From culture of silence to culture of violence


Tribals of India have for centuries lived in peace and harmony with nature. But postindependence India has shattered this harmony and trodden on their lands, dignity and rights in the name of globalisation and progress. None of the benefits of this progress have reached the tribals. Is it a surprise then, that tribal areas today are seething cauldrons of discontent? asks Prof. S.N.Chaudhary.

After realising the pitiable and worsening socioeconomic status of tribes, efforts have been made to restore their human rights by different change agents since independence. A number of constitutional provisions have been made, the National Commission for SCs (Scheduled Castes) and STs (Scheduled Tribes) has been established and from time to time, a number of welfare schemes have been formulated by the State.

However, it is observed that most of these efforts were made without taking serious note of the grassroots level social reality of the tribals. Most of these efforts lacked depth, direction, sensitivity and connectivity. The schemes were like unconnected compartments with many missing links. The situation was much the same at the implementation level. While the implementing agencies were accountable to their bosses, they were not accountable to the unorganised and unassertive tribal masses.

The result was insignificant relief to the tribes. Geographical isolation, absence of social capital, transportation and communication network, compelled tribes to remain excluded and isolated. Insignificant presence of push and pull factors and slow population growth also encouraged them to remain confined to their native places. However, over time, tribal interaction with the non-tribal world increased. And with this began the process of pauperisation and marginalisation of tribes which gradually increased and in turn made them victims of acculturation.

Marginalisation of the tribal community

The number of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) addressing tribal concerns has increased dramatically since independence. Some of these NGOs are located within tribal areas and some are located outside. Many are engaged in so called capacity building work, while others act as watchdogs. Some NGOs are issue specific and some work in a holistic manner. Yet, if we examine their agenda, particularly from the human rights and development perspectives, the picture is largely frustrating. Their efforts, it is clear, have not arrested the marginalisation of tribals. Only a few tribes belonging to dominant categories and living around growth centres seem to have benefitted. Literature on tribal studies reveals that local community leaders have played a crucial role in the mitigation of problems faced by tribes since ages past. The tribal villagers have always shared problems and jointly celebrated their joys. They basically believe and adhere to the concept of ‘live and let live’.

If you study the social hierarchy of a tribal village, you will see that the village headman was the custodian of customs and traditions responsible for the peaceful functioning of sociocultural institutions. But with the introduction of formal leadership and political institutions, the situation began changing. The formal tribal leaders became accountable not to their own tribes, but to their leaders and political bosses. They imitated and adapted customs and ways of life alien to them. They became agents of change and development as per the wishes of the State. Sadly, they popularised corruption and red-tapism in tribal areas.

Gradually, it was observed, some of them became very powerful and culturally too, they no longer fit in with their own community. They became almost like outsiders. They promoted assimilation rather than integration and inclusion. There are examples to prove that despite the innovative character of a number of tribal development schemes, the achieved results were not up to the mark. It is really frustrating to see that all the implementing agents, including the Panchayat and Block level tribal elites and tribal dominated institutions are largely insensitive. Many of them are selfserving and are eager to ape the culture and way of life of the non-tribals. Hence, inclusion of tribes in the overall development process has remained a distant dream.

Victims of globalisation

So far as tribal culture is concerned, whether it is material or non-material, it is rapidly losing its relevance today. Culture worked as a crisis management mechanism till the establishment of Hindu rule. Nobody could undermine the role and importance of the indigenous knowledge system in tribal areas. But gradually, the tribal culture lost its problem solving character. Today tribes are living suspended between their own and an alien culture. Their dependence on the alien culture is increasing day-by-day. Tribal youth are the immediate victim of cultural disintegration. Many elements of their indigenous culture are almost dead. Yet, ironically, they have not managed to adopt the non-tribal culture well too, with the result that the benefits of English language, modern medicine, modern education, money management mechanisms, ways to interact with police, court and change agents and so on have not been felt by them. In short, they have largely failed to avail benefits of modernisation and development.

Globalisation in India which was set in motion in July 1991, too has adversely affected the tribes. Tribal areas were logistically identified as places for investment and establishment of mega-development projects. Over time, hundreds of such projects have been established in these areas. Thousands of tribals have been displaced from their native places without any proper rehabilitation. Further, rehabilitation policies and schemes are faulty. They are neither just nor humanistic from the tribals‘ point of view. Due to the near lack of voices raised against displacement and exploitation, industries prefer to install their projects in tribal areas. Many of these projects have negative social, economic, psychological and environmental consequences. And the immediate victims are the tribals. It is very clear that the tribals have not taken advantage of these projects as they are still struggling with meeting their most basic needs. Also, only non-tribal specialists and workers are recruited by these organisations and this has serious demographic and cultural consequences. And the State is either silent or siding with the investors under the guise of “national interest”. Given this scenario, one can easily imagine the state of human rights, culture and dignity of the tribes.

CSR a myth?

In the recent past, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become popular in the country. But how can CSR address the question of environmental degradation and poverty created by corporate houses themselves? How can it deal with different components of environmental degradation such as loss of bio-diversity, climate change, unregulated population growth, water pollution, deforestation, land degradation, desertification and so on? Critically speaking, the notion of CSR is a myth. It is clearly anti-tribal. It has miserably failed to even address the problems largely created by these very organisations. In many pockets, particularly in the states of Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, cases of seasonal out-migration have rapidly increased during the last two decades. Push and pull factors created by modernisation and capitalistic mode of production are responsible for migration. In most of the cases, migration is informal and mostly to urban areas. Even more pertinent, none of the migrants is trained either in new skills or trained to adapt to an alien job market. Very clearly, these factors are not enough to free tribals from the traps of poverty and deprivation. On the contrary, these migrants are now the victims of consumerism. As a result, whatever they earn is spent. Studies prove that any increase in income is offset by indebtedness. Their spending is so highly influenced by the alien culture they find themselves in that it has only led to more frustration.

The tribal movements

During the last few decades tribes of Central India particularly in the states of Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, whereas large number of tribal communities live, have been exposed to many social movements in favour of their rights. The Narmada Bachao Andolan and related ecological movements have addressed the environmental aspect. The Naxalite movement which is ongoing is also for proper rehabilitation of the victims of investment induced displacement. It is also directed at restoring the human rights and dignity of tribes. Neither of these two movements is separatist in nature. Both primarily address the fundamental premise that tribes should be allowed to lead a peaceful and dignified life and their human rights must be restored.

Both the movements believe that the original custodians of Jal, Jungal and Zameen(Water, Forest and Land) are the tribals and they should be handed over the same. But the State is completely against this proposition. Rather, efforts are being made to keep the tribals far away from natural resources. Be that as it may, these movements too are incapable of providing any relief to the tribal population. In principle, Naxalism stands for justice, but today it is massively engaged in retaliation. There are enough examples to prove that the tribals are caught equally between the State and the Naxalites. If they help the State, they are tortured by the Naxals and if they help the Naxals, the State comes down upon them very severely.

Journey from peace to violence

Even before the British rule, tribals in the Indian subcontinent lived a peaceful life of harmony with nature. Their
life was autonomous and self-sustaining. Local resources were enough to meet their limited requirements. They virtually owned these resources. But as acculturation with unequal partners increased, degeneration in their lives and the natural resources also increased.

This state of affairs may be perceived as the historical root of hopelessness and helplessness. Today, barring a few tribal elites, the rest are homeless, jobless and have been pushed towards insecurity and deprivation. High illiteracy rate, increasing sex ratio, high school dropout rate, poor quality of education, high mortality rate, maximum dependence on primary sources for their livelihood, decreasing number of agricultural farmers and increasing number of wage earners, increasing cases of indebtedness, seasonal migration, trafficking, land alienation, prevalence of primitive tribal groups even after several decades of declaration and number of interventions etc are sufficient to draw a conclusion that like the State, initiatives taken by civil societies, local culture, migration and CSR are not upto the mark. In many cases poor tribals are getting poorer. Even new institutional initiatives like The Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (or PESA), Forests Right Act-2006, New Panchayat Raj System, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNRES), Rehabilitation Policy, Land Acquisition Act, Food Security Act, and so on have miserably failed to restore their human rights and dignity.

Tribals are leading a life of insecurity and stress. Their once-peaceful existence is now a chimera and their ever deteriorating socio-economic condition is making them resort to violence. Tribals have tested all coping mechanisms and they have realised they will not get any succor. They do not know what to do and where to go. Their human rights, dignity and honour are constantly being eroded. Tribes and tribal areas are today very disturbed regions. Everywhere, all one can see are cases of atrocities on tribes and investment induced displacement. Welfare projects for them exist, but only on paper. Hence, it can be concluded that tribes have moved from culture of silence to culture of violence. All efforts to restore peace and progress in their lives have so far failed miserably. Efforts have also failed to associate tribes with the forces of modernisation and development in an integrative manner.


Prof. S.N.Chaudhary

The writer is Professor of Sociology and former Dean, Faculty of Social Science, Barkatullah University Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. He is currently Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor at Barkatullah University. He has also been a fellow of the A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla and SMH, Paris. He has conducted field work among Red Indians in British Columbia (Canada). He has authored several research projects, published 33 books and 61 research articles. He is currently working on Impact of Technology on Society, Suicide among Tribal Farmers, Tribal Development and Status of Human Development of SCs, STs and others in the villages of Central India.