Tuesday, October 02, 2007

India's Indigenous March On Delhi

Thousands of landless farmers and tribal people in India are setting out on a massive protest march to the capital, Delhi.

The march begins on a national holiday marking the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the man who introduced the idea of non-violent protest to the nation.

It is intended to raise awareness about land rights and scheduled to last for nearly four weeks.

The organisers hope 25,000 people will take part in the march.

Thousands of people began gathering in the city of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, chanting and singing. Most of them are low caste and landless labourers or tribal people demanding legal rights over their land.

They are calling for a national authority to oversee land reform and a system of fast track courts to deal with the long delays and favoritism in resolving land disputes.

Land reform is a controversial issue in rural India. The system is often corrupt and unjust.

So over the next few weeks these protestors will walk more than 300km (180 miles) to Delhi, where their leaders hope to meet, among others, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

It is a huge logistical exercise.

Those taking part are being broken down into groups of one thousand, to make sure everyone gets fed.

The march has been dubbed Janadesh - People's Verdict - and it is described as non-violent civil disobedience.

Left: It is stated that the indigenous people of the valley were the Gandharva's utterances in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Love of art and beauty is inherent in the people of this land from time immemorial.

Indigenous Peoples in India

While the government of India refers to indigenous peoples as "Scheduled Tribes", Adivasi has become the popular term for India's indigenous or tribal peoples. It is a Sanskrit word meaning "original people". Contrary to the official government position, this term reflects the widely recognised fact that the people in question are the earliest known settlers on the Indian subcontinent and North-East India. The indigenous or tribal peoples of India's north-eastern region (the seven states Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura) do not call themselves, nor are they normally referred to in literature, as Adivasi in spite of the fact that the meaning of the term very much applies to the respective people. Representatives of these peoples prefer to use the English term "indigenous peoples".


Left: People: Tangkhul Naga

In the 2001 census, 84.33 million persons were classified as members of Scheduled Tribes, corresponding to 8.2% of the total population. The census lists 461 groups recognised as tribes, while estimates of the number of tribes living in India reach up to 635. While the number of members of the largest tribes, such as the Gonds, Santals, Oraon, Bhils or Nagas go into the millions others, such as the Onge or the Great Andamanese, are on the brink of extinction.

Below: People: Mishmi

The majority of the indigenous and tribal peoples live in an almost contiguous belt stretching from Gujarat in the west to the seven states in the north-east, with the highest concentration in the central region, where more than 50% of the tribal people live. The highest ethnic diversity among the indigenous and tribal population is in the north-eastern region, where 220 distinct groups have been identified. They comprise approximately 12% of the total indigenous population of India.

Agrarian encroachment

Most of India's indigenous peoples have been forest dwellers for centuries. Traditionally, forests met most of their fodder, food, medicinal and other needs. A long process of turning forest areas into a source of revenue and timber, and exploitation of the mineral resources, has led to deforestation, loss of livelihood and displacement of indigenous peoples. The vast majority of the labour force among scheduled tribes is engaged in the agricultural sector (the figure for all India is 66.84%). This means that almost nine-tenths of tribal families rely on natural resources for their livelihood. The majority of these are engaged in permanent agriculture but shifting cultivation still forms the mainstay of the domestic economy in many upland areas, particularly in the north-east. A few small groups in Central and South India and on the Andaman Islands live almost entirely from hunting, gathering and fishing.

Left: People: Naga

Since tribal communities have been forced off most of the fertile plains they previously inhabited, the majority of tribal farmers cultivate marginal land, using rather extensive methods. Above all, irrigation is absent from most areas, the extensive rice terraces of some indigenous peoples, for example some Naga tribes in the north-east, being the exception.

There is a unique relationship between indigenous people and the land. Globilization and subsequent national economic policy has not only displaced 30 million tribal communities and Dalits since Indian independence, but these forces are also using the land in an unsustainable manner, stripping natural resources and destroying local habitat.


Possibly the most substantial percentage of Asia's Blacks can be identified among India's 160 million "Untouchables" or "Dalits." Frequently they are called "Outcastes." Indian nationalist leader and devout Hindu Mohandas K. Gandhi called them "Harijans," meaning "children of god." The official name given them in India's constitution (1951) is "Scheduled Castes." "Dalit," meaning "crushed and broken," is a name that has come into prominence only within the last four decades. "Dalit" reflects a radically different response to oppression.

The Dalit are demonstrating a rapidly expanding awareness of their African ancestry and their relationship to the struggle of Black people throughout the world. They seem particularly enamored of African-Americans.

African-Americans, in general, seem almost idolized by the Dalit, and the Black Panther Party, in particular, is virtually revered. In April 1972, for example, the Dalit Panther Party was formed in Bombay, India. This organization takes its pride and inspiration directly from the Black Panther Party of the United States. This is a highly important development due to the fact that the Untouchables have historically been so systematically terrorized that many of them, even today, live in a perpetual state of extreme fear of their upper caste oppressors. This is especially evident in the villages.

The formation of the Dalit Panthers and the corresponding philosophy that accompanies it signals a fundamental change in the annals of resistance, and Dalit Panther organizations have subsequently spread to other parts of India. In August 1972, the Dalit Panthers announced that the 25th anniversary of Indian independence would be celebrated as a day of mourning. In 1981, in Bangalore, India Dravidian journalist V.T. Rajshekar published the first issue of Dalit Voice - the major English journal of the Black Untouchables. In a 1987 publication entitled the African Presence in Early Asia, Rajshekar stated that:

"The African-Americans also must know that their liberation struggle cannot be complete as long as their own blood-brothers and sisters living in far off Asia are suffering."

Left: Kanikar people of South India

It is true that African-Americans are also suffering, but our people here today are where African-Americans were two hundred years ago.

African-American leaders can give our struggle tremendous support by bringing forth knowledge of the existence of such a huge chunk of Asian Blacks to the notice of both the American Black masses and the Black masses who dwell within the African continent itself."

Between the 1940 and 1970, a number of adverse land laws were passed, and much of indigenous land was mortgaged. In 1948, 2.4 million people were evicted from their land. Over a million indigenous people could not obtain any ownership of land, in the ensuing conditions ofpoverty. Many were refused applications to acquire land. The indigenous people were forced into the labour market in order to save money to buy land.

Even with those who were able to buy land, the laws were circumvented to dispossess them -their ownership were usually not acknowledged. No records were made of the land transactions, and land bought has later been found to be surplus or useless land not capable os sustaining life.

In the 1970`s some laws were amended over a 10 year period, giving ample opportunity for the multinational companies to find loop holes in the land legislation, in regards to allowed acreage of land purchases and land use.

Left: People: Siddi

The law now states that the land should be returned to the indigenous tribes however, only a fraction of cases are being investigated. While many complaints are dropped on technicalities; many have been waiting years to be heard. In one area in Maharashtra, only 375 cases resulted in land return to indigenous people, out of 6060 claims.


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