Pashtuns to Gonds: Protestors or Insurgents

by Dr. Uddipan Mukherjee

Anthropologist and historian K Suresh Singh asserts: “tribal communities revolted more often and far more violently than any other community including peasants in India”. Furthermore, the Subaltern School, which espouses a ‘non-elitist history from below’ affirms that insurgency of the Adivasis of the uplands was a deliberate and desperate way to escape from the clutches of extortionate usurers, venal police, irresponsible officials and the like.

Among the numerous tribal revolts in British India, few stand out. The Santhal ‘hool’ was one of them. In 1855-56, the Santhals, living between Bhagalpur and Rajmahal, rose in revolt against the dikus or outsiders. Their courageous insurrection was brutally crushed by the British Army.
While providing anecdotal evidence of tribal uprisings, it shall be difficult not to underscore Birsa Munda’s Ulgulan or Great Tumult in the region south of Ranchi in 1899-1900. Birsa’s hymns of hate against the then Europeans and the Thikadars still reverberates; albeit on a different octave.
Apart from these, the Chenchu revolt in the Nallamalai Hills (1898), the upsurge of the Oraons of Chotanagpur (1914) and the fituri led by Alluri Sitarama Raju (1922-24) were also significant.
Interestingly, it may not be pure coincidence that Bastar today is a highly restive region. It is home to the Gonds, the largest tribal group in India (about 7.4 million). In fact, the British feared a general Gond uprising along the Eastern Ghats so far as Kalahandi and Bastar and hence went about burning their villages.
A New Turn?
The tribal revolts have not shown any marked signs of abatement even in independent India. The ingredients fomenting a tribal insurgency are extant. In addition to those, a few more diabolical ingredients have evolved since the nation-state opened up in terms of economy in a post 1991 world. Inter alia, the corporate takeover of mineral-rich landmass in the Indian hinterland is supposed to be a major cause of the recent radicalization and consequent militarization of the adivasiinsurrection. Rampant infiltration in the tribal domain by the Multi-national Corporations (MNCs) aided and abetted by the state machinery without any commensurate wergeld provided to the ‘sons of the soil’ have led to their marginalization.
A feeling of lack of empowerment and lack of effective governance from ‘above’, compounded with appalling poverty has given rise to belligerence amongst a considerable section of the tribal populace in India.
The Adivasis
In the Indian context, the word Adivasi connotes the original and autochthonous inhabitants of a given region. The term “adivasi” has entrenched itself in ethnographic and historical narrative. According to Mohan Guruswamy, the very word denotes a ‘sense’ of past autonomy, which was disrupted during the colonial period in India and has since not been restored.
In this paper, whenever the word adivasi is used, it basically refers to the tribes and groups residing in the sub-continent apart from the North-Eastern region.
According to the last census of 2001, the total tribal population in India amounts to about 8 per cent of the net population of the country. Following the Gonds, the Santhals (4.2 million) are numerically the majority amongst the tribes. And interestingly, Central India is the region housing around three-fourth of the total tribal population of the land.
The Present Upsurge
Ranajit Guha’s conclusion regarding the ‘consciousness’ of the subaltern tribal is debatable. He states that the peasant or the tribal ‘revolts consciously’ and ‘does not drift’ into a rebellion.
The nature of post-2004 upsurge in the Adivasi heartland brings this core assertion of Guha further under the scanner. There is no gainsaying the fact that Adivasishave, from time to time, repulsed ‘oppression from above’ as can be deciphered from history. However, post-2004, the formation of a united Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI-M] has had a distinct bearing on the ultra-radicalization (or militarisation) of the tribal protests.
It may be safely concluded that at the outset, the ordinary Adivasi was disconnected from the ideological moorings of the intelligentsia professing Maoist dogmas. The concepts of ‘protracted people’s war’ and ‘comprador-bourgeoisie’ image of the authorities as propagandised by the CPI-M politburo could have hardly been appreciated by the tribal.
Nevertheless, with progress of time, with consequent ideological proselytization – which was facilitated by the lack of effective governmental structures in those regions; some of the Adivasis were indeed indoctrinated. But even this does not indicate that the so-called ‘Red Corridor’ is ‘Red’. It is ‘red’, no doubt, but due to incessant bloodletting because of the constant fighting between two warring parties. One party is led by the CPI-M leaders and the other party is the Indian state.
This is a war, rather a ‘bad war’. Technically speaking, it is viewed as a ‘low-intensity conflict’ from the perspective of the Indian state whereas the Maoists view it through the prism of ‘guerilla warfare’ in the line of Mao Zedong.
Opinions of contemporary scholars and writers have varied regarding the ongoing ‘conflict’ in the fat strip of land stretching from the Indo-Nepal border in the north to the Nallamalai jungles in the south. Aruna Roy, Mahasweta Devi et al. firmly believe that the adivasis may genuinely ‘protest’ against maladministration and misgovernance. However they have overtly not adhered to the view that the ‘Maoist-type of insurgency’ is the acceptable format of protest. They basically stress on ‘separating’ the tribal-adivasi from the Maoist insurgent.
On the other hand, Arundhati Roy opinesthat the Maoists have in essence granted the tribal-adivasis a semblance of dignity. At least, the importation of the gun; according to Roy, if not the ideology, has given the poverty-stricken adivasi a weapon to engineer ‘survival’; if not emancipation.
Bela Bhatia too, while analysing the Naxalite movement in Central Bihar agrees that the Naxalites (pre-2004 era) empowered the labouring and oppressed classes of the region. Nonetheless, she feels that the Naxalite leaders are ‘not interested’ (emphasis added) in ‘development’ and hence the quality of life in the villages have not improved.
Gautam Navlakha even goes to the extent of conflating the tribal with the armed maoist.
In this aspect, if one agrees with Arundhati Roy, then one is led to understand that Guha’s element of ‘consciousness’ (if at all there is such) is provided by the Maoist leadership. Does Roy intend to say that the Maoist leadership (who are mostly urban-bred intellectuals) alongwith their dogmatic concepts associated with the ‘1930s China’ have essentially provided the necessary ‘consciousness’ to theAdivasis?
If that is agreed upon, then how does one explain the host of tribal uprisings in a non-Maoist political landscape during the Imperial Raj? On the other hand, if we completely disagree with Roy, then surely we are led to accept the discourse that the urban intellectuals have acted as ‘usurpers’ in the tribal domain which upholds the spirit of primus inter pares.
A Kobal Ghandy or a Ganapathy have simply displaced a modern-day Birsa Munda or a Sido. Instead of being the torch-bearers for the ‘subaltern adivasi’, the Maoist leadership seems to have undertaken a ‘struggle for power’ enmeshed in their own abstraction of dismantling the comprador-bourgeoisie Indian democracy.
To a large extent, this idea seems to be echoed by past Naxalite leaders like Kanu Sanyal and Azizul Haq. Amusingly, they hold the opinion that the present Maoist struggle is nothing but a ‘power struggle’ and is using the tribal peoples as pawns.
One thing, however, is noteworthy and deserves attention. If the urban-bred intellectuals are merely perceived as ‘foreigners’ in the adivasi heartland, then how could they extend their influence? Actually, it is a bare fact that the palpable absence of any pro-people authoritative structure in about one-fourth of the Indian landmass created a power vacuum in those regions. Compounding it was the over-exploitation by the unholy nexus of money-lenders, bureaucrats, politicians and corporate honchos.
Thus, quite naturally, the ‘intellectual foreigner’ appeared to the adivasi as the neo-Birsa. Hence, Birsa’s chants of ‘Katong Baba Katong’ (O father, kill kill) of 1899 echoed in the form of the Liberation slogan:
Khet par adhikar ke liye ladho, desh me janawad ke lie badho
(Fight for land rights, march towards democracy in the country)
the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) slogan of
Apni satta, apna kanoon (Our power, our law).
In sum, there can hardly be any denial that post-2004, the tribal upsurge in the so-called ‘Red Corridor’ has visibly shaped up as a formidable insurgency so as to give the Home Ministry some sleepless nights. There is in fact, no need to check the veracity of this fact as Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh himself has acknowledged that the Maoist insurgency is the ‘biggest’ internal security threat to the nation-state. And the insurgency has also led the Home Ministry to formulate the Operation Green Hunt (allegedly a media-invented term) to rein in the ‘ruffians’.

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