TRIBAL COMMUNITIES IN INDIA: HISTORY, CULTURE AND IDENTITY

The Adivasis are one of the most marginalized groups in India. According to the 2011 census, the community constitutes 8.6% of the total Indian population, making them a minority group. They lead a traditional lifestyle that is intrinsically tied to the forest areas of India.

The Adivasi community has historically been the subject of state-inflicted oppression, trapping them in a vicious cycle of poverty and violence.

To understand the complexity of issues that the Scheduled Tribes are subject to, it is important to first understand who the Adivasis are, and the criteria which determine which tribes are considered as scheduled tribes and which ones are not. As defined by Dr. B.H. Mehta (1953),

“A tribe consists of a group of families who are bound together by kinship, usually descending from a common mythical or legendary ancestor and who live in a common region, speak a common dialect, and have a common history.”

However, some tribes have acculturated with non-tribal communities thus some suggest categorizing the tribal population into four groups namely, forest dwellers, ruralized tribals, acculturated tribals, and assimilated tribals. The Scheduled Tribes are only those who have not been acculturated to any large degree with non-tribal communities.

It is important to note that there is no homogeneous category of ‘Scheduled Tribes’. Each tribe has a distinct identity, each with its own religion, customs, and way of life. There are over 750 Scheduled Tribes living in 26 states in India. The majority of the tribes reside in forest areas of Central and East India and in North-East India.

The rights of the Scheduled Tribes are protected by Article 19(5) of the Constitution of India where the state has reserved the right to impose reasonable restrictions on the freedom to move freely throughout the territory of India and to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India for the protection of the interests of any Scheduled Tribe.

The emphasis on mobility and territory pertaining to the interests of Adivasis indicates the significance of land and territory with regard to their rights. Schedules V and VI of the Constitution list out special provisions for the tribal communities in Central and North-East India respectively.

60% of the forest area in the country is in the tribal areas. Fifty-one of the 57 districts with forest cover greater than 67% are tribal districts. Three states—Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand— account for 70% of India’s coal reserves, 80% of its high-grade iron ore, 60% of its bauxite, and almost 100% of its chromite reserves. 40% of those displaced by dams are tribal people.

A look at violent conflict, whether in Schedule V states or in Schedule VI states, shows that ‘the state is involved in all of these conflicts in one way or another.’

The main conflict that the Adivasis are subject to are displacement and dispossession due to development. The rich presence of minerals and natural resources such as coal and bauxite in the forest areas has attracted various state projects and private corporations to extract those reserves and industrialize those areas.

The Government’s mining operations exploit natural resources in the resource-rich tribal areas, thus making the tribes “outsiders in their own land”. As a result, millions of tribal communities native to those areas have been displaced and dispossessed of their land and property.

The Adivasis have a symbiotic relationship with their land, which has a symbolic – spiritual – historical significance. Their identities are thus intertwined with the forest areas in which a majority of them reside, and thus having to leave or commodify their land goes against their belief system and is detrimental to their existence.

While a number of schemes and plans have been drafted by the government to resettle those that were displaced and compensate for their losses, in reality, very few people have actually been resettled. There also exists a power dynamic that determines how much compensation a group is or isn’t able to get.

A lack of education and awareness of their rights is often used against them to deny a displaced person access to what is rightfully theirs. Meanwhile, those that were not compensated are further marginalized as they are compelled to relocate to other cities and towns and forced to live in dire conditions.

Adivasi women are subject to sexual violence and their labour is gravely exploited at the workplace. They are made to undertake the harshest forms of manual labour. Their marginalized status prevents these cases from even being reported, let alone fought for in the justice system.

Over time, tribal rights activists and mass mobilization has been able to gain enough traction to have their voices and issues be heard and addressed, especially in the legislature which has passed a series of bills for the protection of tribal rights and their territories.

However, these Acts have not been implemented to their full extent and some remain only as black letter law. These movements have applied pressure on the government to protect the rights of the marginalized tribal communities which has brought many projects and operations in those areas to a standstill.

But, the pressure and need for those resources for the development of the country is a pressing one that has caused the two to be landlocked with no solution in sight. Tribals continue to be displaced, violated, and further marginalized and the areas remain to be stuck in a perpetual state of violence and conflict.

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