Recontextualization of Legacy of Tribal Rebellion and Significance of PESA

Inder Kumar

Sumeet Thakur

Khyal Chand

Abstract Response of the Colonial Empire and legacy of its tribal policy in Independent India
Need for Historical Recontextualization Position and approach of Indian nationalist movement towards tribals
Appropriateness of Subaltern historiography Importance of contextualization and implementation of PESA
Major Tribal Rebellions in Modern India Main Provisions of the PESA Act
Basic Similarities Between all the Tribal Rebellions in Modern India Challenges before PESA in empowering Tribals
The act of appropriation of consciousness of tribal rebel Conclusion


    The present study is focusing on historiography as an instrument for the generation of knowledge. Because tribal rebellion has been historiographed from those perspectives which are not its true representation. The danger with this representation is that the exact nature, demand and significance of these tribal rebellions are lost and they are appropriated by other historiographies for their own interests. The study also points out the significance of genuine implementation of the PESA lies at the very heart of empowering the diverse tribal communities, which is possible only if PESA is contextualized in the light of true historical legacy of all the tribal rebellions ever occurred in modern India. PESA should not be concerned only with the setting up of a uniform institutional apparatus at the local level in the Scheduled Areas rather far more important is the need of empowering the tribal communities in becoming the ultimate arbitrator of the natural resources to which is attached their biological and cultural existence.

Need for Historical Recontextualization

    History has been the witness of generation of political power throughout the course of human evolution. History is used for the justification of the present rise of the powerful sections of society in every epoch. Historiography is the Science and the art of doing it. Since every struggle for power by the historically ascendant classes in any epoch involves a bid to acquire a tradition, it is the acquisition or construction of a tradition, which creates a domain of knowledge that strengthens the rise of the new classes. Authors are focusing on historiography as an instrument for the generation of knowledge because till now tribal rebellions have been historiographed from different perspectives, which are not their true representations. The danger with such representations is that the exact nature, demand and significance of these tribal rebellions are lost and they are appropriated by other historiographies for their own interests. There are three dominant schools of historiography, namely, colonial, Indian bourgeoisie nationalist and radical Marxist historiographies, which all try to appropriate the consciousness of the rebels (tribal) of their own history and incorporate them (rebels/tribals) only as a contingent element in another history with another subject. In colonial historiography the Raj was the real subject of the discourse; Indian bourgeoisie is the real subject of the discourse in the history of the freedom struggle, and in radical discourse it is an abstraction called worker and peasant, an ideal rather than the real historical personality of the insurgent (tribal) who were the doer (Guha 1983:32).

Appropriateness of Subaltern historiography

    All the historiographies except subaltern have been content to deal with the peasant rebel merely as an empirical person or member of a class, but not as an entity whose will and reason constituted the praxis called rebellion. Alternately an explanation will be sought in an enumeration of cause - of say, of factors of economic and political deprivation which do not relate at all to the peasants (tribal) consciousness or do so negatively triggering off rebellion as a sort of reflex action, that is as an instinctive and almost mindless response to physical suffering of one kind or another (e.g. Hunger, torture, forced labor, etc.) or as a passive reaction to some initiative of his suppressive enemy. The logic of consciousness which Guha (1983:2) is referring to is consciousness that is imposed on tribals by the colonial, nationalist and Marists historiographers. Their perception of tribal consciousness is one that is dominated by emotion and devoid of any kind of rationality. Biggest harm from this process of appropriation of tribal consciousness is that we will never be able to know why the Santals, The Mundas , The Kols rebelled, what were their own perception, world views and their conception of just life for which they sacrificed their lives. Different historiographies will appropriate the “Hool” of Santal, and “Ulgulan” of Mundas and many other tribal rebellions;, they will try to interpret it according to their own subjective biases and make these interpretations their sources of justification of their own world views.

Major Tribal Rebellions in Modern India

    Some of the peasant rebellions in India were participated exclusively by the tribal population whose political autonomy and control over local resources were threatened by the establishment of British rule and the advent of its non-tribal agents. The Bhils for example were concentrated in the hill ranges of Kandesh in the previous Maratha territory. British occupation of this region, in 1818, brought in the out-siders and accompanying dislocation in their community life. A general Bhil insurrection in 1819 was crushed by the British military forces, and though some conciliatory measures were taken to pacify them, the situation remained unsettled until 1831 when the Ramoshi leader Umaji Raje of Purandhar was finally captured and executed. The Bhils’ local rivals for power, the Kolis of Ahmadnagar district also challenged the British in 1829, but were quickly subdued by a large contingent of British army. The seeds of rebellion however persisted, to erupt again in 1844-46, when a local Koli leader successfully defied the British government for two years. (Guha 1999:96-102).

    Another major tribal revolt, the Kol uprising of 1831-32, took place in Chota Nagpur and Singhbum region of Bihar and Orissa. In these areas, they used to enjoy independent powers for centuries. But now British penetration and imposition of British law posed a threat to the power of the hereditary tribal chief. And the Raja of Chota Nagpur started evicting tribal peasants by farming out land to outsiders for higher rents. This settlement of non-tribal and constant transfer of land to merchants and money lenders generally referred to as the Sud or outsiders led to the popular uprising, as their plea for justice failed to move the authorities.

    The most effective tribal movement of this period was, however, the Santhal hool (rebellion) in 1855-56. The Santhals lived scattered in various districts of Cuttak, Dhalbhum, Manbhum, Barabhum, ChotaNagpur, Palamu, Hazaribagh, Midnapur, Bankura and Birbhum in eastern India. Driven from their homeland, they cleared the area around the Rajmahal Hills and called it Damin- I- Koh. They gradually driven to a desperate situation as tribal lands were leased out to non-Santhal Zamindars and moneylenders. To this was added the oppression of the local police and the European officers engaged in railroad construction. This penetration of outsiders called Dikus in the Santhals territory completely destroyed their familiar world, and forced them into action to take possession of their lost territory. In July 1885, when the ultimatum to the Zamidars and the government went unheeded, several thousand Santhals, armed with bows and arrows, started an open insurrection “against the unholy trinity of their oppressors- the zamindars, the mahajans and the government ( Natarajan 1979:140). The Munda uprising is another grand example of tribal resistance against all-pervading exploitation and tyranny. The Munda is one of the main tribes of Chotanagpur region and numerically one of the important tribes of India. The tacit approval of British rulers to the exploitation of the Munda masses aroused popular discontent and the word diku became the symbol of address for all outside elements. A charismatic Munda, called Birsa, emerged on the scene and took over the leadership. An energetic and dashing youth of twenty, Birsa got his education in a mission school. He announced that he had been sent by God to secure the emancipation of the Munda from the dikus (outsiders) and to deliver emancipation of the Munda. By the year 1895, he was able to collect a dedicated band of about six thousands Mundas. His chief aim was to finish the political dominance of the British, drive out all outside elements and establish and independent Munda State. When the uprising started and under a preplanned strategy, the landlord, missionaries, officials and all outsiders were attacked, fierce fighting followed but the Mundas could not gain decisive victory and ultimately this rebellion was also crushed (Ghurye 1963:77-78).

Basic Similarities Between all the Tribal Rebellions in Modern India

    The tribal peasants had some special reasons to be aggrieved. They lived at the periphery of the settled Hindu peasant societies and enjoyed autonomy of culture, which was based on an egalitarian ethos. Over the period, their gradual Hinduisation had brought them under the oppression of Hindu ritual hierarchy, and further the extension of the British land revenue system fully destroyed the autonomy of the tribal world. They were sucked into the large economic nexus, as the tribal lands passed into the hands of the non-tribal oppressive agents, the zamindars and the moneylenders. The new forest regulations appeared as encroachments on their natural rights. The imposition of British rule, in other words, resulted in the loss of their autonomous domains of power, freedom and culture. The destruction of their imagined golden past by the intruding outsiders,-the suds and Dikus, led obviously to violent outburst (Banhopadyay 2004:167).

    Different historiographers have looked these peasants and tribal uprising of the early colonial period in different ways. The British administration considered them as problems of law and order; they were portrayed as primitive savages resisting civilization. The nationalists later on tried to appropriate the peasant and tribal histories for the purposes of anti-colonial struggle and projected them as the pre-history of modern nationalism. D.N. Dhangare would regard the peasant rebellions as “pre-political”, because of their lack of organization, programme and ideology. Ranjit Guha, on the other hand, has argued that “there was nothing in the militant movements of the rural masses that was not political.”(Guha 1994:6). These tribal rebellions were not non-political acts; they constituted political action that demonstrated although, in the different ways, the political consciousness of the peasantry. As Ranjit Guha (1994) has shown, they exhibited, first of all, a clear awareness of the relation of power in rural society and a determination to overturn that structure of authority. The rebels were quite conscious of the political sources of oppression, and this was demonstrated in their targets of attacks – the zamindar’s houses, their grain stocks, the moneylenders, the merchants and ultimately the state machinery of the British, which came forward to protect these local agents of oppression. A clear identification of the enemies was matched by and equally clear identification of the friends. What we often find in these peasant rebellions is a redefinition of the relationship of the oppressed to the language, culture and religion of the dominant classes, although the protest took myriad forms. The rebellions were political actions, different from crime, because they were open and public (Bandyopadhyay 2004:168).

    Tribal political consciousness was not the one based on the class-consciousness rather it was based on their religious worldview; and their conception of a just society became the basis of their political mobilization. The holy leaders referred to the loss of a moral world and they became a Centre of expression of these tribal and peasant society to show their resentment against the onslaught of modern capitalistic and colonial state. But the word colonial should not be limited/limited to foreign rule of British rather word colonial is used for all these non tribal peoples and laws which don’t work according to the tribal epistemology of an ideal existence. Religion and religiosity imbued in their own relationship with nature became their rallying point in this just war for survival. Their divine and charismatic leaders were representatives of ethnic god who was siding with them in this war for survival and justice. These rebellions were act of morality and political acts legitimized by the grace of God. As Sekhar Bandyopadhyay explains that the spread of the rebellion depended on the rebels’ own perception of space and ethnic boundary; it was most effective within the geographical area within which the community lived and worked. The Santhals’ battle, for example, was for their ‘father land’; but sometimes ethnic ties extended across the territorial boundaries, as in Kol insurrection where we find the Kols of different regions rose in revolt simultaneously. The rebel’s own perception of time played a significant role as well. There is often an evocation of history and reference to “Golden Age” in a distant past (Bandyopadhyay, 2004:167).

The act of appropriation of consciousness of tribal rebel

    It has been observed that when any historiography or meta- narrative like Colonial historians, Nationalist and Radical leftists start to interpret and contextualize these tribal uprisings, they overstretch their argument by imposing their own worldview on the consciousness of these tribal rebels. They depict these rebels and rebellion as a preordained towards a destined goal of a prosperous colonial empire, a national state or a rise peasants and worker’s party. This act of appropriation of consciousness of rebels, as Guha (1983) says, ignores the existence of the rationality in these subaltern rebels. No doubt tribals’ own consciousness was limited accordingly to their own worldview and conception of time. But it is essential to understand what these movements actually were and how the rebels visualized their own existence vis-à-vis the forces they found threatening their very existence, rather than imposing on these movements an alien worldview of which they knew nothing about. The inter subjectivity of human existence and perception must not be lost, only then the true significance and legacies of these movements can be understood.

Response of the Colonial Empire and legacy of its tribal policy in Independent India

    All the tribal uprisings although were specific and region centric in their spread, they forced the British colonial state and its administrators to rethink on their tribal policies. Administrators like Augusto Cleveland, Sir George Campbell, and William Le Fleming Robinson laid the foundation of a new, more sensitized or reformatted colonial policy towards tribals. This policy advocated keeping tribal regions aloof and secure from the excessive intervention by modern economic enterprises and non-tribals, without jeopardizing the long-term colonial interests.

    The Government of India Act of 1870 of the British parliament conferred upon the Governor-General in council the power to approve and sanction as laws, regulations made by local (provincial state) Government for the administration of certain special areas, to which previously the Secretary of State in council had applied the Act. Many measures were passed under the provisions of this Act. In 1874 the Indian Legislature passed the Scheduled Districts Act, Act XIV of 1874, whereby the local Government was empowered to use discretionary power for the protection of tribal rights which were applicable to the tribal region, specified in the act as tribal. The local officers were given the discretionary power in its behalf to protecting tribal rights, to notify which general laws will not be applicable to the tribal region/regions, particularly those general laws which could jeopardize the tribal interest.

    The reforms, suggested by Montague and Lord Chelmsford in their report, did not omit the consideration of the so-called aborigines. The authors of the report made it clear that there were certain backward areas in the provinces where, the people being primitive, there was “no material on which to found political institutions.” They thought such areas could be fairly and easily demarcated. In their opinion, these would be the tracts included in the schedules and appendices of the Scheduled Districts Act of 1874 with certain exceptions and “possibly certain additions”. Though they did not want to specify these tracts or to lay down the precise arrangement for their administration, they thought that the “typically backward tracts” could be directly administered by the head of the province. But in the Government of India Act of 1919, under section 52-A (2), empowered the Governor-General in Council to declare any territory to be a backward tract, and with the sanction of the Secretary of State, to direct that the Government of India Act would apply to the territory with such exceptions and modifications as may be prescribed in his notification. Thereafter he might direct which Act of Indian Legislature would apply or not apply to the territory with such exceptions and modifications as he might prescribe. Further he might authorize the Governor in Council to issue similar directions in respect of the Acts of the provincial legislature. The power of issuing regulation by executive order in regard to those territories still remained (Haimendrof1982:39). “The Schedule V, VI and Part X in the Indian constitution deal with these provisions. These provisions are clearly the legacy of British colonial state towards tribals, which they formulated once they faced barrage of tribal insurgencies in different parts of their colonial empire in Indian subcontinent.

Position and approach of Indian nationalist movement towards tribals

    Nationalist movement under Indian National Congress could not reach out to the tribals; rather historical narration of Indian freedom struggle co-opted the tribal rebellion within the march of Indian freedom struggle. Specificity and consciousness of tribals or different tribes for leading an uprising were appropriated by the nationalist narrative of Indian freedom. These tribal rebellions were reduced to just another source of legitimization of Indian freedom struggle against the colonial empire. The party and leaders representing the helm of national freedom movement became the spokesperson of the entire territory of India. Tribals were reduced to the status of unconscious masses, which now needed the guiding hands of the same colonial state, which simply changed its outer cover but from inside it was the same apparatus to a large extent. Forest bureaucracy and professional politicians became the spokespersons of Indian state regarding its forest policy.

Importance of contextualization and implementation of PESA

    A proper understanding of the different provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and the potentialities of this act in empowering the tribal communities in India is essential. The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments were a step in towards the decentralization and devolution of governance in the history of modern Indian democratic republic. But 73rd Amendment or Panchayati Raj Act 1992, was realized to be inadequate as far as its application in tribal areas, included in the 5th Schedule of the Constitution of India, were concerned. This act was not applicable to the areas inhabited by the tribes which are constitutionally categorized into V and VI schedules under the constitution of India. It was felt that some provisions be made such that the there is an initiative on the part of Indian state to extend constitutional status to the working of local governance in the scheduled areas could be accorded. The purpose behind it was also to provide an institutional uniformity to the local governance in the scheduled areas. It was also felt that such provisions must factor in historical legacy of tribal rights conferred by the colonial administration that had emerged out of conflict between the tribes and colonial state apparatus. But tragedy with such effort of towards homogenization has a disadvantage is that if it is not contextualized in proper direction, such homogenization could cost the tribal communities of their unique historical customary rights. In the absence of such contextualization, the possibility cannot be ignored that the local governments in scheduled areas would be reduced to similar status of local governments in other Non-Scheduled, especially when the principle of subsidiary is not followed in practice. EPPPAEThe principle of Subsidiary means a formal acceptance that no higher level of governance will impose its authority without respecting the autonomy of the lower rung of governance. Denial of the principle of Subsidiary is adversarial to the interest of the tribals because the autonomy that the tribals were granted by the colonial state in terms of governance of their lives and resources, albeit due to the adoption of isolationist policy, faces threat from the insatiable lust for the natural resources underneath the tribal land to fulfill the new sacrosanct ideal of ‘Development’ that modern India espouses. Therefore, a law was felt necessary which would grant autonomy to tribal panchayats particularly with regard to their control over the natural resources in their area. To arrive at such a law a committee of parliamentarians and experts (22 members in all) was appointed in June 1994 by Government of India under the chairmanship of Dileep Singh Bhuria. The stated purpose of this high level committee was “to discuss and examine the issues relating to extension of the scheduled areas and to make recommendations on the salient features of the laws for extending the provisions of this part of the constitution to the Scheduled Areas.” It was on the basis of the recommendations of this Committee, that a law was enacted, which is known as Panchayat (extension of the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. In this Act, is recognized the need for safeguarding and preserving the traditions and customs of the tribal people/ communities, their cultural identities as well as their customary modes of social-personal relations, including the customary modes of resolution of personal/community disputes. Thus, the Panchayats of scheduled areas in entire India, under this Act, on the one hand, got the first taste of democratic decentralization and on the other hand, the right to protect and safeguard their cultural identity, traditions and customs. It may be remarked here that with this Act, the assault on the rights of the tribal over their land, water and forest that has been continuing since long under the cover of various acts relating to forest, wild life etc., may come to an end. Secondly, this Act would impede the attempts by the ‘outsiders’ to snatch away the resource bases of tribal societies Acceptance of tribal rights over land, water and forest these things itself is an improvement of Indian democracy towards more democratic form of governance because democracy cannot be reduced to majoritarianism, and it must learn to cherish the diversity of life.

Main Provisions of the PESA Act

    Under this PESA Gram Sabha has been empowered to safeguard and preserve the traditions, and customs of the people, their cultural identity and customary mode of dispute resolution. Notwithstanding anything contained under part IX of the constitution, the legislature of a state shall not make any law under that part which is inconsistent with any of the following features, namely;

  1. State legislation on the panchayats that may be made shall be in consonance with the customary law, social and religious practices and traditional management practices of community resources.

  2. Gram sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and customary mode of dispute resolution.

  3. Gram Sabha or the panchayats at the appropriate level shall be consulted before making the acquisition of the land in the scheduled areas for development projects and before re-setting or rehabilitating persons affected by such projects in the scheduled areas shall be coordinated at the state level.

  4. The recommendations of the Gram Sabha or the Panchayats at the appropriate level shall be made mandatory prior to grant of prospecting license or mining lease for minor minerals in the scheduled areas.

  5. The prior recommendation of the Gram Sabha or the panchayats at the appropriate level shall be made mandatory for the grant of concession for the exploitation of minor minerals by auction.

  6. While endowing panchayats in the scheduled areas with such and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self- government, a state legislature shall ensure that the panchayats at the appropriate level and the Gram Sabha are endowed specifically with; 1 the ownership of the minor forest produce; 2 the power to prevent alienation of land in the scheduled areas and to take appropriate action to restore any unlawfully alienated land of a scheduled tribes;3 the power of exercising control over money lending to the scheduled tribes;4 the power to exercise control over institutions and functionaries in all social sectors, 5 the power to control over local plans and resources for such plans including tribal sub-plans;

  7. The state legislation that may endow panchayats with powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government shall contain safeguards to ensure that panchayats at the higher level don’t assume the powers and authority of the any Panchayat mentioned at the sixth schedule to the constitution while designing the administrative arrangements in the panchayats at the district levels in the scheduled areas.

Challenges before PESA in empowering Tribals

    If we read the language of this text then it’s very easy to detect that PESA is an effort from above like a benevolent emperor ordering his officials to serve the subjects. Tribals, which are treated as subjects, are depicted as incapable of governing themselves, as if they have to be shown the way. It’s not tribal customary laws, which need the recognition of Indian state apparatus rather the Indian state apparatus should stop working as an alien to tribal society, and learn to coexist with tribal norms and laws. Therefore there is a need for constant dialogue with tribal communities residing in different parts of India to properly understand their worldviews and the purpose of their lives.

    Significance of genuine implementation of the PESA lies at the very heart of empowering the diverse tribal communities and it is possible only if PESA is contextualized in the light of true historical legacy of all the tribal rebellions ever occurred in modern India. Because PESA should not be concerned only with the setting up of a uniform institutional apparatus at the local level in the Scheduled Areas. Rather far more important is the need to empower the tribal communities in becoming the ultimate arbitrator of the natural resources to which their biological and cultural existence is attached. This right of tribals to become the arbitrator of natural resources is not limited to making them legally stakeholders of these resources so that they could get good compensation from acquisition process. They should have the right to decide if they want to be part of modern civilization or not and if yes then to what an extent. Autonomy of their decision in this process should be respected and honored. Now the so-called civilized world will have to understand that the concept of ‘resource’ has different connotations in the tribal epistemology. Their perceptions about their customs and customary laws, their method of understanding world needs to be understood and preserved because they do not see themselves appropriators of their resources rather they visualize themselves as a part of their ecosystem.


    In the present world of globalization of finance and ever increasing modern civilizational lust for natural resources, these tribal communities are under attack from the modern world. There is the danger that the tribals may be alienated from their natural resources in the name of development of the society. Values of consumerism and lust for profit will try to delegitimize their knowledge and worldview about human relationship with nature. Therefore acts like PESA, which accept and recognize the tribals’ relationship with their land and natural resources, are essential; the tribals are to be given space to choose their own way of living and be saved from being forced to be homogenized and be marginalized within the mainstream society.


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