Edited Excerpts from an Interview
Tell us about the Proud, Not Primitive campaign? Government policies use the word ‘primitive’ too, which is harmless.
Survival took up the campaign last year to challenge the perception of tribals being primitive. The judgement that tribal lifestyle is inferior to industrialised society had to be resisted. The Proud, Not Primitive campaign aims to do exactly that — changing minds through changing the language. We don’t deny that tribal communities live a different way of life, often separate from the mainstream society. We say that it has to be cherished and respected. The Indian government has indeed recognised a few years ago that ‘primitive’ is not an appropriate term and changed it to ‘particularly vulnerable’. Our campaign challenges such a perception — of tribals being primitive a la stone-age civilisation — in the media and government policies. Even governments need to change their outlook.
What has been the campaign’s impact until now? Has the media come around to accept that usage of the word ‘primitive’ impacts the communities in a negative way?
The results have been mixed. The Proud, Not Primitive campaign is India-specific. It comes from a larger campaign that we have run internationally called Stamp it Out. Big media houses like the BBC have accepted that derogatory terms are not acceptable and mended their editorial guidelines. They do not use words like ‘primitive’, ‘stone-age’ or ‘backward’ to describe the tribal ways of life. The Guardian too has changed its editorial guidelines. There has been a lot of acceptance. However, there has also been a lot of resistance by people who feel that we are trying to censor the media and curb freedom of speech, and they have reacted very negatively. In India, The Hindu has changed its guidelines. A few individual journalists have supported the campaign.
What do you make of government policies directed at tribes that are vulnerable, culturally endangered… tribes that speak languages that are dying?
It is definitely not just about the language. It is how tribals are conceived. It comes from an idea that the tribal ways of life are backward and primitive. Hence, the reasoning goes that they should be integrated into the mainstream, which is an extremely dangerous concept that has been attacked by a lot of institutions. For instance, the damage that has been wrought on the Andamanese tribes. At Survival, we have studied a lot of cases where there have been efforts to assimilate the tribals into the mainstream. The effect has always been devastating on the tribal communities. There has been massive damage to their physical and mental health owing to the loss of tradition and identity as a tribe. For instance, the Andamanese tribes used to be several tribal communities. The British colonisers forcefully resettled them. They used to be several thousands. Now, there are just about 50 of them left. It has been very tragic. In Canada, Innu people were forcefully settled. They used to be nomadic and have now completely lost that lifestyle and are still struggling to adapt in the mainstream society. They find no jobs. There is a high rate of obesity, alcoholism and suicide among these communities.
Do you find such alienation of tribals in mainland India?
There are several examples. I recently visited a community in Odisha. These tribals were evicted from their villages owing to a tiger reserve. They have been resettled and, as a result, have completely lost their way of life. They used to be a nomadic community. They don’t have land, and even if they had, they would not have the knowhow to cultivate it. Their houses are falling apart and they have no means to repair. They have received very little compensation for the loss of their land.
There is a big debate going on as far as conservation versus human rights is concerned. You are working on the same. Could you tell us about it?
Tribals are being evicted from their land with the argument that they are not interested in the conservation of, say, tigers. What we see the world over is that tribals can be the fiercest guardians of their land. They often inhabit biologically rich areas because they have been guarding it. Tribals inhabit 80 percent of the most biologically rich areas. Evicting tribals from these areas is actually counter-productive. Tribals have a deeply spiritual connection with the world, with a definite goal of conserving that land for future generations. Evicting them forcefully is a violation of their human rights.
Mining and deforestation have a major impact on the tiger population. Tribals, who have been living there for generations, are no threat to the tiger population. When I visited Similipal tiger reserve, I saw that 40 families of the Kharia tribe from six villages were evicted last December from the reserve. Three villages are still populated within the reserve and the Forest Department officials are harassing the tribals to make them leave. They arrested one of the youth and threatened him with slapping charges of being a Maoist. He was released a year ago as there was no evidence against him.
The promises made during eviction — Rs 10 lakh in cash, land and livestock — have not been realised. When I was there, the camp of 40 families had a week’s worth of ration left, which they got from the local government. They have no means of cultivating. They are completely devastated.
These families will follow the same path as the Banabasa resettlement camp set up 20 years ago. The Banabasa people were left with no land. To this day, they make two weeklong trips to the jungle around their original village to get basic forest products. We are hearing worrying reports from Kanha tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh too. Tribals are allegedly being coerced into leaving.
Do you see insurgent movements gaining traction due to the dispossession of the tribal people?
As far as I have seen, the world over, there is a new awareness and drive among tribals to fight for their rights. None of the communities I have worked with have had anything to do with insurgent movements. For example, the Dongria Kondhs of Niyamgiri hills were given the opportunity to vote on mining after a year of protests and campaigns. They unanimously voted against it. Tribals have started realising that they can stand up on their own and that there are laws to protect them.
But there is a common and valid argument that tribals cannot be left to their devices. They should be given English education on par with urban India, healthcare etc…
I think this worldview can be problematic if it doesn’t take into consideration tribal traditions, culture, languages and their way of life. It is in everyone’s interest to foster diversity in a society. There is nothing to be said against providing education or healthcare. These are facilities that the tribals want. They want access to all this like every other member of the Indian society. However, we see that a lot of schools only teach in Hindi. It often comes with rejection of their own language as it is not taught in the schools.
In India, knowing English and Hindi makes you employable. How do you deal with this problem?
It should be up to the tribals whether they want to learn these languages. Of course, learning English and Hindi helps them understand policies better and helps them in fighting for their rights. The policy needs to be designed keeping in mind the diversity of tribes and conditions that exist — it can be village to village, language to language or tribe to tribe.