Sanjay Basu Mallick on Adivasi Struggles in India

The following article is based on a talk given by the radical intellectual and activist, Sanjay Basu Mallick of Jangal Bachao Andolan (Save Forest Movement) and NFFPFW (National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers) recently in Bangalore, who has been tirelessly working among the Adivasis (Indian aboriginals) in Jharkhand for the past three to four decades. While the adivasi struggles (especially in Eastern India) have often been portrayed in the media as a Naxalite (Maoist) led struggle, what is often deliberatly ignored are the many democratic struggles taking place in many parts of Central India against the forces of capitalist globalization, who have started to plunder the rich natural resources in the lands inhabited by the adivasis.

Sanjay Mallick has also played an important role in the Forest Rights Act (FRA) brought in 2006, which despite its flaws and weakness forced the Government to recognize community rights of adivasis all over India. However, like all other well intentioned Indian legislations that could have dented the interests of the profit driven system, this Act also suffers from lack of implementation.

Sanjay started his talk with a famous quote of Marx that all hitherto history is a history of class struggle, but what is also often ignored is the fact that throughout his writing Marx also talks about dissolution of indigenous societies that has been happening for thousands of years. Before the advent of British rule in India, Indian society based around the Asiatic mode of production was mainly a tribal kind of society, a fact that hardly finds mention in the mainstream history books.

What is also not mentioned much in the textbooks is that tribals have revolted throughout the British rule in India, the most famous being the Santal rebellion in 1855, which was the precursor to the well known sepoy mutiny (or the First War of Indian independence) in 1857. The most vicious change brought about by the British in the eastern part of India was the introduction of the extremely exploitative and the feudal Zamindari system that virtually created a feudal landlord (or zamindar) lording over the peasants and the tribals, who were hand and foot bound to the system.

Therefore, the killing and the destruction of the tribal way of life has been a continuous process and was always justified with the excuse that this was inevitable. Now the majority view in the Indian society also believes in this and that sacrifices have to be made for the sake of so called ‘development’ under capitalism. With the opening of the economy in the 90’s and with the advent of neo-liberal reforms came lot of foreign investments and inevitably the increased marginalisation and suffering of the indigenous population of India.

But parallel to this, as a response to the growing adivasi struggles in many parts of eastern India, came the Indian state’s response to try to appease these movements and brought in PESA in 1996 and FRA in 2006 with the intention of undoing the historical injustice wrought on the indigenous communities of India. But both the act deny the ownership of the natural resources to the tribals but grant them community rights over their lands and forests. So therefore the state on the one hand is trying to tame the adivasi movement and on the other hand, is paving way for the corporates to grab the rich natural resources.

It is in this context that one needs to understand Operation Greenhunt, which is essentially a war against the tribal population of India in the name of combating Maoist insurgency and at the same time paving the way for the entry of the multinationals to grab the natural resources. Thus the Indian state is trying to approach the issue with two sets of teeth: one trying to appear democratic and the other, Operation Greenhunt. Also the forest officials in collusion with the bureaucracy and the government have been sold out to the corporates.

Only a handful of tribal villages have benefited from FRA implementation, while thousands of villages have been deprived. For instance in Jharkhand, when the adivasis demanded their share of land as per their entitlement, none of them got more than 1 acre of land, while they were entitled to 7 acres of land as per the act.

Civil society’s response to adivasi issues have not been very encouraging either. While the middle classes all want development at the same time they want some sort of protection to the environment. But do not care much about the people living there who have in fact protected these pristine forests and the natural habitats for thousands of years. The mainstream communist parties (caught in their stages theory of revolution) have neither had any real association with the adivasi struggles nor do they recognise the significant contributions made by these movements and are incapable of doing anything.

Among the adivasi movement, there are two streams of thought. One, to try to accommodate with the existing system and other, an uncompromising struggle against the system. In the latter stream, there are those who believe in violent struggle led by the Maoist and the other is the democratic struggle. It is the democratic struggle of the adivasi movement that needs to be recognized and build in order to meet this challenge.

The New Socialist Alternative (CWI – India), fully supports all the democratic struggles of the adivasis against capitalist globalization and their rights to land, forests and their way of life. While we do not subscribe to the guerrilla tactics of the Maoist that in effect has given licence to the state to label every other adivasi struggle as being led by Maoist and therefore repression against its leading activists and the movement.

At the same time, we do not hold the view that adivasi’s can realize their aspiration under the constitutional framework of the so called world’s largest democracy. This is nothing more than chimera that hides the real face of capitalism and landlordism under which the same old exploitation and repression will continue to haunt these marginalized communities. What is seriously lacking at present is an alternative political platform which can take along with it all the oppressed people; workers, the rural peasantry, urban poor, the oppressed castes and genders which can unite the numerous scattered peoples struggles that are manifesting in various and peculiar ways against the system private profit, the enemy of our all oppressed classes i.e., CAPITALISM.

Anand Kumar


  • TridibRoy

    Appreciate and broadly endorse the views expressed the well written article. However no mention about the epicenter of the so called Naxal or Maoist struggle in Central India like Chattisgarh, MP, Mharasthra, AP. However, in the wake of latest strike in Baster I have expressed my views, which I am attaching. 
    Tridib Roy,
    Phone- 9433186592/ 033-23515111                                                                                      
    Subject- Where the buck might stop?
    In the wake of recent Maoist action in Chattisgarh, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, told NDTV, “Maoists are terrorists” because they instill fear in people.  Also Mr.Manmohan Singh,Sonia Gandhi said ‘the attack is cowardice’ ‘attack is on democracy’. President of India said ‘there is no place of violence in India.
    For obvious reasons, all these rhetoric are usual and expected, but does history and our experience substantiate any of these statements? Josef Goebbels told “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it people will eventually come to believe it”, following his footsteps the propaganda of Indian state is certainly successful in establishing numerous myths about Naxalites working in the so called Red Zone of India. The objective of such propaganda is not obscure. The government need to mobilize the opinion of urban and semi urban people against Maoists so that they attract their wrath, on the other hand they can hide their real agenda to carry on their anti people activity with least resistance.
    An account of people killed till date, in different times on different issues in our ‘non-violent democracy’ since 1947, in the hands of different state agencies, perhaps none of these leaders won’t find space to hide their faces.
    The question is, if Maoists are terrorists, then who was Kalma Masalu alias Mahendra Karma? Who was Kartam Surya of “Koya Commandos”- the new face of Salwa Judum, the dreaded rapist, arsonist and killer and ex-commander of Salwa Judum? And many more like these? Police declared Kartam Surya untraceable to court; while he was sheltered in police camp. But when Maoists killed him on 9.2.2012, police declared him “Chattisgarh Hero” and praised his ruthlessness in dealing with Maoists. Likewise, in the case of Mahendra Karma, instead of any trial under Indian Penal law, for the crimes he has committed for years, he became people’s representative, conferred with the title of “Tiger of Baster” and was given Z plus security till death! And now the annihilation of such dreaded criminals are termed as ‘attack on democracy’!
    When tribal women of Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan of Bastar region started non-violent protest against the activities of forest officers, mill owners, contractors, sexual oppression and exploitation, it was this Mahendra Karma, who  planned to crush it and unleashed terror, first in the name of Jan Jagran from 1991 to 1997, then again from 2005, with a new face in the name of Salwa Judum, under the leadership of Mahendra Karma. Salawa Judum (Peace March) unleashed one of the most heinous widespread terror in the entire Bastar region, that hounded almost a lakh of tribal villager of Dantewara, Bijapur, Bastar and many other places, indiscriminately killing them, driven away from home, village, streets, forests , trees, shrubs. No safe place was left to hide. Hardly any family were spared where women has not been raped by Salwa Judum goons, accompanied by Naga, Mizo CRPF jawans. Their bodies were mutilated, cut into pieces.  To suppress this state sponsored criminality in free India, from the outer world, the Salwa Judum goons attacked the Red Cross workers, representatives of Swami Agnivesh and Sri Sri Ravishankar were attacked, including the CBI officers. Yet our leaders would not know who perpetrators of violence are – Maoists or State?
    Commenting on the Maoist strike in Baster, some said ‘the buck must stop somewhere now’ and this is the pivotal question now. Who prevents the process and why? It is said that the ‘first casualty in a war is truth’. Likewise in the war against Maoists, the Indian state by virtue of their strong one sided publicity has established the myth that “Maoists are the greatest single internal threat”. But what is the reality? Sources from home ministry confirms, out of 15000 police stations in the country, the presence of Maoists are in about 2000 police stations and out of this 400 p.s. are violence afflicted. Therefore, Maoist influenced area comprises 5% of the total land area and 2% of India’s population reside here. Who would believe the cock & bull story of government Maoists being biggest internal threat? Who would believe Maoists can be a threat to the mighty military strength of India? Obvious question is then why this war?
    What came first? Decades of oppression and deprivation came first, resistance followed later. Chronicles of violence came first, counter violence followed later with Maoists. So, it is abundantly clear now, the state is fighting its own people for reasons other than that are publicly projected. On 6th November, 2010, PM said Naxalite areas happen to be the heartland of India’s mineral wealth. So, the compulsion to wipe off Naxals from the area is not because of its concern for development of tribal villagers, but to get full control over the mineral heartland of India. Not because Maoists are the biggest threat, but because they stand by the hapless tribal with legitimate demands. When Maoists demand Land Reform, not Land Acquisition, right of Jal-Jungle-Jameen, protest land grab, then government plans reinforcement of forces for complete flushing out of Maoists. Finally, it is to understand the fact this is a conflict of perception. What is ‘Development’ in Government’s perception that is ‘Destruction’ in Maoist’s perception? It is to be determined who is wrong or who is right. During last six decades, almost 60 millions tribal villagers have been displaced, rendered homeless and their existence vanished. During last one decade only, more than 12lakh acres of land have been acquired, displacing about 14lakh villagers. What is their fate now? Nobody knows. When the land beneath the tribal’s home yields minerals of billion dollars, of which millions of dollars siphoned to the leaders, then perhaps ex-owners of those homes are awaiting death in some dark corner of forest.
    This is the perception of ‘development’ of Indian state. Therefore till the last inch of this land is grabbed, till the last tribal life is sacrificed, the buck might not stop.
    Tridib Roy (Babu)