The Tribes, Primitive Accumulation and the Sangh Parivar

C.N. Subramaniam 

The deep inroads made by the Sangh Parivar into the tribal belts has been a source of some concern in the democratic circles. The outcome has been fairly visible during the last two years in the Gujarat anti-minority pogroms, the Ayodhya mobilisation and several sporadic actions against minorities in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The tribal people were in the van in these actions and acted as cannon fodder. The results of the recent Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh also indicate a distinct shift in the tribal belts in favour of the Sangh Parivar. In a sense this success of the Sangh stands in stark contrast with its utter failure to draw within its fold the other oppressed and exploited masses like the Dalits and urban working class. That it should at all be able to make a successful appeal to the oppressed tribal people has raised several questions and calls for some serious study and introspection.

A pattern that can be observed in all these actions in which the tribal people were mobilised is that the minorities were targeted with great virulence and hatred. The merciless burning alive of the Christian missionary Staines and his two children, the violence against Muslim shopkeepers and neighbours in the villages in Gujarat, the rape of Christian nuns in Jhabua – all these point to the nature of the mobilisation.

Two questions then stand out – what has enabled the Sangh Parivar to make these inroads into the tribal societies and why should the mobilisation take such virulent forms of hatred. Of course part of the answer lies in the strategy adopted by the Sangh and the munificent funding it has been receiving for this project from overseas sources. Yet, to put these activities in perspective we need to go into the state of the tribal people today and the serious crises they have been facing.

The tribal communities of India distinguish themselves from the general society around them in a number of ways; chief among them is their rejection of the caste system and the maintenance of a homogenous social system. Further, their economy has been largely dependent upon a combination of agriculture, hunting and gathering and grazing in the forests and also wage labour. The tribal people engage in all these activities as communities and seldom or never as individuals. Even when land is individually owned, rules for labour and food sharing prevail and when out in the plains to engage in wage labour they work as gangs rather than as individuals. Their culture which emphasises an egalitarian ethos acts as a cementing force for this feeling of community.

The tribal communities of India have been going through a process of profound transformation particularly during the last two decades. The process actually began under the colonial rule when the colonial government arrogated to itself control over forest resources which traditionally were the collective property of the tribal communities. However the relentless struggle of the tribal people ensured a minimal access to forest lands. The uneven and stunted growth of capitalism also meant that feudal and usurious forms of exploitation gave better returns and those forms strengthened themselves during the colonial rule and thereafter.

The post-colonial order did little to improve the lot of the tribal people. The promise of self-administration and ban on the entry of ‘outsiders’ were kept to some extent only in the North East. The relentless plunder by the feudal landlords and usurers and forest officials who have been progressively armed with extraordinary powers has seen the rapid impoverishment and degradation of the tribal people.

The forests, the mainstay of the tribal way of life, have been depleted beyond recognition by commercial felling, large dams, mining and the settling of high caste peasants. The lands tilled by the tribal people have been declared to be lands of the forest department and hence they have been given the status of illegal squatters on their own lands! Forced to work for a pittance for various government departments like the Railways, the Public Works Department, Forests, and kulaks and landlords of the caste villages, the tribal people have been eking out a marginal existence.

For decades the tribal people have been subjected to a cultural warfare under which their culture has been denigrated and classed as primitive, uncivilised and placed under pressure to adopt the mores of the neighbouring caste Hindus. Their languages too are facing extinction. The development discourse which has dominated the dealing of the bureaucracy with the tribal people quite clearly meant the deprecation of tribal culture and way of life.

This process has been accompanied by unashamed robbery of the traditional knowledge of the tribal people of the flora and fauna and the genetic diversity of their habitat.

The last few years have seen the intensification of the struggle against these processes and also a gradual realisation of the overwhelming power of the state and capital and a growing sense of defeat among the tribal people. The defeat of a number of promising mass movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan with the transparent and unashamed connivance of the judiciary have created an air of despondency.

To understand the broader meaning of this process we may turn to Marx. In the extremely perceptive section on primitive accumulation of capital he describes the larger meaning of the processes we are presently witnessing in the tribal belts of India. It may be useful to recall this section in some detail. To quote Marx,

The transformation of money into capital ‘can take only take place under certain circumstances that centre in this, viz., that two very different kinds of commodity-possessors must come face to face and into contact; on the one hand, the owners of money, means of production, means of subsistence, who are eager to increase the sum of values they possess, by buying other people’s labour-power; on the other hand, free labourers sellers of their own labour power, and therefore sellers of labour. Free labourers in the double sense that neither they themselves form part of the means of production, as in the case of slaves, ... nor do the means of production belong to them, as in the case of peasant-proprietors; they are therefore free from, unencumbered by, any means of production of their own. With this polarisation of the market for commodities, the fundamental conditions of capitalist production are given..... The process therefore, which clears the way for capitalist system, is none other than the process which takes away from the labourer the possession of his means of production, a process which transforms the social means of subsistence and of the production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage-labourers. The so called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. ... And the history of this expropriation, is written in letters of blood and fire.’ (K. Marx, ‘Capital’, Volume I, pp.668-9, Moscow, 1977).

To Marx therefore primitive accumulation of capital meant essentially the transfer of the means of production from the immediate producers to the capitalists. This with a single stroke achieved three objectives of creating capital, creating a dispossessed labour force and also a market as the producer deprived of his or her natural access to means of subsistence was forced to access it from the market.

One may add that the emphasis in the current primitive accumulation in the context of the tribal people has been on gaining control over the rich mineral and genetic resources of the tribal belts. Thus there has been no spurt in industrial activity in the regions to absorb the labour thus freed from the community lands. The tribal people are therefore forced to die slow starvation deaths or labour for very depressed wages.

In many of his writings and notebooks on pre-capitalist societies Marx1 had postulated that the organisation of society based kinship ties was restrictive to the development of individuality and breaking the isolation of people. This in turn provided the basis for the emergence of centralised despotisms over these communities and denied the communities themselves any historical initiative. Marx considered it imperative that the kinship ties that subordinated the individual be broken freeing the individual for direct interaction with the wider world. Capitalism in freeing the individual from all these subjugation and converting him or her into a free wage labourer acted as a liberator of the individual. This paved the path for free and voluntary association of human beings to gain control over their destiny.

Needless to say when this process takes place under the aegis of capitalism it is one of the most painful of experiences for there is a simultaneous loss of economic security and social identity. The breakdown of the social and economic order that gave security to the individual is also accompanied by a cultural assault that denigrates the tribal culture as backward consistently portrays it is a negative light.

Tribal people are thus on the verge of absorption into the general society as unskilled wage earners. The predominant culture of the general society where they have to fight for respectability is brahmanic. In the absence of a strong democratic movement of the labouring people the tribal people are forced to take to brahmanic culture to win a respectable identity within the general society. It is this space that the Sangh Parivar is using to make an entry into the tribal belts.

The Sangh has all along maintained that the tribal people are forest dwelling Hindus. It has also tried to deflect from the long history of the dispossession of the tribes by the high caste society by calling the tribal people as vanvasi (forest dwellers) rather than adivasis(original inhabitants). They have vehemently fought against the British census categorisation of the religion of the tribal people as animistic and have called for terming it as Hindu. Elaborate and strained attempts have been made to associate the gods of the tribal people with the high gods of Hinduism.

Learning from the Christian missionaries the need to combine such processes of religious acculturation with education and health services the Sangh Parivar has been building schools and health establishments under the name of vanvasi kalyan ashrams, or ekal vidyalayas. These promise to provide the tribes access to modern education and health facilities which 50 years of independence could not provide them. Not only are these funded liberally by the overseas financiers of the Sangh Parivar but also by the various parties in power, including the Congress Party.

Over the last few decades the Congress Party and the other parties in power have been actively engaged in promoting Hinduisation of the tribal people both in the Central India and in the North East. A number of religious organisations like the Ramakrisha Mission and subsequently clones of the Sangh Parivar under neutral sounding names like the Vivekananda Society have been promoting the Hinduisation process with substantial state funding and connivance.

The Hinduisation takes the form of establishing quasi-religious residential schools, building temples in all villages to Hanuman or Ganesh and endowing these temples with enormous funds to organise festivals in which a large number of people are fed, organising festivals like ganesh puja and durga puja in areas where none whatsoever existed previously...

At the same the more volatile sections of the tribal people are mobilised against minorities present in the area whether Christian missionaries or Muslims.

The Sangh Parivar outfits are not known to take up any substantial issues like control over land or forests or water resources or even adequate pricing of the minor forest produce which the tribal people collect and sell.

It is not that the regions where these processes have been taking place are bereft of left wing movements. Bastar, Mandla, Jhabua, Panchmahal or Banswara, are also centres of either Naxalite inspired movements or other similar radical ideologies. The sucess of the Sangh Parivar should give them some cause for introspection and reflection on their strategies. On the face of it would seem that all these movements have focused on a particular economic issue without presenting an alternate world view and linking up the tribal people with the wider democratic movements and society. In fact most of these movements have nurtured an insular and protectionist attitude towards the tribes and tribal culture often bordering on obscurantism. Instead of acting as the gateway for the integration of the tribal people with the broader democratic society they have sought to act as gatekeepers preventing the winds of change from entering the tribal world. That seems to have left the field open for the Sangh Parivar to integrate the tribal people with their fascist movement.

1. See Marx’s various drafts of his letter to Vera Zasulich, T. Shanin, ed. ‘Late Marx and the Russian Road’, London, 1983, pp. 99-125.

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