By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
In a masterstroke that caught his rivals completely off guard and defenseless, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi nominated a tribal lady, Droupadi Murmu, as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s candidate in the Indian Presidential election to be held on July 17. Murmu’s victory is assured as members of the electoral college across political divides are likely to feel that it will not be politically correct or prudent to oppose a person from India’s most marginalized and backward community, the Tribals.
But the question that ought to be asked is: What will Murmu’s appointment mean for the historically marginalized and down-trodden Tribals of India? Prime Minister Modi has cast upon himself the task of proving to the Tribals that Murmu’s nomination is not just a political gimmick but reflects a genuine interest in their progress.
The road to Tribal uplift is going to be long and hard. The 748 tribal communities are 104 million strong. Indeed, they have been given job reservation in the Central and State governments and their educational institutions since 1950, with the Central government offering 7.5% of the posts and the States offering places as per the percentage of Tribals in their populations. Nevertheless, the Tribals have remained at the bottom. A news item in the media says that, even now, Murmu’s native Tribal village in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, is without electricity.
Richard Mohapatra writing in Down to Earth in 2018, said that the Tribals had been losing land and becoming laborers. “In the past decade, 3.5 million Tribals have quit farming. Between the 2001 and 2011 census reports, the number of tribal cultivators reduced by 10%, while the number of agricultural laborers increased by 9%,” he wrote.
In 1999, the Government of India issued a draft National Policy on Tribals. The draft was meant to be circulated among legislators and civil society groups, but it never was, points out Mohan Guruswamy in The Citizen. “The government did establish a Ministry of Tribal Affairs with a Tribal, Jual Oram, as Minister. But Oram fell into the bad books of the RSS (a Hindu radical organization allied to the BJP) when he assured that all Tribals, irrespective of conversion to Christianity or any other religion, will get the government benefits due to the Tribals. This led to the burning alive of a foreign missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in Orissa by Hindu fanatics,” Guruswamy says.
“Though the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were carved out of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh to help Tribals, real tribal issues relating to their culture, way of life and aspirations were not addressed. Political power has still by and large eluded them,” he adds.
Writing in the Indigenous World 2021, activist Dilip Kanti Chakma points out that the Tribals are subjected to land grabbing by mining companies in the States of Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Odisha. The government’s decision to auction 38 blocks for coal mining triggered protests. The government of Jharkhand moved the Supreme Court stating that the Tribal population would be adversely affected. The States of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh wrote to the Union government opposing the auction.
In April 2020, the Ministry of Environment released the Draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020. This notification undermined the rights of Tribals and also the authority of the village councils, whose consent would no longer be mandatory for commencing a project, Chakma says.
He also points out that the Tribals of Central India have been victims of torture and extrajudicial killings during the anti-Maoist operations of the security forces. A fact-finding committee of the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha (JJM) confirmed that 11 Tribals were tortured by the Central Reserve Police Force. The Maoists also indulged in gross violations of human rights, involving abductions and killings of civilians, including Tribals. In a press statement on 8 October 2020, the Maoists claimed to have killed 25 Tribals in Chhatisgarh State suspected of being police informers.
There are a plethora of laws prohibiting the sale or transfer of Tribal lands to non-Tribals, but these laws have only been on paper. According to Chakma, in early 2020, 420 tribal families in Kerala found out that their lands, roughly 2,730 acres, were leased by the Attappady Cooperative Farming Society (ACFS) to a Thrissur-based construction company on 8 February 2019. On 18 September, 50 tribal activists, from various tribes of Attappady, filed a petition against the ACFS board’s decision at the Kerala High Court.
Governments have also failed to rehabilitate Tribals displaced due to armed conflicts or development projects. Chakma cites the case of thousands of Bru (Reang) Tribals who continue to live in sub-human conditions in relief camps in Tripura State since their displacement from Mizoram due to ethnic conflicts in 1997. The Government of India had signed an agreement with the State governments of Tripura and Mizoram and the leaders of the Bru community to permanently settle around 34,000 Bru refugees in Tripura. But due to resistance from other communities there, the project did not take off.
However, the Tribals have been advancing in education. The website First Post quoted the National Sample Survey Organization to say that between 2004 and 2012, attendance of Tribal children in the 5-14 age group, saw an increase of 21%. A similar picture emerged in the case of attendance in the 15-19 age group.
But in the field of higher education, there was a steep fall in Tribal enrolment. In the case of enrolment in the 20-24 age group, the increase was massive in the case of the Forward Castes (123%) and Backward Classes (115%), followed by Scheduled Castes (93%). But Tribes lagged behind with an increase of just 45%.
Ironically, in the case of Tribals, “unemployment” rates tend to go up with the acquisition of higher education, while it is the other way round in the case of the other castes. Is this because Indian society still thinks that a Tribal is only fit for blue-collar jobs? Or, as Chakma says, is it because the Tribals do not pursue job-oriented courses?