘museum culture’ into the mainstream. But the methods being adopted are displacement, and the giving away of lands to multinational companies to set up factories, thereby reducing even the most affluent farmer to a petty labourer. The fact that abundant mineral resources sit beneath these tribal lands hardens the government’s stance, making it determined to counter any opposition with a heavy hand.

There is a dual strategy behind the tag ‘Red Corridor’. Multinational companies and mining corporations have incurred huge losses, mostly in tribal areas: firstly, as levy amount to several Naxalite outfits amounting to hundreds of crores in a single year; secondly, uncertainty over land acquisition even after signing MoUs with the concerned state government due to tribal laws and people’s opposition. By declaring districts Maoist zones, the government clears the ground for future operations to be conducted by the security forces. The mission: to ‘liberate’ such zones from the evil clutches of Naxalites and ‘anti-developmental’ forces. The ‘anti-developmental forces’, as termed by the government, are tribals whose protests are solely aimed at retaining their land; they have no intention whatsoever to topple the government. Several cases of tribals protesting against forcible land acquisition and being killed or imprisoned for allegedly being Naxals have been reported across the state of Jharkhand.

Tribals stand on a thin line between Naxalites and the government, exploited and destroyed by both. In areas where the Naxalites have a presence, not following their orders could result in gruesome killings. Thus, any meeting called by any of these outfits is an unspoken compulsion for the village, not an option.

In such a scenario, resorting to indiscriminate firing and blaming Naxalites for using innocent villagers as human shields is not only a failure on the part of the security forces but also on the state to provide safety to its citizens. The illusion presented to the common man has entwined tribals and Naxalites in such a complex manner that any number of killings in tribal areas fails to generate much sympathy among the people. The recent killing of 18 alleged Naxalites at the hands of the security forces in Chhattisgarh, and its aftermath, is evidence of the general perception that even if these people are not Naxalites, they are definitely supporters.

All in the name of ‘national interest’

In an interview with Shoma Chaudhary from Tehelka, in 2009, Home Minister P Chidambaram made the following comment: “No country can develop unless it uses its natural and human resources. Mineral wealth is wealth that must be harvested and used for people.” But who are the ‘people’ for whom mineral wealth must be harvested? The middle class and elites who own multinational corporations.

The mineral resources have more to do with profiting private firms than national growth. For example, the royalty fixed by the central government for iron ore is just 10% of the value of mined iron ore, extraordinarily benefiting private mining firms. Tribals have always remained outside the loop of beneficiaries. This was evident in the non-implementation of the PESA Act until recently, for more than 10 years, in scheduled areas of Jharkhand even after a 2010 directive from the Jharkhand High Court. Adding to this was non-implementation of the Samatha judgment across areas under the Fifth Schedule, which would have hugely benefited tribals. Tribals have repeatedly been exploited, displaced and ruined in the name of ‘national interest’.

Jawaharlal Nehru once exquisitely explained the meaning of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, or ‘Victory to Mother India’, as victory to millions of people spread across the vast tract of India. The privileged classes who are fervently nationalistic must understand that their fellow nationals are being bludgeoned into a war-like situation. These wars are not only perpetrated by the juggernaut of so-called ‘development’ but are sustained by false myths that have blinded the general public. In a brilliant piece by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, the author speaks about the injustices of the British Empire and the myths so well established that “we appear to blot out countervailing stories even as they are told”.

In order to sustain an actual inclusive growth, people need to do away with such false perceptions and not let exploitative action go unchallenged. Only then will the true essence of ‘Victory to Mother India’ materialise. National development is not just about showcasing the country’s economic growth on paper. A massive GDP growth rate is meaningless if tribals and other underprivileged peoples continue living underdeveloped lives. As a tribal, I expect the government to set aside its false perceptions of development that encourage exploitation of tribal communities, and bring about real meaningful growth.

(Richard Toppo is a researcher based in Ranchi, Jharkhand)  

Endnotes

1 Jharkhand Human Rights Report 2001-2011. Published by Jharkhand Human Rights Movement

Infochange News & Features, July 2012