• Adivasis: The Expendables of Progress

    Ramlal Unnikrishnan

    October 15, 2019

    "Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun.” – Paulo Freire, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’

    India houses the world’s second-largest tribal population after Africa, with the 2011 census listing more than 700 tribal groups with a staggeringly large indigenous population of more than a 100 million. Along with being among the very first inhabitants of the subcontinent, these tribes also own a historic legacy of heroic struggles against both local and colonial oppressors, to assert their rights over the “jal, jangal, zameen” (water, forest and land) they have always lived in harmony with.

    The tribal population in India’s heartland is mostly concentrated in the thick forests spanning the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha. These communities and their livelihoods showed up nowhere in the plans and policies of the Indian state until India slowly began opening up its markets to private investment. The fact that they live over lucrative resources like vast deposits of bauxite, iron ore and other profitable minerals changed their lives for the worst. The minerals deep within the mountains, meaningless to them but coveted by corporations have made them enemies of the state. Millions of tribal people in these states have had their lands seized by the government to allow corporations like Vedanta and Tata Steel to expand their mining networks. According to a 2004 estimate the discovered bauxite deposits in Orissa alone were worth more than 2 trillion US Dollars. For capitalism, the unimaginably huge amounts of money that lie beneath the forest waiting to be mined and marketed makes the worth of already outcast human lives settled in it seem negligibly small and dispensable.

    Like in every other country evolving through the stages of capitalism, new ways of oppression and exploitation have surfaced in India too, and the Indian state, once blamed just for its passive inability to uplift its most vulnerable citizens from the clutches of poverty, illiteracy, malnourishment, patriarchy and caste discrimination, has now advanced to deliberate and active elimination of anything and anyone standing in the way of capitalist production. In lesser words, India has gone from exclusionary to exterminating within its less than a century of existence as a nation. As is fairly obvious, the indigenous tribals of India are unfortunately the ones suffering the consequences of this heartless profit-based development model the most. The institutions of the “world’s largest democracy” have essentially become shackles that imprison the most defenceless of its very own people. The transference of power from a government secular at least in paper, to a far-right fundamentalist one has only further expedited this process heavily.

    As the distinction between the state apparatus and corporate power fades away faster than ever, the Indian state now invests in the displacement and elimination of tribal people, under the seemingly innocent banner of ‘ease of doing business’. They are being forced out of their centuries-old homeland and those resisting are being terminated so that the resources underneath can be plundered for profit. The state has identified itself with the powerful profit-seeking few, alienating the dispossessed, expendable many. The expendables are now no longer part of the Indian nation. On the contrary, they are elements that hold back our ‘growth rate’ from unlimited progress and have to be gotten rid of at any cost. The ‘growth’ of what and for whom, thou shall not ask. The very idea of India is being brutally redefined at accelerating pace.

    As multi-lane roads are built farther into the depths of the Eastern-Indian forests for gigantic trucks to ship out load after load of blood-stained bauxite in the name of so-called ‘development’ and ‘progress’, the majority of us sit in the safety of our privilege, either dangerously ignorant of or conveniently ignoring the human cost of the very same ‘progress’, unsuspicious of the socioeconomic system which promises abundance only to a handful of us, while stripping the others off their habitats and livelihoods. Our concerns get limited only to the rise and fall of the national GDP irrespective of whatever that even means to the most downtrodden amongst us. As Gramsci rightly argues, hegemonic dominance of ruling class ideologies transforms us into a society blind to the excesses of the system, all the while putting off with ease any attempt at resistance by the tyrannized as unacceptable violence. The grave everyday violence exerted to maintain the status quo of exploitation stays invisible to the immediately unaffected, exactly as the system wants it to be. Further, the same factors also make most of us who question the way things are, point our criticism at a general lack of sympathy and compassion in the society and miss out entirely on the fact that it is purely the existing social relations that determine the structure and form of human expressions. It is much important to today’s ruling class that criticism remains shallow enough to never dig deep into the heart of the issue, but becomes conveniently sufficient for them to argue that they are still democratic.

    The majority sentiment that someone inevitably has to suffer for the rest of the country to ‘develop’ and the sense of systemic othering engrained deeply within that feeling signals that democracy has been long dead in this country. What we have become today is a vicious nexus of an authoritarian fundamentalist state machinery with private capital, which however manages to convincingly maintain a deceptive facade of democracy. To quote Marx who brilliantly foresaw these structures much before they emerged into actual existence, “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.”

    The issue of tribal revolt in India is also closely linked with the Naxalite movement in the country, with the state trying desperately to establish that both are one and the same. In a 2009 speech, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Maoists “the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”. He was, however, quick to add that “if left-wing extremism continues to flourish in important parts of our country which have tremendous natural resources of minerals, that will affect the climate for investment.” The entire speech boils down to the imperative word – ‘investment’. Investment that will lead to skyrocketing profits that will leave the rich richer, the economists in awe, and the tribals dead. The collective military campaign against Maoist insurgency, code-named ‘Operation Green Hunt’, has acted as a camouflage beneath which the ravaging of our forests and its people for the accumulation of private profit has been comfortably hidden. Using all their might and influence in the media and public discourse, the state and the corporations it is hand in hand with cunningly exchange the cause with the effect, and make us believe that the primary reason for the witch hunt of tribal people is the insurgency, while the truth remains that the insurgency is caused by the persecution of indigenous people by the state-corporate nexus in the first place.

    However, to study the Indian tribal question solely based on the growth of capitalism in India would indeed be a class reductionist argument given the multiple and layered systems of segregation including caste that exist in our society. The ‘Adivasis’ of India belong to the lowest rung of the caste system, a complex scheme of graded inequality and discrimination, due to which the majority of Indian caste society have embedded deep within themselves a feeling of inferiority towards the tribals, which manifests itself even today as nonchalance to their suffering. This demeaning has already made them outcasts from society much before we began considering them as disposables for economic development. This pernicious combination of caste and class discrimination undeniably makes the Indian tribals the most marginalized and disempowered people of the subcontinent. Also, the oft-made claim that the whole tribal insurgency in India is exclusively due to Maoist manipulation of tribals who are otherwise ready to comply, amounts to claiming of a lack of self-agency and is an insult to the glorious history of tribal movements India has witnessed.

    Mandela’s words that “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw” have to be extrapolated from being denied the right to live the life ‘one believes in’, to being denied the right to live and exist altogether, so as to fit the Indian tribal context. It is high time we realize that all sweeping and shallow arguments that outrightly denounce tribal resistance without even caring to look into what is being resisted in the first place are part of bourgeois propaganda, which benefits only the oppressors and no one else, and that subscribing to such lines of reasoning makes us complicit in the said crimes against humanity itself. The fierce opposition by the tribal people has many a time stopped or at least delayed the pillage of India’s forests and resources in the name of ‘economic progress’, something that the many apolitical attempts at resistance have miserably failed to do. The spirit of their struggle lives on, keeping the flame of hope alive and bright not just for themselves, but for all the downtrodden and working people of the world.


    Ramlal Unnikrishnan is a graduate student in Physics and Astronomy at National Institute of Technology (NIT) Rourkela, Odisha. He can be reached at [email protected]

    First published in Counter Currents.

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