While Jharkhand will have its states, self-determination based on ethnicity may not be the answer to underlying class inequality.
There are more than 400 communities designated as tribes in the Indian Subcontinent For every tribe so named, there are several others whose distinctive cultures have not been recognised. Their struggle has been hampered by their small numbers and their thin spread. In order to overcome this obstacle, a nationalistic tribal identity is sometimes forged from the many tribes to make a viable “demand group”. The Jharkhand movement is one such demand group, which brings together different communities of the contiguous tribal areas of Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.
The movement is not new — the demand for a separate tribal state known as Jharkhand (“forest areas”) was mooted even before Indian Independence in 1947. Recent years have, however, seen increased activism and the state of “Jharkhand” is closer than ever.
But what lies ahead for the people in Jharkhand once they achieve statehood? Can “Jharkhand” be any different from every other state in the country? Will the “Jharkhand” state live up to expectations of the movement?
“Jharkhand” will be quite different from the predominantly tribal states of the Indian north-east This is because the Santhal. tribe, which today leads the political agitation for statehood, will be a minority in the future state. At the same time, some of the other tribes within the proposed stale area are also demanding separate statehood. The Kolhans, for example, want a state within the very heart of the proposed Jharkhand state.
The Jharkhand movement is also presently weakened by factionlism and party rivalries. Not to mention the ideological division between Maoist groups based in forest areas who espouse armed struggle and a democratic movement relying on mass participation which is backed by the other parties.
The doyen of the movement was Sri Jaipal Singh, a highly educated tribal married to an aristocratic Bengali. Singh delivered the leadership o f the tribal struggles to the community elites. The elitist bent of the Jharkhand leadership is strengthened with their English-medium, Church-run schools, which turn out young, tribal graduates who are alienated form their own families and communities. The Government´s decades-long support for education of tribels has further encouraged the estrangement of the educated from their communities. In the name of “reforming” the tribals, their cultural practices have been denigrated as superstitious and harmful. Extremely valuable tribal knowledge has been belittled. A feeling of inferiority developed among tribal populations and even among their elites, who today go as far as discouraging the traditional community dances and ceremonies.
The tribal leadership of the Jharkhand movement has been dubbed as the most corrupt by its opponents, not without justification. As is well known, the leaders of the tribal communities enjoy luxurious lifestyles untouched by the poverty and deprivation of their people. Indeed, there is little difference between the tribal and non-tribal political leadership.
Apart from the problems with its leadership, inter-ethnic competition is bound to mark the state of “Jharkhand”. As a result, the trump card will be played by the non-tribals. who are wielding power in the area even now, by dint of their economic power and trade and commercial acumen.
“Jharkhand” is likely la become a reality. This alone will satisfy the yearnings for tribal identity, however fallacious or made-up that identity may be. But this process of “forging” or creating tribalism is likely to lead, ultimately, to an identity crisis. The process of forging a tribal identity, as is happening in Jharkhand, is synthetic and will not satisfy the need for ethnic individuality.
Ethnic contradictions are likely to surface as a divisive force within “Jharkhand´´, and they will be accentuated by the dominance of the educated tribals. Many of them are Christians and exist at the outer periphery of the tribes. Thus, the very force that has united the communities and shaped the state of Jharkhand may leave that new tribal identity splintered into ethnic sub-nationalism.
Because the issue of tribal identity fills the horizons of the proponents of the Jharkhand movement, and they have tended to ignore issues such as rights of the poor and equality of opportunity. They assume that the socialistic nature of the tribal communities will spontaneously be restored in a tribal state. But the experience of the tribal states of the Indian North-East does not bear this out. Those states, too, have turned out to be no different than non-bibal states. They are led by elitist forces who have suppressed minority ethnic groups with little hesitation.
“Jharkhand” is already a misnomer.— it is no more a pristine habitat peopled by forest-dwellers. The woodlands have disappeared, and have been partially replaced by commercial plantations. Old occupations and traditions are dead or dying. Tribal worship of trees has became nominal and ritualistic. Gone also is the spirit of equality that pervaded the traditional tribal culture. ´ ´Jharkhand” is set to be one of the more advanced mining and industrial states of India, one with a high concentration of industrial labour where the ethnic concept of equality will be a casualty.
In “Jharkhand”, individual cultural identities will submerged in the course of modernisation. The relationship between the non-tribals and the various communities classified as tribes will be changed radically. The community organisation of the ethnic groups will lose significance, as indeed many already have under the different state governments that presently rule over them.
It is clear that the socialistic pattern of tribal ethnic groups will not be achieved without addressing questions of economic privilege and class. But it seems all too certain that the tribal state of Jharkhand will be achieved by playing the political game in the same manner that the non-tribals do. But in doing so, the most desirable characteristics of tribal societies will fall by the wayside on the way to “Jharkhand”.
Dasgupta is with the organisation PIDIT, based in Delhi.