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What about our own racism towards tribals?

Until 1800, the vast rural landscape of India was a hotchpotch of old and disturbed forests, and extensive savanna dotted with islands of agriculture. Wilderness and wild animals advanced where fields lay abandoned, and retreated when forests were cleared. Boundaries were not hard and fast; there were no clear demarcations separating forest and civilization. This fluidity changed irrevocably during colonial times. For instance, vast forests were cut down to establish tea and coffee plantations in Assam and the hills of southern India, canals were constructed and intensive agriculture brought to arid areas. Did this land management benefit all equitably? Offering a complex understanding of these changes across time and space is the second volume of India’s Environmental History: Colonialism, Modernity and the Nation, edited by Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan.

A painting adorns the house of a Warli tribeswoman, in Chari, a village 120 km (75 miles) north of Bombay. Reuters

Essays by Indu Agnihotri and Neeladri Bhattacharya chronicle the impact of this agrarian expansion in the Punjab.  Over the previous centuries, local rulers built canals along natural drainage channels to allow seasonal irrigation in some parts of the state. But in comparison, the colonial project was colossal and turned the area into a grain basket that generated more revenue than any other district in India. Lakhs of farmers from other parts of the state were encouraged to settle in this newly fertile land.

However, it was not a lived-happily-ever-after story. Canal breaches created swamps, and alkalized the soil, making an extensive acreage unfit for cultivation. Many people died of water-related diseases such as malaria and cholera, as well as plague from the presumably exploding rodent population. Some drainage channels were excavated but nothing more substantial was done to rectify the situation. Instead, the administrators reduced the quantum of water flow in the canals after blaming the farmers for being wasteful in their usage.

The worst affected were the pastoralists who drew the short end of the stick. What the administrators saw as “wastelands” were not without claimants. They were the grazing grounds of nomadic pastoral communities. To the British, agriculture symbolized progress, beauty and civilization while the uncultivated grazing lands appeared barren, dreary, and ugly. The people using this “desolate” landscape were said to be lazy, improvident, lawless, wild, mean and cowardly. So there were no qualms in appropriating these “wastelands” and gifting it to agriculturalists. There were some champions of indigenous knowledge among bureaucrats but even they celebrated the farming communities, not the graziers. With the loss of their lands, the graziers encroached on forests and were further penalized by the colonial rulers.

Then in 1871, yet another whip with which to beat the pastoralists came into force: the Criminal Tribes Act. It made all nomads criminals. Only people with a legitimate livelihood could get a license of leave. Anyone found wandering without one was liable for prosecution. Despite the harassment by the state, many pastoralists continued their traditional livelihoods. Others, out of desperation, rebelled by setting fire to forests, raiding peasant communities, stealing cattle, and destroying crops, thereby  living up to the unfair label foisted on them.

Many of the seventeen essays in this Permanent Black published anthology are similar accounts of the unintended consequences of land and wildlife management.

Mahesh Rangarajan analyzes the colonial policy of dealing with dangerous wild animals. Some were prized as game, others were slaughtered as vermin, some obtained a reprieve later and others not even when they became rare. Predators such as tigers took human life, wolves preyed on livestock, otters took game fish while raptors and civet cats took poultry. Any animal that threatened human enterprise featured in the slaughter list.

By the time tigers were declared vermin, clearance of forests had emptied entire areas of them. Where they continued to exist, state-sponsored bounty hunting drove the species against the wall. Since the 1857 Rebellion, Indians were deprived of firearms and the administration took its role as benefactor seriously. State Tiger Slayers were employed but locals were also encouraged to poison and trap the felines. Even within forests which covered over half a million sq km in 1900, tigers were harried by sport hunters.

Much of India was under princely rule and they did not all fall in line with the vermin eradication policy. Some denied predators were a threat, some refused to participate citing cultural and religious beliefs, some others cooperated, some agreed after being paid more money, many dithered, and others were indifferent. Villagers probably were more pragmatic; when their strategies of avoidance and self-defense failed, they killed individual tigers. Unlike lions, these striped cats are adaptable creatures, occupying a range of habitats, and altering their behaviour to escape persecution by becoming more nocturnal, and avoiding human settlements.

There was no consensus on the extermination policy even among British officers. For instance, G.P. Sanderson, the big game hunter and catcher of elephants, condemned the policy while Captain A.E. Wardrop, another hunter, wanted the payment of bounties abolished. Nonetheless, the extermination drive continued in some places. In 1890, Madras Presidency ranked third in the country, behind Bengal and the Central Provinces, in loss of human lives to tigers. A little more than fifty years later, there were hardly any attacks in south India. But, areas that were “freed” of tigers saw a dramatic increase in crop-raiding by wild ungulates, an unintended consequence of cleansing the landscape of predators.

When tiger numbers fell very low, they became sought-after trophy animals. Instead of being paid to hunt them, hunters had to pay for the privilege. That was the turning point in the tiger’s fortunes.

Both native and colonial, shepherds and rulers, were unanimous in their dislike of wolves. The state as well as livestock owners offered bounties. Females were especially targeted and fetched higher rewards than males, while cubs were smoked in the dens. Even when wolves became very scarce, there were none to champion their case. Their pelts weren’t prized nor did they find succour in religious or cultural symbolism.

Independent India however, tried to reverse this trend of annihilating animals by providing a network of safe havens. Paul Greenough writes that the establishment of protected forests led to unintended consequences: forests attracted criminals, and the success of conservation led to tigers spilling out of reserves and being killed by farmers.

The Ranthambore Foundation, a private NGO provided health, education, social services and employment to local communities to wean them away from the forest. Comparatively, there was no hand-holding of the numerous Gujar villagers living in the core area of Sariska. Yet, tigers flourished in the latter when Greenough wrote this article in 2003. Subsequently, Sariska was declared empty of tigers in 2005. What went wrong between those years that led to the dramatic failure of the conservation ethic in Sariska? Did Greenough miss the danger signals in his reading of the situation? We have to wait till a social scientist can bridge this yawning gap in our understanding. An increasing tiger population in the presence of people is not unusual. A recent news report claimed that there were 12 more tigers than counted in 2006, notwithstanding the 14 villages in the core area of Bandhavgarh. Cattle-lifting is common on the edges of the park.

While there was a marked difference in the attitudes to wildlife management and conservation between colonial and Independent India, Amita Baviskar shows that the republic treated disadvantaged tribals no differently than the British. She compares the contrasting attitudes and reactions to two activist groups working in Madhya Pradesh, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (a tribal rights group).

Over the preceding centuries, successive governments had settled industrious peasants on the best tribal lands. The ethnic communities were pushed up into the forested hills where they earned new names: encroachers and destroyers of forests. The tribal rights group identified the lack of control over the basic means of subsistence – water, forests and land – as the cause of impoverishment. Activists fighting against discrimination and injustice brought the violence of the state upon their communities’ heads. Gang-raped, murdered, dwellings and crops destroyed, and their governance structures undermined by setting one tribal against another, indigenous people were cowed into submission by the state. Not only the state, but the majority view indigenous people as lazy, shiftless, promiscuous, drunk, and violent.

As many have commented, this racist oppression combined with alienation of resources has fueled the spread of the Maoist agenda. Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, described this as the most serious threat to internal security while P Chidambaram, the Home Minister rates it as a problem worse than terrorism. While the schemes of the Ministry of Rural Development and implementing the Forest Rights Act would restore the lost rights of forest people and deprive the extremists of their support base, what about our own racism towards tribals?

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