The Bhopal Declaration and a Tribal Fishworker’s Cooperative

C.N. Subramaniam

In January 2002, the government of Madhya Pradesh hosted a conference on the Dalit movement in which leading Dalit intellectuals participated and adopted the so-called Bhopal Declaration. A few weeks before that a contract between the government of Madhya Pradesh and a cooperative of dam displaced tribal fishworkers had lapsed and the government was procrastinating in renewing the agreement. Finally when the government did agree to renew the contract the terms were so harsh that the cooperative has found them unacceptable.

These two events which are apparently unconnected provide an insight into both the actual issues before the dalit movement and the real face of the government of Madhya Pradesh.

The Bhopal Declaration

The government of Madhya Pradesh hosted the Bhopal Conference: ‘Charting a New Course for Dalits’ in January 2002 with much fanfare. Leading Dalit intellectuals assembled to discuss the future of the Dalit cause in the light of new developments like globalization and privatisation. Simultaneously it was also a major public relations exercise for the government of Madhya Pradesh and especially its ambitious Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh. The need for the Congress to find new ways of bringing the dalits to its fold and use the new stratum of dalit intellectuals for this purpose was not lost on observers. Significantly, conspicuous by their absence from this conference were both the new generation of dalit politicians and representatives of dalit and tribal mass movements. It thus turned out to be a major exercise for the legitimation of the Digvijay Singh government at the hands of the dalit intelligentsia.

The Bhopal Declaration ostensibly seeks to widen the scope of the agenda for dalit emancipation. Thus while repeating some of the old prescriptions like land distribution and job reservations, it takes up issues relating to the development of ‘dalit capital’. Before we proceed to review the new agenda we shall briefly recapitulate some of the major features of the dalit movement in the recent past.

The term dalit is meant to include both scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes even though the nature of the issues facing the two of them are very different. The so called scheduled castes are those who have been at the bottom of the oppressive caste society while the scheduled tribes have been those communities who have remained on the fringes of the caste society. Pre-modern agrarian relations contributed to the subjection of the dalits to the upper caste landlords and peasants and pushed the tribal people to marginal lands. Colonialism, while on the one hand establishing a degree of juridical equality, also helped the upper caste landlords to tighten their hold over the dalits. Colonialism was also instrumental in dispossessing the tribal people of their control over forest and forest produce and transforming them into the most disadvantaged sections of wage labourers. Post ‘independence’ developments have only reinforced these developments. The depressed castes have been converted into agrarian wage labourers but are not allowed to function as free wage workers and are forced through non-economic coercion to work for extremely low wages under oppressive conditions. The dispossession and proletarianization of the tribals has proceeded apace as the lands which were once considered marginal have turned out to be of great commercial value (forests, mines, potentially submergible lands to build dams and factories). Modern education and employment in the state sector have created a new stratum of a dalit and tribal middle class of which a miniscule segment constitutes the dalit intelligentsia. Due to an extremely tight control of the upper castes over the state sector and their prejudices, the dalit middle class has never really been integrated well into the rest of the state-sponsored middle classes.

Some points of difference between the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes may be pointed out here as it will have a bearing on the discussion. The scheduled castes are essentially an integral part of the caste society while the tribes are not. The former are dispersed between the rural settlements and thus placed at the mercy of the numerically strong upper caste in each settlement. The tribes on the other hand are concentrated in a few pockets and constitute a homogenous society. The tribes essentially inhabit the marginal lands and hence practice a mixture of farming, animal husbandry, hunting and gathering while the scheduled castes are essentially agricultural workers. While the scheduled castes face the extreme forms of caste prejudice and discrimination, the tribals are relatively free from such social stigma. The trajectories of the movements of the two have seldom met even though they are usually placed in the same category of dalits.

The dalit movement by and large signifies the movement of the scheduled castes. This movement has taken many forms – from radical agrarian workers’ struggles as in Punjab, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu to seeking benefits and protection from the state and to the opportunist electoral politics of Uttar Pradesh.

The Bhopal Declaration in its long preamble avoids any historical analysis of the conditions which have created and sustained the oppression of the dalits. While noting that the dalits have gained little from the post independence developments it does not go into the causes. This neglect of history allows its authors to come up with patently dubious formulations. A major problem in the last 50 years have been that given the control of the upper castes over land, capital and the institutions of state power, the conditions which sustain caste oppression have remained intact. It has become clear that the faith placed by the dalit movement immediately after the independence in the institutions of the state was misplaced and only effective organisation of the dalits and their link with the broader agrarian and working class movements could lead them out of the millenia-old oppression. It is this simple lesson of the post-independence history that the document seeks to obfuscate.

While the document gives us a long agenda it tells us little as to how these pious goals are to be achieved – what would be the agency for the realisation and guarantee of these goals. What little is said of it leaves us in no doubt of the reformist inspiration behind the document. For example we are told that the state should distribute surplus lands, government lands etc. to the dalits and restore their lands which have been misappropriated by the upper castes. There is no mention of either expropriation of the landlords or even effective implementation of the ceiling and land reform laws. At least for the tribal people one of the largest agencies of land misappropriation has been the forest department of the government which declares the land holding of the tribal peasants to be illegal and threatens them with dispossession every now and then. Once again the document is silent on this question. As for the population dispossessed of its lands through the so-called development schemes like mines and dams and proof ranges, the document expresses no concern. It merely calls for effective compensation – which the past experience has proven to be a mere mirage. We are told that the displaced should be treated as shareholders in the new enterprises that replace their villages and fields and streams. The fact is that most of these enterprises run at a loss and cannot be expected to provide any succour to the dispossessed. Further, acquiescing in this manner with the dispossession of the tribal people assumes significance in the context of the ongoing struggles of the tribal people whether in the Narmada valley or in other states.

The most significant departure of the document is said to be in going beyond seeking reservations in government jobs to setting a goal of ‘democratising capital’. The document says, ‘Democratise capital so as to ensure proportionate share for SCs and STs. Make budgetry allocation for SCs and STs to enable them enter the market economy with adequate investment resources, and develop their capacities and skills for such market enterprises.’ It has also set an agenda for developing dalit capitalist enterprises and seeks the support of state and private enterprises. It calls for implementation of ‘Supplier Diversity from socially disadvantaged business and Dealership Diversity in all goods and services.’

This perspective of emancipation of the vast masses of dalits and tribals through the development of capitalist enterprises only paves the way for further stratification and disintegration of the dalits and tribals as distinct social actors. We already know that the reservation policy, far from assisting in emancipating the disadvantaged social groups as a whole has only helped to create a elite among them with its own distinct interests and compromises with the powers that be. The document does not specify the kind of enterprises which are most suited to the needs of the dalits. Indeed it is silent on setting up cooperative enterprises and seems to privilege the usual kind of capitalist enterprises. We are not arguing against the setting up of dalit capitalist enterprises; indeed such enterprises would help to undercut the upper caste monopoly over capital. But this cannot be regarded an effective remedy for the mass of the dalits who will continue to be condemned to slave for the upper castes. Nor are we arguing against preparing the dalits to enter the market with effective buying and selling power. But the central question before the dalit movement will remain whether it can see its emancipation in the path of capitalist development or in the path of joining forces of workers who are fighting the capitalist system to establish a commonwealth of labour.

As we had pointed out earlier the document has little to say how the agenda is to be achieved. Its primary emphasis lies on persuading the state to implement the agenda. What forms of struggle and organisation the dalits should undertake, who can be their allies and whom they should win over etc. etc. are left unstated. This leaves just the state as the ally of the dalit movement. It does not take much imagination to see the flaw in this line of thinking since in most cases the dalits and tribals stand in direct opposition to the state. In the subsequent section we will take up the experiences of a ‘dalit enterprise’ – a cooperative dam of displaced tribal fishworkers in Madhya Pradesh.

Tawa Visthapit Adivasi Matsya Utpadan evam Vipanan Sahakari Sangh

In the earlier issues of this journal we have had occasion to chronicle the struggles of the tribal people of Kesla in Madhya Pradesh under the leadership of the socialist Kisan Adivasi Sanghathan. We had pointed out that as part of its long term strategy of combining struggle for rights with the setting up of alternatives the organisation had established this cooperative. After a long struggle the cooperative was successful in winning the exclusive right to fish in the Tawa dam reservoir. Of course it had to pay royalty to the government in return for this right. The contract came up for renewal in December and ever since October it had become evident that the government was considering withdrawal of this right and conferring it on dummy organisations set up by fish traders. Indeed it had done almost just that in the case of a similar cooperative of displaced fishworkers in Bargi a few months before. The Tawa Cooperative launched a series of militant struggles which included several demonstrations, rallies and meetings. Leading economists were invited to study the experience of the cooperative during the last few years to certify that it had been run efficiently and in accordance with the objectives of the cooperative. Pressure from popular movements across the state and the country was brought to bear upon the government. Finally after long negotiations the government agreed to renew the contract in early January 2002. However the government wanted to revise the terms under which the agreement had been made previously.

Firstly it substantially increased the royalty payments to the government which meant an additional burden of 5 lakh rupees a year. This works out to about 17 to 20% of the sales proceeds of the cooperative. This royalty is substantially higher than what the government collects from other state sponsored cooperatives. A substantial part of the royalty goes to the state-sponsored amalgam of the fishermen’s cooperative which is emerging as a middle man. Secondly it wanted a greater role for the officials of the state-sponsored amalgam of the fishermen’s cooperative in the affairs of the Tawa Cooperative. Thirdly it wants the cooperative to give up its right to control its membership by forcing it to take as members any group which applies for membership. This would be used to ensure the membership of saboteurs and traders in the cooperative. Also it wants to stipulate that those who have not been able to contribute to the fishing during the previous year should be disqualified as members. Several families that have to lay off from fishing temporarily would thus lose membership. Fourthly it wants the cooperative to appoint its advisors only on the approval of the state government. Fifthly it wants to set the criteria for selecting the office bearers of the cooperative. These in effect destroy the autonomy of the cooperative. Finally it has decided that the new contract will continue only for the next five years as against the normal norm of giving contracts for 20 to 30 years to capitalist enterprises for building roads etc.

These attempts to control the membership and management of the cooperative indicate the government’s fear of the political fallouts of such autonomous cooperatives. Thus on the one hand the government of Madhya Pradesh hosts a conference of dalits and underwrites an agenda for the development of dalit enterprises and on the other hand tries to effectively scuttle the emergence of real and autonomous dalit and tribal cooperatives.

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