Prof. B.K. Roy Burman, referred to 10 years ago as the “grand old man of Indian anthropology,” has just published a critical analysis of the roots of the Naxalite movement. His lengthy essay, over 11,000 words, appeared in the October 17th issue of Mainstream, an Indian current affairs weekly.

The author has been a member of, or chaired, several important, high-level commissions that have investigated the nation’s rural social problems. He has visited and studied the Birhor, and numerous other groups, during his work. A retired professor who has published important works on Indian tribal societies, he makes it clear that many issues contribute to rural social unrest and Naxalism, but depriving people of their lands is quite a significant one. The Naxalite violence, and the counter-violence of the police, devastate many communities in rural central India.

He opens his article by condemning a statement by the central government on August 18, 2009, about the Naxalite issue. The government described its solution to the problem as a combination of development and police action. He feels that policy is “an utterly unrealistic approach.” The single most significant issue, he argues, is “the systematic dispossession of the tribal people from land resources, which they have been holding for generations.”

He does not condemn legitimate land taking for development projects so long as the people are properly compensated for properties that are being confiscated. Instead, he is concerned about the ways tribal peoples have lost their lands through deliberate, meticulous, government planning and finagling, when they get nothing in return. He categorizes the ways the dispossessions have happened and he gives examples of each. In other words, he describes in detail the approaches that government agencies have developed for cheating people out of their property.

The first issue that galls him has been governmental definitions of hilly landscape. If rural land slopes more than 10 percent, it is defined as a public forest. By that definition, hilly land cannot be owned by a tribal society, even if the people have lived there for centuries. Burman provides example after example of tribal groups who have received title to less than one percent of their traditional lands—because the rest had greater than a 10 percent slope. “It should not cause any surprise that today some of these areas are hotbeds of political extremism,” he writes.

One example will give a flavor for his detailed analysis. One year, Orissa approached the International Fund for Agricultural Development for assistance in the Kalahandi district of the state during a drought. In response, the IFAD required the state to allow tribal peoples to practice cultivation on their traditional lands with slopes up to 30 percent. The state government, faced with the need for the funding, backed down and permitted the cultivation. But, it turned out later, the state only permitted this exception to the rules in that one district, for which the IFAD funds were requested. Otherwise, the state maintained its discriminatory policies against tribal people.

Burman investigated the possible scientific rationale for the 10 percent slope restriction, and found out that it was an attempt by the state government to discourage shifting cultivation. He maintains that the policy has no basis in scientific evidence. It was “like a modern-day witch-hunt,” he says.

The author describes two different approaches to land holdings in India: the Common Property Resources System (CPR), which is the basis for most land laws in India, and the Communal Land Holding System (CLHS), the approach taken by many of the tribal societies. The CLHS patterns that he describes are complex, but basically they secure the undifferentiated economic rights for whole communities, with rights provided for individuals within the purview of those communities.

Government bodies have often ignored the fact that individual rights in many tribal societies may be subsumed within community rights, though Burman notes a report from one expert group a few years ago that did acknowledge the existence of community land ownership. Rights for special functions and groups are often part of these communal systems. For instance, the Birhor have traditional rights to rope-making materials on lands owned by other communities, which derive economic benefits from different uses of their lands.

Tribal people have been deprived of their lands in many ways. One is through categorizing some of them as “primitive tribes,” a term that suggests that they have lower levels of intelligence. The term, he argues, implies that when people resist the development efforts of the state, they are basically doing so due to their own fault—because of their failings as “primitives.” Stigmatizing people as lesser beings—primitives—serves as a rationale for dominating them and taking away their property.

The author visited a Birhor community in Orissa in 2004 where the people had been removed from their forest and resettled in a hamlet on the edge of an agricultural area. Their new houses were, as he describes them, ramshackle leaf structures, somewhat similar to the leaf huts they had occupied in their homes in the forest. But in their homes in the woods they had fit harmoniously into the natural rhythms—“the whisper of the silence, the muse of the cosmos,” as he puts it. Their homes on the fringes of the fields emphasize their deprivation, their lack of status.

Burman asked one Birhor elder why their houses were not comparable to those of the nearby farmers. The man responded, “we cannot have it, because we are a primitive tribe.” An official accompanying the author explained that the Birhor could not have the better structures because they would have to apply to a separate official, a Primitive Tribes Development Officer, who had a special fund earmarked for helping the primitive tribes.

However, his office was 30 km away, so the Birhor in this village had no real way to access the benefits that might be available to them. Another of the many ways the government takes to deprive the tribal peoples of their rights. Burman does not indicate if the Birhor are in any way involved with the Naxalite violence.