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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 45 New Delhi October 29, 2016

Adivasis in the Indian Republic

Sunday 30 October 2016, by Ashok Celly

Perhaps the greatest sin that independent India’s ruling class committed was that it relent-lessly engaged in the most brutal exploitation of India’s original inhabitants commonly known as the Adivasis. It has done to the Adivasis what the White Americans did to the Red Indians (original inhabitants again). It robbed them of their land and national resources and destroyed their cultural identity. All in the name of development. What Shri Jaipal Singh, the eminent Adivasi leader, said way back in 1946 in the Constituent Assembly holds true of 70 years of post-independence India as well. He observed with a great deal of anguish: “Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6000 years... The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebelliousness and disorder.”

While the national movement led by Gandhiji found some space for women and the Dalits, it completely ignored the tribal segment of India’s population. Even the young radicals, like Subhash Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, did not empathise with them. In a word, the Adivasis did not form part of the national consciousness. The well-known historian R.C. Guha, in his highly acclaimed book Makers of Modern India, draws our attention to this shocking neglect:

....despite being some 8 per cent of India’s population, the tribals had been ignored by the national movement. Nor had other political thinkers and activities focused on them.

(Ironically it was an Englishman by the name of Dr Verrier Elwin who fought for their place in the sun but evoked little response from the insensitive establishment.)

Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru India entered a phase of development after independence with a lot of hope. Nehru believed India’s salvation lay in modernisation, that is, building massive steel plants and big river dams. There is no doubt Nehru succeeded in building a modern India of sorts creating in the process a middle class of prosperous businessmen and powerful bureaucrats. But his development plans did not benefit the poor, certainly not the Adivasis. In fact it would not be incorrect to say that the Nehruvian project resulted in their impoverishment, for the big dams uprooted them from their environment with promises of compensation which seldom materialised or were too paltry. They were forced to join the mass of industrial proletariat—economically insecure and culturally alienated.

According to one estimate,

At the national level 45.86 per cent of all Adivasis live below the poverty line. Incidentally the official Indian poverty line in nothing more than a starvation line which means that almost half of India’s original inhabitants go to bed at night starving.

In fact, the sources of the Naxalite movement is largely a consequence of the callous neglect and brutal exploitation of the Adivasis. The discontent of the Adivasis provided a fertile ground for the growth of the Naxalite movement in areas like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The influence and power of the Naxalites ia a measure of the colossal of the state in fulfilling the needs and aspirations of the most oppressed segment of the population.

We hear a lot about vikas these days. The Prime Minister recites the vikas mantra day in and day out. It is useful to remember that this accent on vikas is not a new thing. Nehru’s long innings was devoted to vikas but it didn’t help the poorest of the poor including the Adivasis. So the relevant question to ask is: “Whose vikas? Vikas of the crony capitalists or Gandhi’s last man?” Before a particular plan is launched by the government or the Niti Aayog and new Planning Commission must ask itself, “Will it benefit the last man substantially? Will it benefit the Dalits, the minorities and, above all, the tribals?” The millions of Eklavyas have been victims of diabolic treachery and brutal oppression for thousands of years. Therefore, at this critica juncture in India’s history we need not ’sab ka vikas’ but ‘sab se pehle sarvahara ka vikas’. The last man first. Let the last man be at the centre of our development plans, at least for some years. This is how the ruling class of this land could atone for its sins and redeem itself in some measure.

The author, now a freelancer, retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.