The Tribal Question and Tribal Movements in Central India

C.N Subramaniam

The central Indian forests extending from the Aravalli Ranges in Southern Rajasthan to the Northern Andhra Pradesh in the south, the Dangs of South Gujarat to the Santhal Parganas in the East are the home of innumerable tribes. While in the last century and a half they have shared a common fate of dispossession and oppression each of the tribes have their own distinct language, culture, property system and history. It should be noted that during the medieval times these tribes occupied a powerful position politically and economically controlling as they did the key trade routes, forest resources and powerful tribal militias.

The Gonds had emerged in medieval times as a powerful group of tribes and were set on the road to the formation of a nationality and state. Several Gond Kingdoms had emerged in Mughal times and the stratification of the tribes had proceeded to produce a sub-class of the tribe called the 'Raj Gonds'. However the process of nationality formation was aborted during colonial and post-colonial rule. Other tribes like the Bhils or Bhilalas of the west seemed to have formed some chiefdoms in late medieval times and quite like the experience of the Gonds this process of state formation also seems to have been aborted.

Long years of colonial and post-colonial subjugation has seen the growing pauperization and oppression and alienation of these peoples. While history especially the late medieval and early modern history is replete with the tales of their heroic struggles led by their own leaders, the post 1947 era saw a relative lull. The last few years, however, have seen a revival of the movement of the tribal peoples. Marxist-Leninists need to study and understand the issues facing the tribal movements and their relationship and linkages with the working class and Communist movements is order to chalk out a correct strategy with regards to them.

This note is based on the author's observations in the districts of Hoshangabad, Betul and Dewas (all in Madhya Pradesh).


A cursory look at the distribution of the tribes would show that they are concentrated in the hilly terrains which also happen to be the only refuge of the forests. Legends, place names and historical records bear testimony to the fact this was not so in the past and that the tribes have been supplanted systematically from the productive plains by immigrant Hindu castes, Jats, Kunbis, Patidars, Kurmis, Yadavs, etc. They practice intensive agriculture mostly linked to the market and exploit the labour of 'untouchable' castes. This is not to say that the tribes did not practice agriculture. However the techniques used and the fact that the social organisation of the tribals do not allow the formation and exploitation of an untouchable labour force, intensive agriculture did not develop among these tribes. Probably this explains their gradual displacement.

The tribes pushed into marginal lands have been using the unproductive hilly lands to grow some dry crops like maize or millet which sustain them only partially. As such they are heavily dependent upon the forests to supplement their diet and to collect and sell forest produce like timber, herbs, mahua flowers, tendu leaves, etc. They also seasonally migrate to the plains to harvest the fields of high caste landowners.

The use of the term 'tribe' should not conjure up images of egalitarian societies based on collective land ownership. Land is privately owned and worked upon. Land ownership is not equal but highly unequal. However, given the fact that the land is unproductive and usually bears one crop in two years or so, both ownership of land and unequal ownership of land retain only a limited significance. All members of the tribe are critically dependent upon the use and sale of forest produce and seasonal wage labour. Access to the use of the forest is necessarily regulated collectively and this reinforces the 'tribal' character of the society. Likewise migration for labour is done in large kin groups for mutual protection and better bargaining power. This too reinforces the tribal character.

Added to this essential compulsion for a collective life are the long-standing tribal traditions, which ensure greater independence for women and children, greater collective sharing of resources (frequent communal feasts held in rotation in different settlements), sharing of labour during peak seasons and in labour intensive operations like house-building and well-digging and mutual assistance in times of trouble. These features of tribal life are reinforced by aspects of culture like collective singing, dancing, worship, forms of marriage (bride price is usually practiced) etc.

Given the fact that in marginal lands access to forest resources is a major means of livelihood, establishment of the control of the government and its forest department over the forests constitutes a major blow to the tribal peoples.

Heavy felling of the forests for commercial and industrial purposes coupled with the rapid expansion of agriculture in the last hundred years has created an anxiety in the minds of the ruling classes about the future of forests in the country. Thus in order to 'protect' them from further degradation the remaining forests have been brought under the intensive control of the government. This however is only the ostensible purpose of the government. The real purpose is to establish control over the precious resources of the forests and also over the tribal people inhabiting them in the interests of the capitalist ruling classes. Thus over the last century the forest department has used the cheap and often forced labour of the tribals to convert rich mixed forests into pure teak forests so that the commercial value of the forests increases. Legal and illegal felling of trees by the forest department and the contractors has decimated the forests. More important the traditional control of the tribal society over the use and maintenance of the forests has been dismantled, the tribal people's access to forest resources has been severely restricted or altogether finished.

The dispossession also takes a more brutal and direct form. Projects which require vast areas of land are increasingly situated in the tribal areas. Thus in the region around Hoshangabad district alone an army proof range, Tawa dam and reservoir and an ordinance factory are situated. All these have thrown the original inhabitants, mostly tribals, out of their homes without any adequate compensation. It is a feature of this region that the pockets of better land are under upper caste landlords. They received adequate compensation while the tribal people were swindled. Occasionally they were settled in new lands but after several decades have not yet received titles to the new lands, and are constantly faced with the threat of eviction and have to pay hefty bribes to till such lands.

Either as a consequence of such displacement or due to natural demographic movement or because of the pressure of the market most tribal people have been forced to occupy forest lands and till them. This occupation technically is illegal as the land belongs to the forest department. The tribal people have been waging an incessant struggle to get this occupation legalised and their right to till and own the land they have been working on for decades recognised. The officials of the forest department encourage such occupation as they see in it opportunity for more bribe and extraction. However the tribals are never given titles. In 1980 the government undertook an exercise of surveying and making a fresh settlement of all forest lands and characteristically refused to acknowledge the occupation by tribal people. For example in the Barwani forest circle (of district Khargone) of 16,000 applications for titles only 1610 were taken up for consideration. It is estimated that of the 155 lakh hectares of forest lands in NW about 16 lakh are under illegal occupation. However the government claims that only 1.77 lakh hectares are under such occupation. In other words it refuses to acknowledge the right of most of the tribal occupants of forest lands. (Source: Hukm Vishwa Bank Ka Muhar Sarkar Ki a Critique of the MP Forestry Project. August 1996)

This dispossession of the tribal people has singularly been responsible for their unprecedented deprivation and subjection. In the process they have been forced to take greater recourse to wage labour, mostly of the forced kind. However, it is important to note that they have yet not been reduced to a strictly proletarian status, they still draw part of their subsistence from their marginal lands and degraded forests. This is significant for this enables the employers, whether the forest department, or the public works department, the railways, the building contractors or the rich peasants to pay them low wages.

This situation is sustained by a heavy use of the coercive apparatus of the state in the forests negating all democratic principles. The forest department armed with the powers of the police and the police itself rule the forests much like an occupation army. Arbitrary imprisonment, unpaid extraction of food etc. (eggs, chickens, goats, ghee, milk, forest produce etc.) unpaid labour, forced extraction of money, downright looting of houses and settlements, rape and arson are regularly used to keep the tribes in subjection. It is worth noting that normal laws do not operate in the forest areas.

The near wholesale loss of control over the resources over nearly a century has impeded the development of a middle class within the tribal society. The intermediary strata which were emerging particularly among the Gonds seem to have vanished into thin air. What we have today is a very thin stratum absorbed into the bureaucracy or polity through provisions of reservation. Characteristically this stratum is keen on disowning its own tribal identity and getting absorbed into the Hindu middle-class fold. This probably explains the stunting of the process of the emergence of the Gond nationality. In fact from among the tribal people the demand for the development of Gondi language, instruction of children in Gondi language or even an attempt at developing or adapting an appropriate script for the language, etc. are still undeveloped. Tribal children have a great problem in learning standardised Hindi in their schools and as a consequence a large number of them drop out of the schools. Yet there has been no movement demanding that children be at least initially be taught in their mother tongue. This is indicative of the erosion of tribal identity and acceptance of the hegemony of caste Hindu culture.

The World Bank inspired MP Forestry Project: This is an ambitious project with the ostensible aim of restoring forests to degraded stretches and preserving bio-diversity with the cooperation of the tribal people. However this project has been severely criticised by several organisations. It seems that the project in effect seeks to increase the control of the forest department and further reduce the access of traditional forest users. It seeks to oust communities settled for generations in the midst of dense forests (which now are being designated as national parks and sanctuaries) on the plea that they are a threat to the effective conservation and preservation of the natural flora and fauna. It also takes on a fig leaf of the so-called 'Joint Forest Management' (JFM) - a thoroughly misleading term. This give the communities residing in degraded forests the task of policing the plantations and protecting them from fire etc. In return they are to get minor forest produce like grass, bamboo, etc. and also a share in the sale of mature trees. For this purpose they have to form forest protection committees. This indeed is a highly nefarious scheme of converting tribals immediately near the forest into a policing arm of the forest department to prevent the communities from distant places from having access to forest resources. The protection committees are in effect controlled by the forest department for their secretaries have to be by law forest rangers. The rangers are the most oppressive and corrupt arm of the department who are entrusted with all the 'dirty' jobs.

The forests not designated as sanctuaries or bio-diversity reserves will be 'scientifically' managed so as to improve their commercial value, i.e. their utility for industrialists. This implies replacement of species that sustain the livelihood of the tribal people with those in demand in the urban market. Thus instead of mahua there will be teak. A high-powered committee composed of representatives of industries and the forest department will be setup to facilitate consultation etc. for this process.

Furthermore the World Bank as the financier of the project also seeks to control all research being done on forests and forestry. Its experts will dictate terms and receive fat 'consultancies'. This has serious implications for the future of bio-diversity in the country and also opens the natural riches and the genetic pool of the country for multinational exploitation and manipulation.

In effect the Project seeks to further dispossess the tribal people of their traditional common properties and also disperse them as a community. The forests from being a source of livelihood managed by the tribal people will be converted fully into a resource to be managed as per the requirements and dictates of international capital. It should be noted that today more than ever, the historical significance of the bio-genetic pool of tropical forests is being recognised and there is a drive to bring this crucial resource under the control of international capital. The struggles of the tribal people of central India should be seen in this background.

The Struggles

The following is the tale of an organisation working among the tribal people of Hoshangabad district. The organisation broadly subscribes to the Lohiaite brand of socialism and has been working since 1985 in the area.

The history of struggles centring around this organisation began in 1983 when several hundred adivasis demonstrated in Kesla, a large village and block headquarters against the murder of a tribal youth in police custody. The protesters were assisted by Rajnarayan, a socialist activist from neighbouring Itarsi town who had chosen to take up full-time political work in this area. After a militant stint he died in a road accident in 1990 at the young age of 30.

The growing degradation of the forests of the region had resulted in a sharp decline in the water levels and availability of water for domestic and agricultural use. This was compounded by acute drought in 1986. The people of Kesla block again gathered around the team of socialists and began agitation for the provision of drinking water and minor irrigation works to recharge ground water and increase surface water availability.

A meeting of representatives from villages of the region was held in December 1985 in which the Kisan Adivasi Sanghatan (KAS) was formed and a 22 point charter of demands was drafted for submission to the chief minister of the state. The principal issues were: initiating work on minor irrigation projects to conserve rain water, provision of drinking water to all the villages, rural electrification, improvement of roads, and schools, better prices for minor forest produce collected and sold by the adivasis, the right to use forests for domestic use, the right of the villagers to protect themselves and their fields from intruding wild animals, fresh land settlement and title deeds to all cultivators, bank loans on easier terms, an end to corruption, exactions and oppression of local officials and policemen. Almost a year later a march was organised from Bhaunra to Bhopal, the state capital, a distance of about 125 km. It was a great success as over one thousand adivasis, men and women, marched to Bhopal and forced the chief minister to personally receive their charter of demands and make definite commitments. The promises made by the chief minister turned out to be an eyewash.

Since then the KAS has been undertaking struggles on specific incidents and issues; thus in 1987 a sustained campaign against corruption in the implementation of IRDP was launched. This forced the government to institute an inquiry and the local Congress leaders and officials and lumpen elements threatened the people with dire consequences if they deposed against them. The people undeterred by these threats did depose and forced the district administration to initiate some action against the erring bank officials and local agents and policemen. A protest march to district headquarters was organised in the same year against increasing bureaucratic oppression, forced sterilization under the family planning scheme, harassment of cultivators without title deeds, etc. This led to a lathi charge and the arrest of several activists. Soon after their release another case of non-payment of wages (to the tune of Rs. 90,000) to tribal labourers by the forest department was taken up and after a militant dharna the department was forced to pay up immediately.

A major case taken up by the KAS relating to Salai village sums up the interconnectedness of various issues facing the adivasis: A youth from Salai village had gone into the jungle to cut wood for making his cot. He was 'caught' by three forest department guards who imprisoned and beat him up in the forest office. The villagers tried to persuade the guards to desist but they were drunk and refused to listen to the villagers. Infuriated villagers broke into the office and released the prisoner and in the process bashed up a guard. The entire forest department mobilised itself to teach Salai a lesson. For nearly 20 days the forest department and MP Special Armed Police occupied the village and engaged in indiscriminate beating and looting. An elderly adivasi woman was kidnapped, taken to another forest post and gang raped. The terrorised villagers approached the KAS for help. The KAS took up the matter with the district collector and other senior district police and forest officials. A massive demonstration of adivasi men and women was taken out in protest in the block headquarters. The official machinery and the Congress politicians tried their best to discourage villagers from attending the rally. In this rally was coined the famed slogan, 'Baichara mat daro! Banjaridhal ko yad karo!' ('Womenfolk do not fear! Remember Banjaridhal!' - Banjaridhal was the place in the region where way back in 1930 the tribal women and men armed with sickles, bows and spears attacked and dispersed British police and defended their right to use their forests). While the protest in this case did not lead to the punishing of the guilty guards it did spread among the adivasis that they need not take such situations lying down and can fight back in an organised manner. Several protest actions and rallies took place after that protesting against various atrocities and the KAS reports that such actions had a deterrent effect on the guilty.

The year 1987-88 also saw the struggle of the families displaced by the Tawa reservoir and the proof range for land compensation and title to the lands received in compensation. For over 8 years these people settled in forest lands by the authorities had not been given titled deeds. After prolonged struggle and much procrastination the authorities finally were forced to give the title deeds in 1988.

An interesting struggle which attracted national attention related to the demand for better schooling facilities. Most of the tribal areas are regarded by teachers as punishment postings and many teachers posted to schools in such areas just simply do not go to the schools. A protest march of women demanding that the block officials ensure proper attendance of teachers met with stony silence. The protesters decided to do a sit-in strike. Predictably they were beaten up and arrested. Three of the leaders refused bail and demanded that they be released unconditionally. They were subjected to the humiliation of being taken to the court, chained. The matter was brought up before the Supreme Court which decreed that handcuffing such persons was illegal and demanded initiation of action against those responsible for handcuffing them.

The KAS also undertook struggles against corruption and forced several corrupt officials to return to the adivasis bribes they had forcibly taken from them. It is claimed that over the year nearly Rs. 32,000 taken in bribes were thus returned.

This is not the place to recall all the struggles launched by the KAS. The point is that most of these issues spring from the essential problems being faced by the adivasis. It is necessary at this point to go into the leadership of the organisation and the limitations it represents. Going through the history of the organisation it would emerge that it is led by people of unquestionable integrity who have responded to the calls of the adivasis seeking assistance in their struggles. However one is also struck by an evident lack of a long-term political objective towards which they may be channelising the movement. Likewise there is also no attempt at building a long-term grass-roots based organisation. What we have is a team of militant persons who take up issues as they come up and assist the people in their struggle. This lack of long-term strategy in a sense facilitates the status quo as there is no concerted action to change the basic relations. This kind of militant reformism is certainly necessary to build the confidence of people in the path of struggle and probably is better than adventurous exercises; however, it is necessary also to concurrently clarify the larger theoretical issues involved in the liberation struggle of the adivasis and build an organisation to achieve it. The theoretical positions taken by the leadership so far are at best anarchist or reactionary (in the sense Marx and Engels used the term in the Manifesto) - 'the forests belong to the people and should be restored to them'. The fact is that given the capitalist market this slogan has little meaning unless the question as to who the people are, how are they to take possession of the forests and what they will do with the forests are also addressed. That is no easy task.

One may add as a postscript that at present the leadership of KAS is engaged in building a cooperative of displaced adivasi fishermen (displaced by Tawa reservoir). They have won after a long struggle the exclusive right to fish in the reservoir. The enterprise is yet too young to say where it will go and how it will advance the cause of liberation of the tribal people.

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