Adivasis’ claims over land do not just demand material rights but also the recognition of their unique identity or, in other words, Adivasiness. Adivasis of Jharkhand recently marched over 175 kilometres from Latehar to Ranchi over four days to stage a dharna in front of Raj Bhawan on Monday, April 25 and submit a memorandum calling for the cancellation of the Netarhat Field Firing Range project. The project started when the undivided Bihar government issued two sets of notifications on November and March 25, 1992, under Section 9(1) of the Manoeuvres Field Firing and Artillery Practices Act, 1938, which notified this area for periodical field firing and artillery practice for ten years. Again, just one year before the carving of Jharkhand from south Bihar, it issued another notification in 1999 and extended the field firing and artillery practice till May 2022. This long march was meant to demand cancellations of the project, which they have been protesting for the last 28 years. The firing range covers an area of around 1471 square km, and it is estimated that it will impact over two lakh Adivasis from 245 villages.
Land dispossession is a vital issue for Adivasis. It has not just material significance in their lives; it is an integral part of Adivasiness. Before the arrival of modernity, or to be precise, the British colonial power, these communities faced no bar on accessing their habitat. With the arrival of the modern colonial state, everything was being rationalised and measured, and such practices were very strange to the culture of the Adivasis. The modern postcolonial state emulated the colonial state in matters concerning the governance of Adivasi areas. The postcolonial Indian state is continuously failing to protect the interests of the Adivasi community.
With the increasing reach of state and mainstream society, it became challenging for Adivasis to protect their rights over land and their identity. They are the most displaced community in India. More than 40% of displaced people are from Adivasi communities. Despite the presence of unique acts like the PESA Act (1996) and the Forest Rights Act (2006), nothing has significantly improved. Even some states are yet to implement these laws (especially the PESA Act). The Governor is appointed as the protector of Adivasis in the Fifth Schedule area, but it often appears that he acts more like a government agent.
But here, I am not suggesting that they are very docile and should be left out there. Such simplistic and benign reading of Adivasis was prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The discourse was that with the arrival of modernity, they would be unable to deal with changing social and economic development. Such interpretation of Adivasis’ life and culture was very naive, but at the same time, they were acknowledging their rightful space and claim over Jal, Jangal and Jameen.
This portrayal of Adivasis as having a special bond with their natural surroundings strengthens tribal land conservation, just as it serves their immediate subsistence needs as farmers or forest inhabitants. Despite the shifting nature of the political and economic character of the Indian State, demands of Adivasis have remained the same: ‘rights over Jal, Jangal, and Jameen‘. With the recent protest march of Adivasis in Jharkhand against the Netarhat Field Firing Range, it is once again reminding us that even after 74 years of independence, we have failed to protect the rights of Adivasis over their land and abode. It is well known that the Adivasi economy and culture have a harmonious relationship with nature and its endowments. To protect the rights of the Adivasis, the government should emphasise the robust implementation of already existing laws (Forest Rights Act, 2006) which empower Adivasi ways of governance and life, and at the same time, ensure that any land acquisition should get a nod of the affected Adivasi community.
Chhotelal Kumar has done his Masters in Political Science from the Centre for Political Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has research interests in Adivasi politics and has started to read extensively on the topic.