The trials of being a tribal

Caught between the government and the Maoists, tribals in India need to organize into collectives for their common interest

On Monday, news agency PTI reported that families from villages in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district were fleeing their homes for fear of reprisals from security forces in the aftermath of last week’s massacre at Tadmetla.

This is only the most recent account of the plight of tribals in India’s violence-torn areas. For years, government apathy has resulted in few educational and employment opportunities for them, leading to large-scale poverty and poor living conditions. Added to that, the Maoist menace has meant they have had to exist in an environment of coercion and violence.

Until a few years ago, the Indian administration largely viewed the Maoist problem as somehow manageable. That illusion vanished as a burgeoning Maoist cadre consistently undermined the government. The killings at Tadmetla are a brutal pointer to that might.

Indeed, as the struggle for dominance between the state and the insurgents has heated up, both sides have increasingly used tribals as instruments in their power battles. On the one hand, the Salwa Judum example shows that as security forces have stumbled, the government has taken recourse to pitting tribals against tribals, at times forcefully. On the other, Maoists have used tribals as human shields, letting the innocent bear the brunt of the casualties.

At one level, it is a problem of agency—at fault is the tribals’ fragmentary existence that makes individuals vulnerable to external forces. It is interesting here to look at a recent interview of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics. Ostrom builds on cooperation as the driving force of coordination, and suggests that small communities can work towards the common good provided they cooperate and communicate effectively.

Ostrom’s model has some resonance for the tribals’ situation in India. Decades of disenfranchisement and lack of empowerment have left tribals in India’s conflict zones without a voice. Their political leaders are either absent or too far removed to effectively represent them. Politically, they are orphans. In this situation, the ability to organize into organic communities, even on a small scale, can do much to help the tribals’ cause. More importantly, it will give them the ability to project themselves on their own terms, and not as they are represented by either the state or the insurgents.