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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 39, September 17, 2011

Leftwing Militant Radicalism, State and Civil Society


Friday 23 September 2011, by K B Saxena

The following is a detailed report of a seminar on "Militant Left Radicalism, State and Civil Society: the Centrality of Tribal Land Rights” that was organied by the Council for Social Development, New Delhi in the Capital on December 10-11, 2010. The keynote address of distinguished social anthropologist Prof B.K. Ray Burman was published in Mainstream Annual 2010 (dated December 25, 2010). Since the issues discussed at the seminar are highly topical in the present context, this piece is being carried for the benefit of our readers.

The growth of Leftwing Militant Radicalism, known in the official documents and civil society discussion as the Naxalite movement, has acquired considerable prominence in the public policy discourse, media coverage and interaction with the social scientists. The subject has also been deliberated upon in seminars across the country. The government’s policy to deal with it has also polarised thinking on how it should be understood and characterised and what would be the most appropriate approach to neutralise its influence. The security establishment and those supporting its view- point represent one pole of this intellectual divide, while the social scientists, activists and those engaged in working with and for the tribals constitute the other pole.

The former group advocates strong police (armed) action to eliminate the ‘menace’ which is viewed as the greatest internal security threat to the country, while the latter group stresses on removing the root causes of alienation of the tribals by pursuing a comprehensive agenda of social justice, inclusive development and responsive governance which would end the influence of the Naxalities. The unaddressed grievances of the tribals, which have caused this alienation, those relating to alienation of their land, involuntary displacement, loss of forest rights are well documented in official reports as well as academic works.

One issue which has rarely figured in this discourse is the insensitivity to and non-recognition of community land rights, their appropriation by the State in diverse ways and the failure to restore them despite assurances.

A seminar was, therefore, organised by the Council for Social Development with pointed focus on the centrality of tribal land rights in the growth of Militant Left Radicalism and the role of the civil society in getting these rights restored and protecting the tribals from violence by the State vigilante groups and Naxalites.

K.B. Saxena iniated the discussion with a critique of the mainstream debate on Naxalism for its narrow focus on the politics and ethics of violence for seeking redress of political grievances. This obfuscates the serious structural issues relating to loss of traditional rights in land and forest and the fragility and power-lessness of the tribals to protect their interests against the onslaught of non-tribal society and the agencies of the State. Among the more informed persons on the problems of the tribals, the deprivation of land does figure in issues which agitate them the most. However this concern remains restricted to the alienation of their privately owned land by non-tribals in violation of the existing laws, involuntary acquisition of their land by the government for transfer to the corporates and State agencies for national development and disallowance of their rights in forest which have impoverished and disempowered them in diverse ways. It has not included a wide variety of community land rights which have been appropriated by the State though the recognition of such rights in the forest under the FRA for the first time after a prolonged struggle has at least addressed this historical injustice to some extent.

In addition, the tribals have also witnessed that even the processes of implementation can deny them their right based entitlements as evidenced by the subversion of laws conferring rights in respect of forest land and resources (FRA) and self-governance (PESA). The collapse of State institutions entrusted with the task of protecting tribal interests leaves little space for seeking justice in this regard. The resentment of the tribals increases even more when their protest against this injustice, far from getting positive response from the governance structures in terms of protective intervention and corrective action, is demonised and violently suppressed, disregarding the civil rights as citizens and thus narrowing the democratic options for redress of grievances in the system. It was therefore necessary to explore what the civil society can do in such a situation to protect tribal interests.

Predatory State

IN the various presentations made on the subject there was, understandably, a great deal of focus on the causes which have led to the spread of this movement and state approach to deal with it. A wide variety of perspectives were put forward to explain the emergence of this phenomenon as also other forms of political struggles and the continued appeal of Maoism to the marginalised sections, particularly the tribals.

Prof Roy Burman, in his keynote address, questioned the perspective of public policy that deficient development and inefficiency of ameliorative measures have led to the spread of militant radicalism and, instead, attributed it to the predatory actions of the apparatuses of the State dispossessing the tribal people of lands under their occupation since time immemorial. These include non-recognition of community as land and land based resource-owning legal person, the continuation of colonial legality of re nullius through which the State appropriated all land not specifically assigned to an individual, illegally recognising the headman of a tribe as the owner of all land in occupation of the concerned community and its subsequent appropriation by the State under the land reform laws paying paltry compensation to him, confiscation of ownership/occupancy right of the tribal people in respect of lands above 10o slope in hilly tracts by using environmental concerns as alibi besides numerous other ways of deprivation of land rights through State policies relating to shifting cultivation, forest management, unscientific categorisation of tribal groups such as Kol, Bhil, Kirat, poor enforcement of regulatory norms in mining sector etc.

Worse, the assurance of the government in Parliament in 1987 that communal land system would be intensively studied and, where individual rights are embedded in communal rights, land reforms policies would be appropriately framed to take this dimension into account has not been honoured and tribal land rights have continued to be violated. This denial of traditional right to land which extends to thousands of acres of land is unethical and undemocratic.

He strongly advocated that State agencies should refrain from resorting to armed action to tackle the situation and instead restore communal land with financial and technical assistance to conserve and develop them to meet their diverse social need.

Prof Mrinal Miri provided a philosophical interpretation to the loss of these land rights and related it to the tribal perception of ‘betrayal’ by the state. He observed that every community has its own idea of right and wrong. Justice implies respect for this norm within its cultural ambit. This concept of justice should be understood independent of the idea of law otherwise all kinds of wrong can be done to the community. It is denial of this justice which is at the heart of tribal alienation and at the root of growing Leftwing Radicalism.

Neo-liberal Economic Policies

SUMIT CHAKRAVARTY differentiated the present Naxalite movement from its earlier avatar in that it is not driven by iniquitous agrarian structure characteristic of Naxalbari in West Bengal or central Bihar but is entirely fuelled by the neo-liberal policies of the government which are dispossessing the tribals from their land and using State power to further corporate interests with little concern for the misery they are causing to the poor, particularly the tribals. The situation has been aggravated by the State’s refusal to recognise this and instead crush the growing discontent with repressive armed action resulting in large collateral damage.

Though Maoists also engage in killing opponents and informers, the State’s failure to neutralise Naxal influence by delivery of rights and entitlements, development benefits and responsive governance, has failed to wean them away from the tribal populace at large. In the absence of a strong political opposition to this approach, the State is not deterred from pursuing this security-centric approach. Its remedial strategy in terms of an integrated Action Plan with huge resource input would fail to cut any ice as it ignores the dimension of injustice, insensitive governance and respite from State and vigilante group violence.

Political Economy and Rural Society

MANORANJAN MOHANTY stressed on the need to understand the ideological underpinnings of the movement. The tribal areas are the centre of exploitation of natural resources by the capital with the support of the State and its global linkages. The resultant land alienation on a massive scale, loss of livelihoods, shrinking access to forest resources, and large scale displacement and destitution accentuates the contradiction between the tribals and the State and corporate power. This makes agrarian revolution a relevant proposition. The affected tribals are resisting this pattern of industrialisation peacefully for a more equitable and democratic society but are met with repression from the State and violence of the corporates.

In this light, the theory of the State needs to be reexamined from its earlier characterisation as semi-feudal and semi-colonial to an agency which furthers the interests of national and foreign capital and allows it a free run with no restrictions placed on its penetration of the countryside. Though electoral democracy is hollowed out due to the ideological convergence on this model of development among all mainstream political parties, it still attracts participation. This participation should not be construed as endorsement of the development paradigm. The only resistance to this relentless march of capital comes from the poor masses who are the tribals in these areas. The violent incidents that occur in this struggle should be conceived as a mass line response to the repressive violence of the State and goons of the corporates and demonstration of their commit-ment to humanism and democratic values.

Corporate Neo-Colonialism

AMIT BHADURI ascribed the growth and spread of the the movement to the continuing colonial expansion into the tribal areas. He historically linked the current phase of neocolonial movement of capital into the tribal areas with the earlier colonial penetration with uncanny similarities between the two. The plunder of natural resources, earlier by colonialism and presently by corporate neocolonialism creates an enabling environment for growth of Militant Left Radicalism. The success of Maoism lies in its ability to provide a bridge between identity and economic exploitation. The tribals’ support to the movement fits into this framework. As they are threatened with loss of identity and acute economic exploitation, the development initiatives by the State cannot work because it is not prepared to provide relief to the tribals against the two threats as the two are inextricably linked. It can enact more or better laws which would remain unimplemented, and push in more money which would be siphoned off by various interests.

The State displays mental bankruptcy if it thinks it can solve the problem by security operations and use of force. Legalism has its limits as evidenced by the subversion of PESA and FRA, failure to enforce land alienation laws and reluctance to use constitutional provisions of the Fifth Schedule. The State itself demonstrates no faith in law or democracy. Money power has so overtaken politics that no ordinary citizen can fight elections while corporates manage to secure berths in the Houses of Parliament. The character of State has to change if Maoism is to be neutralised. While no Maoist movement can survive the onslaught of State power, the idea of Maoism will survive and another brand will replace its demise.

The anxiety about loss of identity and continuing exploitation by colonial and neo-colonial forces contributing to the growth of Militant Left Radicalism found endorsement in Shibani Roy (Rizvi) too. Gilbert Sebastian also agreed that Maoists have established their relevance in the tribal areas by presenting an alternative to the current development paradigm and providing relief from the State-structured repression. He, however, emphasised the need for course correction and rectification in respect of some of the movement’s essential tenets for it to succeed.

Centrality of Land

LAND as the focal point of tribal resistance was emphasised in particular by tribal intellectuals. Marianus Kujur located the rationale of tribal resistance in the obliteration of the tribal concept of land as a gift of God and life-rejuvenating force, encroachment on their traditional and communal rights and structural violence inherent in multiple forms of exploitation. He saw it as a continuation of their movement during the colonial period with only the instruments of resistance changing from bows and arrows to guns and arms.

Joseph Bara too endorsed the centrality of tribal land rights in the present conflict as the tribals have special attachment to land and would fight to protect it. Land is not only a source of living for them but a sacred place— the home of dead ancestors and the result of their blood and sweat. Alienation of land has caused havoc to the tribal societies. The ambit of their frustration has increased in the absence of avenues of dignified survival. Non-tribal immigrants in the tribal areas have grabbed all opportunities of livelihood.

Madhu Sarin elaborated the contours of agrarian crisis in the tribal areas by stressing on a composite view of the loss of resource rights and diversity of land tenures in which land and forests are inextricably combined due to squeeze by the corporates. The resistance of the tribals to loss of land rights is not confined to Maoist areas. A wide variety of movements since independence have been directed against loss of non-raiyyati land—forest and common land by actions of the State agencies—forest and revenue using colonial legality. The Forest Rights Act, which recognises collective rights for the first time, provides some space for reassertion of the community’s control over natural resources though this is widely ignored at the time of implementation.

The control over land and forest resources as a core concern of the tribes was emphasised by the political activists as well Sanjay Basu Mullick, once an active Naxalite and now engaged in mobilising the tribals for getting their rights in land and forest, explained why the Naxalite movement failed in the area of its origin (West Bengal) to gather wide mass support. The ‘Land to the Tiller’ slogan of the movement did not address the issue which the tribals raised. For the tribals, land is not merely a productive asset but also a source of spiritual and cultural life. Forests are an integral part of their conception of land which they are fighting for. The reason why some of them are supporting the Naxalites is that the latter promise to restore their millennial dream of autonomy over their traditional land. The State has denied this right of autonomy over ancestral land. Naxalites have now understood the tribal perception of land and have changed their agenda. They no more raise the issue of ‘Land to the Tiller’ but take up their rights in land and forest. This is how they are able to get a following among tribals.

Injustice and Repression

NANDNI SUNDER highlighted three competing perspectives on Maoism—the security pers-pective which equates Maoists with terrorists, the dominant liberal perspective which locates the root causes in poverty and lack of develop-ment in the area, and the revolutionary pers-pective of Maoists themselves which portrays the movement as a product of structural violence forcing people into resistance. A nuanced pers-pective needs to take into account the socio-economic context, the nature of stratification, the specific political history of the area, the issue of agency and the suitability of territory for guerrilla struggle which explain why people join one or the other group. Tribal support to Maoists essentially lies in the injustice suffered by them and repression unleashed by the security forces and their sponsored vigilante groups against which no relief is provided to them by the existing political institutions and governance structures. The presence of Maoism provides an alibi to the Government to harass, arrest, and incarcerate activists engaged in local campaigns keeping distance from armed action.

The government has increasingly converted the Naxalite movement as an exclusively security issue warranting armed action to eliminate those involved overriding all other solutions. The hyper inflation of the threat from Naxalites and its amplification in the media has created a ‘moral panic’ which is designed to protect the status quo in the area and get funds and forces for the security establishment. The actual violence by the Naxalites belie the threat they supposedly pose in military terms. The timidity of democratic institutions to the excesses of security forces and the violence of the vigilante groups leave the tribals with little choice.

Lack of Options

NILABH DUBE questioned the assumption that people join the Maoists as a political choice. They do so because they have no alternative channel to seek relief and redress against corporate grab of their resource base and State support to them bending/violating existing regulations, and repression of security forces against any attempt to raise a voice against it. All adivasi leaders have been jailed. Young adivasis who are not Naxalites are picked up and lodged in prison under draconian provisions of special laws from which they have no chance of ever coming out. There are hundreds of them at present who are incarcerated for months without any trial. A lot of violence is unleashed on innocent villagers including women during operations of security forces and those of Salwa Judum commandos. If outside support does not neutralise this repression, the tribal people would be decimated.

Shankar Gopalakrishnan also pleaded that it would be simplistic to stereotype the existing conflict in Naxalite areas as an issue of choice between pursuing legalistic method for securing rights and armed struggle to wrest them. The State’s attitude shapes the choice of people between the two approaches. The tribal areas also provide enormous potential for accumulation, and the State’s attempt to divert resources to capital for extraction of natural resources takes brutal forms.

Tribal movements are rooted in resistance against enclosure of forest by the colonial government which continued post-independence. They have witnessed most democratic struggles whether relating to displacement from land or denial of access to forest resources. But the democratic space is shrinking due to the unprecedented security operations involving use of draconian laws, large contingents of paramilitary forces, pumping of huge money and establishment of a National Counter-terrorism Centre. The State demonises peaceful democratic struggles and unleashes repression on the people using their constitutional right to protest against the government’s policies. This has serious implications for the survival of the tribal people.

Environmental Justice

THE concern of the tribals for land is intertwined with the collective preservation of their natural resource base and maintenance of the state of ecological balance with their natural environ-ment. They achieve this equilibrium through their traditional knowledge and self-governance institutions embedded in self-restraint in use of resources. This explains why the forest areas have witnessed resistance from the tribals against their appropriation by the State which not only led to denial of the right of access but environ-mental degradation and destabilisation of ecological balance.

Ashok Choudhury brought out this dimension of the movement in the struggle of the forest dwellers and forest dependent people (primarily the tribals) against State appropriation of and control over 75 million hectares of forest and imposition of its management against governance of the village communities. This struggle has been and will always remain militant because the conflict with the State is very deep as it challenges the raison d’être of State power–the Eminent Domain. The forest is considered by the people as their collective inheritance since ages. These struggles of the tribals are not merely directed towards securing their forest rights which have since been partly conceded in the Forest Rights Act, 2005 but also defining the contours of future struggles.

The political premises of future forest struggles include Environmental Justice which redefines the environmental movement as opposition to capture of natural resources by corporates in the name of development, conservation and climate change. The Environmental Justice is conceptualised as protection of natural resources for people’s livelihoods and other needs of life and their sustainable and equitable use. No climate change mitigation programme can work without this protection. The concept of sustainability is ingrained in the tribal people whose life-style is based on harmony with nature.

The other component of political vision is reclaiming the lost forest space from the State for community governance. The third feature of this political manifesto is social equality as the forest dependent tribals are not treated as citizens by the mainstream society and State agencies. They face social exclusion, discrimination, denigradation. The strategy of forest struggles is to relate them with other protest movements directed against the neo-liberal economy which are adversely affecting the poor and the marginalised in diverse ways.

Pattern of Governance

THE nature of development ideology and emerging pattern of governance also provide a rationale for resistance. This paradigm of development entails compulsory acquisition of land for transfer to the corporates for industrial, mining, and infrastructure projects. Tribals emerge as the largest victims of involuntary displacement resulting from such acquisition and consequent impoverishment and destitution. The indifference of the State institutions to respond to the suffering of the hapless tribals reflects the changing character of governance in the corporate led growth.

Sakarama Somyaji provided a glaring example of this State and corporate nexus to capture the natural resources disregarding law and policy and norms of good governance in the case of the Singrauli region spread over 3000 sq. km. which is called the ‘energy capital’ of India. It is a space where 22 private companies are intending to set up power plants. The people here have suffered spiral of displacement for a variety of develop-ment projects, some families experiencing displa-cement three to four times. The persons displaced in the past have not been rehabilitated. All officials—police, revenue and forest virtually function as agents of the companies.

The tribal people and the other poor are cheated in different ways and fail to get their multifarious grievances redressed. There is no civil society to take up their cause. The Naxalite movement has so far not reached this area. No media ever reports the huge human and legal rights violations. The companies announce a package to induce people to agree to land acquisition. But after the land is taken prossession of, they refuse to honour it. The companies have adopted a clever method of escaping the liability of resettlement and rehabilitation. They outsource their responsibility for rehabilitation to another agency which does not bother about it. In this manner, a company receiving land absolves itself of the responsibility of rehabili-tation while the outsourced agency is not accountable either to the government or the people. This fraud is repeated in village after village. Not only this, the sites to which the displaced have been relocated, besides lacking in basic amenities, have become the hub of physical and social exploitation. The incidence of prostitution, unwed mothers, and crime features on a large scale leading to large number of suicides which are unrecorded and ignored and, therefore, become invisible.

No government exists for the traumatised people. Repeated complaints made at various levels receive no response much less action. The courts also provide no justice or relief to the aggrieved persons. Confrontation is the only alternative left for the affected people as very little space is left for institutional redress.

Usha Ramanathan cautioned against placing faith in the judiciary to seek resolution of the conflict between the adivasis and the State on the issues of land and forest. The Supreme Court through its recent judgment in the ‘Sterilite case’ has revised the Samatha judgment and legalised the transfer of tribal land to the corporates in the Scheduled Areas subject to a provision of five per cent of the profits of the company for local Area Development Planning. This model does great injustice to the cause of protection of tribal land and would fail to mollify them. What is required is to revisit the notion of ‘Eminent Domain’ as the post-colonial jurisprudence has changed its rationality. The protection of rights of the Scheduled Tribes in the Fifth Schedule, and the recognition of rights of the tribals in the Forest Rights Act are different from the rights of other citizens. But the Land Acquisition Act rides roughshed over them.

Global Linkages

MINING is the largest component of extractive growth which has understandably attracted large foreign investment. Mineral wealth is concentrated in the tribal areas of central India which face the most extensive assault on natural resources.

Sridhar provided the global perspective of this industry which points towards the future contours of capitalist penetration. In this sector, ten large companies account for 90 per cent of mineral extraction. They are engaged in greater consolidation through mergers to function as an oligopoly. Mining contributes very little to the local economy but the devastation it causes is huge. After 1990, the mining policy has been relaxed and simplified with the objective of attracting investment and effecting transparency in decision-making. The companies have taken lease of 1,33,743 hectares of land between 2002-05 alone. Around two hundred projects have been cleared recently. The huge adverse environmental impact which mining is causing is denied by the companies. They also escape any legal liability by outsourcing and sub-contracting their responsibility. Political system and bureaucratic structures look the other way when existing laws are violated by these complaints. No political party takes up the suffering of the people in this sector and raises the above mentioned issues. There is little relief from the judicial fora.

Nauriya raised in this context the question of inadequacy of constitutional provisions regarding the writ jurisdictions of the Apex Court against private companies and suggested that the Constitution should be amended to provide for such a power to the courts which is at present maintainable against the State only. The rate at which expansion of mining activity is taking place would leave little land for land and forest laws to be implemented.

Cultural Appropriation

SUBROTO SAHU introduced the perspective of cultural appropriation to the alienation of tribal land by the immigrant non-tribals. This was effected in two ways: (a) adopting the existing cultural practices of the tribals and gradually taking control of their resources; (b) imposing their own culture and religious tenets by using royal power dominant status and intimidating them with the ‘superiority’ of a new God (religion). The latter process was more lethal in eroding their economic base and sustainable life-style. This continues to this day. The first process was effected by financing their festivals. The second was pursued by the spread of the Jagannath cult in Orissa, for example. But the tribals have seen through this game. They are disillusioned with the post-colonial State as its policies have deprived them of land and access to forest despite protective laws. The democratic apparatus has also failed to protect their interests. That is why the Maoist influence is increasing.

Powerlessness in the Polity

THE powerlessness of the tribals in the existing polity to get their land related aspirations addressed was yet another dimension of their disillusionment contributing to diverse forms of struggle against the State. Kerala, where tribals constitute a tiny minority and 80 per cent of them are landless, does not provide the protection of a Scheduled Area to them. The State is unique in that a law was enacted to restore to the tribals their lands from which they have been dispossessed and provided for eviction of non-tribal encroachers. But the law was never implemented and the judiciary too provided no relief in the matter. No assignment of land was made under the Kerala Private Forests Act, 1974 either. The State has also not honoured its commitment to provide alternate land by citing one excuse after another. Rather, the State tried to change the definition of ‘landless’ to obviate that possibility and to divide the peaceful move-ment of the tribals for land allocation by encouraging non-tribals from outside the area to remove their occupation of forest land. Left intellectuals are hostile to the identity based political struggles but, even in class terms, their eminently deserved demands get ignored. All institutional remedies remain closed for them.

Ambagudia contexted the same disillusion-ment in the case of Orissa where the government reacts to the Maoist movement by strengthening the restoration law to give a false hope to the tribals that their alienated lands would be restored but fails to implement it. In such circumstances, political struggles alone can create the necessary political will to its enforcement.

Gopal Iyer too attributed the growth of Naxalism in the Kaimur region of UP to the disinclination of revenue and forest officials to implement laws for restoration of tribals land rights and asserted that until this is done, Naxalism would persist. Repression by the district administration would not change the situation.

Ineffective Institutional Arrangements

THE weak nature of institutions meant to protect tribal interests as an issue was raised upfront by C.B. Tripathy who narrated how these institutional arrangements have been rendered ineffective by various disempowering measures. The transfer of work relating to SCs/STs from the Ministry of Home Affairs to an independent Ministry (now two Ministries) has resulted in diminishing the prestige, power and clout of the handling government agency. This has weakened its capacity to protect tribal interests against encroachment by other Ministries.

The effectiveness of the National Commission for STs has been diluted by packing it with lower ranking party workers having neither expertise nor status and experience. The third report of the Mungekar Committee dealing with standards of administration and governance in Scheduled Area has not been implemented. The National Council for Tribal Welfare, constituted in pursuance of the Mungekar Committee report, has not had any meeting nor has its standing committee had any deliberations. The National Tribal Policy is yet to be finalised and notified. The Tribal Sub-Plan lacks formal Cabinet approval and is, therefore, neither given due importance by the Ministries nor is seriously implemented by the States. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs has largely an advocacy role without any meaningful say in decision-making, much less the capacity to influence decisions in favour of the tribals when in conflict with other sections of society. The ITDP (Integrated Tribal Development Projects) structures likewise are ineffective, lacking in control over local line department officials. The Tribal Research Institutes suffer from lack of autonomy, finances and personnel to provide effective expert input to policy-makers.

Dr Ram Dayal Munda also stressed that the present structure of the MOTA (Ministry of Tribal Affairs) is weak and human and infrastructural resources available to it are inadequate compared to the enormous responsibility entrusted to it. Being the only agency in the government to protect the interests of the tribals it needs to be adequately strengthened to discharge this role effectively.

Roy Burman observed that the Ministry of Tribal Affairs is not only structurally weak and ill-equipped in terms of financial and manpower resources but the legitimacy of its advice has been considerably eroded because the organic link between anthropologists, researchers and the Ministry has been snapped. Bureaucrats have replaced the social scientists/specialists. As a result, policy-makers get no sound advice. The integrated functioning of panchayats under PESA has been rendered difficult because there is no clarity on the relationship of the higher Panchayats with the lower level Panchayats. This has increased bureaucratic interference. There is resistance to recognition of collective rights relating to control over Minor Forest Produce and community forest management despite provisions contained in the FRA. The Forest Department’s interference in the FRA implementation is blurring the dividing line between the Department and the Forest Rights Committees. The ongoing policies of the government are leading to assimilation of the tribals rather than integration with their identity intact. The diversion of forest land is fuelling migration and changing the demography of the tribal areas with serious consequences for their identity and its protection.

Focusing on the role of governance in the erosion of Tribal Land Rights in the Fifth Schedule Area, K.B. Saxena stated that these rights are embedded in the social organisation, history and pattern of settlement of the tribal communities. The enormous diversity of these rights has not even be mapped and documented, let alone recognised. Traditionally, the common thread in this diversity of land rights was the control of the community over land resources. The individual rights of use devolved from the community. The land has a comprehensive connotation in the tribal ethos and goes far beyond its productive dimensions. It cannot be traded or exchanged. The rights are determined by use of land and not by any concept of ownership. These rights got whittled with the degree of incorporation of the tribal communities in the nation-State. The colonial State made major inroads into them. This trend has intensified in the post-colonial phase despite the elaborate protective instruments in place.

The resulting loss of rights has been attributed to governance failure which encompasses both policy and implementation. All organs of governance-legislature, executive and judiciary have contributed to this process. The tribals being a numerical and cultural minority are powerless in the system to stem this tide. The structure of institutional democracy has also demonstrated inadequacy to represent their interests much less to protect them from erosion.

In these circumstances, the tribals get attracted to Maoism which promises to protect them against structural violence of the majority community and State agencies as well as protect their land rights from assault by the State and corporates. The voice of the civil society is ignored by the State as it opts for armed operations instead of dialogue with the Maoists and shrinks the democratic space in the face of peaceful protest.

Role of Civil Society

IN the situation emerging from the above analysis, is there a role for the civil society to protect the tribal interests? There was considerable difference of opinion about the effectiveness of any civil society intervention. Shibani Roy (Rizvi) saw no role for the civil society in remedying the situation as it had no understanding of the tribal culture and values. Its assimilationist tendencies and pursuit of the majoritarian construct of culture and development have been responsible for erosion of the tribal ethos. But Maoists provide no balm to the festering wound.

For Sabyasachi, the civil society has a role in providing a plan of action for those tribals who neither support the Maoists nor are enthused by the State but wish to follow their traditional path of living in harmony with nature and in tune with their foundational cultural values grounded in the recognition of the principle that what is not invested with the work of human beings cannot be owned. It could listen to the voices of people and help them in retaining their life-style and values against erosion both by the State and the Maoists.

Bhupinder Singh too was skeptical of civil society providing any relief to the tribals against their multifaceted insecurity—physical, economic, environmental and psychic—due to its differen-tiated and divisive character and minuscule strength and disinclination of the State to provide any space to it in the current conflict. Rather, efforts should be made to change the character of the State by training and reorientation of its structures (bureaucracy in particular) and forging links between different social movements so as to consolidate its position as an agency of the marginalised people and invoking the intervention of the Supreme Court wherever it is feasible.

Still, the dominant view was that the civil society, despite its limitations, has a vital role in documenting tribal rights, mobilising tribal communities, exerting pressure on the State and highlighting its flawed approach and strategy to deal with Militant Left Radicalism.

Government Response

THE Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, who was apprised of the issues raised at the seminar, responded by listing out the measures taken by the government to protect tribal interests. These included shift in emphasis from resource allocation to expenditure outcomes in TSP, relaxation of norms of identification of ‘Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’ under the FRA to facilitate the recognition of rights, greater delegation of powers to lower level formations, proposed changes in the Land Acquisition Act, notification of the National Rehabilitation Policy and setting up of a Tribal Welfare Council.

He also asserted that the MOTA is consulted in all decisions which impinge on the tribals. These measures, however, did not touch upon the bulk of the weighty issues of common concern covered in the deliberations.

Common Concern

THERE was an unmistakable expression of concern regarding systematic indifference of the State to the erosion of tribal rights and protection of their interests—social, economic, political and cultural—despite an impressive architecture of safeguards embedded in the Constitution, plethora of policy instruments and a democratic apparatus to accommodate their aspirations being in place, and a flawed approach to deal with the growth and spread of Leftwing Militant Radicalism and other forms of struggle.

This concern for the tribes encompassed continued and ever increasing dispossession of the tribals from their land, habitat, environment and access to their traditional natural resource base, disregard of their self-governance institutions, lack of will to enforce protective laws and policies, the dysfunctionality of affirmative programmes, aggressive cultural assimilation and homogenisation of development. It also included the failure to use the constitutional provision of the Fifth Schedule to protect tribal interests against increasing immigration of non-tribals into their area resulting from the national economic policies which is pushing them out of it. To this litany of woes of the tribals has been added shrinking democratic space for grievance articulation and protest, and violence suffered by them from security agencies, vigilante groups and Naxalites. The government’s response has ignored the grave insecurity haunting the tribals-physical, economic, psychic, environmental and cultural—on this account rather than address it through meaningful interventions.

The Way Forward

THE seminar strongly urged the government to review its current policy perspective and strategy of tackling Maoism with predominantly security operations to eliminate the Naxalites and instead reorient it for implementation of a comprehensive agenda of protection and affirmative action which would wean away the tribals from the influence of the Maoists. It should disband vigilante groups like Salwa Judum, withdraw draconian provisions of law and regulate security operations to prevent collateral damage and undertake a fair enquiry into the acts of violence suffered by the tribals. Top priority should be given to providing efficient, effective and responsive governance in the affected areas. The development and economic policies which adversely affect tribals should be reversed/appropriately changed.

The community in tribal areas should be recognised as land and land based resource-owning person and Tribal Community Rights over land should be restored. A credible arrangement for redressing grievances should be put in place. The protection afforded to the tribals in respect of land etc. should not be negated by the Land Acquisition Act. PESA, FRA, Land Alienation and Money Lending Laws, Atrocities Act should be strengthened and effectively enforced. The multiple insecurity haunting tribals should be addressed by a wideranging policy instruments in connection with their leaders and experts with knowledge and experience of their conditions. The civil society has an important role in exerting pressure on the government to undertake these measures so as to resolve the conflict in a peaceful manner.

The wider context of the movement highlights the erosion of the legitimacy of the State to accommodate diversity and equity which induces dissatisfied groups to seek solution to their grie-vances outside the system and therefore would call for a critical appraisal of the adequacy of the Constitution and existing political institutions through an indepth discussion by social scientists to throw up recommendations of a long-term nature to address the growing alienation of marginalised groups from the system and their lack of hope to get a fair deal within it.

The author, a retired government servant who was Secretary in various Ministries at the Centre, is currently a Professor of Social Justice and Governance at the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

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