Avatar, the Right and the indigenous tribes
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Though the recent science fiction drama Avatar received much critical acclaim for its revolutionary visual effects and James Cameron’s ‘creation’ of an entirely new world, it is often in the news for other reasons, particularly the political interpretations that are made from the film’s storyline.

Avatar depicts the struggle between humans and a sentient humanoid species called the Na’vi, indigenous to the moon Pandora in the Alpha Centauri star system. In 2154, humans led by the RDA Corporation are mining a precious mineral called “Unobtainium” on Pandora because of which they are brought into conflict with an indigenous Na’vi tribe, the Omaticaya. Led by a human Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) who ‘defects’ to their side after becoming emotionally attached to them and being angered by the brutalities of his compatriots, the Na’vi ultimately succeed in driving the human invaders out.

Avatar attracted several political interpretations. In the Na’vi’s victory over the RDA Corporation, leftists see the triumph of socialism over imperialism. US conservatives see references to the US invasion of Iraq and director James Cameron himself confirmed their doubts. The Chinese proletariat think the Na’vi’s plight reflects their own condition back on earth, with their lands being snatched for real estate development, horrifyingly with help from a Communist state.

Environmentalists see the conflict between the RDA Corporation and the Na’vi being played out in real life between Vedanta Aluminium Ltd. and the Dongria Kondh tribe in Orissa (Vedanta Resources wants to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri mountain, near Lanjigarh in Orissa, that is sacred to the Kondh.) Some see racist connotations in that it is a white man (Jake Sully) from an advanced society that ultimately leads the primitive Na’vi to victory.

However, few notice that Avatar introduces a paradigm shift in alien invasion films. In the typical alien invasion film, hostile aliens invade earth, try to kill all its inhabitants so that they can freely exploit it’s resources, until a fatal weakness is discovered that allows humans to fight back and drive the aliens out. In Avatar, the hostile alien is the human being, from earth!

The film drives home the point that if we humans must fear the technologically advanced alien with ray guns, flying saucers and ESP, alien civilizations that have not yet stumbled on the destructive power of nuclear fusion may have enough reason to fear us.

But I digress. Avatar also got me thinking on the position of the Indian Right (whatever goes for the Right in India) on the relationship between the Indian state and the indigenous tribes. The issues of economic development, the right to property and the state’s power of eminent domain, and tribal welfare are deeply interlinked. In this context, I ask: what is the Right’s position on the right to property and the concept of eminent domain? Must the Indian Right uphold the right to property, as the Right in the West is known to do, or choose to be unique by upholding the principle of eminent domain for the higher objective of economic development?

This question has been debated in much detail especially with regard to the state’s role in land acquisition for Special Economic Zones (SEZ.) Some support the state’s role as the middleman in land acquisition between the landholder (often poor farmers with small fragmentary land holdings) and the developer. According to them, state governments try to attract companies by selling land at below-market rate prices with an eye on the long term objective of industrial development that benefits all. Others believe that the state must ideally ask the company to buy land directly from the farmer at market prices, even if considerable practical difficulties are involved. Opinion remains divided and there is no indication that there is any consensus over this issue among the Right.

One question that has received scant attention from the Right is the relation between the state and the indigenous tribes in India, especially it’s position on questions like the conflict between the concept of eminent domain and tribals’ property rights, tribal rights over exploitation of forests, the raw deal that the tribes have received out of decades of neglect (and interference in other cases) from the state, and the impact of the modern economy on tribal culture and, in some cases, their very existence.

The Indian mainstream continues to remain unaware of the rich cultural heritage of the indigenous tribes, and the threat this heritage faces of being lost forever. In February this year, the last member of the Bo tribe, Boa Sr, of the Andaman Islands passed away. With this death, a culture that dates back 65,000 years has been lost forever. This is made more significant by the fact that the Bo are believed to be one of earliest humans to have migrated out of Africa. The language of the Bo, Aka Bo, belongs to the unique Great Andamanese language family. Boa Sr was its last speaker. The extinction of the Bo did not cause much of a flutter in the Indian public space, much less among the Right.

The relation between Hinduism and tribes goes back to the earliest times. Much cultural exchange had occurred between the Hindu Great Tradition and the Tribal Little Traditions, enriching the Hindu tradition as well as introducing Hindu elements, even gods and godesses, in the tribal pantheon. Several tribes register themselves as Hindu even while retaining their uniqueness.

It is a paradox that the Hindu nationalist, who holds the Aryan Invasion Theory in contempt to prove that Hinduism is indigenous to India, does not seem to show the same concern for the cultural heritage of the tribes who are as indigenous as Hindus are to India, if not more. It is the Left that has positioned itself as the main spokesperson of the indigenous tribes in India and remains the only political articulator of their grievances and aspirations.

As consensus emerges that the Right must focus on developing its own intellectual tradition, this may be a good time for the Right to formulate it’s position on the issues raised here. It is also high time that the Right challenges the Left’s monopoly on tribal causes in India. A start could be made by spreading the understanding that decades of socialist government with centralized planning and development had only been detrimental to the livelihood and culture of the indigenous tribes.