Every year November 15 is celebrated as Birsa Munda Jayanti across the country. This year too, several government-sponsored programmes were held to remember Birsa Munda (1875-1900). However, Adivasi activists and scholars have objected to the way these functions have been held. They have alleged that the observance of these functions seems to have been reduced to a mere “tokenism”.
The Narendra Modi Government, by organising Birsa Munda Jayanti, tried to woo the Adivasi community ahead of the 2024 elections. Modi is more concerned about Adivasi votes than touching the core issues of their lives.
The Adivasi community is unhappy as the Narendra-Modi Government observed the day as a pride day for the scheduled tribes (Janjatiya Gaurav Divas). Moreover, theAdivasi people are disappointed to see that the real issues of the community such as water, forest, land, resources, culture and religion, have been ignored in the din of “the celebration”.
The Adivasi community has even raised a core objection to the naming of the official function. Adivasis, particularly those from central India, are not comfortable to be identified as Janjatiya (tribe). Nor do they like to be called Vanvasi (the forest dwellers). Remember that the RSS has been working for decades in Adivasi areas. The saffron organisation with a clearly supremacist agenda, has been accused of trying to create a division among Adivasis on religious lines, pitting Sarna Adivasi against Christian and Muslim Adivasis.
However, Adivasi scholars and activists have expressed their opposition to the category of “tribe” as it originated from the writings of colonial anthropologists. Similarly, the term Vanvasi, according to them, is an RSS invention, which is being used to forcefully assimilate the Adivasi community into the Hindu fold. Instead of the terms “tribe” or Vanvasi, the Adivasi community wants to be called nothing else than Adivasi.
The real reason why the ruling classes are not comfortable with the term “Adivasi” is the fact that they do not want to call any community as the indigenous peoples. In their appropriationist (and communal) understanding, all Hindus are “indigenous” and it is the Muslim and Christian minorities are “foreigners”. By doing so, they want to forge a constructed, communal majority, an agenda which is opposed by the Adivasi community.
The ruling elites fear that if the scheduled tribes are officially identified as “Adivasi”, their claim for protection and autonomy from the state’s intervention for being an indigenous community will get a boost.
However, the right to self-determination has been one of the core agendas of the Adivasi community, which they have inherited from the legacy of Birsa Munda. To dilute this, the state intellectuals have often reduced the Adivasi question to the debate around the extent to which they have been assimilated within the Hindu society.
Unlike the ruling elites and the state intellectuals, the Indian Constitution has made several provisions related to autonomy of the Adivasi community. The Constitution also gives Adivasis the protection from any encroachment on their lands, resources and culture. But these constitutional provisions have barely been implemented by the executives. Post-independence governments have so far followed the top-down approach, leading to alienation of the Adivasi community. This is why it took Indian Parliament, 56 years after Independence and the enactment of the Vth and VIth Schedules of the Constitution. The Modi Government has further alienated the Adivasi community by enacting laws that deny absolute access of Adivasis and other forest dwellers to land and resources nurtured by them for centuries.
But unlike the top-down approach, the struggles of Birsa Munda were primarily aimed at achieving self-determination and autonomy for the Adivasi community. He was aware of the fact that the British colonial rule, which was facilitated by the native elites including landlords and money lenders, was depriving the Adivasi community of its lands and forests.
Eminent historian professor Sumit Sarkar (Modern India) has argued that tension arose in the Adivasi areas soon after British rule introduced commercialization and brought in laws to promote landlordism. From the late nineteenth century, the colonial state began to take over the forest zone, causing further anger among Adivasis. As a result, there were several violent outbursts against the exploiters. Birsa Munda-led Ulgulan (great tumult) in 1899-1900 was one of them.
The Adivasi community was outraged to see the colonial policies, which increased taxes on timber and grazing. Moreover, there were increased instances of police exactions. Moreover, colonial policies restricted the domestic production of toddy. There was a restriction on shifting cultivation, which was resisted by Birsa Munda.
Birsa Munda was the son of a sharecropper. He got some education from a Christian missionary. He later took part in movements against the taking over of the wasteland by the forest departments. Later colonial rule crushed Birsa’smovement as he was jailed where he died. there Almost one century after his death, Birsa’s fighting spirit continued to inspire the Adivasi community.
According to the 2011 Census, the Adivasi community constitutes around 8.6 per cent of the total population. The Adivasi population is indeed found both scattered in some regions as well as concentrated in other regions. But the largest chunk of the population, which is estimated to be over 85 per cent, live in central India. It is this region which is rich in all mineral resources and forest products. The largest concentration of the poor people are found in these natural resource-rich regions. For the exploitation of the Adivasi community, the development paradigm of the country is much to blame.
Even after the end of colonialism, post-colonial Indian policy did not end the process of colonisation of the Adivasi areas. While the entry of the poor Adivasi into the forest areas to gather forest products for livelihood is seen as an “encroachment” in a democratic and socialist country, the massive exploitation of the natural resources by the corporate forces with the assistance of the state machinery and the police is seen as good for the development of the country. It is this exploitative policy which Birsa Munda opposed at the beginning of the twentieth century. But the official function to celebrate the legacy of Birsa Munda tries to appropriate him by projecting him as a “hero”, “god”, and “nationalist” leader against British rule, while hiding his core concerns.
But the historical fact is that Birsa Munda fought against dikus or the outsiders. It is this revolutionary politics of Birsa Munda that the current regime does not want to touch.
(Dr Abhay Kumar is an independent journalist. He has taught political science at NCWEB Centres of Delhi University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)