There will be hurdles but we must strive to improve the state of tribals and put our best foot forward in implementing the recommendations of a truth commission
James Baldwin, a renowned novelist and one of the most recognised and respected voices of the civil rights movement in the United States of America, famously said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Baldwin’s quote eloquently explains that while dealing with any form of exploitation or injustice, it is near impossible to move forward from it without exposing it in its barest and most brutish form. In this week’s article, I will focus on how we as a country need to examine the state of tribals in India and discuss the historical injustice that has been meted out to them to enable us to move forward and actually begin to heal the wounds of the past.
The tribal population in India happens to live in States that are extremely rich in minerals and other resources, such as the State of Jharkhand. Though it may be difficult for many to appreciate, the relationship of tribals with their land is not one of mere ownership or possession but a relationship with significant cultural significance. Since land is considered to be sacred to a number of tribes who view the preservation of their land as preservation of their culture, each tribe has its own customary laws that typically govern their land and these customary laws have been in existence even prior to British rule. The nature of this unique relationship of tribals with their land was recognised by the British as well as the Indian Constitution, as is evident from the Fifth Schedule of our Constitution.
Over time, however, these rights have been increasingly diminished as the rights of the tribals to their land were weighed against the need to develop such areas and the demand for the resources in this land. This led to a systematic diminishing of rights, which has now made the tribals among the most exploited communities in the country, where even though tribals account for less than 10 per cent of the total population of the country, they account for over 40 per cent of the total population that has been displaced due to infrastructure projects in India since Independence.
What is worse is that more than 75 per cent of the tribals who have been displaced are estimated not to have been rehabilitated in any way, leaving them without a home, any means of earning a livelihood and devoid of their cultural heritage. To make matters worse in Jharkhand, the Raghubar Das-led BJP Government has through its tenure pushed amendments to the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, 1908 and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1949 and introduced the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Jharkhand Amendment) Act, 2017, all of which are anti-tribal and have made the displacement of tribals much easier.
We, therefore, as a country must take a moment and introspect. The question is how do we try to move forward and exhibit sincerity and commitment in addressing these wrongs? One way in which atrocities of the past have been dealt with in other countries is through a truth commission that examines and documents the extent of injustices that has been suffered.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is probably the most well-known commission which sought to heal South Africa by uncovering the truth about the human rights violations that occurred during the period of apartheid. While all such truth commissions seem to have a common thread running through them, that of laying bare the truth of the exploitation suffered by a community, an examination of the Truth and Justice Commission in Mauritius may be especially instructive.
The Mauritian Truth and Justice Commission examined a system of deprivation of land that extended to over 300 years and the mandate of this Commission was to gather information and enquire into the legitimate claims of persons and families who were dispossessed of their land, among other things. The Commission as part of its mandate examined socio-economic class abuses and the possibility of reparations for the community.
While arguing for the creation of the Commission, the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Navin Chandra Ramgoolam, stated: “This Commission will pave the way to reconciliation, social justice and national unity through the process of re-establishing the historical truth. It is the legitimate expectation of everyone to know our true history. It is only after we have been faced with this reality that we can consolidate unity in our country. It is important, therefore, that we recognise our past history and lay that past to rest so that we can move on to reconciliation, justice and national unity.”
As part of its report, the Commission recommended certain steps to heal the country, including memorialising slavery and encouraging a better and more inclusive account of Mauritian history and culture.
A similar approach is necessary and called for in the context of tribals in India in relation to the displacement that has been suffered by them. It is imperative for us to know our entire history including this one. Only after such recognition and documentation can we begin to heal the wounds of the past and start a constructive dialogue with those who have been displaced. Without it, we will remain in the dark and be left prodding at the problem with willful ignorance rather than illuminating knowledge.
Critics of such an approach may state that establishing such a commission and conducting an enquiry to determine the displacement of tribals will require resources, commitment and a stomach for uncomfortable questions. It may also be argued that an examination of Truth Commissions around the world, including the Mauritian Truth and Justice Commission, suggests that a number of recommendations of these Commissions have not been incorporated as yet and, therefore, the results are far from satisfactory.
To these critics, I would like to draw their attention to the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self sustaining.” Therefore, while there will be hurdles, we must strive to improve the state of tribals and put our best foot forward in implementing the recommendations of such a commission; it is important to remember that the pursuit, determination and documentation of the displacement and abuse suffered by tribals in our country are in itself a goal worth striving for and an end worth achieving.
(The writer is Jharkhand PCC president, former MP and IPS officer. Views are personal)