Feyzi Ismail and Alpa Shah correctly draw attention to the perils inherent in an overflux of identity politics, citing current experiences (“Class Struggle, the Maoists and the Indigenous Question in Nepal and India,” EPW, 29 August 2015). However, their proposition of a “lack of clarity” in relation to the indigenous question in case of the Maoist movement in India is not of much help in advancing the discussion.
While it is true that it has been late in paying due attention to the specificities of caste and ethnic discrimination, this has not been the case for at least the past two decades or so. Its programmatic position of autonomy (instead of the right to self-determination) in Adivasi regions in mainland India is a considered one—founded on the view that the tribal people inhabiting them are not yet citizens of the country, while accepting the need to address the specificities of their socio-economic-cultural existence.
This has its theoretical argument, open to contest as any other. But it certainly would not do to dismiss it as a “lack of clarity.” Besides, while some Janjatis of Nepal (the Tharu and Tamang to cite a couple) should be identified as citizens, the blanket categorisation of all of them as such is questionable. A lack of theoretical rigour displayed in such sweeping generalisations and its programmatic consequences could also be a factor behind later distortions over there, as noted by the authors.
Coming back to India, there is the further question of how appropriate it would be for a critique to take a presentation of the movement, even if given by those sympathetic to it as that of the movement itself. Neither its theory nor its practice in the connectedness of activities in the Adivasi regions has ever projected itself as an Adivasi movement. Certainly, it has insisted on its class character and deepened its understanding of the class differentiation existing among the Gonds, Mundas and other tribal peoples, even while striving to gain a better grasp of the distinctiveness of their societies.
The programme and regulations of the embryonic forms of rule being built up there draw on local tribal traditions. They also establish new norms and values in opposition to customary ones inimical to the people. The guarantees given to women, emancipating them from brutal patriarchy, and democratic forms of rule supervised by the masses to replace the arbitrary rule of the elders, are some samples. (Incidentally, this should caution one against ideas that “egalitarianism” can emerge from Adivasi communities. Drawing on their traditions of equity as a source aiding the contemporary movements for egalitarianism, which is what Mariátegui really drew attention to, is a different matter altogether.)
Finally, even more than misguided presentations of the movement as an Adivasi one, its projection as one primarily focused on defending natural resources from corporate plunder should be a matter of concern for all favourable to the precedence of class politics. While the drive for resources forms a compelling aspect guiding the state in the regimes, the challenge posed by the emergence of a counter rule, a new society, is the principal factor propelling its all-out effort to regain control. That the Adivasis, despised as “backward” by the self-acclaimed “advanced,” stand as conscious agents of the social creation at its very cutting edges is testimony to both the shallowness of such a cultural stamp, as well as the potential of the “idea” once it grips minds.
YERWADA CENTRAl PRISON, PUNE
Vol – L No. 40, October 03, 2015 Economic and Poltical Weekly