Tribal voice and violence

GANESH DEVY

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WHEN Gujarat was burning between 27 February and 4 March, the tribal belt on the eastern border of Gujarat was quiet. The only exception was the two districts of Panchmahals for which Godhra is the main town. Elsewhere in the tribal areas, tribals, Hindus and Muslims continued to coexist peacefully. The only disturbing sight was the long lines of tribal labourers walking the distance from the curfew-bound cities to their villages, in some cases a walk of 100 kilometres. They walked silently, carrying the burden of all their belongings on their heads, a lot of misery in their hearts and terrified like trapped animals.

Nearby 60,000 tribal labourers migrate to Baroda every year in search of employment between October and March. From the third day of the riots they started returning to their villages. No public transport was available to them. So they decided to walk back like refugees trying to escape a devastated country.

The first Muslim shop set on fire in any tribal village was in Tejgadh. This case of arson took place on the evening of 4 March. During the night two more shops were torched. The rural branch of Baroda district police had not expected this late reaction to the Godhra incident. On Tuesday, Senior DSP Keshav Kumar, who has prepared the first ever book on IPC in a tribal language, asked me to join him in his efforts to restore peace. When we arrived at Tejgadh, we saw a cloth shop being looted and set on fire by a mob. The DSP instantly fired tear gas shells and dispersed the mob. From there he proceeded to Chhota Udepur together with the MP (BJP) and the former MP (Congress) to discuss the arrangements. He had expected five trucks of army to arrive in the area for night patrolling.

During that night no army personnel were present in Tejgadh. More shops and houses were burnt in the village. Tejgadh has a miniscule Muslim population, 75% of whom are tribals, 15% Hindus and 5% Muslims. Those who burnt shops and houses in the initial stage were quite drunk and came from the neighbouring villages. But once the first attack was over, other villages joined in on their own with no further need for instigation and the looting continued.

The incidents in Tejgadh displayed a method as well as a sequential growth in the theme of the disturbance. In the cities, at least for the first three days, the riots had a clear stamp of a well-researched and well-orchestrated strike. The attacks there were marked by an amazing precision. As against this, the villages in Panchmahals, Kheda and Baroda districts displayed a blind anger. The incidents at Tejgadh were different from both. They showed that it was not included in the master plan of violence. Nor were the incidents unfolding in Tejgadh a frenzied reaction to the Godhra outrage.

The Muslim population in Tejgadh continued to stay in the village carrying out its daily work without any apprehension of intimidation. On that day the local population reportedly threatened Muslims in some other village. It was initially maintained that all Muslims of Tejgadh went over to the other village to defend them. It is said that the residents of Tejgadh felt angered by this aggressive attitude of the Tejgadh Muslims. As a result one Muslim shop was set ablaze in Tejgadh on the evening of 4 March.

It is said that Sarpanch Krishnakant Shah had tried to prevent those who wanted to start arson, but had to give up in the face of their pressure and threats. Also, that the arsonists came from outside. After the incident, none in Tejgadh was prepared to name the arsonists. And nobody said why the Muslims had gone to another village and why none returned to Tejgadh to save the shops, houses and vehicles that were burnt in installments with great punctuality. No one was prepared to say how so much kerosene was available, and who led the mobs. And no one would explain why only properties belonging to Muslims were set on fire.

 

 

The Tejgadh carnage was leisurely; everyday one or two shops were burnt. In the very first instance, the mob was collected from Timla, Koraj and Achhala segments of the panchayat, all at a distance of one or two kilo meters from Limdi Bazaar, the centre of the riots. In the second and third instances the distance increased. Tribals from neighbouring villagers wanted to have their share of the booty. The residents of Tejgadh shut the doors of their houses and in a self-imposed curfew locked themselves in. When the curfew was officially imposed, it was only a technical detail.

The police force provided to watch over the village was meagre, and after dispersing two or three mob attacks, it fell into the same kind of conspiracy of inaction that the villagers had already hatched. Thus, even on the 12th day of Tejgadh riots yet another house was burnt, with neither the villagers nor the police ready to intervene. On the 13th and the 14th day, one or two more houses were burnt down. The ritual continued. If the violence in the cities was marked by its precision hitting, in other rural areas by its blind frenzy, the violence in Tejgadh stood out for its ritual quality. It showed cold-bloodedness in slow-time. This ritual quality was a clear indication that at this end of the Gujarat riots, the theme of communalism was taking a back seat, having been taken over by the norms of tribal culture.

 

 

Therefore, when trouble began in Panvad two days later, and at a distance of 30 kilometers from Tejgadh, the stage for a tribal takeover of the riots was already set. Those interested in fanning the trouble had already planted rumours that would provoke tribals. Among the rumours that I heard, the following five deserve mention.

One: A tribal dreamt that a majestic Mahuda, the most sacred tree of the Rathwas, was chopped down and used to block the road. Babadev, or the Babo Pithora God, was very angry and demanded revenge on those who had harmed the Mahuda.

Two: The police believe that tribals have a mantra with which they can spell-bind the rifles used by the police. Therefore, policemen are scared of using their weapons.

Three: A certain Badwa, a shaman, had received divine inspiration to become the biggest Badwa, though only 22 years old. Having learnt all aspects of magic and since he cannot be killed, he would lead the tribals.

Four: Muslims have raped tribal women and kidnapped tribal girls to sell in the cities.

Five: Muslims have taken away Kashmir (a place or a girl) by exploiting tribals, and have kept 50 tribal women in custody.

The location of Panvad is unique. Almost 20 small and big villages are accessible from there in a short time by walking cross-country. A number of Hindu sectarian movements have been active in the area for several years. Some Jain monks, probably from Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, who live in a nearby village called Kawara, have considerable influence on the people. The Muslim businessmen in Panwad are affluent, and many were engaged in moneylending at interest rates ranging between 60 to 120%.

 

 

Whether it was because of hatred for the moneylenders, or because of rumours about the magical impediments against the ability of the police, or whatever, the congregation of tribals at Panwad was alarmingly large. Newspapers report that their numbers were upto 5000. But considering that every village sent about 50 to 100, the number who actually participated in the looting was a little less than 200 at any given time.

The ritual quality introduced by the Tejgadh events was in evidence on a magnified scale in Panvad. This time the tribals were carrying their ceremonial bow and arrows. Normally, they do not use arrows as weapons. When they want to kill someone, they use the sharp metallic paliyu or dhariyu; and when they want to fight a thief or an enemy, they use guns. Many of them do possess a gun licence; others buy them illegally from Madhya Pradesh, just a few kilometers away. Only children use arrows for hunting birds. As a result few birds are to be seen in that area.

So when the first mob attacked Panvad, it carried bows and arrows as a ritual decoration. But when it realised that mere mantras could not stop the policemen from firing, the next wave on the following day seems to have brought guns as well. Senior DSP Keshav Kumar, a courageous and conscientious officer, told me that he had encountered tribals who stood before him with bared chests, daring him to fire. Such is their faith in the power of the rumoured mantra.

 

 

From the perspective of the tribals it is necessary to raise some questions about the riots: Did the tribal population of Chhota Udepur region have any plan of rising up in revolt? Was there any explicit or latent movement in the area bordering on a militant opposition to the state? Did the communal BJP make such inroads in tribal life that the spirit of Hindutva overtook the local tribal culture? In other words, how much of the Muslim persecution in the tribal regions of Gujarat during the 2002 March riots was tribal in character and how much of it was a measure of the BJP’s success? Answers to these questions are important for understanding the riots, as well as the tribal situation.

One aspect of the entire episode was that the persecution of Muslims in Tejgadh and Panvad was spontaneous, even as if was planned by the Sangh Parivar elsewhere in Gujarat. Tejgadh took five days to react and Panvad nearly nine. Besides, the awareness about Kashmir, Ayodhya and cross-border terrorism has been negligible in the tribal villages. The sarpanchs of many villages in the region are illiterate or semi-literate. The electronic media is almost absent in these villages.

During those days an educated young Rathwa friend sent me a note. It contained his reflections on the demise of a tree. This was the giant neem, called Limda in Gujarati and which gave the name ‘Limdi Bazaar’ to the area in which arson was going on. The neem was set on fire by the arsonists. It had been standing there for more than a century; and it was burnt alive. It burnt for 10 days, slowly, ritually. The note by Arjun Rathwa said, ‘Did the Limda have any religion apart from giving shade to the wayfarers? Was it not like an adivasi, neither Hindu nor Muslim? Why have they destroyed it? Was it anybody’s enemy? The adivasi too are being destroyed like the neem. They are neither Hindus nor Muslims. But now they are being uprooted altogether.’

I would like to consider this note as typifying tribal non-involvement in communal politics. What then was the source of the wrath let loose on the Muslim community? The most likely answer to this question is that the tribals were made to fight a proxy war on behalf of the baniyas.

Two incidents from the earliest days of the Gujarat riot will illustrate the tribal unwillingness to participate in the communal frenzy. On the evening of 27 February, a truck carrying Muslim passengers from Panchmahals sped through Tejgadh, causing another vehicle, a jeep carrying passengers, to pull closer to the edge of the road. Such jeeps, the most popular mode of transport in the area, are impossibly over-crowded, with passengers hanging on to the vehicle on all sides.

 

 

This one pulled itself so close to the edge of the road that four passengers, three men and a woman, died on the spot, crushed between the vehicle and the trees on the side of the road. The villagers knew that the other vehicle, which had caused the accident, was carrying Muslims, not from any other district but from Panchmahals, not on any other day but the day of the Godhra outrage. The villagers in Tejgadh allowed the vehicle a safe passage without any expression of anger, which under those circumstances would have been justified even on an ordinary day.

The second incident happened on 28 February in Haridaspur, the oldest segment of Tejgadh. Haridaspur, which has 170 households, all having a clan relationship had gathered during the forenoon to cremate and mourn the death of an inhabitant. In that assembly of approximately 1200, some elected panchayat members from another locality talked of avenging the Godhra incident. But this did not find favour even after the gathering had been served the ritual drink of wine. Such was the support to the Hindutva appeal the day when all newspapers carried headlines about the Godhra carnage. Those present reported (on condition of anonymity) that free supply of kerosene and liquor was promised to all those who had the ‘courage’ to attack Muslims.

 

 

The trouble makers approached the sarpanch of Tejgadh on 1 March to participate in burning Muslim families, but he reportedly refused to allow any violence within the limits of his panchayat. It appears that on 2 and 3 March, the communal elements of the village changed their argument by giving up the purely communal angle and introduced the more acceptable business angle. They said that Muslim businessmen had become arrogant and, to use the local idiom, ‘they have put on too much fat.’ This argument clinched the issue, and on the evening of 4 March, when in Chief Minister Modi’s ridiculous phrase, ‘the riots had been brought under control within a record 72 hours,’ the first Muslim shop was set on fire.

This shop was owned by the 55 year old Yakub Khatri and had goods like biscuits and mints. Yakub Khatri owned five acres of agricultural land and his brother Ghanibhai was a respected figure in the affairs of the Tejgadh mosque. However, the sweetmeat shop does not give a clear picture of Yakub’s financial status. He owned a large house and two more shops, selling foodgrains, cutlery, bangles and shoes, some distance away. Obviously, by targeting Yakub Khatri it was possible for Hindu communal force to combine the theme of religious revenge with that of business competition.

 

 

When this instance of arson happened, the Muslim community in Tejgadh was still present in the village. It tried to counter the attack, but the mob that had gathered was large, and its resistance inadequate. There were no policemen present on the location of this crime. During the three preceding days the Muslims in Tejgadh had obviously feared such an attack and were prepared to flee. The riots that began during the late hours of the noon continued during the evening with two more shops gutted by fire. During the night all Muslims fled. None seemed to know where they had sought asylum. It was rumoured that during the Yakub Khatri incident, Muslims had fired shots at the mob, implying that they were in possession of unlawful weapons and strengthening the stereotype of all mosques being places for hoarding weapons.

The next shop destroyed was owned by Kadarbhai, 55 years in age, and owner of a flour mill, a cloth and a grocery shop. Dilawarbhai, 40, who owned a cloth shop and an adjacent shop selling cutlery and shoes, was the next in the line of fire. Ahmedbhai, 55, owned a foodgrains business as well as an outlet renting pandals and public address systems for functions. Nasirbhai, who too had a cutlery and foodgrains business, was the next target.

At this juncture, communal interests seem to have faded from the minds of the rioters. Those who organised the riots and funded them appear to have started looking at this operation purely as a business strategy of eliminating the competition and ensuring total control over the market; and those who participated in the riots appear to have started looking at the incidents as an opportunity to loot in a manner of an unusual public ritual. I have already commented on the ritual aspect of the Tejgadh riots and how it was appropriated by the Panvad riots that were just about breaking out at this juncture.

 

 

It was at this moment that the five rumours previously listed were planted because an internal contradiction had started breaking up the momentum that the communal force had managed to create with great difficulty. The contradiction appears to have come up from the intention of tribals to attack businessmen (who invariably have been moneylenders), and the baniya intention of targeting Muslim businessmen alone. The Hindu baniyas who were behind the riots started fearing that the tribal enthusiasm for looting shops would lead to their own shops becoming targets. Therefore, once again the riot machine at Tejgadh chose to burn down the two shops of Yakub Khatri, which were spared during the first round of arson. It appears that given Yakub’s familial ties with Gani, attacking him looked every bit like an attack on the Tejgadh mosque.

The next to be attacked was an elderly and respectable Muslim, popularly known as Lakhpati (a millionaire), who had been a king-pin in the local moneylending business, though in recent years his fortunes had declined. When the communal passion was ignited, the rioters had no time to think of the financial status of the victims. Therefore, the houses of Bhikha, the tailor, Fakirbhai, the poor peasant with a land holding of less than an acre, the house of Yusufbhai Khatri, a retired prison-clerk, were all reduced to ashes.

But, the business interest in the riots did not wane and a warehouse where Muslim merchants stocked their goods was also set to fire. The houses deserted by its Muslim inhabitants were searched by the mobs and vandalised. The last to be attacked was Basheer Khatri’s soft drinks and cloth shop. The police presence in Tejgadh throughout the days of the riots, a long period of two weeks, was more marked by its complicity than by inadequacy. What is perhaps the most explicit comment on the motive and the nature of the riots is that not once after 4 March did the panchayat members or the local Hindu baniyas make an attempt to dissuade the rioters.

 

 

Their only act of ‘grace’ was to spare the house of Shabirbhai, who has been an elected member of the panchayat and represents, at present, the Muslim community in Tejgadh. Thus the 500 odd Muslim inhabitants of Tejgadh were ‘punished’ for someone else’s attack on the S6 coach of Sabarmati Express at Godhra, and, more importantly, for competing with the Hindu moneylenders in the tribal area. Similarly, throughout the few days of the intense rioting in Panvad, one repeatedly heard that the riots were meant to teach a lesson to the Muslim moneylenders who had ‘put on too much fat.’

It would be completely wrong to assume that the rioting in support of Hindutva was something that the tribals wanted at any stage. The facts show that the truth is far from it. There had to be a considerable amount of coaxing before any tribal village joined in the riots. There was a free use of intimidation too. Generally, a group of 15 to 20 persons went to the sarpanch of a village to ask him to give ‘forces’ for attacking Muslims. One or two of the ring leaders spoke. They promised protection from the law to all those who joined and threatened those who refused the ‘invitation’. Since the instigators belonged to the ruling party, it was intimidating to encounter such promises and threats.

Before and during the main days of the Panvad riots, a young Rathwa – who became the shaman in the widespread rumour – promised Rs 200,000 to the family of any possible casualty or alternately threatened those who refused. This person himself neither possessed so much wealth to promise compensation nor political clout to hold out the threat. It must be kept in mind that the Rathwas are a people of few words, do not speak beyond a monosyllable in their normal conversation, and rarely tell lies. If a Rathwa commits a murder, it is often said by the police, he will report to the police station himself and confess to his crime. Therefore, when this person was going round making the offer, he was in all probability not using empty words. Surely, other persons with money to offer had backed him, and clearly, he was working at their behest.

 

 

All in all, therefore, the tribal riots were organised by the moneylenders, even if the legal evidence to establish this fact will be slow in coming forth. Any combing operation undertaken by the state following the riots will be a superficial exercise and will end by only a large number of poor rioters being booked on the basis of stolen goods such as utensils, foodgrains and cloth found in their dwellings.

There have been excellent studies on the role of the sahukar in the Panchmahals during the 19th century and on how they ‘generated’ the tribal resistance movement to protect their own right to trade salt in Sirohi district of Rajasthan. Thanks to these studies, one can say with confidence that the tribals in western India have remained under the yoke of the moneylender for centuries.

The ability of tribals to meet any contingencies requiring large cash payments has considerably gone down, particularly from the time the tribals lost their sovereign rights over the forests and had to identity themselves with a given piece of land that was recorded in the books of the Revenue Department. The land available for cultivation gets divided every passing generation, though such division is not necessarily reflected in the land records. In rain-fed agriculture, the tribal tiller manages to produce just enough for subsistence, and even a single year of poor rain leads to indebtedness.

 

 

Bank operations in tribal areas have been shamefully anti-tribal. First, service branches are not easily accessible in terms of their geographical location. Even when they exist, their operations show no concern for tribals despite directives from the zonal offices and agencies like Nabard. It is a fortunate tribal with whom a bank manager has entered into any conversation. Rarely is a tribal not insulted when he enters a bank.

Then, the documentation requirement of any bank deal is beyond a tribal’s capacity. As against this, the private moneylender asks for no documents. He knows by name every tribal who comes to him as a client. His terms are sufficiently flexible to accommodate modifications in the schedule of payment should it be required due to failure of the monsoon. In exchange for all this kindness the moneylender charges a high rate of interest. It ranges between Rs 5 to 12 per month, that is, 60 to 144% for a year. The interest for the first three months is deducted from the principal at the time of the lending, which means that an amount of Rs 70 is handed over to the borrower out of a notional Rs 100 if the interest is 120.

The loan does not have to be repaid in cash. The moneylender accepts foodgrains, forest produce or timber in lieu of cash at a rate that he will decide according to the going rate in the local market; and if the foodgrains are not enough to repay the loan with the interest, the borrower approaches another moneylender in order to procure cash to repay the first loan in full. Two centuries of this lending practice have made the moneylenders prosperous beyond imagination and the tribals indebted beyond redemption.

The moneylenders reside in the larger villages like Tejgadh or Panvad or in towns where the weekly haat is held; and the tribal peasants go to the haat every week and make it a point to greet the lenders. This, they think, adds to their credit worthiness.

 

 

The politicians too are greatly dependent on the moneylenders for their political success, for the sahukars control the vote banks. It is almost impossible for the politicians not to be sensitive to the views and interests of the moneylenders. Even when the elected representatives of people belong to tribes in reserved constituencies, they are severely restricted from undertaking developmental activities that will harm the interests of the moneylenders. Therefore, while one finds that an impressive developmental activity of a cosmetic nature takes place in tribal areas, economic empowerment is deliberately given a back seat.

Poor infrastructure, chronic cash-crunch, pervasive unemployment, illiteracy, and technological backwardness, which in other sectors are considered unfavourable for economic growth, are the minimal necessary conditions for growth in the private moneylending sector. The situation may differ in degree from one tribal district to another, but the general pathology of tribal under development and chronic indebtedness does not.

 

 

The use of bows, arrows and guns by the tribals against the police during the riots is not sufficiently explained by an analysis of their indebtedness to the moneylenders and being coaxed by them into eliminating Muslim competitors. The mob-militancy of the Rathwa tribals has other roots. In order to explain those we need to look at the sociology of Panvad more closely and also how its confrontation with modernity has produced unique discontents.

Panvad among the tribal towns of Vadodara district is closest to Madhya Pradesh. The Bhils, who are no different from the Rathwas in language or customs and who live on the other side of the ‘notional’ border, were at one time notified during British rule under the Criminal Tribes Act (1871). The reason was that they had earlier worked as seasonal soldiers for the Maratha princes in Indore and Dhar. But their ‘denotification’ in 1952 has left them no real choice but to take up a life of occasional crime. As a result of the possible menace of the denotified Bhils across the border, the villages surrounding Panvad have launched upon a massive deforestation of the low hills for increasing the range of visibility as a security measure. The timber merchants at Chhota Udepur who controlled the Forest Kamdar Sangh during the 1960s encouraged deforestation of this region.

All the ecological dangers that follow deforestation have been visited upon the Panvad region. Agricultural income in that area is lower in comparison to corresponding agricultural holdings in other tribal areas of the district. As a way out, Panvad tribals have moved to literacy and education, but for want of an institution of higher learning nearby, the young tribals end up with high school education and little or no employment. Many migrate to places like Surat for diamond cutting and Kutch as construction or agricultural labour.

For many years the Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation’s project at nearby Kadipani provided them employment. But some years back it ran into rough weather due to legal and administrative hassles. Since then the young tribals in the area have taken to drug trafficking and minor arms selling. The arms are brought in from Madhya Pradesh, taken to Vadodara where customers in the region are located and directed to Vadodara for a bargain purchase. Those who make this easy money then move on to become small time moneylenders and start acquiring Hindu names and traits. They are the ones who become hospitable to various sect movements. These new arrivals in the Hindu fold have been the special constituency of the Hindutva movement in the area.

 

 

When the micro-credit scheme was started in 1999, we formed self-help groups of tribals in the villages surrounding Panvad too. The groups were Kanalwa (2), Chimli (1), Dungargam (2), Shihada (17), Jhanjharjhol (7), Panvad (9), Modhalia (4), Rangpur (1), Jhakha (1), Kavra (14), Ganthiya (4), and Gabadiya (4). During the three years of drought, while the SHGs in other villages had great difficulty in repaying the small bank loans, these SHGs would suddenly come up with wads of cash and repay loans of several groups on a single day. I was surprised to notice that many times the notes brought for repayment were serially numbered. Obviously they did not reflect collections from the poor tribals, which in the case of the SHGs in other villages were usually in the form of soiled and old currency notes such as labourers keep with them for strategic use. Obviously, the money came from a bank withdrawal.

The members of the SHGs had, in principle, no other bank accounts than the ones we were helping them to operate. It is only in retrospect that I can say that the amount came from moneylenders, from a loan given to a group leader for bringing the micro-credit scheme to a halt. The Panvad tribals were quite prepared to go back to a 120% interest rate from the bank’s mere 12%. For the young, neo-Hindu, semi-educated, unemployed, indiscriminate generation, the Hindu moneylender has become the role model, and drugs and unlicensed guns are the order of the day.

 

 

The ultimate source of violence is the mind and not the weapons in one’s possession. The tribal mindset is not feudal, but it certainly is medieval. It is not feudal because of the tribal attitude to state formation in which the clan replaces the state. But precisely for reasons of preserving clan autonomy and purity, the attitude to women among the tribals is dictated by a limitless fear of women’s pollution by an external agency. There is invariably bloodshed when a tribal woman expresses the desire to marry a person outside the particular tribal clan. While girls have the freedom to choose their life partners within the clan and without the slightest opposition from the family or relatives, they have no freedom to extend the choice beyond the male members of the clan. This social code, however, is increasingly coming under stress from the rapidly changing economic context.

The tribal district north of the Panvad-Chhota Udepur area, that is the Panchmahals, has witnessed social transition of women’s status on an unprecedented scale. Among the tribals, the groom gives dowry to the bride’s parents. The bride-price among most tribes is nominal or notional. But, among the heavily indebted Panchmahals tribals, this bride-price has come to be perceived as an alternate source of income. In recent years it has soared to Rs 60,000, while earlier it used to be one or two thousand. The result is that as soon as the wedding takes place, the groom takes the bride with him to a city like Ahmedabad or Vadodara and the two start work as labourers so that the huge amount borrowed from relatives and moneylenders can be repaid over a period extending to several years.

The condition of migrant women labourers in the cities is pitiable, and they have to face sexual exploitation from labour contractors and the city-dwellers. Now the tribals in Panchmahals have started receiving lucrative offers from caste Hindus for purchase of their daughters. The tribals in Panvad area are familiar with these changes. To the east of Panvad is Madhya Pradesh. The tribal women in M.P. have faced humiliation worse than those in the Panchmahals. Some of the denotified tribal communities such as the Bedias and Kanjars have reached a situation where forcing young girls into sex work is seen as most natural.

 

 

In the Panvad region a fear of violation of tribal women has gripped the tribal psyche. The police records for the period 1990 to 2000 show that the highest number of murders in the region were related to the perceived fear of a woman being taken away. Therefore, it would have been surprising had the tribals in that region not reacted violently after being fed a generous diet of rumours about 50 of their women being sexually abused by Muslims. Those who planned the pogrom did not use this rumour in Tejgadh, and therefore the scale of violence in Panvad was higher than in Tejgadh.

Those who want to understand the unexpected rise of violence among the tribals of Gujarat may find it useful to note that during a short period of six weeks preceding the March 2002 riots, in a small segment of Tejgadh, Haridaspur, with a population of 1200, the following sudden deaths had occurred: (i) Mansukhbhai Dalasukhbhai, age 55; (ii) Chikhabhai Dalasukhbhai, age 45; (iii) Kanchanbhai Chhaganbhai, age 40; (iv) Kamriben Tersinghbhai, age 40; (v) Maniabhai Ruplabhai, age 40; (vi) Singliben Nathiyabhai, age 55; and (vii) Sansubhai Soriyabhai, age 13.

 

 

In addition, two children of age 10 and age one respectively, died, whose names are not in my records. Not all of them died of Sickle Cell. The general lifespan for Sickle Cell patients ranges between 10 to 25 years. Many of these, therefore, have to be described as deaths due to malnutrition and medical neglect. No government would admit to the fact that so many poor people died for want of sufficient diet.

If a large section of population is left to fend for itself, to face poverty, hunger, exploitation, and if their semi-literacy and unemployment lead them to a harsh zone of conflict of social values, if the new role models are based on the idea of making easy money, it is likely that the space for an irrational militant tendency will be created. Panvad could not have been an exception.

Yet, it would be completely off the mark to believe that the tribals in Chhota Udepur and Kawant talukas of Vadodara district had at any time prior to the riots of March 2002 made any plans or conspiracy of an armed attack on the haats in Tejgadh or Panvad, or that there was any local leadership with a political ideology in which violence is the means for social change.

On 13 March, the District Magistrate Bhagyesh Jha and Senior DSP Keshav Kumar were shot at from a country rifle while they were in the field; and on 20 March, correspondent Sajid Shaikh filed a report, which appeared on page one of The Times of India, under the title, ‘Tribals fox cops with guerrilla warfare tactics’.

 

 

Did the tribal attack on Muslim properties signify a victory for the ideology of Hindutva? One who is not familiar with the tribal traditions will be inclined to answer the question in the affirmative. It may seem that the tribals have come to be staunch supporters of the BJP. But the fact is that the tribals are neither Hindus nor Muslims. In India there are two types of communities – those that conform to castes and religions and those that do not. Therefore, one is either a subscriber to a religion and member of a caste, or alternately, one is a tribal. Since it has become necessary to write in all official forms if one is a tribal-Hindu, a tribal-Christian or a tribal-Muslim, most tribals have started believing that they are Hindus, Muslims or Christians.

However, when the tribals claim to be Hindus, would any Hindu say that he is a tribal? Though from the tribal point of view ‘tribal’ and ‘Hindu’ are not mutually exclusive social categories, from the Hindu point of view they are so. The political discourse in India during the last 50 years, which has come to talk of the SC and the ST in a single breath, is largely responsible for the shifting sense of tribal self-identification.

If one were to look at the actual religious practices, spiritual spaces and belief systems, one would find that tribals are markedly different from Hindus even when the points of convergence may be several. For instance, tribals do not have notions of yoga, sanyasa, varnas and ashramas. Many tribes do accept some of the Hindu godheads as icons of worship, but no tribe accepts all of them in toto. The tribal myths related to gods and demons are markedly different from the Hindu myths. The tribal Ramayanas and Mahabharatas are strikingly different in plot and purport from the Hindu versions of those epics. The institution of priesthood operates very differently among the tribals than it does among Hindus.

In fact, a tribe is bound by its clan affiliation and cannot develop ‘caste’ as a social institution, which depends on a social hierarchy bound to the accident of birth in a given family. All tribals in a given tribe belong to the same ‘caste’ and therefore do not have a social hierarchy similar to that, which stratifies the caste Hindus. That was precisely the reason why, while making a listing of socially disadvantaged communities in India, a Schedule of Castes (SCs) had to be conceptualised as distinct from a Schedule of Tribes (STs).

 

 

There was a brief period of Indian history during the early days of colonial rule when all communities in India were described by the term ‘tribe’. Thus, the Portuguese travellers in India used the terms ‘tribe’ and ‘caste’ as freely interchangeable. But, by the time of Lord Dalhousie it had become amply clear to the British colonial government that the tribes and the castes responded differently to the state. The castes were prepared to accept the notion of state, the tribes were not. Therefore, two official listings were made by the colonial government, one for the ‘Criminal Tribes’ in 1871, and the other for the ‘Tribes’ in 1872. The list of tribes has been accepted in the post-colonial times as a useful sociological apparatus, while the legally discriminated ‘Criminal Tribes’ have been ‘denotified’ and distributed between the STs, SCs and OBCs.

 

 

Given that the tribes have a distinct past, cultural traditions, attitude to the state and spiritual bearings, the tribal identity as Hindus, Muslims or Christians becomes a far more complicated issue than the identity of a Hindu as a Hindu, which too has its own complications. Hence the assertion that tribals are Hindus, when they are not Christians or Muslims, can at best be stretched to mean that in the vast and amorphous cultural federation of the subcontinent’s civilization, tribal communities too are a presence, albeit on the farthest margins of the caste hierarchy, and mostly far outside it.

It is pertinent to ask why any tribal would feel attracted by the concept of Hindutva, unless he has willingly decided to enter the Hindu caste fold, which in his case will invariably be at the lowest rung of the hierarchy. But in order to answer this puzzling question, one must also spell out that Hindutva does not mean, and by its proponents is never expected to mean, being a Hindu. In other words, ‘Hindutva’ to a Hindu is not the same thing as ‘Christianity’ is to a Christian.

Hindutva really means, as understood by its advocates, conformity to the idea that India has primarily been a Hindu rashtra. It is not a religious philosophy or a social reform movement. It is a political philosophy based on cultural chauvinism, which insists that the non-Hindus of India accept their place as ‘minorities’, whose safety and security will depend on their ability to earn the ‘goodwill of the majority’. It is not an ideology asking the Hindus to become doctrinaire Hindus; rather it asks the Indian Muslims and Christians not to become doctrinaire Muslims and Christians.

At the heart of the Hindutva ideology is the idea that the good of a majority should also be seen as the good for any minority, and that any assertion of minority rights is essentially a threat and a challenge to the political authority of the majority. Such minorities, therefore, are seen by the Hindutva advocates as anti-national and anti-social. Besides, any attempt by a minority to swell their numbers is seen by the Hindutva votaries as aggression. Hence, conversion to Christianity or a Hindu girl’s marriage to a Muslim or a Christian are seen as undesirable and provocative acts.

 

 

There is a major difference, however, between the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran or the erstwhile Afghanistan and the proponents of Hindutva. The Islamic fundamentalists are not concerned with nationality and numbers. They want all Muslims to follow the tenets of Islam as ‘faithfully’ as the fundamentalists insist. The Hindutva ideology is primarily bound to the idea of rashtra and it revolves round the idea of a politically powerful majority. Islamic fundamentalism is theocractic militancy. Hindutva is nationalistic puritanism. The former creates internal repression to stop liberalisation of Islam; the latter creates threats to the surrounding communities and faiths so that those communities and faiths do not assert their own identities. But, despite these differences, both these ideologies share a profound distrust of cultural diversity.

The advocates of Hindutva dream that some day India will become a Hindu rashtra. The tribals who are not Hindus, therefore, need not have much enthusiasm for Hindutva. How is it then that in the riots of March 2002, the tribals fell upon the Muslims with such brutality? The events of March 2002 may indicate that the tribals indeed decided to join the Hindus of Gujarat in avenging the Godhra killings. But before coming to that conclusion it is necessary to remember that the tribals do not show much awareness of the medieval history of India.

 

 

The tribals do not know who Babar was and that he or any of his successors may have destroyed Hindu temples and built mosques on those sites. They do not know anything about Savarkar or Hedgewar. They do not know what the RSS stands for. None of them has volunteered to be a Ramsevak and been to Ayodhya. They have never heard of the Shah Bano case or of the Imam of Jama Masjid. The only face of Islam that the tribals have seen and known is the one presented by the local moneylenders. The only face of the Hindutva movement known by the tribals is the presence of the BJP in the panchayat and assembly elections. Though it is true that the tribals feel somewhat closer to Hindus than to Muslims, what is more true is that their affinities are entirely dictated by local issues and local politics.

The Congress leadership knew well the severe limitations on the tribal awareness of national and international issues. Throughout the years of Congress domination of the tribal areas, the party took great care not to educate and sensitize the tribals. They had to be kept as a vote bank, pure and simple; the only issues that could keep them so were underdevelopment and poverty. Throughout the four decades of Congress control in the tribal areas, it spared no effort to drive home to them that they were underdeveloped. This led the tribals to believe that their underdevelopment was an axiomatic truth. Today, when a tribal says ‘we are pachhat’, backward, there is not even a shade of questioning or skepticism about this condition. The Congress knew that if the tribals were kept poor, they would not become political.

The BJP does not know how to remove the poverty of the tribals. Not that it has much interest in the economic progress of the tribals, because it too wants the tribals as a massive vote bank. For about a decade now the Sangh Parivar has been active in the tribal areas in every state. Through one of its sister organizations, the Vanavasi Seva Sangh (VSS), it has been spreading the message of Hindutva among the tribals. The VSS insists on calling the tribals vanavasis and not adivasis which means ‘the indigenous people’, since the VSS shares the RSS view of history in which the Aryans are the original inhabitants of India. How can adivasis, who in the VSS opinion are non-Aryans, be the original inhabitants? Thus the adivasiness of the tribals is a serious threat to Hindutva.

 

 

The VSS has been positing the Christian missionaries as the major enemy of the adivasis. The tribals know the missionaries well. They understand the talk about conversion. They know that the missionaries do not allow them to sing their traditional songs and paint their traditional gods like Babo Pithoro or Itelan and worship them. In the Dangs district of Gujarat, and in other states like Orissa and Bihar, the Christian missionaries had to face the wrath of the tribals supporting the Hindutva agenda in recent years.

It is interesting, however, to note that those tribals who participated in the attacks on Christian churches in the Dangs and the Muslim shops and houses in the Panchamahals, Banaskantha and Baroda districts, still describe themselves as adivasis. They do not feel comfortable in calling themselves vanavasis. In other words, the VSS and the BJP have achieved a measure of success in providing the tribals a political agenda of hatred, but they have not succeeded in changing the tribal sense of identity.

Tribals have acquired a strong sense of hatred for their perceived enemies. The poverty preserved for them by the Congress and the politics of hatred introduced among them by the BJP can become a deadly mixture. Since the logical end of Hindutva will be to demand an unquestioning subservience from all minorities, including the tribals, and their total loyalty to the idea of a Hindu rashtra for which the Aryan indegeneity will be the cornerstone, a violent conflict between the adivasi tribals and the vanavasi Hindus is inevitable.

 

 

What the Hindutva ideology has gained by inciting the tribals to attack Muslims may look attractive in a limited perspective of the next Assembly elections. However, the long term implication of the political process unleashed cannot but be disturbing for the state. During the March 2002 riots the authority of the state has visibly eroded in the tribal areas. To establish it again will be a difficult task.

During the riots, the Muslims in Gujarat have suffered untold miseries. So have those Hindu families whose relatives were killed in the Godhra train attack. The economy of Gujarat has received a serious setback, and it will take several years before it looks up again, if at all. A life of decency has been the greatest casualty. It will take long years before the law and order situation in Gujarat returns to any normalcy. The tribals of Gujarat have been drawn into the conflict and brought to a brink facing limitless violence and self-destruction.

The outcome of the riots is that the Muslims are languishing in relief camps. They have lost all that they had. They feel so insecure that they will not be prepared to go back to their burnt dwellings and shops amidst hostile neighbours. The earthquake in Gujarat left 20,000 dead. Despite tremendous cooperation and help from all corners of the world, the state government has not been able to rehabilitate all the families affected by the quake. The riots have left nearly 100,000 uprooted and economically ruined others. Those innumerable Muslims who have lost their employment are not even counted in this figure. There is just no possibility that these huge numbers will ever be rehabilitated.

Another outcome of the riots is that the tribals of Gujarat have been fed on a politics of hatred. It can easily turn against the non-Muslims as well. There are eight million tribals in Gujarat, most of whom are extremely poor and starving. The long term effects of this thoughtless political bravado are frightening. While the villages like Tejgadh and Panvad are limping back to normalcy, they can hardly forget the deafening kikiyario they have heard in March 2002. The kikiyario during the Gujarat riots had a strange combination of pathos and terror, and no touch of divinity at all. It is a pity that the tribals found their voice during the riots but not for any idealistic purpose, nor for improving their own homes and hearths, but for destroying another community and for carrying out a pogrom encouraged by the state.

 

 

Long after the violence in Gujarat ends, long after the tribal riots are controlled and the tribals return to their agricultural work or labour in the cities, long after the media in India has turned its attention to other issues, scams and social disasters, the problem of violence will remain with us. Suppressing riots and bringing any outbreak of a violent incident under control by changing governments and parties will not help for more than a short spell. For finding a lasting solution we need to tackle the problem at its roots. And that work will have to be carried out by everybody, everywhere and everyday.

 

 

Throughout the days of the Gujarat violence, Albert Camus’ disturbing novel The Plague repeatedly came to my thoughts. It depicts the unusual life in the city of Oran in the times of a great plague. The bureaucrats use the calamity as an opportunity to make money. The religious leaders look at it as proof of how the gods are angry with man. Others merely want to escape to another place that could possibly be normal. Dr. Meursault, the central character decides not to budge at all. He declares, ‘To do what I can in my place is my choice.’ The epidemic recedes after a while, not because Dr. Meursault has been fighting to bring it under control. It just vanishes as mysteriously as it had erupted.

In Camus’ vision the eruption and the end of the disease are equally absurd. Camus is keen that one makes a conscious choice and takes moral responsibility for the choice made, since in the existential view life is nothing but a series of choices, and it is difficult to make choices since there is no essence like God, Truth, Justice.

For us today, even making a choice is not possible. We are in a situation where if we do not act every moment, we will have to own up to the responsibility of complicity to violence. Therefore, constructive action is our only future. There is none other, for otherwise there will be no future for us.

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