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Gandhian perspective on Tribal Resources and the Modern State
By Birinder Pal Singh*
The modern state, whatever be its nature and type, has come to stay. It has become an extremely powerful engine to steer the so-called traditional society on the path of development following the framework of western modernization. It is positively related to the development and multiplication of resources for the 'benefit of its people' but negatively related to the tribes.

THE QUESTION OF tribal identity and their economy has once again got into the eye of the storm in India in the recent past. The tribal area in question is believed by the anthropologists to host the earliest people not only in this country but on this earth generally. This resource rich belt is in the news where the Indian army and other paramilitary forces are clashing with tribal people and the members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). They are fighting to protect their land and resources fearing physical dislocation in the wake of economic development. The opening up of Indian economy to the global corporations eying the material resources there, have triggered this clash of interests between the local stake holders and the big businesses.
Tribes constitute 8.4 percent of the Indian population as per 2001 census and they are spread all over the country. Certain pockets make home to large proportion of these people.1 For instance, the major part of North-East with seven sisters is wholly tribal while Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have substantial population of ancient tribes. Some 'developed' states of Punjab and Haryana refuse to recognise their presence though they are very much there.2
The Government of India identifies tribes as characterised by indications of primitive traits, distinct culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness.3 This ideal-typical characterisation of a tribe does not apply to majority of the tribes now though it may still do well with people inhabiting the core of tribal belt. To quote Dube: “In the Indian context the term tribe has never been defined precisely and satisfactorily. It was used, at one time, to denote a bewildering variety of social categories that were neither analogous nor comparable. The Rajput and the Jat as well as the aboriginals, for example, were categorized as tribes... At no stage, however, did we have a set of clear indicators of tribalness”4 (emphasis added). The problem of definition is not unique to the Indian situation; it is also a general problem in anthropology as well.5
The issue here is not to discuss the problem of definition but only to suggest the very vagueness of their characterisation that speaks of the attitude of the powers that be towards them. The state or academia may be defining these people as aborigines, indigenous, primitives, savages, first nation people and so on. But it is certain that often most of these people remain marginalised in all parts of the world with animal like existence from which they should be rescued, educated and civilised. They may be physically evacuated from their habitat, if necessary, for developmental purposes - so very essential for the economy of a modern nation-state.
The problem of tribal identity and their resources has become contentious again. Earlier tribal settlements in and around the forests were not usually interfered with by the feudal lords or urban/rural elite. It happened with the onset of industrial revolution and subsequent expansion of economy and society. Consequently, the urban, 'civilised' merchant capitalist started encroaching upon the territory of the tribal or indigenous people for trading the forest produce, their natural wealth. The expansion of industry, market and urbanisation is largely dependent upon the forest. Pointedly, in India, it started with British colonialism.
In the process of modernisation and development, paradoxically the tribes got marginalized further. As a matter of fact their state and fate is inversely related to modernization which has become more intense with globalization.

Resources for the tribals, as for any people but surely less than the consumerist modern ones, had ever been important and shall remain so howsoever scientific and technological developments might have taken place. We may talk of two types of resources. One is the natural type-food, clothing and shelter-that the tribal people had always been utilizing and consuming since millennia for their survival. All needs were met from direct or indirect consumption of natural resources. The other type is traditional wisdom / knowledge to cope up with nature for their (social) existence that has now been made obsolete and redundant; hence the need to master the art and craft of new techniques and methods.
Presently the tribal people are at great disadvantage on both counts. Their natural resources are being usurped through devious ways and the modern education is deluding them for various reasons.
Till the advent of the consumer market tribal villages had their specific tracts of forest from where all the households had equal right and share in its wealth be it fuel wood, fodder, timber, fruit, herbs and other edibles.
The problem of encroaching tribal wealth and property was not a rule with colonial power alone. The present day democratically elected Government of India is also carrying out the legacy of its colonial masters. Globalised economy has invited large manufacturing and trading corporations to the mineral rich tribal belt of central India, home to the oldest living tribes in the country. The natives resisting the loss of their land and forest are persecuted by labelling them as Maoists, posing threat to the law and order of the land.
The whole issue of resistance and rebellion arose when tribes were left with no alternative with respect to the plundering of their resources and threatened with evacuation. They never bothered about other tacit or covert exploitation, given their naivety and innocence about the deceitful activities of the urbane non-tribals.

The problem of tribal development lies with the political and administrative system. These elite are interested neither in the tribal peoples' development nor in raking issues that do not favour them. The World Bank Report on the status of education and health services in India notes: “While official rules provide for the possibility of punitive action in the case of repeated absence, disciplinary action for absences is rare. Teachers and health workers are almost never fired.”6
Why doesn't the political system generate demands for stronger supervision of providers? The World Bank Report continues: “Most of the countries in our sample are either democratic or have substantial elements of democracy. Yet provider absence in health and education is not a major election issue. Apparently, politicians do not consider campaigning on a platform of cracking down on absent providers to be a winning electoral strategy.”7
Thus cutting the long story short, the present theory and practice of development in the world's largest democracy is not conducive to inclusive growth which is why the poor and the poorer communities are getting marginalized further.

Modern Science and Technology
The modern state given to the twin processes of modernization and globalization with the help of modern science and technology has become a measure of civilisation and development. Development of modern science and technology has become an end in itself. Modern scientific temper is opposed to all that is traditional and religious. These modern processes have only added to the speed with which the tribal communities are going to witness their death. There is absolutely no chance of their survival under the given socio-economic and political conditions prevailing not only in India but anywhere in the world. There could be some respite to the tribal people for conserving their society and culture and the natural resources in the socialist system of politics and administration at least in theory but in practice, there too it is impossible because socialism is also given to the above mentioned principles for the development of a nation-state in competition with the capitalist block. It also debunks tradition, the hallmark of tribal or primitive communities.
There was, during our freedom struggle and still is only one alternative, the Gandhian model of social and economic development where all three components, namely resources, tribes and the state could have a cordial and harmonious relation with one another such that one would lead to the growth and well being of the other. One shall not make foe to the other. This model of development will save both the tribal people and their resources from exploitation by the corporations through the state.
The tribal mode of village existence was absolutely compatible to Gandhi's philosophy of village India. He always said that India lives in villages and if its villages perish, India will perish too. Thus we should develop them further rather than towns and large cities that in fact “were a snare and a useless encumbrance and that people would not be happy in them, that there would be gangs of thieves and robbers, prostitution and vice flourishing in them and that poor men would be robbed by rich men.”8 He advocated that true democracy and justice could only be dispensed at the village level with decentralised administration and judicial system. He advocates:
My idea of village Swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity... The Government of the village will be conducted by the panchayat of five persons annually elected by the adult villagers, male and female, possessing minimum prescribed qualifications. These will have all the authority and jurisdiction required. Since there will be no system of punishment in the accepted sense, this panchayat will be the legislature, judiciary and executive combined to operate for its year of office... Here there is perfect democracy based upon individual freedom. The individual is the architect of his own government. The law of non-violence rules him and the government. He and his village are able to defy the might of a world.9
Thus there is need to strengthen the gram panchayat that was truly effective in every tribal society in the form of tribal or kabila panchayat. It has always been very powerful and operated at various levels from the village to a region. Tribal administration and Gandhi's formula are much in consonance with Rousseau's prescription: 'Democracy presupposes “many conditions that are difficult to unite”: small state, a simple lifestyle, a large measure of equality in rank and wealth and “little or no luxury”.'10 (emphasis added) But Gandhi's views were neither appreciated by Nehru nor by Ambedkar. Nehru writes to Gandhi in 1942: “I do not understand why a village should necessarily embody truth and nonviolence. A village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment. Narrow- minded people are much more likely to be untruthful and violent.”11
And, to Ambedkar a village is a “sink of localism and den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and communalism.”12 But Gandhi's concept village (that may consist of about 1000 souls) is not the existing type bereft of all amenities.13 He qualifies:
An ideal Indian village will be so constructed as to lend itself to perfect sanitation. It will have cottages with sufficient light and ventilation, built of a material obtainable within a radius of five miles of it. The cottages will have courtyards enabling the householders to plant vegetables for domestic use and to house their cattle. The village lanes and streets will be free of all avoidable dust. It will have wells according to its needs and accessible to all. It will have houses of worship for all, also a common meeting place, a village common for grazing its cattle, a cooperative dairy, primary and secondary schools in which industrial education will be the central factor, and it will have village panchayats for settling disputes. It will produce its own grains, vegetables and fruit, and its own Khadi.14
Gandhi used to say that nature has everything for human needs but not for her greed. Thus the principle of sarvodaya must be invoked because that is the only way to allow sustenance of all natural species including the homo sapiens and the natural resources above all. That is why he likens it to yajna. In his own words: “A yajna is an act directed to the welfare of others, done without desiring any return for it, whether of a temporal or spiritual nature. “Act” here must be taken and includes thought and word, as well as deed. “Others” embraces not only humanity, but all life...”15 And sarvodaya cannot be realised without practising poverty voluntarily, that is, aparigraha. Gandhi himself has strongly recommended the 'principle of non- possession' for attaining sarvodaya. He writes to Narandas:
Non-possession is allied to non-stealing. A thing not originally stolen must nevertheless be classified as stolen property if we possess it without needing it. Possession implies provision for the future. A seeker after truth, a follower of the law of love, cannot hold anything against tomorrow. God never stores for the morrow. He never creates more than what is strictly needed for the moment... The rich have a superfluous store of things which they do not need, and which are therefore neglected and wasted; while millions starve to death for want of sustenance. If each retained possession only of what he needed, no one would be in want and all would live in contentment.16
Incorporation of such principles of social, economic and political development in the Indian Constitution would have relieved us from the scourge of scams. No activity is more criminal and anti-national than depositing the nation's wealth in the Swiss Bank. But the mentor of the Indian constitution remarked: “I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.”17
Gandhi had given us not only an alternative model of development but also redefined the concept of civilisation in direct contrast to the modern western notion which is given more to material development and physical comfort. He writes in Hind Swaraj: “This is considered the height of civilisation. It has been stated that, as men progress, they shall be able to travel in airship and reach any part of the world in a few hours. Men will not need the use of their hands and feet. They will press a button, and they will have their clothing by their side. They will press another button, and they will have their newspaper. A third, and a motor car will be waiting for them.”18 He continues: “Civilisation seeks to increase bodily comforts, and it fails miserably even in doing so.”19 He dubs it as 'irreligion', a 'disease' but is optimistic that it is not incurable. Gandhi thought that modern civilization had a depressing air of 'futility' and 'madness' about it and was likely to destroy itself before long.
By critiquing western civilization he had made a paradigmatic revolution, but there were no takers and followers of his newness including those very near and dear to him. It is our misfortune and a tragedy for the poor and tribal people. He had asserted: “Civilization in the real sense of the term consists not in the multiplication but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants...If anyone appropriates more than he really needs, he reduces his neighbour to destitution.”20 Max Weber, the father of modern sociology also notes: “A man does not 'by nature' wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he lives and as he is accustomed to live, and to earn as much as he is required to do so.”21
I believe that the philosophy of voluntary poverty or non- possession of goods, aparigraha as weaved by Gandhi into his theory of non-violence, has tribal origin. It must be a theorization of their practical existence as observed by our ancient sages and philosophers who had a holistic vision of reality in which nature –the store house of resources necessary for any kind of life - was to be feared and respected and not dominated and exploited as is the wont of modern civilisation and its science and technology.
Thus, it may be concluded that the existing modern state is theoretically, ideologically and practically pitted against the tribes. Its policies rather promote their physical dislocation and social decimation. Whatever measures might be taken and howsoever honest they may be, the twin processes of physical dislocation and social decimation remain unavoidable since the state is given to modernization of economy and society. Its citizens in competition with others wish to maximise their own material progress and profit based on exploitation of resources both human/cultural and natural. The benevolent state on the contrary is given to conserving all natural resources for the benefit of its people and their posterity, thus sharing these amongst them on basis of 'to each according to one's needs' only. If the modern state assumes such nature and character, then the whole debate between the two models of tribal development based on 'isolation' from the mainstream society and 'integration' with it, will become redundant. The peace shall prevail everywhere thus realizing swaraj in letter and spirit.

Notes and References:
  1. Census of India 2001 (Delhi: Government of India).
  2. Birinder Pal Singh (ed.), 'Criminal' Tribes of Punjab: A Social-Anthropological Inquiry (Delhi: Routledge, 2010)
  3. Ibid., p. xxiii mentioning five criteria of tribalness.
  4. S.C. Dube (ed.), TribalHeritage of India Vol. I: Ethnicity, Identity and Interaction. (Delhi: Vikas,1977), p. 2.
  5. For debate on the problemof definition of tribe see Birinder Pal Singh (ed.), 'Criminal' Tribes ofPunjab, pp. xxiii-xxxviii
  6. Nazmul Chaudhury,'Missing in Action: Teacher and Health Worker Absence inDeveloping Countries' World Bank Report, May 19, 2005, p. 2.
  7. Ibid., p. 19.
  8. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj (Ahmedabad: Navjivan PublishingHouse, 1938 (1962), p. 62.
  9. M.K. Gandhi, Economic and IndustrialLife and Relations, Vol. I, compiled and edited by V.B. Kher (Ahmedabad:Navjivan Publishing House, 1957), pp. 24-5. The tribal people were up in armsagainst the colonial might whose 'sun never sets in the Empire'.
  10. C.D. Kernig, (ed.)Marxism, Communism and Western Society(New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 325.
  11. Sudhir Chandra, 'To MySuccessor...', Times of India, 8 November 1987.
  12. A.C. Kapoor, Constitutional Historyof India 1765-1970 (Delhi: Niraj Prakashan, 1970), p. 481.
  13. M.K. Gandhi, Democracy:Real and Deceptive (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 1961), p. 74.
  14. M.K. Gandhi, Economic andIndustrial Life and Relations, Vol. I,1957, p. xxviii.
  15. Raghavan Iyer, (ed.) TheEssential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi(Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993 (2005), p. 379
  16. Ibid., p. 377
  17. A.C. Kapoor,Constitutional History of India, p. 481.
  18. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj,p. 36.
  19. Ibid., p. 37.
  20. Raghavan Iyer, (ed.) TheEssential Writings of MahatmaGandhi, p. 378.
  21. Max Weber, The ProtestantEthic and the Spirit of Capitalism(Delhi: Routledge, (1930)1992), p. 24

A version of this paper was presented at the international seminar on Resources, Tribes and State at Rajiv Gandhi National University, Itanagar (Arunachal Pradesh) 13-15 February 2012.
Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 34, No. 2 & 3, July-December 2012

* BIRINDERPAL SINGHis Professor,Department of Sociology& SocialAnthropology,PunjabiUniversity,Patiala -147002. Email: