Why is the Right Missing in Tribal Discourse?
The notion of delivering welfare rather than securing rights of tribal people in the economic sphere is what has dominated the right-wing involvement in India.
It is perhaps not fashionable talking about tribal issues. It is not a matter that demands grandiose projects, or can claim instant returns, or even make policy wonks sit up in glee. Talking about the tribal people usually involves talk about restraint, alternatives, the ‘bourgeois’ concern for environment, habitats, etc. These are problems with a lot of grey areas which have no clear answers and, in popular parlance, the discourse has been ghettoised.
The tribal person and her land, forest and home are being seen as an impediment to the chugging wheels of ‘development’, which is almost a quintessential term now that needs no debate, reconciliation or compromise. It is an all-encompassing term wherein there can be no dissent or criticism. Talking of land alienation, contested claims of development, displacement, health hazards for the people due to disastrous sponge iron factories, loss of crops, water sources, forest cover, their pagan forest rituals — talk of anything concerning tribal people is now a mythical left agenda. Talking of illegal detentions, capture of innocent villagers passed off as dreaded Maoists, their being caught in the crossfire between the security forces and mercenaries are all perceived as furthering anti-state, anti-national sentiment. In the quest for industrialisation, any talk of stopping for a reality check brings forth the question, ‘So you do not want development!’
No amount of nuance while speaking of the tribal discontent can hide the fact that the state has been complicit in alienating the community through unaccountable economic policies. Faith of the people has been repeatedly dented through pittances being paid in the name of remuneration, resettlement camps that look like ghettos and displacement that gives you the status of refugees in multiple states. The burden of failed promises, irresponsible development, political amnesia and almost a predatory growth is a reality and can be seen across the central Indian belt.
The left has taken this argument to a different level and put the entire blame on ‘neo-liberal’ policies that encourage foreign direct investments and painted the ‘market’ as the evil designate. The Luddite argument against industry, large projects and corporate sector’s entry into tribal areas is as abysmal an argument as saying that the rights of tribal people have never been violated and environment-friendly policies impede development.
The above are two extreme generalisations and the truth lies somewhere in between. However, forgetting the chequered history of these areas and moving towards instant consensus building where faith is dented is a futile exercise.
In the dominant public discourse, where left and right views seem to have absolutely no overlaps, overnight anyone who speaks of development for tribal people operates with either a communist agenda or a bleeding heart. It is true that rights-based movements stemming from the tribal heartland has mostly seen a left-of-centre leadership whether from the mainstream political parties or civil society. However, while some state and non-state actors have used the opportunity to propagate familiar rhetoric on anti-industrialisation and anti-globalisation, it does not demean the demands that the communities have been making.
Striving to make PESA laws work, giving more power to gram sabhas for decentralised and democratic decision making, struggling against state panchayat laws that arbitrarily defines community, demanding fair compensation for minerals taken from the 5th Schedule areas, fighting to protect their forests through the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, struggling to make their voice heard regarding the development that will leave them displaced — at the mercy of government — asking government why they are not being consulted while laws are being diluted are some of the pertinent fights playing out in the tribal areas. Every such agitation draws from the constitutional protection given to the tribal people. Wishing them away as a global leftist agenda cannot be an answer.
There may be cases where a project is absolutely critical for the state and cannot be stalled. In these cases, consensus should be built through democratic means towards fair compensation and proper rehabilitation. Bulldozing dissent and wishing away gram sabha resolutions are not the way forward. There are also cases where alternative options can be explored to minimise damages. Contentions over land and resources cannot have fixed templates and need to be analysed on a case-to-case basis.
The missing right
An important question that needs to be asked is why the tribal agenda is associated so easily with the left. While communist claims are easy to be thrown around, one should remember that the demands of fair compensation, decentralised decision-making and proper rehabilitation are constitutional and either violating or upholding these rights do not stem from any ideological consciousness but political and social ethos. Often it can lead to confrontation with the state, but this peaceful, discursive confrontation is democratic and desirable.
The presence of right of centre entities like the Bharatiya Vanavasi Kalyan Ashrams have been a long documented fact and their interventions have also led to many positive outputs. The ashrams have played a very critical role in tribal belts including in the Northeast to further education and sports among tribal children. Apart from this, it has also contributed significantly in setting up self-help groups, providing technical expertise for farmers and innovative irrigation practises. The Ekal Vidyalaya is another right-wing organisation which has been responsible for imparting quality, dharmic education in tribal areas. While there have been scattered economic interventions, their primary focus has mostly been limited to education, health and cultural rejuvenation in the areas. These are certainly solid inputs and, to many, the real way forward in tackling economic marginalisation.
But legislations like the Recognition of Forest Rights Act and the continued relevance of PESA point to the fact that claims over natural resources and habitat rights have been a running thread of discontent affecting most tribal people. In the light of such incessant articulation, it is indeed surprising why an organisation with such networking and reach has never openly stood with tribal people on these rights, which have been constitutionally mandated. But the notion of delivering welfare rather than securing rights of tribal people in the economic sphere is what has dominated the right-wing involvement in India.
In the meantime, many evangelical bodies have not only taken their mission forward in tribal areas, but have also seamlessly woven their cause with the economic rights-based agenda. They are seen vocally speaking against land alienation, illegal detention and providing the safe space and social security for many communities when the state has failed them. Christian proselytising in states like Odisha is stronger because it has not only entered the social-cultural milieu of the tribal people but has also expressed solidarity with their economic demands. So, while Hindu right wing organisations remain lamenting the cultural invasion, economic agendas are being shaped by not just left but global evangelical bodies. The identification of cultural integration over economic empowerment, which the Hindu right has identified, needs to be introspected because it is only helping to concentrate the discourse in the hands of a few, who are then taking over the control of the narrative from even the community.
Tribal belts in India see heated cultural change advocacy from both quarters: Christian proselytising that runs like a well-oiled industry and ghar wapsi initiatives that function on the Adivasi-Vanavasi dichotomy. The former is certainly more erudite, more focused and more dominant, which is evident from the demographic change happening in many areas. Though both in no way serve the purpose of protecting the pagan and animist ways of the tribal communities, the success rate of the former is more pronounced. A part of the success can be attributed to the recognition that the missionaries have identified that social change is a part of the mission:
“Conversion in India should not be narrowed down to an individual moment of divine grace or a Gandhian change of heart; it is closely linked with social aspirations of groups that suffer from discrimination and oppression”.
Many Christian missionaries share even the language of the Left and clearly articulate their reluctance to accept globalisation. A united tribal force is beneficial for both the missionaries with their desired ‘saving of souls’ and for the left that requires ‘class’ unity to fight the state. The mission has moved drastically from the sole purpose of saving souls from heathenism. The concern for social problems and liberation from unjust structures has become an accepted part of the Christian mission in India. In such a scenario, the line between the official left and the missionaries blurs and their common perspective on impoverishment and marginalisation shape the larger agenda. The Right wing is completely absent here even though there is a school of swadeshi, anti-globalisation thought within the Hindu Right.
The left resonance
If one does complain that engaging with the tribal agenda would entail listening to anti-globalisation, anti-industry standpoints, it is the Right that is to be blamed, which has never looked beyond cultural assimilation through education and conversions to be tackling issues of market, industry and sustainable growth. In the decades gone by, the Left parties along with missionary organisations have been at the forefront of articulating a rights-based agenda, which is gradually moving towards a ‘protectionist’ stand for tribal people. Many arguments in fact glorify impoverishment as freedom and do not even lay down a roadmap for sustainable and long-term development that they envisage for tribal people.
Some of the morbid observations against environmental protections, land rights being pitted against development when expressed in the communities can only alienate them further. These arguments are not being made based on facts or on constitutional provisions but on levelling dissent so as to allow ease of business. It is a faulty premise that the Right wing can avoid if it believes in the integration of tribal people and inclusive growth. Whether it is standing against rampant missionary activities in tribal India or building a constituency that goes beyond elections, the key is to engage deeply with the economic issues and rights of tribal people. The left resonance which is often derailing both the tribal agenda and the pursuit of growth can be tempered through a strong, opposing voice based on reason and conviction beyond political goalposts.
A right-wing position cannot be one where democracy decays because beliefs are entrenched in statism. ‘The state can do no wrong’ can be a position for those who stand to defend government through thick and thin. Not for the right wing that stands to speak for individual dignity and freedom. Certainly not for the right-wing that aims to be a gadfly for the state.
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