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The tribal bill: Moving beyond tigers…

The present draft of the Tribal Bill will not only destroy forests, but also wipe out tigers in all scheduled tribal areas of India. But I a...

Written by Valmik Thapar |
October 21, 2005

The present draft of the Tribal Bill will not only destroy forests, but also wipe out tigers in all scheduled tribal areas of India. But I am going to look more closely at forest tribes and their fate in relation to this Bill.

The demarcation between forest tribes and caste society has for long been a feature of Indian civilisation. Forest tribes were regarded beyond the pale of civilisation. When labour was required from them they were converted into low castes in two ways. One was when a forested area was conquered by an adjoining kingdom. The forest would be cut and the land cleared for cultivation and this increased revenue for the kingdom. The land would be cultivated by peasants brought in and settled by the state, or by the conversion of forest dwellers into peasant castes, often to become landless labour.

Such changes destroyed the essential characteristic of a tribal society. The major demarcation between tribal and caste society is that the unit of tribal society is the clan and not the patriarchal family, and even more important, the clan is egalitarian. There are no hierarchies based on occupation, religious sects and such like. One is born into a clan and this becomes a lifelong identity.

The greatest tragedy is that we are supposed to have a left of centre government supported by the Communists who are regarded as some of our best ‘‘thinking minds’’ but sadly the application of these minds to issues like the tribal bill is abysmal. Communist philosophy believes in social equality — in egalitarianism. This bill, that they support, will destroy the very concepts, on which their ideology is based.

The most significant contribution of tribal culture to Indian civilisation is the deeply embedded conviction that social equality is the bed-rock of society. This is an aspect that is seldom mentioned because it frontally contradicts the factor from which caste society draws its strength, namely social hierarchy. Clans of forest tribes are not arranged hierrarchically unlike jatis.

The proposed Bill will ensure that the commitment to social equality that was essential to the tribal way of life will be terminated. Giving land to a nuclear family of tribal origin, isolated from clan links, is not a return to tribal rights and values, nor does it assuage injustices suffered by forest tribes. A nuclear family owing land today, together with the current overtones of patriarchy, is as alien to a forest tribe as is caste society. It merely encourages the rapid creation of more and more lower castes to be further exploited by those to whom exploitation is a way of life.

The Bill will become yet another mechanism for detribalising the tribe and converting the erstwhile forest dwellers to the status of low castes. This old feudal approach is being again resurrected through a bill supported by our Communist parties whose very basic ideology is against this. Do the proponents of this Bill even know that for 60% of India average landholding is less than one hectare for a nuclear family? Just think of the conflicts that will take place when two and half hectares are given!

The question that is being intensely raised is the need to undo the injustice that tribal society has been subjected to in the past. The manner selected for this is to settle tribal nuclear families in forests. They will get nothing and this bill will become the engine for the land and timber mafias to plunder our natural resources.

This is not to suggest that we treat tribal culture as frozen and make tribal society into a museum, but in our endorsement of democracy and social equality we should incorporate these elements wherever they are available in our cultural heritage and be proud of them and not attempt to stamp them out. There are many ways in which the injustices to tribal people can and need to be set right. Giving land is not the best way to do justice to the problems that confront the tribals. So much social legislation these days begins with the refrain that we are undoing the injustices of history. These cannot be undone as they have happened. It is a thing of the past. In fact the present effort will make matters worse since the repercussions of a new and dangerous legislation will be felt by the entire nation.

Why are reservations not extended to all Dalits since they all suffer from being discriminated against? Why is land being given only to families of forest tribes, why not to all poor families irrespective of caste and tribe who have been forced off their land, and so on? Do we have to ghettoise communities in an effort to improve their conditions, with the fearful prospect that the ghettoes will remain?

Those powering the Bill must reflect on the damage that can be wrought by the bill to both forest and tribals. For a society where one-third lives in wretched poverty, giving land here and there to some, or making concessions towards reservations in education and employment to some, remains a temporary, ad-hoc and uncertain solution.

Manmohan Singh is doing the right thing — he is into a brainstorming session with a view to do justice to both tribals and the forests of India. Surely we must have the patience to examine a new draft bill finalized by Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) without trying to negate it even before it is seen? Surely this must make common sense to all the parties and surely it is in the national interest. It also must be the constitutionally sound thing to do or it will attract the ire of the apex court of our land who could term much of the bill ‘‘un-constitutional’’.

Let’s be patient. Let the Prime Minister do his job in his usual well intentioned way without interference from the left or any other activist quarter. Let’s all wait for the outcome.

The writer is a sociologist, naturalist and tiger expert

So what will this Bill do?

This bill will destroy the egalitarian nature of tribal communities both in terms of how they share land and the resources from land.

The near feudal impacts of this bill would create more landless labour, lower castes and unparalleled class and caste wars much worse than what happened with the Mandal Commission.

In the resulting chaos the land and timber mafias will wipe out forests in scheduled tribal areas. The future of the tribal populations is not even worth talking about.

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