Note: This was the last article I had written before going to jail in July last year. It is reproduced here without any changes. The Tribal Bill is still pending passage by the Parliament. Certain things never seem to change.
Inset: A Young Bastar Maharaja
The end back to its beginning,
The beginning back to its end
Mangoes the Size of Watermelons
Not far from Konta- the southernmost frontier of Chhattisgarh- is a tiny hamlet that has mangoes the size of full-grown watermelons, and just as juicy. To reach it, you’ve to take a left from the Dhaba- the only one on the Konta-Sukma stretch of the National Highway, and perhaps even more creditable, managed entirely by a group of robust women- and then go past the bombed-ruins of a Panchayat building and twisted-gnarled electric-poles until a point where the road suddenly ends. From here on, follow your nose, or if you’re instincts have already abandoned you, then simply listen to the sound of water until you spot a circular mud-hut with a conical bamboo-thatched roof. [This, as the erudite observer might have guessed, is- or was- a ‘Gotul’.] You’ve reached Muraliguda. Do not be frightened by the absence of humans. Just outside that hut, is a menacing-looking rod. Pick it up and start beating the animal-skin covered drum, hung from the centre of the hut’s ceiling.
A fraternity of adolescents should appear, equipped with bows-and-arrows. You know almost instantly that they’ve been out on a hunt: feathers still stick at the corner of one member’s lips, revealing that the creature’s consumption was accomplished in somewhat sloppy haste. Confront them for confirmation: tribals, as a rule, make bad liars. Then, if you’re really lucky and get them to trust you- as I did- they might even teach you how to shoot arrows. Spend some more time with them and you’d find your legs wrapped midway around a tall tree-trunk as one of them pours cold, white salphi into your gaping mouth from a vessel that is nothing but the sun-dried hollow of a pumpkin.
Now, isn’t that a Kodak-moment?
Scratch the surface, and the idyll cracks: none of these adolescents have heard of school; most of them haven’t been beyond Konta; malaria is commonplace; there isn’t one manned primary healthcare centre in a fifty-mile radius; the road exists only in one’s imagination; only recently, my salphi-offering friend’s mother died in childbirth. You want to do something- anything- to make their life less intolerable, but they tell you that there’s nothing one can do. Didn’t the Mahatma proclaim that ‘India lives in her villages’? Not here, in Muraliguda: India dies, many, many times over. Building that road, you see, would mean cutting down thirty-seven trees and trimming four hundred and sixty-seven branches. And the PHC and the school and the electricity, well don’t even think about it: whatever would happen to the Bastar-bison? And what of India’s future, the sustainability of our endangered ecologies, the continued survival of our species on this planet? Surely, saving the lives of Muraliguda-mothers and building a future for their children isn’t worth putting so much at risk? In a world where everything is about choices made after careful cost-benefit analysis, I guess not- but that’s not the point.
The betterment of Muraliguda- and thousands of other similar tribal habitats all across India- is not incompatible with conserving the environment, or saving our blue planet. On the contrary, it is necessary.
At the core of the current polemic on the proposed ‘Tribal Bill,’ lies the notion of a dichotomy- a ‘clash of discreet worlds’, to use the historian Felipe Fernandéz-Armèsto’s expression- between forests, and the tribes that have inhabited them since the antediluvian era. In my opinion, such an assumption is not only misconceived but also symptomatic of a misplaced sense of superiority: one, they- the forests and tribes- are not disparate entities, in a state of conflict; two, the presumption that tribes are incapable of looking after their own habitat, and that ‘the burden and the glory’, as President Kennedy so eloquently put it, of ecological-conservation is best left to others. This is not supported by historical evidence, which corroborates the operation of ‘punctuated deforestation’ in two distinct ‘epochs’: the transition from early to late Vedic period, marked by the increasing adoption of iron in agricultural-technologies, and reflected in a militarist-hymn celebrating Agni’s heroic march across the River Gandak. Secondly: the era of industrialization, when forests were transformed from ‘territory’ into ‘commodity/ market’. In both these instances, tribes were ‘victims’ of foreign incursions into their domains. Contemporary approaches to conservation have, so to speak, turned this evidence on its head, and depicted them as ‘villains’ instead. Perhaps, this has a lot to do with the portrayal of ‘tribes as savages’ in contemporary rationalist-discourse, which subscribes to the view that progress necessarily entails humankind’s control over nature’s vicissitudes and vagaries. In the pursuit to adapt nature to serve civilization’s need, culture becomes the opposite of nature. This depiction is not reinforced by available anthologies of anthropological data, which reveals a remarkable, if somewhat generic, affinity- one might even call it symbiosis- between the lifestyles of tribes and their respective habitats. For a tribal, the forest is more than territory or resource: it becomes anthromorphized into ‘Mother’, a living entity that gives and sustains life. Consequently, the act of deforestation- the reckless and more often than not, mechanized felling of trees- becomes much more horrific, brutal: the almost surgical mutilation of the Mother’s body. Embedded in this belief, is the hope of immortality, of not dying, but living forever, through one’s progenies.
This brief, somewhat ‘condensed’, introduction, however, constitutes a precursor to my argument: it dispels certain mythologies about the relationship of the tribes with the forests, and paves the way for a paradigm-shift, to employ Thomas Kuhn’s phrase, where ‘tribes are conservationists’.
Confucius in Abujhmar
The Tribal Bill, like all legislation, has two functions: corrective/ remedial and reformatory. Corrective, because it restores both the responsibility and the authority of forest-conservation to tribals, ensuring that they no longer- to quote the poet Virgil- ‘exchange their hearths for exile,’ and reformatory as it seeks to remove existing impediments that prevent the laying of roads, the building of schools and dispensaries, and the electrification of villages in tribal regions. Mr. Harish Salvé, Amicus Curiae of the Supreme Court and among India’s most effortlessly brilliant jurists, understands this. He is perturbed- perhaps even furious- to the extent that he has filed an intervention restraining Parliament from passing that Bill into Law: he feels, like most concerned environmentalists, that it will make the Forest Conservation and Wildlife Protection Acts- the twin pillars of Indian environmentalism- redundant, and open the ‘business’ of forests to rampant exploitation by poachers and the ‘timber-mafia’, who will only too easily find ways to dupe gullible tribes. In short, he views the Bill as a veritable sanction of deforestation.
The polemic on the Bill, therefore, appears to be polarized between two contradictory positions vis-à-vis the post-colonial nation-state and the environmentalists. The former views itself as ‘an instrument of progress,’ a position decipherable most prominently in the exposition of Nehruvian Socialism: without active intervention, it simply couldn’t metamorphose into the welfare state. However, its incursion into tribal-territory was novel, in that it had never happened before: from the beginning of history, the ‘state’ had, more often than not, been rather content with letting Tribes- seen variously as the monkey-people (vanarsena) of the Epics, forest-dwellers (vanyavasis) of Kautilya’s Arthasastra, primitive-persons (adivasis) of the Raj, and the Scheduled Tribes of the contemporary nation-state- be, allowing them to exist in exclusive, clearly demarcated spheres. [The Manavdharmasastra (or, as it is more popularly known, Manusastra)- arguably the principal treatise on the basis of which the subcontinental “homo hierarchichus”, to use the sociologist Louis Dumont’s term, has evolved- contends that in the event of conflict between its self-promulgated prescriptions and the prevalent customs of tribes, the latter should necessarily take precedence. Islamic historians, from Ziaud’din Bar’ni (Tarikh-e-Ferozshahi) to Abu’l Fa’zl (Akbarnama), scarcely refer to them, except when the armies of the Sultanate, and later, of the Mogul Empire, had to trespass these arduous territories, during their onward march to the Deccan. [Here again, the ‘northwestern tribes’, always a menace to rulers of Déhli, remain the solitary exception; but these weren’t exactly of indigenous origins.] Thus, for many millennia, the state and the tribes remained in “Discreet Worlds”.] ‘Environmentalism’ offers the antithesis of this position: the nation-state’s involvement is seen as corrosive, uprooting traditional tribal way of life, exposing them to new and sophisticated forms of exploitation, and as NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan) activist Ms. Medha Patekar’s study of Mumbai suburbs revealed, also contributing to the proliferation of urban-slums by bringing about the forced-immigration of displaced peoples, in search of alternative sources of subsistence. This argument is not entirely without substance. Infact, I would add a further rejoinder to this chargesheet: the sense of displacement- of having becoming aliens in their own homelands- has made tribes willing receptacles for the nihilist pogrom of Left Wing Extremists (LWE): not surprisingly, the areas identified as ‘most sensitive’ by the MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) are also among the most backward, in terms of ‘development’.
There is something to be said about the environmentalist-chargesheet: tribal disenchantment with the nation-state can be deciphered from a song, still fashionable among Bison-horn Maria tribe, which inhabits the Abujhmar (lit: that which can not be known) region of Bastar in southern Chhattisgarh; the only one in the entire nation yet to be surveyed by the Surveyor General of India. Put simply, the song tackles the universal theme of what constitutes heaven and hell: “O you young ones,” hums the bard to the uninitiated, “Heaven is miles & miles of forests, full of mahua trees (from whose ripened flowers, an intoxicating brew is extracted), whereas Hell is miles & miles of forests, full of mahua trees, but with a forest guard.” Here, the simile with Confucian imagery is striking: heaven and hell are exactly the same place, instructs the venerable Confucius, with a bountiful banquet spread-out over an endless table around which are seated diners with five-feet long chopsticks; the difference is that in heaven, the diners know how to put their obdurate chopsticks to use, which is simply to feed each other instead of trying to eat with it themselves. However, in the Confucian instance, the ‘problem’, so to speak, is of the individual’s uncultivated nature; in the Maria song, it is situated specifically elsewhere: in the contemporary nation-state, of which the forest guard is perhaps the most visible representative.
[Yet another instance appears in the bureaucrat-turned-environmentalist Mr. BD Sharma’s recounting of an anecdote my father narrated to him. When the latter was serving as Collector of Sidhi- a small district in the Baghelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh- in the late 1970s, he took a particular liking for a remote tribal village Runda-Bhadora, then accessible only on horseback. Sitting around a bonfire with other tribals one summer night, he must have felt especially jubilant, and as is often the case with young Mandarins in far-off postings, also omnipotent. No wonder, he asked them to name the one thing they most wanted. After conferring for about fifteen minutes, they gave their answer. “Sahab,” they said, “if you can make it happen, then ensure that no do-nali (lit: double-barrel, but used here to refer to ‘the trousered-man’, or man wearing trousers) ever sets foot upon Runda-Bhadora.” Since this took place before the promulgation of the Acts of 1980, I take it as further evidence of a priori hostility towards the nation-state.]
I offer this illustration not to buttress the environmentalist-charge, but merely as a description of the dismal failure of the nation-state in achieving its objectives. Unwittingly, the state- propelled by the ideas of democratization and industrialization, the twin-vehicles of the Modern Age identified by the historian Eric Von Hobsbawm- has opened the ‘business’ of forests to a medley of competing entities: the invasion of their hitherto ‘discreet world’ by erstwhile rulers acting as intermediaries for a vote-hungry establishment; swayamsevaks waging a veritable crusade against missionaries; merchants and middlemen plundering their natural-wealth; private corporations; the State itself, with its massive mining operations and big-dams, and government-personnel, often of dubious repute, entrusted with implementation of its altruistic policies (and ofcourse, the environmentalist-activist).
A Plant in Nagarnar
No disquisition on the Bill’s polemic can be complete without stating both the descriptive (analytical) and prescriptive aspects of various positions: in the above survey, I’ve not touched upon the prescription offered by environmentalists, since this is a subject of considerable importance that needs to be examined separately.
When Mrs. Indira Gandhi enacted the Forest Protection and Wildlife Conservation Acts in 1980, she did so taking into account the existential-threat posed by unchecked industrialization and commercialization- call it greed, or lust- to our diminishing forest resources. In many ways, the promulgation of these Acts was a victory for environmentalism. A quarter of a century after their operation, a lot has changed: it would not be farfetched to say that the threat posed by an organized ‘timber-mafia’ has been considerably reduced; satellite imagery shows that India’s forest-cover might actually have increased; and there is widespread concern for, and awareness about, the environment. Environmentalism itself has become a powerful vector in the nation’s politics, with influential ‘lobbies’ of its own: it has emerged as yet another of Prof. Rajni Kothari’s ‘interest-groups’ albeit not quite as dominant as in certain other developed nations of the West.
However, there is a flipside to this: the prescriptive part of their argument supports a curiously anthropological solution for the tribes, denying to them the possibility of scientific and technological progress, and condemning them to perpetual primitiveness, of life lived in a human-zoo.
Broadly speaking, the environmental-lobbies oppose any effort on part of the nation-state to undertake development projects, both large and small, in tribal areas. The most controversial illustrations of this are Ms. Medha Patekar’s opposition to the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Valley Project on the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border, as also Mr. Bahuguna’s campaign against the Tehri Hydel Project in Tehri-Garhwal in Uttaranchal: both these projects involve massive undertakings to dam rivers. In Chhattisgarh, particularly Bastar, pressure from environmentalist-lobbies led to the stifling of the Hiranar Steel Plant in Dantewada, the closure of the Bodhghat Hydel Power Project, shelving of the Dondilohara-Jagdalpur railway line, and the failure to start work on the Raoghat Iron Ore Mines. Collectively, these four ‘projects’ would have involved billions of dollars worth of investment, and generated more than enough employment for all tribal youth living in the area. Yet, for some reason, the conservation of ‘Bastar-bison’ has taken precedence over the welfare of ‘Bastar-tribes’. Indeed, while the state’s methodology in bringing development into tribal regions leaves much to be desired, it would be folly to condone such exaggerated environmental-evangelism.
Not all environmentalist-efforts have met with success: despite Mr. BD Sharma’s persistent efforts to create dissent among them, the tribes of Nagarnar were only too happy to accord consent, through their Panchayats, to the setting-up of a NMDC Steel Plant. In a rather fierce confrontation with some of the environmentalists opposing Nagarnar, Papa screamed “Don’t teach me what is good and isn’t good for the tribals.” He had a point: if the environmentalists had their way when he was about the age of those Muraliguda-adolescents, he wouldn’t be where he is today. Under the provisions agreed upon, atleast one member from every tribal household shall be gainfully employed in the Plant, medical benefits including insurance to be given to them and their families, and free education. Even before the Plant has become operational, a world-class hospital and school are under construction.
It would seem that in this particular instance atleast, success lies in failure.
Savaging the Civilized
[The phrase owes to Ramchandra Guha’s biography of the anthropologist Verrier Elwin.]
Conservation of tribal environments shouldn’t imply the exclusion of ‘development’ altogether, as environmentalists preach. Instead all development effort should incorporate, at its core, the following two precepts: first, the establishment of a constructive cultural dialogue between tribes and state-agencies that results not in a doomed ‘clash of civilizations’ but leads to a harmonious commingling, based on mutual respect for beliefs and lifestyles; secondly the development effort should create an economic partnership, where both ‘the burden and the glory’ are shared equally among them. With respect to Mr. Salvé, it is imperative that this approach to Conservation be given due primacy by the nation’s judiciary as well, which has of late proven rather receptive to subscribing to an almost unilateral version of environmental-evangelism to the detriment of tribes, who given their status, cannot afford to be heard. In this article, I’ve done my best to familiarize the reader with the two principal positions in the debate: after all, as the French say, “tout comprendre cést tout pardonaire” (lit: to understand all is to forgive all).
These then are the Facts. One: the presumption that tribes are gullible savages, incapable of conserving their habitat is not based in historical and anthropological evidence. Two: for as long as the forests have existed, tribes have been their custodians. Three: due to ‘extraneous’ factors- principally, the transformation of the forest as a ‘resource’- deforestation became rampant, endangering the very survival of our species. Four: deforestation went hand-in-hand with the physical, cultural and psychological displacement of tribes. Five: the displacement of tribes, and the resultant loss of identity, has made them susceptible to militancy in the form of Left Wing Extremism (LWE), which threatens the very integrity of India. Six: only the restoration of tribes to their preordained role as Custodians of Forests can restore the balance of Nature. Seven: this is precisely what the Tribal Bill proposes to do.
Whatever else may be said of them, the tribes of Muraliguda, indeed anywhere, do not belong in museums.
Amit Aishwarya Jogi
The author asserts his identity as a post-adolescent tribal.