About the Book
Depletion and destruction of forests have eroded the already fragile survival base of adivasis across the country. Deprived of their traditional livelihoods, an alarmingly large number of adivasis have been displaced to make way for development projects. Many have been forced to migrate to other rural areas, the urban fringes or cities in search of work, leading to further alienation.
This systematic alienation, however, is not a modern-day phenomenon. Invasion of adivasi territories, for the most part, commenced during the colonial era and later intensified during the post-colonial period.
The Adivasi Question situates the issues concerning the adivasis in a historical context while discussing the challenges they face today.
The introduction examines how the loss of land and livelihood began under the British administration. The British brought tribal land under their control and weaned the adivasis away from shifting cultivation. It analyses how the colonial government forced a section of the adivasis to take up cultivation on lower rates of assessment, thereby making them dependent on the landlord- moneylender-trader nexus for their survival.
The articles, drawn from writings of almost four decades, discuss questions of community rights and ownership, management of forests, the state’s rehabilitation policies, and the Forest Rights Act and its implications. It presents diverse perspectives in the form of case studies specific to different regions and provides valuable analytical insights.
Bringing together contributions by well-known sociologists, historians and environmental activists, this book will be an indispensable read for students and scholars of sociology, anthropology, environmental studies, political science, and policy-analysts.
About the Author
Indra Munshi retired as Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Bombay.
The term ‘tribe’ was used by the colonial government in India to categorise a large number of groups who did not fit the categories of ‘caste’ or ‘Hindu’. The term subsumed communities very different from one another in terms of demographic size, linguistic and cultural traits, ecological conditions, material conditions of living, but essentially ‘primitive’, ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’ in character. After Independence, the term ‘Scheduled Tribe’ (ST) came to be used to denote tribes which were scheduled as such under the Constitution of India, distinguished from other communities by relative isolation, cultural distinctiveness and low level of production and subsistence, not necessarily original inhabitants. Indian words like ‘adivasi’ (first settlers), ‘vanvasi’ (inhabitants of forests), ‘vanyajati’ (forest communities), ‘pahari’ (hill-dwellers), ‘adimjari’ (original communities/ primitive people), ‘janjati’ (folk people), ‘anusuchit jati’ (ST), are also used. Most of the contributors to this volume seem to have used the terms ‘adivasi’, ‘tribal’ and ‘indigenous communities’ interchangeably.
For the colonial administrators the ‘wild’ and ‘barbaric’ tribesmen of the hills and forests only meant trouble in the form of rebellions, which continued to occur with alarming regularity throughout the colonial rule. Bara, however, argues that the negative traits associated with the term ‘tribe’, was not only a colonial creation, but had existed in the pre-colonial brahminical texts as well. ‘ ... the colonial state merely transformed pre-colonial prejudices of brahminical texts and gave them a Darwinian twist’ (Bara 2009: 90). The colonial ethnological exercise, he elaborates, drew from the traditional sanskritic texts which largely depicted the aborigines as beastly and djemonic in terms like ‘dasyus’ and ‘daityas’. The term ‘tribe’ was also given a new dimension, of seeing it as a lower stage of human progress.
Scholars have shown that there are references to forest-dwellers in ancient and medieval literatures, to their volatile nature, and the mode of production of some of them as consisting of hunting and gathering are also noted. Many established states and acquired political power or were absorbed into regional political systems, which left them with considerable autonomy in the management of their affairs and control of resources. It is also well established that there were linkages between the tribe and peasants, graziers and craftsmen who also used the produce of the forest. Tribals were in touch with the Hindu peasants and craftsmen through the market, who were responsible for the introduction of many agricultural techniques and crafts in tribal areas. In India, therefore, isolation of tribes was relative and never absolute as in other countries (Singh 2005: 10). It is important that this aspect of isolation is not overstated in defining tribes.
The nature of interaction between the tribal and peasant societies seems to have been far more complex than that delineated by the so-called processes of absorption and sanskritisation as suggested by N. K. Bose and M. N. Srinivas. Although many of them came within the social and economic orbit of Hindu society, which resulted in them emulating the lifestyles and religious practices of the upper castes, there is ample evidence to suggest that there was indeed a great deal of give-and-take and mutual interaction between the societies. This process, the noted historian D. D. Kosambi, traces to ancient times when tribal deities and tribal rituals and cults were modified and incorporated within brahminical Hinduism. The matriarchal elements were retained by identifying the mother goddess with the wife of some male god. The worship of the newly absorbed primitive deities, Kosambi observes, ‘was part of the mechanism of acculturation, a clear give- and- take’ (Kosambi 1976: 169-70).
In later periods several processes appear to have been at work affecting the organisation of tribal communities. Many of them, as Ratnagar points out, co- existed with stratified societies under the rule of monarchies, many peasant groups pushed into ‘inhospitable fringe’ would have adopted tribal ways of life, and some tribal groups were also absorbed into the larger society as jatis or castes. But, while tribes may have shared many features with the peasants societies, what distinguished them, Ratnagar argues’ ... by definition tribesmen are not surplus-producing peasants ... the affairs of tribal people do not depend on the markets or the law-and-order institutions of a larger society Tribal households have a degree of self-sufficiency not evident among peasants tribal society thus has a structure that is simpler than class or state society ... (which) need not be a pejorative understanding at all.. .. ‘ (Ratnagar 2010: 2-3). One may add that, by definition, these communities did not have a notion of private property, and had a distinct culture. Even in present times, when adivasi societies are stratified, exposed to the markets, their social organisation totally disrupted by the outside forces, one can still find in adivasi communities the remnants, more or less, of the principals of equal access to water resources, forests, pastures, land; a sense of community defined by the recognition of a common ancestor within the larger kinship, shared rituals and religion dominated by nature and spirit, language, cultural practices, and politico-social organisations to manage the affairs of the community, which give them their distinctiveness.
Even when some members of a community adopt Hindu or Christian values and practices, they do not give up their specific identity of being a Warli, Gond, or Bhil. Our own experience with the Warlis in Maharashtra shows that often elements of the old and new are combined in very interesting and practical ways. Adivasi language, way of life, social organisation, cultural practices, rituals related, for example, to marriage, birth and death, are not given up totally, but most often elements of the new religion are incorporated within the framework of the adivasi religion and culture. A simple but good example is the inclusion of the sign of the cross in the ritual paintings made on the walls of the houses at the time of weddings. Their social organisation remains basically unaltered. Adivasi identity, and an acute awareness of its distinctiveness, continues to be asserted by adivasis all over the country through their demands for autonomy, forest and land rights and a better quality of life. That this distinctiveness is getting eroded in the process of marginalisation, and over all change, of course, is a sad fact. Despite the state’s commitment to help the adivasis grow ‘according to their own genius and tradition’, development has devalued and undermined much of what was positive in their culture, knowledge system, skills, institutions of governance, practices of resource management and use, language, and other cultural traditions. For example, it is reported that of the large number of spoken languages that are lost, most are tribal languages.
That even a Hinduised group essentially retains its adivasi character, and does not become a caste, as some sociologists have suggested, is the focus of Xaxa’s argument. He points out that the process of Hinduisation does not necessarily lead to the integration of the adivasi groups into the caste society. ‘To be integrated, tribes must be drawn into the social organisation of the caste. That, by and large, is not an empirical reality.’ Hinduisation cannot take away the social attributes of adivasi groups as communities with their special modes of living and believing. To be Hindus, he argues, they must become a part of the structure of Hindu society, ‘which is possible only if they get drawn into the structure of the regional linguistic community’. In very rare cases has an entire adivasi group joined a caste/jati and taken on a new identity. Nor do they cease to be adivasis when they become a part of the process of peasantisation (Xaxa 1999: 1522).
Adivasis And The Forest-Few adivasi groups practise hunting and food-gathering as their sole occupation. A majority of them, nearly 51 per cent, are cultivators, followed by agricultural labourers, nearly 28 per cent. The rest are engaged in household industry, construction work, plantation, mining and quarrying and in other services (National Commission 2004: 27). A very small section has benefited from the protective measures of the government, the system of reservation in educational institutions, employment and political reservation, but the majority have been marginalised by the process of so-called development of the last six decades since Independence. It is they who have borne the cost of industrialisation, urbanisation, construction of big dams, infrastructure, mining and quarrying and other development activities. However, the socially and economically most marginalised among them are those groups who were formerly branded as ‘criminal tribes’ by the colonial government through a series of Criminal Tribes Acts. The eagerness of various landed classes and castes, and later industrial employers, to have nomadic tribes declared notified under the act, in order to meet the demand for labour, Heredia argues, reveals the more sinister aspect of the act. Although the laws were repealed in 1952, and they were listed as De-notified and Nomadic Tribes, these groups continue to be stigmatised as ‘born criminals’ and harassed and humiliated by the general society and by the agencies of the state (D’Souza 2001; Heredia 2007; Radhakrishnan 2001). Estimates suggest that there are about 400 nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes in the country, numbering some 150 million, most of whom do not possess land rights or house titles, and are, therefore, denied even voting rights. Many of these groups have lost their traditional- livelihoods over time, are now confined to the urban fringes, living in abysmal conditions and are dependent on informal means of livelihood (Editorial 2007: 4020). They constitute the ‘poorest of the poor’ in Punjab, an otherwise prosperous state. But, as Singh points out, they have already started agitating for their long pending demand for ST status, which will go the Gujjar way if it is not suitably addressed (Singh 2010).
Most of the adivasi groups derive their livelihood from agriculture and forest, and as different from the non-tribal agricultural communities, their dependence on the forests, for a variety of purposes, is substantial. Agriculture, both shifting and settled, is closely interlinked with the forest. While the former takes place in the forest and cannot be imagined outside of it, settled agriculture, too, depends on the inputs from the forest. Out of the total geographical area, the actual area under shifting cultivation is estimated to be about 22.78 lakh hectares, and the number of families dependent on it for livelihood is said to be nearly 6.07 lakhs. About 83.7 per cent of this area lies in the north-east of the country. Rough estimates suggest that the per cent of population dependent on shifting cultivation, or jhum as it is popularly known, is as high as 57.69 in Arunachal Pradesh and 80.74 in Mizoram (Xaxa 2007: 6). An overwhelming majority today is, however, engaged in settled agricultute.
The forest has been, and continues to be, a major source of food, timber for house construction and agricultural implements, fuelwood, medicines, and other necessities of everyday life. Leaves, fruits, flowers, roots, tubers from the forest constitute an important supplement to the otherwise meagre diet of the adivasis, especially during the lean season and periods of drought. Wild fruits, berries and honey are collected and eaten by children when they are hungry, fish and small game are a source of protein, bamboo and timber are necessary for making agricultural, hunting and fishing tools, and herbs serve not only as potherbs but as medicines for several ailments; oil, liquor, soap come from the forest. Scholars have suggested that 50 to even 80 per cent of the food requirement of the adivasis may, in fact, be provided by the forest (Fernandes 1993: 51). Sale of non-timber forest produce like bamboo, kath, fuelwood, tendu leaves, sal leaves, a variety of nuts are an important source of income. Gods and spirits reside in the forest, so do trees and animals, which are objects of devotion, and it is the ideal getaway space for leisure time activities. In spite of the fact that a major disruption in the relationship between the two has been caused by forces unleashed in the last two centuries or so, for a large number of the adivasis, the forest is the leitmotiv of their material and spiritual existence.
Although the governments that preceded the British had appropriated certain parts of the forest for imperial purposes, regulated cutting of certain trees and plants, taxed certain products of the forest, but, by and large, the forest communities enjoyed free access to the forest. They could take all the produce they required for domestic and agricultural purposes from the public forests without hindrance. From the scanty evidence available, it appears that the forest communities enjoyed a degree of freedom in the use and management of the forests they inhabited and they developed their own mechanisms, cultural and religious, to regulate the use of forest. One still finds among adivasi communities norms and rules governing the use of forests, although in the face of rampant exploitation and destruction of forests all over the country, these norms are inevitably breaking down.
Several regulations were passed in mid-nineteenth century with the object of protecting and regenerating forests for ecological reasons, as well as of facilitating production of timber on a sustainable basis, for both revenue and imperial purposes. It was found expedient to pass a law in 1865, later revised in 1878, to curtail the rights of the people and make ‘government the only master’. Laws relating to the management of forest and forest produce were subsequently consolidated in the Indian Forest Act of 1927.This resulted in the large-scale restriction on the removal of fuelwood and bamboos, the prohibition against cutting wood for building huts and cattle-sheds, and for agricultural implements, the reservation of mahua flowers and fruits, leaves of many kinds, and prohibition of shifting cultivation. In many instances, grazing lands were included into ‘reserved’ and ‘protected’ forests, thereby seriously affecting the existing grazing arrangements. Over all, notwithstanding the regional differences, one could suggest that the creation of a large area of ‘reserved’ forests in India under control of the state, supervised and managed by the forest department resulted in the restriction of the customary rights of the forest communities endangering their very survival. These communities suffered great hardships at the hands of forest officials who enforced the restrictions with great severity, so that even a minor breach of regulation was treated as a ‘crime’ (Munshi 1998; Rangarajan 1996; Sundar 2007: 104-30).
The scientific management of forests introduced by the British also resulted in the enhanced commercial value of the forests, and opened up an important source of revenue for the government. The forest department showed a consistent rise in surplus. The ever expanding demand from the urban centres, military cantonments and hill stations, from the railways, and the rising commercial value of teak, and other so-called Minor Forest Produce like resin, tanning materials like kuth, myrabolans, and essential oil as items of export, all added to the economic value of the forests. Efforts were made to promote the growth of trees like teak, deodar, sal, pine, sissoo which commanded a ready market (Guha 1983: 1886-87; Guha 1999: 60; Munshi 1996: 1268). The increased policing by the forest department inevitably resulted in more and more forest ‘crimes’ and ‘offences’ being committed by those dependent on the forest. The forest department, by and large, treated, and continue to treat, the adivasis as the enemy of the forest, holding them responsible for its destruction. There was, and is, no place in this model of forestry, for the involvement of local forest communities in matters pertaining to the management and use of forest. Scientific arrogance, economic compulsion and sheer callousness towards the basic needs of the poor have largely guided the working of the forest department.
Two important processes through which, according to Xaxa, land and forest under tribal control were brought under state control and management were the following. One of them was that under the system of administration introduced during the colonial rule and which continued after Independence, lineage/village ownership of land was not recognised. Hence, adivasi land under such arrangement was not recorded in the survey and settlement reports. The other was the non- recognition of shifting agriculture as a legitimate agricultural practice, except in the north-east. As a result, the rights of adivasis practising shifting cultivation in states like Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, remain unrecognised. In concrete terms it implies that the forest on which the adivasi community was dependent for shifting cultivation was not recognised as forest under the control of the community or the village. ‘Paradoxically, the post-colonial Indian state has continued with the colonial policy with the result that lakhs of shifting cultivators have no legitimate rights over the forests that have been their own for centuries’ (Xaxa 2007: 14-15).
The traditional rights of the adivasis were neither recognised nor recorded. The creation of national parks and sanctuaries on forest lands further excluded these communities from their survival base. While conservation of the flora and fauna was recognised as an urgent need, the settlement of adivasi rights to forest and its produce was not undertaken with the sincerity and seriousness that it deserved. And those who continued to use forest land were deemed ‘encroachers’, stripped of any security or rights. The debate between the supporters of wildlife and forest protection and that of adivasi rights continues, and while the concerns of both are legitimate, it is being increasingly recognised that the two are not necessarily irreconcilable.
In spite of state control, depletion and destruction of forest as a result of the combined activities of the forest department and private interests has gone unchecked. In some cases, adivasis, too, have become instrumental in illegal harvesting of timber for business groups. While a few have actually joined the loot, and begun to trade in timber, most of them do so for a meagre sum. A constant increase in the number of people, who still depend on the forest for their livelihood, in the absence of an alternative source of employment, is certainly taking a toll on the already depleted forests. But over-exploitation of forests by the forest department as also by commercial interests for profits, and use of forest land for non-forest purposes in the so-called national interest has resulted in massive destruction and depletion of forests. Between 1980 and 2004, 9.81 lakh hectares of forest land involving 11,282 development projects were diverted from forest to non-forest purposes (Xaxa 2007: 21). By some estimates, the present rate of deforestation is around one million hectares a year. Ignorance, greed and callousness of which the adivasis are often accused, has been no match for the ignorance, greed and callousness of the forest department and the state.
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