From resistance to governance


back to issue

TRIBAL politics in India, by and large, can be described as the politics of resistance, a long drawn out struggle against the violation of tribal rights on water, forest and land (jal, jungle aur zamin) by state sponsored activities and private interests (Singh ed. 1972, 1983).1 Though diverse in its articulation of resistance, the distinguishing feature of these struggles has been towards advancing a critique to the modern, scientific management of natural resources. It is this what sets these struggles apart from other movements demanding statehood and special privileges for the original inhabitants of the land.2

With the formation of Jharkhand, there seems to be an interlude in the relatively uninterrupted tribal situation in the country.3 The tribes of south Bihar have been granted their own state and, supposedly, with it the right to govern themselves. Is this the beginning of a new phase of governance in the area and an attempt at translating into practice the alternative vision of the movement on natural resource management? Or is it more a co-opting of tribes into the mainstream by offering them a state of their own?

Jharkhand was officially recognized as the 28th state of the Indian Union on 15 November 2000, the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda, the fore-bearer and inspiration of the Jharkhand movement. The formation of the state marks the end of a political phase in the area. With the formation of Jharkhand, although a clipped version as envisioned by the movement,4 the foremost demand of the Jharkhand movement was accomplished. Present day Jharkhand corresponds to the map drawn by the Bharatiya Janata Party for Vanaanchal, comprising of the tribal districts of south Bihar. However, there is some uncertainty whether the other major aspirations and demands of the movement have been accommodated by the formation of the state. Was state creation a realization of the aspirations of what the movement strove for is the question I explore in this paper.



To most in Jharkhand, a legitimate, official ‘Jharkhandi’ identity as against the much-disparaged one of a ‘Bihari’ was enough reason to celebrate and rejoice (Roy 2000). But labels reveal more than they conceal or cover up as categories of thought and politics. An identity that one can call one’s own, however prescribed and ceremonial, beckoned their arrival as full-fledged citizens within the Indian Union in place of pictorial depictions of ‘other cultures’ in the census supplements of Bihar to demonstrate the presence of a people with strange costumes and stranger manners. The celebration upon gaining a separate and independent Jharkhandi label vindicated their aspirations for the area and as a people. However, many dithered from celebrating, unsure whether the formation of Jharkhand was an answer to their prayers and expectations or the beginning of another round of haggling with the authorities for all those provisions of civil existence that should come naturally to a people as citizens and rightful members of a nation (Krishna 2000).



To many observers and onlookers, the formation of the state sent mixed signals. The exhilaration around the formation of Jharkhand was accompanied by strikes and protests in Delhi as well as in Jharkhand by political and social activists on the politics that ensued over the formation of government in the state. A number of discussions were organized to discuss the fate of Jharkhand under a right wing chief minister and government. Many activists and political leaders belonging to the Jharkhand parties of various denominations felt cheated of their toehold in politics. They were suddenly divested of their contribution to the long struggle that paved the way for the formation of Jharkhand. And with it, many of the issues central to the movement were forgotten.

The slighting of some prominent political leaders of the movement was as much a result of their own doing or undoing as it was a consequence of the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as an important party in the area.5 For those informed about the politics of the area, the BJP’s ascendance to power came as no surprise. However, the shenanigans that accompanied the politics around the chief ministerial birth raised doubts about the commitment to the welfare of its people and the area. In effect, it put a question mark on a number of objectives around which the movement had sustained itself over half a century that the creation of Jharkhand sought to achieve.



The cynicism with the politics that accompanied the formation of the state was reflected publicly and without reserve. Soon after the formation of Jharkhand, a prominent human rights organization in the area came out with what it termed as a People’s Agenda (BIRSA 2000, ii):

‘We have finally got the Jharkhand state, but what we have got is only a physical layout of the same. If we ask ourselves the question as to who controls the lives of people within this physical area, then in order to give an honest answer we would have to admit that the controls are not in the hands of the Jharkhandi people.

‘At the economic level, outsiders and non-tribes, industrialists, merchants, traders, mine-owners, government employees and contractors own our waters, forests and lands as well as our mineral resources. At the political level, it is sad that a communal party is the strongest party in Jharkhand and it seems that it is going to be the ruling party of the state… the cause for worry is that in the 50 years of the struggle, Jharkhand movement has become a leaders’ movement and because of this some of our leaders have had a taste of political posts and money and taken advantage of the people. Therefore, the people of Jharkhand are faced by a difficult task of converting the Jharkhand movement from being a leaders’ movement to a people’s movement.’

Clearly, statehood was not seen as an affirmation of self-rule or autonomy. Basic to this realization are issues revolving around the control and management of jal, jungle and zamin. Most importantly, it was an appeal towards decentralizing these concerns to the people themselves in order to find possible solutions to gaining control over their waters, forests and lands and thereby over their lives. This appeal was a tacit apology for deviating from the very basis of the movement. It was simultaneously an appeal to the people to prepare for another phase of collective action to ascertain self-rule, a going back to the basic issue that the movement began with in seeking the support of the people in the struggle. However, this time round, the movement faces greater cynicism.



What is the People’s Agenda? The organization seeks to answer this question in its declaration by listing a set of instructions in the form of dos and don’ts for the newly formed government. One of its demands is to reserve the post of chief minister and his deputy for tribes people; also that all government workers who come in direct contact with the people should be locals and belong to a tribal group of the area. Second, tribal land should be restored and the leases of mines in the area should be taken away from non-tribes and given to local tribal groups. Third, the government should put an end to displacing people, especially through dam projects. Fourth, sincere efforts should be made to end corruption in government. The fifth demand is to constitute a special committee consisting of leaders of the Jharkhand movement, intellectuals, representatives from minority communities and weaker sections of society such as women and scheduled castes. This committee would oversee government working and ensure that the interests of the weaker sections of the society are not compromised by the state.

The activists also distinguish between a Vanaanchal perspective of self-rule, which is also synonymous with a modern and a diku (outsider) perspective, as against that of Jharkhand. The former is based on the exploitation of nature and believes in the values of individualism, competition and profit maximization, materialism and self-aggrandizement. The latter, on the other hand, is based on a respect for nature, communitarianism, sharing, consensus and believes in the philosophy that there is a limit to self-aggrandizement as beyond a point it amounts to exploiting other persons and beings in nature.

The creation of Jharkhand on the lines of a proposed Vanaanchal was seen as the realization of diku aspirations in the area. The activists use the term diku, to refer to industrialists, traders, merchants and government employees or as they put it, ‘the category of oppressors who are not a part of the movement and are responsible for pushing the people and their traditions and habitats to the periphery’ (ibid. 2). In this light, the creation of the present state of Jharkhand may well be seen as an attempt to thwart the struggle towards self-rule.



With the formation of Jharkhand, the local tribes feel outnumbered, being a minority within Jharkhand. According to the 1991 census, tribes constitute only 28% of the population within Jharkhand. Some in the movement attribute it to the census procedures, wherein there was no accounting of tribes practicing Sarna, or their ancient religion, as against those who have taken to Hinduism or converted to Islam or Christianity. This they feel is a purposeful move to alienate tribes from their own culture and region. Likewise, there are 14 Lok Sabha seats in Jharkhand of which only five are reserved for scheduled areas; the other nine seats are available to non-tribes for contesting elections. Correspondingly, of 81 Vidhan Sabha or Jharkhand State Legislative Assembly seats, only 28 are reserved for tribes. Consequently, the tribals find themselves under-represented in the two houses and therefore do not see the possibility of their visions vis- ŕ-vis the area and the people crystallizing into state practices (Prakash Louis 2000).



The fundamental point of altercation, it seems, is the issue of under-representation of tribes in the new political milieu as well as the fear of being sequestrated of their lands and forests by the diku. It is worth mentioning here that the performance of the Jharkhand parties in the reserved constituencies over the past couple of decades has not been promising. It has seen a decline in their reputation as parties representing local tribes in the area, partly as a result of floating from one party to another.6

Also, Jharkhand parties have sought alliances in almost all Lok Sabha and assembly elections. Their association with various national parties such as the Congress, Janata Party and the Communist Party of India around elections has confused the electorate about their locus standi vis-ŕ-vis their long-term political ambitions for the area (Ghosh 1989). The 1990s marked a significant change in Jharkhand, wherein the Bharatiya Janata Party emerged as the leading party in tribal Bihar. Thus, besides pondering over the dynamics of numbers in the newly formed state, the Jharkhand leaders need to consider the ascendance of diku parties and objectives in seats apparently set aside for tribes.

The situation then is no different with the formation of the state. In fact, the movement has woken up to the reality of Jharkhand; it is no longer the supposedly ‘uncorrupted’ world of tribes. The demographic shift in the area was also accompanied by a diversification of tribal life in the area. The demographic shift is not a recent phenomenon and nor is it a problem associated only with the census operations. As early as 1962, Roy Choudhury stated (ibid. 19):

‘The tempo of the rapid increase of Bihar’s population is going to be accelerated by the programme of industrialization that has been taken up in various parts of the state and particularly in Chotanagpur… In 1961 census there has been a tremendous increase of about 21% in the overall population due to natural accretion, further resettlement of displaced persons, setting up of new industrial zones etc. In 1971 census there may be another 20% increase, as the effects of the newly started family planning move is likely to be set off by a more industrialization in a few belts.7 This overall increase of the population will mean that by 1975 the demand on Bihar’s forestry will be almost double… No ordinary afforestation programme is likely to be able to cope with the increased pressure on forests unless there is a well-planned regimentation.’



Evidently, an increase in the Chotanagpur population also put pressure on forests and lands that further put aside the rights of local tribes to fulfil the exigencies of the state. It was this resolve to change the face of Chotanagpur that spelt disaster for the local tribes. The movement had consistently campaigned against the processes of industrialization as well as construction of big dams, which were the main cause for displacement of people in the area. It demanded a separate state in the hope of restoring the rights of tribes to their lands, waters and forests. The formation of Jharkhand has not altered the equation between the state and the demands of the movement. The new state has made explicit its commitment to industrialize Jharkhand and open the countryside to commercial investment (annual report on Jharkhand state economy 2001, Government of Jharkhand).8 If the policy pronouncements are any indication of the state’s plans for Jharkhand, the future of tribes in the region will not be any different from their previous experiences with the state of Bihar and the Indian Union.



The recent legislation on political decentralization or The Panchayat (extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 does not help matters. Though it claims to devolve financial and executive powers to the village level through its fourtier system of decentralized administration, certain features qualify both these powers.9 According to the Parliamentary Report that lists the finer details of this process of decentralization, a large part of the panchayat funds would accrue from the collections of state governments in the form of taxes, tolls, and duties and from the Consolidated Fund of India as grants-in-aid to the state governments. The State Finance Commission as a financial award to the panchayat system would devolve a certain portion of the funds. Only an insignificant part of the funds would be collected through the system.



In addition, the funds have been divided into two categories: the charged and the voted.10 The intention behind this division is that once a part of the funds is placed in the ‘charged’ category, it would be spent for the purpose listed in the budget brought out by the intermediate panchayat (subject to conditions prescribed by the additional deputy commissioner) and approved by the autonomous district council. In so doing, subjects under the ‘charged’ category are decided in the processes of decentralization and not through approval of the people. Both these powers are paraphrased so as to accommodate issues of national and development interests of the country. The panchayats do not have the power to overrule or question state imperatives or interests in the area. In fact, as decentralized structures of the state, the panchayats would be bound institutionally to implement government programmes and policies irrespective of whether they find favour with the local people. The legislation thereby reintroduces the same points of discord between the movement and the state.11

The All India Conference of Women Organizations working at the grassroots in Ranchi in 1997 could not have brought this tension out more clearly. The conference was fully represented by organizations from Jharkhand such as Jharkhand Mahila Sangharsh Samiti based in Ranchi, Shramjivi Mahila Samiti (Jamshedpur), Mahila Samakhya (Ranchi), Badlav (Dumka), Visthapit Sanghatan Sangh (Ichagarh), Nari Mukti Vahini (Palamau), Aqua (Giridih), Sanyukt Mahila Samiti (West Singhbhum) and Koel-Karo Jan Sanghatan (West and East Singhbhum), especially in the session organized around issues of displacement and related issues of compensation and rehabilitation.



Some of the major issues raised by these organizations were regarding their resentment over irrigation projects (Ichagarh dam and the Koel-Karo dam project), field firing ranges (Netrahaat field firing range), bauxite mines and white stone factories (in Palamau and West Singhbhum), abuse of women workers in brick kilns and coal mines spread all over Jharkhand and out migration of women of the area and their initiation into the illicit profession of flesh trade. The large turnout of women and of organizations working on issues of displacement in this session not only brought to light the gravity of the problem of alienation of forests and lands from the people of the area, but also the desperation of the locals over the state of affairs.

Though the Jharkhand movement has moved away from its earlier stance of resistance, it still subscribes to an archetype ‘borrowed’ from the nation-builders of tribes vs. non-tribes, isolation vs. integration, uncorrupted tribal way of life vs. the exploitative outsider, which has only served as a screen against the industrial and commercial misuse of the area. This archetype methodically dissociated the concerns of ‘culture’ from ‘nature’ or the management of natural resources, wherein protecting tribal culture was restricted to ensuring the survival of tribal arts and crafts. As begetters and products of a specific economic and symbolic relationship with lands and forests, arts and crafts were dissociated from the latter and reduced to becoming mere exhibits of tribal heritage of India.



The classic instance would be that of Panchsheel or the five principles advocated by Nehru in the administration of the northeast tribes, which purportedly expressed the spirit of administration in all tribal areas in India. The emphasis was on protecting tribal rights on lands and forests and allowing tribes to develop on their own terms. However, Panchsheel was in disagreement with the policy of industrialization for the rest of India. Since tribal areas are also the most resource rich areas, the process of industrialization was brazen with regard to tribal rights on land water and forests (Arya 1998, Das 1992, Lorduswamy 1997, Singh 1972).

The debate initiated at the time of independence over the future of tribes in India between the integrationists vs. the isolationists still holds ground after all these years. The debate between Verrier Elwin (1955) and G.S. Ghurye (1963) has outlived the protagonists wherein the latter built a case of incorporating tribes into the mainstream and created the infamous contraction for tribes as ‘backward Hindus’. Elwin (1955) on the other hand was in favour of protecting tribes from the mainstream, thereby preserving the ‘tribal way of life’ from the ills of ‘civilization’. His contribution to the tribal experience could well be in popularizing the notion of a ‘tribal way of life’, a homogeneous, romantic construct of ‘innocent’ and ‘primitive’ tribesmen, women and children set in pristine environs, cut off from civilization. A picture so perfect that the legitimacy of tribes in India depended on whether they fitted into this etched out portrait of a ‘tribal way of life’.



In either case, the tribes were reduced to the ‘primitive other’ and have since been subjected to a time warp, which fails to accommodate the diversity in tribal life and experience over time. The Jharkhandi vs. Vanaanchal perspective recalls the isolation vs. integration debate on the future of tribes in India. It reinstates the divide between tribe and non-tribe around the same dichotomies of innocent vs. shrewd, communitarian vs. individualistic and nature vs. culture. This encourages a politics that is not only insular, but also self-defeating. Both the movement and its adversaries oscillate between the same binary logic on tribes with neither focusing on the substantive issues of governance and culture that confront tribes at this critical juncture presented in the creation of Jharkhand.

It is clear with the formation of Jharkhand that there can be no political solutions to cultural questions, that is, a political enclave will not ensure cultural autonomy or economic entitlement. And any meaningful deliberation on the issue of autonomy will only be possible if the movement unlearns the terms of the current debate on tribes. First, it has to acknowledge the diversification of tribal life in its politics. Concomitantly, it must seriously deliberate upon what constitutes the ‘tribal self/selves’ and in the process seek direction on the future of governance vis-ŕ-vis people and natural resources in Jharkhand. The revivification of tribal politics practiced by the nation-builders is a matter of concern as it casts doubts over the future of tribes in India. Will tribal politics in India ever be able to break away from the doppelganger that sealed the fate of tribes in India as the proverbial ‘other’ in India’s ‘tryst’ with destiny?




Shachi Arya, Tribal Activism: Voices of Protest. Rawat Publications, Delhi, 1998.

BIRSA, Jharkhand ko Jharkhandi Banaye (People’s Agenda). BIRSA, Chaibasa, 2000.

Victor Das, Jharkhand – Castle Over the Grave. Inter-India Publications, Delhi, 1992.

Verrier Elwin, Do We Really Want to Keep Them in a zoo? Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, Delhi, 1955.

Arunabha Ghosh, ‘Probing the Jharkhand Question’, Economic and Political Weekly 26(18), 4 May 1991, 1173-81.

G.S. Ghurye, The Scheduled Tribes. Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1963.

Stan Lorduswamy, Jharkhandi’s Claim for Self- Rule. Indian Social Institute and BIRSA, Delhi, 1997.

Prakash Louis, Jharkhand Rajya Kiske Liye, Kyon aur Kaise? Indian Social Institute, Delhi, 2000.

Daya Krishna, ‘Can They Survive in the Modern World?’ Economic and Political Weekly 25(46), 11 November 2000, 3997-8.

Report of the committee of members of Parliament and experts constituted to make recommendations on law concerning extension of the provisions of the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 to scheduled areas. Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, January 1995.

A.K. Roy, ‘Jharkhand: From Separatism to Liberation’, Economic and Political Weekly 25(41), 7 October 2000, 3631-3.

Suresh K. Singh (ed.), The Tribal Situation in India. Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla and Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi, 1972.

Suresh K. Singh (ed.), Tribal Movements in India. Volume II. Manohar Publications, Delhi, 1983.

Yatinder Singh, ‘Decentralized Governance in Madhya Pradesh: Experience of the Gram Sabha in Scheduled Areas’, Economic and Political Weekly 37(40), 5 October 2002, 4100-04.

Savyasaachi. Tribal Forest-dwellers and Self-rule. Indian Social Institute, Delhi, 1998.

Virginius Xaxa, ‘Empowerment of Tribes’, in Debal K. SinghaRoy (ed.) Social Development and the Empowerment of Marginalized Groups. Sage Publications, Delhi, 2001, pp. 202-222.



1. Xaxa (2001) argues that the struggle for empowerment among tribes was a response to the process of disempowerment of tribes unlike, for example, the resistance movements among scheduled castes wherein they sought redress from an age-old oppressive system.

2. Here I refer to movements popularly known as the sons of the soil movements that sought to campaign for rights and privileges for the locals as against migrant communities.

3. Jharkhand or the ‘land of forests’ is one of the most resource rich areas in the country. An equally rich cultural mosaic matches the diversity of its topography. It is home to over 20 tribes; predominant among them are the Munda, Santhal, Ho and the Kharia.

4. The proposed map of Jharkhand envisaged by the movement corresponded to the geological extent of the Chotanagpur plateau and consisted of the tribal districts of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Orissa.

5. Arya (1998) attributes Jharkhand parties’ diminishing influence in the area in the last few years to its inability to systematically take up agrarian issues in the region.

6. Bagun Sumbrui is known to have changed parties once during the 1977 Lok Sabha election when he joined the Janata Party and, then again, in the 1980s when he shifted to the ruling Congress.

7. A large numbers of Bangladeshi refugees were settled in Chotanagpur following the India-Pakistan war.

8. The Jharkhand government has recently granted Rs 10 crore to the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) to develop tourism in the state (TOI News Watch, 19 October 2002).

9. The four units are the village assembly (gram sabha), gram panchayat (a council of five members representing the village), the intermediate panchayat and the autonomous district council.

10. The Bhuria Committee report does not spell out the subjects listed in the voted category. The charged category includes subjects such as education, health and development.

11. The experiences of Madhya Pradesh in scheduled areas with the Panchayat Raj Act 1996 have not been encouraging. The gram sabha or the village assembly, as the lowest unit of administration, has not only failed to involve people in the decision-making processes, but panchayat raj has slowly turned into ‘sarpanch raj’ or rule by a dominant few. The gram sabha has been reduced to a body intended for implementing government programmes in the villages (Singh 2002).