Tribal people, accounting for 8.2% of India’s population, are spread all over India’s states and union territories. Even so, they can be broadly classified into three groupings. The first consists of populations who predate the Indo-Aryan migrations, and are termed by many anthropologists as the Austro-Asiatic-speaking Australoid people. The Central Indian adivasis belong to this grouping. The other two groupings are the Caucasoid and Sino-Tibetan or Mongoloid tribal people of the Himalayan and North Eastern regions who migrated in later periods.

Article 366 (25) of the Constitution defines scheduled tribes as “such tribes or tribal communities or part of or groups within such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under Article 342 to the Scheduled Tribes for the purposes of this Constitution”. The criteria for classification being geographical isolation, backwardness and having distinctive culture, language, religion and “shyness of contact”.

Scheduled tribes are found in the greatest numbers in Madhya Pradesh (12.23 million, or 20.3% of the state’s population), Maharashtra (8.58 million or 8.9%), Odisha (8.15 million or 22.1%), Jharkhand (7.1 million or 26.35%), Chhattisgarh (6.16 million or 31.8%), Andhra Pradesh including Telangana (5.02 million or 6.6%), and West Bengal (4.4 million or 5.5%).

By proportion, however, the populations of states in the North East have the greatest concentrations of scheduled tribes. Thirty one per cent of the population of Tripura, 34% of Manipur, 64% of Arunachal Pradesh, 86% of Meghalaya, 88% of Nagaland, and 95% of Mizoram are scheduled tribes. Other heavy concentrations are in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Lakshadweep (94%).

Still, if a headcount is done, the overwhelming numbers are in Central India.

The real swadeshi products

There are some 573 communities recognised by the government as scheduled tribes and, therefore, eligible to receive special benefits and to compete for reserved seats in legislatures, government and educational institutions. The biggest tribal group, the Gonds, number about 7.4 million, followed by the Santhals with a population of about 4.2 million. The smallest tribal community is the Chaimals of the Andaman Islands who number just eighteen. Central India is home to the country’s largest adivasi tribes, and, taken as a whole, roughly 75% of the India’s tribal population lives there.

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 pre-dated by far the Dravidians, the Aryans and whoever else settled in this country. The 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 word adivasi carries the specific meaning of being the original inhabitants of a given region and was specifically coined for that purpose in the 1930s. Clearly then, all scheduled tribes are not adivasis.

Unlike the adivasis, the other two broad tribal groupings have fared better in the post-independence dispensation. Within them, some – such as the Meenas and Gujjars of Rajasthan, and the Khasis, Mizos, Angami and Tangkhul Nagas, and the Meiteis in the North East – have done exceptionally well, which should make us wonder if they should be eligible to claim benefits as scheduled tribes anymore? Unlike the North Eastern tribes, the Meenas and Gujjars don’t even meet the stipulated criteria of geographical isolation, backwardness, distinctive culture, language and religion. Forget “shyness of contact”.

Newfound concerns

Even before Independence, the legendary adivasi leader Jaipal Singh, while welcoming the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly on December 16, 1946, stated the tribal case and apprehensions explicitly and succinctly:
“As a jungli, as an Adivasi, I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of the Indus Valley civilization, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the new comers – most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned – it is the new comers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness... 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 Jawahar Lal 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. Even if the provisions of the Constitution were implemented in some measure, if not all of its spirit and word, the present situation would not have come to be.

We all now know well that big government in the absence of a responsive nervous system actually means little government, and whatever little interaction the people at the bottom have with the state is usually a none too happy one. In the vast Central Indian highlands, the occasional visit of an official means extraction by coercion of what little the poor people possess. It doesn’t just end with a chicken or a goat or a bottle of mahua, it often includes all these and the modesties of the womenfolk.

Most tribal villages and settlements have no access to schools and medical care. Very few are connected with all-weather roads. Perish the thought of electricity, though all the coal and most of the hydel projects to generate electricity are located in the tribal regions. Their forests have been pillaged and the virgin forests thick with giant teak and sal trees are things of the past.

In mineral rich Orissa, over 72% of all adivasis live below the poverty line. At the national level, 45.86% of all adivasis live below the poverty line. Incidentally, the official Indian poverty line is nothing more than a starvation line, which means that almost half of India’s original inhabitants go to bed at night starving. Several anthropometric studies have revealed that successive generations of adivasis are becoming smaller, unlike all other people in India who benefit from better and increasingly nutritious diets. What little the Indian state apportions to the welfare and development of indigenous people gets absorbed in the porous layers of our public administration. Quite understandably then, there is a raging fire of discontent and anger in these adivasi homelands. The State’s response is to treat it as a law and order problem and quell the discontent by force, without trying to address it.

In recent years, there has been a sudden concern for adivasis. It is as much driven by the expansion of Naxalite influence in the adivasi homelands, as it is motivated by the fears of conversion to Christianity that would have precluded their assimilation into the Hindu Samaj.

What's the solution?

In 1999, the National Democratic Alliance government issued a draft national policy on tribals to address the developmental needs of tribal people. Special emphasis was laid on education, forestry, healthcare, languages, resettlement and land rights. The government even established a Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Further, a Cabinet Committee on Tribal Affairs was meant to constantly review the policy. Little has happened, though. The Cabinet Committee hardly ever meets. The draft policy is still a draft, which means there is still no policy. Not to be left behind in the lip-service game, the United Progressive Alliance government drafted the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill in 2005, but did not act upon it due to pressure from influential self-styled wildlife activists and the wildlife tourism lobby.

But the first NDA’s feigned concern for adivasis meant that the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were carved out of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh without addressing the real issues relating to their culture, way of life and aspirations. Political power has still, by and large, eluded them. Even when tribal leaders come to the fore, they are quickly sucked into the ways of the traditional ruling classes and prove no less avaricious and corrupt.

The Fifth and Sixth Schedules, under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution in 1950 provided for self-governance in specified tribal majority areas. This did not happen. Indeed, migrations reduced the number of adivasi majority areas. But there are still solutions possible within the Indian Constitution and in the universal principles of justice and equality. There are 332 tribal majority tehsils in India, of which 110 are in the North East, where they have won states of their own.

This leaves 222 tehsils encompassing an adivasi population of over 20 million. These tehsils, many of them contiguous, must be immediately made self-governing areas, as envisaged by the Constitution. All these tribal majority areas must be consolidated into administrative divisions whose authority must be vested with democratically chosen leadership. This body could be called the Adivasi Maha-panchayat and must function as a largely autonomous institution. All laws passed by the state legislatures must be ratified to the satisfaction of the Maha-panchayat.

At the same time, there are paradoxes that must be dealt with first. The most important of these is to provide good government in the worst of law and order environments. A better civil administration structure must come up in place of the one present. This means the best officers drawn from across the country. 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. Unfortunately, it was merged into the Indian Administrative Service.

Instead of the state capital controlled government, 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 and not be a law unto themselves.

The lament of the adivasi about their role in their government is well known. It is the subject of many folk songs. A popular Gond song goes:
“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.”