The mounting violence in Assam has highlighted yet again the serious conflict between tribal and nontribal communities in India. India Ink spoke to Virginius Xaxa, the deputy director at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati, Assam, to learn more about the most pressing issues affecting the tribal communities in India and to assess how the Indian state has dealt with their concerns.
The tribal population as per the 2001 census was 84.3 million, or 8.2 percent of the total population at the time.
More than 600 tribal communities are recognized by the Indian Constitution and granted special benefits by the state, including quotas in educational institutions, political offices, and government jobs. Their population is characterized by geographical isolation, a distinctive culture, language and religion and a degree of social isolation from mainstream society. The Constitution also gives areas inhabited by tribal people greater autonomy in their governance.
Mr. Xaxa, who belongs to a tribal community Oraon from Chhattisgarh, has written extensively on tribes in the country. His book, "State, Society and Tribes: Issues in Post-Colonial India," was published in 2008. His 1999 article "Tribes as Indigenous People of India" is often cited as essential reading for an understanding of India's tribal communities.
Q. Have violent clashes between the tribal and nontribal populations in India been on the rise in recent years?
A. You have to situate the violence that happened in Assam in context –- there, there is a conflict of interest between tribal groups and others. In central and eastern India, the resistance is against development projects like mining projects and state-sponsored policies. There, the problem is not between tribals and nontribals. Don't get me wrong, conflict between tribals and nontribals does exist there as well, but it is not so intolerant.
Q. How is the situation in the northeast different from other tribal areas in India?
A. The demand for greater autonomy for tribals and the perception of outsiders as exploiters is pervasive in all tribal areas in India.
Assam has a history of interethnic clashes. The Bodos have clashed with not just migrant Bengalis and Muslims but also adivasis [tribal groups also referred to as aboriginals].
Unlike in the central and eastern region, tribals in the northeast are not agitated by the state. This is because historically new states have emerged in the northeast — Meghalaya and Mizoram were part of Assam until they got independence [based on their ethnic differences].
Many people believe getting a separate state is a panacea, that once you get independence all the problems will go away. But some groups continue to feel discriminated, and interethnic conflicts continue.
When the oppressed groups make their assertions, they are not welcome, and attempts are made to crush them by the majority. The problem in the northeast today is that both sides have become organized, but rather than discussions and dialogue they resort to violent methods.
The balance of power is being maintained through violence.
Q. There is a perception among the urban population in India that people living in tribal areas are anti-development.
A. The urban population thinks that these projects coming up in tribal areas will bring about development and this kind of resistance by the tribals is anti-development.
But that is not the case. Tribal communities are not opposed to development.
When I was working with the Khonds in Orissa they told me that, "We are not antidevelopment; we want a development that has a place for us. If you have irrigation projects, make sure our lands are not taken away."
Their opposition has been because in the last 50 years development that has occurred has gone against their interests. All this while they have been sacrificing. They have not gained anything out of it.
The tribal populations have lost faith in the development. They do not want to be sacrificing themselves anymore.
Q. How have the federal government's policies toward tribals affected the situation?
A. As far as India is concerned, only when things take a violent turn does the state intervene. They understand only the language of gun, and this is true in other countries too.
In eastern India, too, tribal people have moved into extremist organizations, like the Maoists, but there they are resisting not only the state but the corporate presence too. Earlier, under socialism, it was the development directed by the state. Now, after economic liberalization, it is the corporate sector in charge, facilitated by the state, which they are resisting.
They have become uprooted from their own land and forests. Earlier, they did not oppose it, but now they think enough is enough!
Q. What solution do you see for this alienation of the tribal population in India?
A. The biggest challenge for the state now is to win their confidence if it wants to continue to pursue its development agenda. But in the northeast it is more a question of sharing of resources and sharing the fruits of development.
Take the recent problem: The Bodos felt they were economically, politically, socially and culturally subjugated by the Assamese society. They did not get a separate state; they got an autonomous council and are trying to get maximum mileage from it, but the region it covers does not exclusively have Bodos in it. Other ethnic groups have been there for decades. How far in history can you go to see who owned the land originally?
(The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)
[Courtesy: India Ink, July 27, 2012]