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Unravel the mystery

Perception is often at play when people imagine the word “tribal” or “Adivasi”. Are they those who have chosen to live away from all of us, far in the jungle? Or, are they the people who have been stereotypically portrayed with their comic song and dance rituals in mainstream cinema? Is it the tribal you meet as a captured caveman in an encyclopaedia or encounter in your everyday lives?

Our history books often don’t teach us much about where and how tribal communities in India were once related to the other communities in the country once. Other subjects more often than not incorporate their economies, socio-cultural practices or political behaviour. So it is hard to even develop an interest in their lives. But, unravelling the space provided for Scheduled Tribes in the Constitution of India, traversing through the website of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs or watching online videos with cultural expression can be a starting point.

Critical in our endeavour would be learning about their historical struggles and current day articulations in a world we are equally a part of.

Fight for rights

But where are these people? Do we see them? Some of you who have or still see the Republic Day parade on television would have witnessed the state government exhibits showcasing their tribal cultures. But the reality is that many tribal communities don’t live like that anymore. They are right next to us in cities and towns where, like many others, have travelled away from their homes either under distress or to fulfil educational or occupational aspirations. People, who we might view as “other cultures”, would be sitting besides us in our classrooms or working in the shopping mall we visit.

But today, we also need to take special notice of our tribal areas where many people live devastated lives next to an operational mine, dam or industry. Their homes, livelihoods and everyday lives have been taken over to enable production of electricity that we consume or the metals we use in our tetra-packs, or the stone that is used to lay the foundation of our houses.

You just need to travel to the iron ore mining area in Odisha to see that people who are living next to mines can no longer access the forests they once had freedom to. The mining activity can only give them menial labour jobs, if at all.

As industries and infrastructure expand into newer frontiers, many tribal communities today like the Agariya salt workers or the Dongria Kondh forest dwellers are waging important struggles for either protecting their homes, demanding a say in decision-making or fare compensation so that they can rebuild their lives elsewhere.

Unique challenges

The Government of India has brought out several schemes around tribal welfare, area development and also education. There are many communities that have received benefits and have managed to build lives or have taken their education back to strengthen what they call home. Sounds like any one of us, right?

There is also a 2006 legislation in place, which is being used to recognise the rights of tribals in forest areas and secure tenure as well as forest management practices. However, authentic government and non-governmental studies will indicate that there is much to be desired with the implementation of schemes or enforcement of the law.

The situation of the tribal or the adivasi community in India has always been a challenge. To assimilate or let “them” be are ongoing debates. As a country, our challenge remains that of respect, recognition and understanding the “other” which is equally relevant to tribal communities as it might be to other religions. Museums certainly are not enough to know our tribal people today.

Distinct lives

According to the 2011 Census of India, there are 705 individual ethnic groups, which are notified as Scheduled Tribes across 30 States and Union Territories of India. The largest percentage is recorded in Madhya Pradesh and the smallest in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya. The Oraons in Chhatisgarh, Santhals in Jharkhand; the Idu Mishmis and Mishmis of Arunachal Pradesh, Lepchas in Sikkim, Maldharis grazing community in Gujarat or the Gujjars, spread across the Western Himalayas are a few examples.

Tribal communities have been given special protection through the Constitution of India with some areas in the country recognised as Schedule V or Schedule VI (in the north eastern states only). Through this, the Constitution acknowledges the distinctness of not just tribal lives and livelihoods but their distinct rules and regulations to manage where they live. For instance, in Schedule VI areas, there are Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) or traditional customary institutions of village elders which continue to have a say on which farming technique should be used for cultivation, whether rivers should flow or be dammed and whether a community member has performed a “culturally inappropriate” act.


India, does not recognise the word “indigenous” for any tribal community as the government also considers many other communities as to have been living in the country for as long as the tribal communities. Politically, tribal movements have asserted their identity as “adivasi” as those who lived before the arrival of the first colonisers, even before the British.

The author is a researcher and writer working on social and environment justice issues.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 5:11:34 PM |

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