In August 2010 — that is, exactly a year ago — Rahul Gandhi told a group of tribals in Orissa that he would be their soldier in New Delhi. There is no record of his having acted on that promise. The Dongria Konds of Niyamgiri forgotten, his attention has more recently been focused on the Jats of Noida, and other such groups that might help the Congress make a strong showing in the Uttar Pradesh elections.
Rahul Gandhi’s behaviour is characteristic of the political class as a whole, which — regardless of party or generation — has treated tribals with condescension. The neglect goes back to Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi worked hard to abolish untouchability, and harder to bring about Hindu-Muslim harmony.
He inspired tens of thousands of women to enter public life. Somehow, however, the adivasis never figured seriously in the Mahatma’s programmes of social reform. This failure was reproduced by his colleagues and successors in the Congress party.
Despite their neglect by the national movement, tribals were one of two groups recognised by the Constitution as needing special consideration. The other were the Dalits, whose problems were given great visibility by their own leaders, such as BR Ambedkar, and by upper-caste reformers such as Gandhi.
As for the tribals, where the Congress had failed, it was activists like Jaipal Singh and Verrier Elwin who brought their problems to wider attention. Hence the reservation of seats in Parliament and of jobs in government for adivasis as well as Dalits.
As we mark our 65th Independence Day, how many Indians, I wonder, recognise the fact that tribals have gained least and lost most from India being a free and democratic country? Viewed historically, the tribals have faced seven successive (and overlapping) tragedies:
First, they live in India’s densest forests, along its fastest-flowing rivers, and atop its richest veins of iron ore and bauxite. As the country has industrialised, the tribals have lost their homes and livelihoods to logging projects, dams, and mines which are directed by and benefit more powerful social forces;
Second, there has never been an adivasi Ambedkar, a leader of pan-Indian significance who could give hope and inspiration to tribals everywhere;
Third, the tribals are demographically concentrated in a few hill districts, and hence do not constitute a vote bank whose voice can, at least symbolically, be attended to by the political class. There is a striking contrast here with Dalits (as well as Muslims), who are more evenly distributed across India, have a far greater impact on the outcome of state and national elections, and are hence treated with far greater respect by national parties;
Fourth, a large share of officers’ jobs under the ‘Scheduled Tribes’ quota, as well as reserved seats in the more prestigious colleges, go to the tribals of the North-east, who have a greater facility with the English language as well as access to better schools. This geographical distortion in the distribution of benefits calls perhaps for a revision of the category of ‘Scheduled Tribes’, to privilege the adivasis of central India;
Fifth, since they are without adequate representation in the higher civil service and without a political voice anyway, the tribals are subject to harsh treatment by the officials of the forest, police, revenue, education and health departments, who are obliged by law to serve the adivasis but oriented in practice to harass and exploit them. One consequence of this, as the demographer Arup Maharatna has shown, is that while Dalits have poor access to education and healthcare, adivasis are even worse off in these respects;
Sixth, the livelihood skills of the tribals, based on an intimate knowledge of the natural environment, cannot be easily transferred to the industrial economy (here again, the Dalits are somewhat better placed, since their artisanal and craft traditions can be incorporated into some modern sectors).
Seventh, since, except for Santhali, tribal languages are not officially recognised, they are not taught in government schools. With the medium of instruction being a language not their own, tribal children are at a disadvantage from the time they enter school.
In the past two decades, to these seven continuing tragedies has been added an eighth — the rising influence of Maoist extremists in tribal areas. While presuming to be the protectors of the adivasis, the Maoists offer no solution to their problems.
In fact, by escalating the level of violence, they intensify their suffering in the short and medium term. In any case, the revolutionaries have no long-term commitment to the adivasis, seeing them rather as a stepping-stone en route to the capture of State power.
There may even be a ninth tragedy — the relative invisibility of the tribal predicament in the so-called ‘national’ media. This media — both print and electronic — feature intense debates on (among other matters) the problems of the Dalits and the predicament of the Muslims, on female foeticide and khap panchayats, on scams relating to telecom licences and infrastructural projects.
These are all real problems, which must be discussed, and addressed.
But so must the situation of the adivasis who lose their lands to mines and dams, the adivasis deprived of access to schools and hospitals, the adivasis who are ignored by the media and the political parties, the adivasis who are massively under-represented in the professional classes and in the upper reaches of the bureaucracy, the adivasis subject to violence by State and insurgent alike.
The adivasis are the most vulnerable, the most victimised of Indians, a fact recognised by Rahul Gandhi on one day last year, this fleeting interest an advance on his political colleagues, who do not appear to have ever recognised this fact at all.