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Birsa Munda : Silence of the Governors


November Print Issue


A paradox of tribals migrating to cities: Workers from Central India and as Students from North-East

The fifth Birsa Munda Lecture was held in TISS on the theme: Past, Present, Future of the Tribal situation.

Birsa Munda (1875–1900) was an Indian tribal freedom fighter and a folk hero, who belonged to the Munda tribe, and was behind the Millenarian Movement that rose in the tribal belt of modern day Bihar, and Jharkhand during the British Raj, in the late 19th century, thereby making him an important figure in the history of the Indian independence movement.

The speaker on the occasion was Prof. Virginius Xaxa, Deputy Director of TISS, Guwahati Campus. He spoke about the structural feature and efforts about intervention under the frame of colonial history, which according to him was the determining factor of the present situation. He says, tribals were not citizens, and only after the adoption of the constitution they became one. And this started the whole process of integration and this integration was under the premise that tribals were barbaric and primitive.

He stressed on the history which has been inherrited from colonial rule, which is a monograph from the british history and which is nothing more than one or two paragraphs.

Historians did not try to record tribes but peasants because they were part of the State. Tribals are constituted as people without history and whatever exists today is primarily to do with oral history as they do not have a tradition of reading and writing. Most of his talk was about tribals of penninsular India and North East India.

Before colonial rule, development was different and village was the unit with a village head or chief, or sometimes with confedration of village. Some of the village heads were democratic and some autocratic, especially in the Nort-East. These tribals gradually moved from hunting and food gathering to slice and burn shifting agriculture. They had more than one one way of livelihood in their economic structure and social sturcture. They had a territority of their own and autonomy in their rule.

During the colonial rule, tribals became to be incorporated in war in different phases and time. Tribals from Chota Nagpur region first came under Mughal Rule and then to the British East India Trading company. The region fell into larger political structure, through Land Settlement Act and just by the stroke of a pen by Revenue collector, ownership rights of tribals was replaced by better cultivators who were from the plains.

The discontent was brewing in Singbhum area, Orrisa and southern region at the time of war in 1820. In 1826, Khasi, Garo of Meghalaya became the territory of British Empire. Tribes from Mizo and Naga hills were annexed but they were creating problems in colonial rule. So new kind of structures were introduced. Uniform Civil Law and regulation were introduced in the whole country and the tribals were subjected to same law for the first time. State became an agency to disposses the tribals through revenue collection, introduction of reserved forest and thereby restricting them from accessing land and forest in many ways. People from the plains were encouraged to migrate from plain to tribal areas since they had more enterprising skill, which changed the role of state and commodity market.

Land became commodity, and credit and labour market came into picture to the tribals, who were baterting their way out before.

Labourers were imported to Mauritius and West Indies, mainly from eastern U.P and Chhota Nagpur area. Local labours did not show interest in the plantation, and thus people moved from Odisha, Jharkhand to Assam, Bengal and also to Andman & Nicobar Island.
Colonial rulers learned from their experience in central India and introduced various kind of protection but not the market.

What is known as V and VI schedule areas today were called partial excluded areas. There is a strict departure from what was in colinial period and what is in the constitution. British chancellor was directly involved in the decision making, but now laws will not be applicable until the Governor thinks. It is very important, as posst- independence no governor has been speaking.

Indian constitution has more provisions for tribals than dalits. There are broadly two ways through which it sees them. One is to protect them and second is to incorporate them in state institution through reservation. But it is inconsequential without development.

Personally, I feel reservation in politics has not made any difference. What was the use of reservation of 7.5% in 1950, when literacy level was around 1% of the tribal.. It does not give employment, it gives endowment. There are some people who got benefitted and are in state, as IAS officers. But what happened in these seven decades ? Assimilation or Isolation ? What is Integration in the context of India ?

The idea of development as possession in British ruleand disposession with idea of indigenous people, can only be understood under the frame of colonialism.
Why government schemes has not been able to move tribals out of poverty, which is highest in state of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh? Surprisingly they have the highest number of public undertaking.

North East social indicator are much better than national average and tribal average. This difference in tribal development is because of constitutional mechanism, protection in Central india with acts such as Forest, Mining and Wildlife. With large number of dams, mines and public undertaking, how many tribal villages are electrified , with exception of some tribal region ?

Affirmative action is a myth. Inspite of heavy military presence in six decades, still N.E has better social indicators than plain areas. It is a paradox of today.

Large number of people are going for higher education but moving out, migrating, and eventually are not going back to shifting agriculture(Jhoom). So where do we go after higher education? Region’s economy cannot absorb the population. The exodus of tribals from central India as domestic and other workers, and students of North east for higher education to Mumbai, Delhi are happening at same time. People are always on the move.

Development is not neutral. If you take minerals, you will provide 100 jobs but displace thousands. It is in the hands of few. India has to take different path than HongKong or USAin its own way by social construction, focussing on livelihood creation and not livelihood displacement. We may not have luxirious life or that standard of living as an European but a qualitative life. Today market is replacing state. I am not against that, but for what ?

The way in which constitution is not followed in letter and spirit, the politics of non-implementation takes over. The vast majority of people who made money during the colonial period were lawyers. No tribal would like to go to courts. They still have fresh memory of the discrimination they faced during colonial period.

One of the problem I find among tribal is that we are too microised. We need to think big at macro- to mobilise people from village, to state to country and so on. A village of 100 families can’t fight Ambani.


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