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Cheated of Constitution, why Adivasis remain India’s second class citizens


The tribals have paid dearly for taking Jawaharlal Nehru at his word.


India’s tribals, who account for 8.2 per cent of the country’s population, can be broadly classified into three groupings. The first consists of populations who predate Indo-Aryan migration, termed the Austro-Asiatic-speaking Australoid people by many anthropologists. The central Indian adivasis belong to this grouping.

After an attack in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district.

The late Professor Nihar Ranjan Ray, one of our most distinguished historians, described the central Indian Adivasis as “the original autochthonous people of India”, meaning their presence in India predated by far the Dravidians, the Aryans and whoever else settled in this country.

Noted anthropologist Dr Verrier Elwin stated this more emphatically when he wrote: “These are the real swadeshi products of India, in whose presence all others are foreign. These are ancient people with moral rights and claims thousands of years old. They were here first and should come first in our regard.”

The other two major groupings are the Caucasoid and Sino-Tibetan, or the Mongoloid tribal people of North India and the Northeast, who migrated relatively recently. These two broad tribal groupings have fared much better in the post-Independence dispensation.

Clearly, all Scheduled Tribes (STs) are not Adivasis. There are some 573 communities recognised by the government as Scheduled Tribes and therefore eligible for special benefits and to compete for reserved seats in the legislature, government, universities and schools.

Most of these benefits have gone to the non-Adivasi tribals.

Unfortunately, like indigenous people all over the world, India’s Adivasis too have been savaged and ravaged by the later entrants, claiming to be more “civilised”. They are now easily its most deprived and oppressed section.

The biggest tribal group, the Gonds, have a population of 7.4 million, followed by the Santhals, who stand at 4.2 million.

Central India is home to the country’s largest tribes, and, taken as a whole, roughly 75 percent of the total tribal population lives here. These are now troubled Adivasi homelands.

The failure of successive governments in the Adivasi homelands is well-documented. At a meeting on November 27, 2009 to discuss the Naxalite challenge, former prime minister Manmohan Singh conceded that the Indian state and establishment have abused and exploited the tribal people.

“There has been a systemic failure in giving the tribals a stake in the modern economic processes that inexorably intrude into their living spaces. The alienation built over decades is now taking a dangerous turn in some parts of our country. The systematic exploitation and social and economic abuse of our tribal communities can no longer be tolerated.”

On December 16, 1946, welcoming the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly, the legendary Adivasi leader Jaipal Singh stated the tribal case and apprehensions explicitly.

He said: “The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India, punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet, I take Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.”

The Adivasis paid dearly for taking Jawaharlal Nehru at his word. If the provisions of the Constitution were implemented in some measure – even if not in all of its spirit – the present situation would not have come to be.

In the early days of our republic, Jawaharlal Nehru on the advice of scholars like Verrier Elwin sought to insulate the tribal areas from the predations of the new order that was emerging in India.

The migration of outsiders into traditional Adivasi homelands continues unabated. Despite this, there are still 332 tribal majority tehsils in India, of which 110 fall in the Northeast. Thus, there are 222 Adivasi majority tehsils with a population of more than 20 million or about a third of the central Indian Adivasi population.

The fifth and sixth schedules under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution in 1950 provided for self-governance in specified tribal majority areas. The fifth schedule covers tribal areas in nine states of India, namely Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Rajasthan.

The fifth schedule provides protection to the Adivasis (tribals) living in scheduled areas from alienation of their lands and natural resources at the hands of non-tribals.

This seldom-enforced constitutional safeguard is now under imminent threat of being amended to formally effect the transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals and corporate bodies. The move has serious implications for the very survival and culture of the millions of tribals in India.

In 1999, the government of India issued a draft National Policy on Tribals to address the developmental needs of tribals. Emphasis was laid on education, forestry, healthcare, languages, resettlement and land rights.

The first NDA government even established a ministry of tribal affairs. The draft was meant to be circulated among MPs, MLAs and civil society groups. It never was.

A decade later, there is still no policy. But it must also be stated that this sudden concern for tribals was mostly motivated by the fears of the tribals’ conversion to Christianity that would have precluded their assimilation into the Hindu Samaj.

Thus, even though the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were carved out of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, real tribal issues relating to their culture, way of life and aspirations were not addressed.

Political power has still, by and large, eluded them. Not to be left behind, the UPA government drafted the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill in 2005, but did not act upon it due to pressure mounted by self-styled wildlife activists and the wildlife tourism lobby.

Much has happened since Independence and the failed promises of the Constitution. But it is still possible to retrieve some of the original promises.

As provided by the Constitution, all tribal-majority areas must be consolidated into administrative divisions whose authority must be vested with democratically-chosen institutions.

This body could be called the Adivasi Mahapanchayat and enabled to function as a largely autonomous institution. All laws passed by the state legislature must be ratified to the satisfaction of the Mahapanchayat.

Instead of state control, the instruments of public administration dealing with education, health, irrigation, roads and land records must be handed over to local government structures. The police must also be made answerable to local, elected officials. Not be sole upholders of law.

But there are several paradoxes that must also be dealt with first. The most important of them is to provide the tribals a good government in the worst of law and order environments.

A better civil administration structure must replace the present one. Perhaps, it is time to constitute a new All India Service, similar to the former Indian Frontier Administrative Service.

(The IFAS was an eclectic group of officers drawn from various arms of the government to administer the northeast. Unfortunately it was merged into the IAS.)

Till then, a popular folk lament of the Gonds holds true:

  • And the Gods were greatly troubled
  • in their heavenly courts and councils
  • Sat no Gods of Gonds among them.
  • Gods of other nations sat there
  • Eighteen threshing-floors of Brahmins
  • Sixteen scores of Telinganas
  • But no Gods of Gonds appeared there
  • From the Glens of Seven Mountains
  • From the twelve hills of the valleys

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