Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary was celebrated on November 15 as Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas, and this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the tribal freedom fighter’s birthplace to pay tribute. On the occasion, PM Modi launched the Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra — to ensure the last-mile delivery of government services and schemes. He launched the PM Janjati Adivasi Nyaya Maha Abhiyan, a programme to empower and protect the most marginalised among the tribes, the Particularly Vulnerable Tribes. He also unveiled projects worth around Rs 7,200 crore related to coal, petroleum, railways, roads, education.
Tribal communities, no doubt, take great pride in their traditions, culture, and history, including historical icons. The BJP has aptly acknowledged this aspect of the tribal psyche and has translated it into an important agenda of politics and to showcase government action and interventions. Accordingly, a lot of resources are earmarked for tribal research institutes, museums, research fellowships, residential education, etc. This gives an additional edge to the BJP as a champion of the tribal cause, as such issues have remained outside the agenda of other political parties and have thus remained unattended to and unaddressed.
This may well go down as an important move in tilting the tribal votes in favour of the BJP in the election. Further, the focus on issues such as these is quite in sync with the glorification of the past that anchors the values and ideology of the BJP and RSS. Needless to say, in doing so, they claim to have greater empathy, concern, and interest, in addressing tribal causes and issues.
Yet there are layers and fissures within this project. The BJP has been selective in its approach to the culture and history of the tribes. It engages with only those that do not lead to rupture between tribes on one hand and the BJP and RSS on the other. Moreover, it does not address the most critical question of tribal language and tribal religion.
Tribal identity is primarily rooted in language and secondarily in religion and other cultural practices. Yet these hardly figure in the cultural engagement of the BJP and RSS with tribal populations since these are a pointer of the diversity that is antithetical to the agenda of the BJP and RSS. The BJP’s focus is on Hindi and regional languages. These languages have been instrumental in the erosion of tribal languages, many of which have become extinct while others are in the process of extinction. Similarly, the BJP is wary of the distinct tribal religious identity.
Such an identity was acknowledged in the census under the British, but relegated in post-Independence India. Rather, tribes in India have been by and large treated and delineated as Hindus, except the tribal Christians or tribal Muslims. However, there have been assertions and movements among tribes for the inclusion of their distinct religious identity in the column of the census. The BJP and RSS have remained silent on this question of articulation of tribal identity.
In focusing on issues such as the culture and history of tribes, the BJP overlooks the core issues that afflict tribal populations, at the root of which lie BJP politics and its governments’ policies. This concerns dilution of pro-tribal protective laws, rules, and regulations. There have been recurring instances under the current NDA regime of attempts to do away with provisions in the acts that secure tribal interests. An attempt was made, for example, to amend the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act through ordinance and later through the bill introduced in Parliament in 2015. The Bill aimed to exempt five categories of projects from the requirements of social impact assessment, restrictions on the acquisition of multi-cropped land, and consent for private projects and public-private partnerships (PPPs).
The government had to drop most of its contentious amendments to the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, bringing back the crucial clauses related to the consent of affected families and social impact assessment following sustained Opposition pressure. After such an attempt at amendment at the Centre, the Fifth Schedule state with the BJP in government, Jharkhand, brought an ordinance and later a bill to amend the pro-tribal land tenancy acts such the Chota Nagpur and Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act.
The bill was passed but did not receive assent from the governor following the massive resistance by tribal communities in Jharkhand. Again, the NDA regime introduced a new environmental impact assessment-draft notification in 2020, replacing the 1994 notification and its 2006 amendments, reducing public participation in all the steps of the environment clearance process “by lessening the notice period for public hearings and doing away with them for a large category of projects”. Such recurring initiatives are seen as a pointer to the attempt to throw tribes out from the land, forest and other resources on which they are dependent.
Despite the stated concern for their development reflected in various targeted programmes and schemes all through the post-Independence era, the tribal people started out at a higher poverty level than the rest of India, and have then fallen behind the rest. Hence, the reduction of those below the poverty line has always been the critical agenda of tribal development.
The size of the population living below the poverty line is higher in the case of states and tribal areas that have witnessed development projects related to mines, industries, dams, irrigation, power (thermal and hydraulic) through the decades. Jharkhand, Odisha, and other neighbouring states are illustrative of this.
The writer is visiting Professor at the Institute for Human Development (IHD), New Delhi