Fallacious perceptions of development – a tribal view from Jharkhand: Richard Toppo
Guest Post by RICHARD TOPPO
Almost a century ago, Katherine Mayo published a book titled ‘Mother India’ that criticized the Indian way of living, and Rudyard Kipling spoke of the ‘White Man’s Burden’. These writings reflected the colonial perspective that what colonizers did was in the best interest of the colonized people. Consequently, most well-meaning citizens of colonial powers were alienated from the horrible plight of the colonized. Purpose well served – unopposed exploitation.
Years later, independent India seems to walk the same line. The tribal communities in central areas of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh have faced rampant exploitation, displacement and dispossession from their resources at the hands of the state. However, the government has successfully produced an illusionary perception of ‘development’ that has alienated the middle classes of India from the miseries of tribals. As a result, the government in alliance with corporate interests ruthlessly exploits the tribal population, almost unchallenged by other sections of society.On 15 November 2000, tribals, mostly from central India, had something to rejoice about. A revolt that had continued for more than a century was presumed to have met its fate. Jharkhand came into being. The first demand for the separate state of ‘Jharkhand’ was raised in the year 1914 by tribals, as recorded in the State Reorganization Committee Report (1955-56). Time and again, the case for Jharkhand was at the forefront among tribal politicians who also had support from some other indigenous communities, and finally, Jharkhand was born. For far too long, the mineral-rich areas of Chota Nagpur and Santhal Pargana were exploited and tribal people displaced in the name of development. Racial discrimination of tribals by outsiders, referred to as ‘dikus’ in the tribal tongue, was widespread. The demand for separate statehood was not merely to establish a distinct identity but also to do away with the years of injustice.
However, the years after the creation of Jharkhand have witnessed the fading of the delusional hype over tribal welfare. Rather, the vulnerability of tribals has increased after the formation of Jharkhand. A tribal Chief Minister and a few reserved constituencies were considered the green signal for endless displacements carried out in the garb of so- called ‘development’, which is on a path completely contradictory to tribal life. According to the reports of Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights, a total number of 6.54 million people have so far been displaced in Jharkhand in the name of development. The ongoing land acquisition at Nagri village (near Ranchi, Jharkhand) for IIM and National University for Study and Research in Law (NUSRL) may seem like a developmental project in the eyes of the educated affluent. However, these elite educational institutes come at the price of displacing more than 500 tribal villagers. Every such ‘development’ project – dams, factories, mines, universities – routinely displaces tribal people, a fact that goes unreported.
In a place where displacement and development have become synonymous, the strategic reasons for such oppressive measures go beyond mere monetary gains. Palpably, one may sense the consistent attempts by various corporate firms to have control over the policy formulation process. This political-corporate nexus was very much apparent when over 42 MOUs were signed as soon as Jharkhand came into being.
Vast tracts of land are required to bring these MOUs to reality, but the people’s opposition and various constitutional laws favouring people against land acquisition have always been impediments for corporate firms. According to a human rights report published by Jharkhand Human Rights Movement (JHRM), the state government of Jharkhand has so far signed 102 MOUs that go against the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution that guarantees to tribals their right over the land they live in. In 2011, Arcelor Mittal had to pull out of a proposed project in Jharkhand due to people’s opposition. The corporate sectors have been trying hard to change the status-quo in their favour and in doing so they have adopted some dubious means.
Among the various laws provided by the constitution to safeguard tribal interests, one of them is Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act which was instituted in the year 1908 to safeguard tribal lands from being sold out to the non-tribals. The law was meant to prevent dispossession and preserve tribal identity. Loss of land would automatically lead to the loss of tribal identity as the issuance of community certificate requires proof of land possession. The private sector seems to have taken special interest in drastically reforming the CNT Act. Corporate owned newspapers like ‘Prabhat Khabar’ and ‘Dainik Bhaskar’ have campaigned vigorously in support of reforming the Act to make transfer of land from tribals to non-tribals more flexible. Needless to say, any reform would directly benefit these corporations that own mines in tribal lands of Jharkhand, and would pave way for future land acquisitions.
The state governments, irrespective of the party banner, have all participated in this asymmetric confrontation against the tribal interests. The non-inclusion of ‘Sarna’ religion in the religion category of the recent Census has drastically downsized the tribal population. There have also been inefficiencies on the part of the administration in providing accurate data on tribal population, many of which are under-reported. With the never-ending displacement, the eventual figure of tribal population has reduced to a mere 28% on paper. Mehar Singh Gill has correctly identified the reason behind this move:
‘to dilute demographic and, hence, political strengths of tribals so that they would not make up a sizeable share of population capable of making any meaningful political impact in any of the concerned states of the country.’
THE SO CALLED ‘RED CORRIDOR’
Undoubtedly, the naxal menace has increased over the years, and Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh would have had concrete reasons to declare Naxalism as the biggest internal security threat. In Jharkhand alone, since its formation, a total of 4,430 cases of naxal violence have been reported so far; in which 399 police, 916 naxalites and 395 common people have lost their lives. The brutal way in which naxal violence is executed, for instance, beheading, mutilating body parts or slitting throat, has immensely amplified terror amidst people. Fractionalization into various groups like People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI), Jharkhand Liberation Tiger (JLT), Tritiya Prastuti Committee (TPC) etc. has further intensified the problem. The security forces deployed in maoist infested areas are under constant life threat. The landscapes in these areas are highly conducive for guerrilla warfare while the local police find themselves inadequately armed and trained to engage in such warfare. The next step is then inevitably the deployment of central forces with better arms and equipments and better training.
People are told that naxalites want to overthrow the government by violent revolution and undemocratic means, and they need to be stopped to sustain India’s ‘bright future’. Everything looks sane from an urban perspective except for few unheard facts that would complete the story. According to a report by JHRM, since the creation of Jharkhand a total of 4372 people have been arrested on the charges of being naxalites. Among these, 315 are hardcore naxals on whom the government had announced prize money, however the remaining 4057 have no records of criminal offenses, and even the police have been unable to trace their naxal involvement. In an extreme case, sources claim that the government was instrumental in sustaining PLFI during the initial days of its formation to counter CPI (M). However, the move backfired and PLFI became one of the prominent terror groups in Jharkhand.
In several other instances, many innocent people (mostly tribals) were killed during anti-naxal operations. The incident that occurred on April 15, 2009 at Latehar, Jharkhand exposed the dark side of anti-naxal operations. Five tribals were picked from their home by CRPF and district police, taken to a nearby place and shot dead. The initial police investigation tried to cover up the deeds, framing these tribals as Maoists, but after much protest the Jharkhand police finally accepted them to be common villagers having no links with any naxalites. The recent exposure of anti-naxal operations in Saranda Jungle, a habitat for more than 1, 25,000 tribals, has been more disturbing. In the name of Operation Monsoon and Operation Anaconda, the deployed central and state forces devastated several homes, killed innocent people and did not even spare food that was in possession of tribals. As revealed by JHRM, during Operation Anaconda 33 villagers were arrested on the charges of naxal involvement, however, the police themselves have been unable to provide any evidence to support their claim.
The problem with an over-hyped so-called ‘Red Corridor’ is that it makes the security forces look sacrosanct who, hypothetically, are deployed in enemy’s terrain to sustain ‘India’s bright’ future. With such perception, the innocent casualties at the hands of security forces are deemed as unimportant. As the Red Corridor mostly falls under the tribal areas, a general perception, albeit fallacious, exists that tribals in these areas are naxalites or naxalite supporters. What worsens the case is the exclusion of such areas by the concerned state administration which even after 64 years of independence has failed to establish any communication with such areas. A district generally falls into the red-corridor zone not for the reason that people in these areas support naxal ideology, but because the administration is generally absent in such areas, thus giving a free hand to the naxalites. Failure on the part of state to reach out to rural tribal areas has provided ample opportunities for naxalism to flourish.
Decades after exclusion from the mainstream, the government tries to bring tribal societies out of their so called ‘Museum Culture’ into the mainstream fold, but the method adopted is displacing tribals and giving their lands to multinational companies for setting up factories, thereby reducing even the most affluent farmer to a petty labourer. The fact that beneath these tribal areas are abundant mineral resources hardens the government’s stance which is determined to resist any opposition with a heavy hand. Here comes the dual strategy behind the tag of ‘red corridor’. Multinational companies and mining corporations have incurred huge losses, mostly in tribal areas; firstly, as levy amount to several naxalite outfits which amounts to hundreds of crore in a single year, secondly, the uncertainty over land acquisition even after signing MOUs with concerned state government due to tribal laws and people’s opposition. By declaring districts as maoist zones, the government clears the ground for future operations to be conducted by security forces. The mission being clear to ‘liberate’ such zones from the evil clutches of naxalites and ‘anti-developmental’ forces. The ‘anti-developmental forces’ are the tribals whose protests are solely to retain their land with no intention whatsoever to topple the government. Several cases have been reported across Jharkhand of tribals protesting against forcible land acquisition, being killed or imprisoned in the name of naxalites.
Tribals stand on a thin line between naxalites and government, exploited and devastated by both. In areas where naxalites have their presence, not following their orders may end up in gruesome killing. Thereupon, any meeting called by any of these outfits is an unsaid compulsion for the concerned village and not an option to choose. In such a scenario, resorting to indiscriminate firing and blaming naxalites for using innocent villagers as human shields, is not only a failure on the part of the security forces but also on the part of the state to provide safety to its citizens.
The recent killing of 20 alleged naxalites at the hands of security forces in Chhattisgarh and its aftermath is evidence of the general perception that remains engrained on the Indian mindset. The narrative is that even if all these people were not naxalites, they would have definitely been their supporters, exemplifying the ignorance of ground realities.
IN THE NAME OF NATIONAL INTEREST
In an interview to Shoma Chaudhary from Tehelka in 2009, Home Minister P. Chidambaram made the following comment that ‘no country can develop unless it uses its natural and human resources. Mineral wealth is wealth that must be harvested and used for people.’ The aforementioned ‘people’, for whom mineral wealth must be harvested, have always been subject to ambiguity. They have ranged from the middle classes to the elites owning multinational corporations. Apparently, the mineral resources have more to do with profiting private firms than national growth. For example, the royalty fixed by the central government for iron ore is just 10 percent of the value of mined iron ore, extraordinarily benefiting private mining firms. Nevertheless, tribals have always remained outside the loop of such beneficiary group. The same was evident from the non-implementation of PESA Act, until recently, for more than 10 years in the scheduled areas of Jharkhand even after Jharkhand’s High Court 2010 directive. Adding to this was the non-implementation of the Samatha judgement across areas under the fifth schedule that would have hugely benefited the tribals.
In a brilliant piece by George Monbiot published in the Guardian, the author speaks about the enormity of crimes committed by the British Empire and the myths so well established that ‘we appear to blot out countervailing stories even as they are told’. In order to sustain an actual inclusive growth, people need to do away with such false perceptions and not let exploitative feats go unchallenged. National development is not just about portraying country with good economic digits on paper. Having a towering GDP growth rate means nothing if tribals and other under-privileged societies continue their oppressive lives. As a tribal, I would expect the government to give up these fallacious perceptions of development that have caused immense exploitation of tribal communities, and bring about some actual growth.
Jharkhand Human Rights Report 2001-2011. Published by Jharkhand Human Rights Movement.