My friend is a tribal and former IAS officer. While he was in service, he received a call from the Prime Minister’s son that his father wanted to have breakfast with him the next day. It was the first time that he received such an invitation to the PM’s house and he was clueless about its purpose. Over idli, sambar, coconut chutney, crisp vada and decoction coffee, the PM told him about his decision to appoint him as the Cabinet Secretary.
He never imagined that he would be chosen for this job, which is the ultimate post that a civil service officer can aspire to hold. Needless to say, he was overjoyed. He knew that he was making history as no tribal had ever become Cabinet Secretary since the Constitution came into being in 1950 and NR Pillai became the first Cabinet Secretary.
The Cabinet Secretary not only convenes and attends the Cabinet meetings but also advises the government on all administrative affairs. He is also the Prime Secretary to the government and all civil service officers look up to him to protect their interests, as guaranteed by the Constitution. My friend did not tell anyone about the breakfast meeting as he waited for the formal notification.
Next day he received a call from the same son who told him that there was a little problem in appointing him as the Cabinet Secretary. He was, instead, offered the post of Secretary, Defence, or any other post that he desired to hold. My friend was crestfallen but within no time he gathered his wits and told him that he did not want any high-profile post. He preferred to remain secretary of a department where he could do something for his brethren.
I am sure my readers would be curious to know who finally became the Cabinet Secretary. A twice-born from the South was chosen for the job on the recommendation of a religious leader who passed away recently. For once my friend realised that caste was thicker than blood.
It may appear curious that till today no tribal has become a Cabinet Secretary, though one became Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission, the body that recruits civil service officers. What happened to him is typical of what happens to the tribals in the country. Promises made to them are seldom honoured.
Now, let me narrate the story of another tribal “friend”. I first met him in the late eighties on my first-ever visit to Chaibasa in what is now Jharkhand. I was taken to the house of a prosperous tribal where I met his elder son, who had just got married. Their house was in a forest area. The young man had a sense of humour. He offered me “khaini” (tobacco powder mixed with lime to be kept inside the lower lip). When I excused myself from having it, he told me that it was known in the area as “knowledge powder”.
He was frank enough to tell me that he was not interested in studies as he preferred to chase petticoats. He introduced his wife to me as the one whom he chased last. I noticed a bow and three arrows kept in his house. When I asked him whether he could use it, he took it out, aimed the arrow at a bird sitting on a tree like Arjun of the Mahabharata who aimed at the eye of a moving fish.
In a few seconds the bird fell down with the arrow piercing its body. I wondered why he was not in the Indian Olympic archery team as I took his photograph with the bow and arrow in his hands.
I did a column on him in the Hindustan Times, Patna. It was headlined “Knowledge powder”. On a visit to Jharkhand in 2002, I wanted to visit the same youth. I had great difficulty in locating his house. The area had changed a lot. When I reached his house, I was shocked to find his father sitting on a cot in the sun with his granddaughter, who did not have any cloth on her. The child had high temperature and she appeared to be dying.
My “friend” had five or six children. The house had not been thatched for a long time with large holes on the roof. I felt bad that the family was in a pathetic condition. As my “friend” was not at home, I wanted to say “hi” to his wife before leaving from there. After all, I had met her once. I had to wait for quite some time before she partially came out of the house. I noticed that her blouse had been torn to ribbons. I had never seen anyone wearing such a torn cloth.
I really felt sad that she did not have a decent cloth to wear. As I took leave of her, her husband arrived. He had prematurely lost his youth-hood. He could not remember my visit over a decade ago but when I reminded him about “knowledge powder”, he smiled. I gave him some money so that he could take his daughter to a doctor. The images of the torn blouse and the naked child haunted me for long.
Later, I read a story, real and typical of what happened to the Indian tribal. Let me quote: “The house was empty. The rain, coming down in torrents, poured through the thatch and there was nowhere he could keep himself dry... it occurred to Sukra Jani that he ought to go and bring his daughters home.
“But what could he feed them on? How would they live? Ought he to bring them home to share his hunger and pain...? Everything he had tried to build had crumbled to dust -- why...? He had prayed regularly to the tribal gods, sacrificed pigeons and fowls and goats and fallen full length on the grounds before their altars… But, they had deserted him now, became deaf to all his cries... He beat his forehead on the wet mud, and in a hoarse voice broken by his sobs, he cried out to his gods: 'How cruel you are!' But, the wind only howled the louder”.
This excerpt is taken from Gopinath Mohanty's 'Paraja' (translated by Vikram K Das). Sukra Jani, the central character in Mohanty's narrative, lost all his land to the moneylenders. His daughters were forced to go elsewhere in a bid to survive. Although the character was created in 1945, Jani remains entirely contemporary and has, perhaps, become more representative of the present adivasi heartland of India than what he was 73 years ago.
I remembered these incidents when I read about the murder of Madhu, a tribal youth in the Attappadi forest area in Palakkad district in Kerala. He was dragged out of the forest area by some vigilantes who found that he had some rice, some chilly powder, salt and a mobile phone charger — not a mobile phone — in his possession. The mentally-challenged Madhu could not explain how he obtained these items. They presumed that he had stolen the same.
They not only beat him up but also tied his hands before handing over to the police. He vomited in the police vehicle and died. The doctors merely recorded his death. His postmortem revealed that he died of internal injuries he suffered while he was physically handled by the vigilantes. The world might not have heard about Madhu but for the perverts who shamelessly took selfies with him and posted them on Facebook and Instagram.
Many have been arrested for the murder of Madhu which some justify on the ground that he was a thief. I heard one of them argue that he stayed in a cave during daytime and at night he stole from the grocery stores in the area. Even he did not say that he stole anything other than rice and eatables. Madhu should have been entitled to free ration under the Antyodaya scheme. It is a different matter that he did not receive the benefit of any such government scheme.
Kerala does not have many tribals. One report said that there were hardly five lakh tribals in the state. A whole Tribal Department under a tribal welfare minister is there to look after them. Over the years, tens of thousands of crores of rupees have been spent for their welfare. However, reports from Attappadi suggest that the tribals are dying, not living. They have roofless, doorless houses and for comfort they have poverty, deprivation, starvation and early death.
Once the country’s milkman, the late Varghese Kurien, rhetorically said that Indian agriculture and dairy industry would not suffer the least if the Krishi Bhavan in New Delhi was bombed out of existence. In fact, the tribals might benefit if the Tribal Welfare Department was abolished. If the money allegedly spent for the welfare of tribals was given directly to the likes of Madhu, they would have been richer by several lakhs of rupees.
Come to think of it, the tribals were the aborigines of India. At one time they owned all the land in India, which is a country of immigrants. In India “some one is tall, somebody is short, some are dark, some are fair-complexioned with all kinds of shades in between, someone has Caucasian features, someone has Mongoloid features, someone has Negroid features etc.” A vast majority of them came from the Northwest and some from the Northeast.
Now, think of the condition of the Adivasis. They have been deprived of their land and pushed to the edges of society in the name of development. Name any hydro-electric project like the Hirakud or the Narmada or any industrial project like the Tata Iron and Steel Company in Jamshedpur or the Heavy Engineering Corporation in Ranchi, it was built by displacing the Adivasis. A study by Walter Fernandes showed that 40 per cent of the displaced were tribals, who constitute only 8 per cent of the population.
They are increasingly denied the status of aborigines as the Sangh Parivar uses the term Vanvasi, instead of Adivasi, for them. Vanvasi means forest-dweller, whereas Adivasi means the aborigine. They are desperate to prove that the Hindus were not immigrants but original inhabitants of the land. They cook up stories to prove their theory which cannot stand any scientific scrutiny.
The tribals are simple people. It is easy to deceive them. They do not command any social respect. Social worker Dayabai is fond of wearing adivasi jewellery. Once a police constable asked her to get out of the train when she occupied a berth allotted to her. He made a hasty retreat when she asked him to get lost in chaste English. She once told me about the civilised teaching Adivasi girls to wear the brassiere, only to impregnate them.
The tribals constitute 8.6 percent of India’s total population, about 104 million people, according to the 2011 census. Nearly three-fourth of them are inhabitants of nine states - MP, Maharashtra, Odisha, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, West Bengal and Bihar. Unlike the Northeastern states, they are minorities in these states. They have only a story of deprivation to narrate.
In the late seventies, I was deputed to report about the alleged starvation deaths in the tribal belt of Sidhi in Madhya Pradesh. My finding was that even if they had not died exactly of starvation, they would have certainly died of malnutrition. In Communist-ruled West Bengal, starvation deaths were often reported from the tribal areas of the state.
My friend and researcher Kumar Rana has a theory about how the Communist Party came to power in Bengal. He considers the food scarcity the state experienced in 1959 and 1966 a "food-mark" in West Bengal politics. The Communists were able to exploit the situation to their advantage, to come to power and hold on to it till Trinamool Congress arrived on the scene. The Bengali society was divided into two; the one who eats and the other who starves, as brought home by this song:
“Duniyata bhai ajab karkhana/ Kei be khaye khir khechiri, kahar pete uda kana" (What a crazy theatre this world is! Some enjoy delicious food while others starve wrapping a wet rag around the belly (to minimise the pain of hunger). With starvation disappearing except among the tribals, the CPM lost its hold on the people.
In Kerala, another citadel of the Left, the only community which is in near starvation-condition is the Adivasi community. No effort has been made to improve their condition. While they are increasingly deprived of land, they do not have any alternative sources of income. The outsider finds it easy to exploit the tribals by offering them liquor. In SK Pottekatt’s novel Vizhakanyaka, there is a tribal chief who sells his land “from this place to that place” for a song to a settler from the south.
Madhu’s death would have served some purpose if there was an attempt to free the Adivasis from deprivation. In the social media, the discussion on the death has suddenly been overtaken by a discussion on the bared breast of a suckling mother published by a fortnightly women’s magazine. If anything, it is proof that the Adivasis will be left to fend for themselves. Of course, they will always remain rich in penury and destitution.
(Published on 05th March 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 10)