The British first encountered tribal communities in the hilly regions of the Malabar situated between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. Like with other social orders within the Indian Territory, the relationship between the British and the tribals quickly transformed into a hierarchical superior-inferior one.
The social organization of these tribal communities was distinct from the general mass on many counts, but for colonizers they were just another people subject to the diktats of the British monarchy. They made no effort to understand the complexities of the tribal society until the 20th century.
But these efforts did little to alleviate the tribals from their utter destitution; rather it inflicted upon them only more misery. JP Hutton, the commissioner of the census of 1931 summed up the impact of British policies on the tribals as follows: “far from being of immediate benefit to the tribes, the establishment of colonial rule in India did most of them much more harm than good.”
In 1936, the British government passed the ‘Excluded and Partially Excluded Area’ Act identifying certain sections in India as tribal and therefore needing special protection. But underlying this law, that sought to prevent exploitation and infringement into the tribal communities by outsiders, was a political motive of the colonizers of ruling by dividing the society into distinct and disparate silos.
The policy, however, failed in its objective to bring a complete segregation between the tribals and the general mass, which was the intended purpose of the Act. The infiltrations into these self-sufficient and economically autonomous social organisations by outsiders continued even after the law came into effect.
The missionaries that spread itself throughout the expanse of India did do welfare work that reached deep into the social fabric of the tribal communities. However, their work was not only to provide relief to the downtrodden and the marginalised but was also motivated by a religious agenda.
The rich tribal heritage of this country has therefore only seen deterioration since its first engagement with the outsiders. The economic oppression, political subjugation and the vulnerabilities borne out of the vagaries of nature have only compounded over the years.
Even after India’s paradigmatic shift in its political identity from colonised to independent in the mid-20th century, the conditions of the tribals has improved insufficiently. Their dependence on the endowments of nature is continuously threatened with the growing demands for natural resources from rapidly industrialising India.
This is best exemplified by the decade-long opposition by the tribal communities of Niyamgiri hills, in the state of Odisha, to the mining company Vedanta Resources. They believe that their mountain god, Niyam Raja, is the only source of food, water and their way of life. “We get almost everything from the mountain,” says Kutia Majhi, president of the resistance group Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (the Save Niyamgiri Foundation). “All we need from the government is salt, kerosene. The government should spare our culture,” he adds.
This is indicative of the friction in modern day India between the tribals and the general masses; which bears uncanny similarities with the relationship, two centuries ago, between the colonizers and the tribals.
India’s burgeoning economic needs cannot be attained at the pyre of its rich tribal heritage for it will be a perversion of its democratic ideals. The much vaunted ‘inclusive growth’ will be mere dry sloganeering if it fails to take under its fold the vulnerable tribal communities.
(Inputs by Rajesh Ghosh)