India's 'tribals' suffer amid plenty


Bhubaneswar (Orissa) – India has more ‘tribals’ than the entire population of the United Kingdom. They live in resource-rich forests but in abject poverty compounded by decades of exploitation by commercial and political interests. Most of them – somewhat like the aborigines of Australia – live in the tribal belt stretching from Maharashtra and Gujarat states in the west to the eastern states of Orissa and West Bengal cutting through the central states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

It is from the dense forests of this belt that Maoist rebels launched their ‘people’s war’ to overthrow the government of India more than four decades ago and thousands have died in this warfare.

Besides, mining by corporations has resulted in the forced displacement of multitudes of tribals in these forests. This region has also seen some of India’s most horrific incidents of communal violence.

Orissa in the east, where a quarter of the 36 million people are tribals, is one of the states that exemplifies the dire straits of the aborigines – a blot on India’s much touted economic growth. However, the same state also offer a glimmer of hope – a home for 10,000 tribal children, known as , in the capital city of Bhubaneswar – epitomising the way to alleviate their suffering.

When I met Dr. Achyuta Samanta, the founder of KISS, a 15-year-old boy from Class X, Nanda Kishore, was sitting next to him. He fled a Maoist training camp in the jungles of Malkangiri district barely three days earlier – barefoot, walking over 25 kilometres.

Kishore had been abducted from his home while he was on vacation. After his brave escape, he ran off to his school, and not to the police who seem to have little control in the tribal region.

He had suffered bruises on his hands and legs, doing drills and learning to operate AK-47 and plant bombs for a fortnight, but his optimistic smile was more prominent.

Sitting beside him in the school’s conference room was a 14-year-old tribal girl, Pupren Oram. Maoists recently killed her father in an attack in Sundargarh district – three years after he had saved her life by hiding her under a carpet during a similar ambush. She has now brought even her siblings to KISS.

A talented volleyball player representing her school in various district-level competitions, Oram wants to be in the national team when she grows up. And she seems confident, thanks to KISS, which provides not only sports facilities but also free accommodation, food, healthcare and education from Kindergarten to Post Graduation.

Neither Kishore nor Oram was nervous as they were sitting on either side of Samanta, a well-known educationalist and social worker in the country.

Maoists, who claim to fight on behalf of poor tribes, believe in the ‘annihilation’ of ‘class enemies’ by use of extreme violence and the installation of a ‘people’s government’. They also condone Islamist terrorism, which they see as fighting ‘US imperialism’.

According to a senior journalist and civil rights activist, Kedar Mishra, around 80 percent of Maoist cadres are either tribals or Dalits (formerly known as ‘untouchables’). ‘Ironically the leadership belongs to upper caste groups. No tribal is in the Maoist Politburo or the frontal leadership,’ he said, alluding to their exploitation by the intellectuals.

Tribals often get caught in the cross-fire between the insurgents and Indian security personnel, who have recently embarked on a fierce offensive against the former.

A peace agreement seems a distant reality with the Indian government demanding total restraint on violence as a precondition – which has not been demanded of other insurgent groups.

During the government’s anti-Maoist operations, most tribals flee the conflict zones. Sometimes several villages migrate to a new location. Those who cling on to their ancestral land are either beaten up or get killed by security forces on mere suspicion of being a Maoist supporter. Even Maoists kill anyone they suspect is an ‘informer’.

In Dantewada, a district of neighbouring Chhattisgarh state, the government has recruited and armed tribal villagers to lead the fight with Maoists, which has resulted in the killing of numerous vigilantes.

While not condoning the ideology of violence, Samanta explained the reason behind tribals’ support to the extreme Leftists. ‘Maoism shows the frustration of tribals. There is corruption at the level of implementation of welfare measures, and many vested interests are exploiting the tribal people.’

India’s economic growth over the last decade has not trickled down to impoverished tribal communities thanks to government neglect and the Maoist insurgency. It is estimated that over half of the country’s tribals are below poverty line – earning less than a dollar a day. Most tribal-majority regions also lack basic facilities like hospitals and schools.

Journalist Mishra, whom I had met earlier, believes that the lack of development alone is not the reason why tribals support Maoism. ‘Tribals are fighters; they fought the British too. And after Independence, their voice was not heard and they remained politically untouchables, used only as voting pawns. But Maoists filled that gap,’ he explained.

There have been several protests – some involving violence – against a project by a South Korean steel company, Posco, to set up a 12-million tonne, 500-billion rupee (around 7 billion GBP) steel plant in 4,000-acre land in Orissa’s Jagatsinghpur district – the largest foreign investment in India.

Acquisition of forest lands for iron ore, bauxite, copper and coal – crucial for India’s economic growth and for corporations’ insatiable hunger for profit – has led to forced eviction of locals in several districts in the tribal belt.

The tribals are also seen as a crucial vote-bank – in coalition politics, every vote counts. Given that there is no specialised party for tribals, all parties woo them.

However, it is mainly the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that has most actively tried to entice tribal votes, emulating Christian missionaries who run numerous social service institutions. In the absence of state machinery, social work is the best way to win votes. But since the Christians have worked in tribal areas for longer, they are seen as tough ‘competitors’ by the rightwing.

The consequent jealousy translates into severe Christian persecution.

In December 1998, there was mass violence in Gujarat’s Dangs district, where 93 percent of the population is tribal. In March 2004, there was anti-Christian violence in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua district, where tribals constitute 85 percent of the population. Then there was mayhem in December 2007, and again in August 2008, in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, where nearly 52 percent of the population is tribal.

Samanta is a devout Hindu, as was evident by his tonsured head and the red vermilion on his forehead and a red thread on his right wrist. But he doesn’t believe in exploiting communal differences.

‘the poorest of the poor have no religion. I do not force anyone to follow a particular religion. I have many Christian tribal students, too,’ he said when I asked why he had constructed Hindu temples in the tribal school.

Sociologists maintain that tribals practise their respective indigenous faiths and are not Hindus. But rightwing groups run numerous one-teacher schools in tribal areas and Hinduism is part of the curriculum.

‘My inspiration is my past experience,’ said Samanta, who didn’t seem interested in discussing religion – a contentious issue in Orissa. ‘During my childhood, I would not even have one square meal a day. So I do not want anyone to suffer the way I did,’ added Samanta, who lost his father when he was four.

Samanta believes in tribals. ‘KISS has 100 percent result, and this despite the fact that we have students from the most deprived and primitive tribes of Orissa. This shows the potential of tribal students if they are given a chance to study.’

KISS also provides jobs to the students. ‘That’s the only long-term solution to their depravity as it leads to their integration into the mainstream; the rest is mere patchwork,’ he said.

Over 50,000 tribals seek admission at KISS every year, but it can accommodate only 10,000 students at the moment. ‘We plan to expand; we have bought land in twenty districts of Orissa where we will construct similar schools for tribals,’ he added.

Before I left, I couldn’t help thanking Samanta for being a ray of hope for the tribals. The government seems to be listening, too. The National Advisory Council of India, which monitors the implementation of the central government’s manifesto and was revived recently, has made tribal welfare its priority.

From content partner LAPIDO MEDIA.

[Photo of tribal woman from Jetways Travels.]

Asia, SocietyVishal Arora