Adivasis of India

Alternative names: Scheduled Tribes, various tribal names e.g. Santhals, Hos, Mundas, Oraons, Gonds, Konds, Bhils etc.
Location: throughout India but especially in central India and north-eastern states
Population: 51.5 million (1981)
% of population: 7.5% of Indian population
Religion: Indigenous beliefs, Hinduism, Christianity
Language: various

The Adivasis (original inhabitants) is the collective name used for the many tribal peoples of India. Officially they are termed “Scheduled Tribes” but this is a legal and constitutional term which differs from state to state and area to area and therefore excludes some groups who might be considered tribal. Adivasis are not an homogenous group — with over 200 tribes speaking over 100 languages, which vary greatly in ethnicity, culture and language; however there are similarities in their way of life and generally perceived inferior position within Indian society. There are over 50 million Adivasis constituting 7.5% of the Indian population, thus making it the largest tribal population in the world.

Adivasis are found throughout India but are primarily based in the mountain and hill areas, away from the fertile plains. The greatest concentration is in the central states of India, notably Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, southern Bihar, the western ghats (hills) of Gujarat and Maharastra and northern Andhra Pradesh; where over 85% of the Tribal population is to be found. However in no peninsula state does the Tribal population reach more than one quarter of the population. There are smaller groups in the mountain areas of the south, notably in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The other concentration is found in the north-eastern states, the “seven sisters” (Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura, Megalaya and Arunchal Pradesh) but here the situation is significantly different as in most of these states (the exceptions are Assam and Tripura) Adivasis are a majority and are likely to remain so since regulations restrict settlement by outsiders.

The Indian government has a special programme for the welfare of tribes it classes as “primitive” tribes. These are Adivasis engaged in pre-agricultural technology and shifting cultivation with either a static or declining population. In 1988 there were 73 such tribes totalling over one million people.

Background and history

Adivasis are some of the earliest inhabitants of the sub-continent and once inhabited much greater areas than at present. However little is known of their history although it appears that many were pushed into the hill areas after the invasions of the Indo-Aryan tribes 3,000 years ago. Tribals were not integrated into Hindu caste society; they stood outside it but nevertheless there were many points of contact. Tribal religious beliefs contain many aspects of Hinduism (and vice-versa); Tribals traded with settled villages on the plains and sometimes paid tribute to Hindu rulers. In turn some Tribal rulers conquered and ruled over non-tribals and some Tribals permanently settled and entered caste society.

It was not until the unifying political rule of the British from the late eighteenth century that government made substantial inroads into Adivasi society. British rule brought money, government officials and moneylenders into tribal areas, beginning the process of encroachment of Adivasi land by outsiders. As a result there were tribal revolts from the mid-nineteenth century in several parts of eastern India and this forced the administration to recognize the vulnerable position of Tribals and pass laws to protect their lands from outsiders. These laws (some of which are still on the Statute Book) completely barred the sale of Tribal lands to non-Tribals and made provisions to restore alienated land. However in practice most of these laws were widely disregarded and unscrupulous merchants and money-lenders found ways to circumvent them. These problems still face Adivasis today although their opponents are as likely to be large companies and state corporations as small traders and moneylenders. Christian missions began to proselytize in some tribal areas where (in contrast to Hindu and Muslim areas) they achieved a degree of success and also, most notably in the north-east, began the process of education and political awareness. Tribal peoples played little role in the run-up to independence and it was only in the north-east that they had enough political consciousness to make demands for separation or autonomy. (See Nagas of India.)

Constitution and law

Under the constitution of the Republic of India of 1950, Tribal peoples along with so-called “Untouchables” became subject to special protective provisions. The vast majority of tribes were classified as “Scheduled Tribes”. Article 341 authorizes the President of India to specify “castes, races or tribes which shall for the purposes of this constitution be deemed to be Scheduled Tribes”. The first amendment to the Constitution passed in 1951 allowed the state to make special provision for the advancement of socially and educationally backward classes of citizens of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The central Government has a special Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes which issues an Annual Report. These reports give accounts of illegal actions against Adivasis and makes recommendations to improve their position.

There are reservations for the Scheduled Tribes in legislatures in the central and the state governments. In the two houses of Parliament, the Lok Sabha and the Raiya Sabha, 7% of the seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribe members and similar representation occurs in the state assemblies in proportion to the percentage of Scheduled Tribes in the state’s population. However since the “Scheduled Tribe” voters are always a minority (except in the north-eastern states where they are a numerical majority) in the reserved constituencies and in the assemblies as a whole, favourable legislation can be blocked by vested interests. Furthermore the system does not encourage Scheduled Tribe organization by separate parties but facilitates organization and representation by the major parties, especially the Congress Party which has been in a dominant position since independence. Governments normally have Scheduled Tribe Ministers and sometimes Cabinet Ministers but to date in peninsula India there has been only one Chief Minister from a Scheduled Tribe (in Gujarat) although in the five predominantly Tribal north-eastern states the Chief Minister invariably comes from a Scheduled Tribe.

There have been very few attempts to found distinctive Scheduled Tribe political parties, apart from those in the north-eastern states. Perhaps the most notable example in peninsula India has been that in eastern and southern Bihar, where a tribal regionalist movement known as the Jharkhand movement has been a factor since independence. The roots of this movement lie in the Santhal peoples of eastern Bihar and western Bengal, the scene of one of the early tribal revolts against land alienation under British rule. Some of this area also contains India’s richest mineral deposits and mining, and subsequent industrialization and deforestation has added to Tribal grievances.

The Jharkhand Party was first formed in 1950 and had as its main demands the formation of a separate state or territory in the traditional Adivasi areas of Santhal Paganas and Chotanagpur and areas in West Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. The party went into decline after its leader joined the Congress Party but was revived in 1973 when a new party the Jharkhand Mukti Mocha (JMM) was formed, led by a charismatic Santhal leader, who, despite his arrest during the Emergency, later worked closely with and eventually joined the Congress Party. This factionalized the JMM into several smaller groups but in 1987 a new co-ordinating organization the Jharkhand Co-ordinating Committee (JCC) was formed, with over 50 constituent organizations. This group has led a number of bandhs (strikes) and mass demonstrations in support of its demands and also tried to set up a parallel government although with little success, and both the central and state governments have consistently refused to consider a Jharkhand state. Were such a state to be granted it would not have a majority of Adivasis although they would probably be the largest single group if the different tribes were totalled together.

Land and economic factors

Over 95% of Scheduled Tribes still live in rural areas and economic exploitation remains their most acute problem. Less than 10% are shifting hunter-gatherers but more than half depend on forest produce for their livelihood, many in the form of the tendu leaf, used for the production of bidis (local cigarettes). From the time of the British administration there have been laws regulating the ownership and use of the forests and today most forest land is effectively nationalized or in the hands of state governments, and large areas are contracted to outside commercial interests. This has progressively deprived Adivasi communities of rights in the land and they can be fined or imprisoned for taking forest produce which has traditionally been theirs. The ostensible reason for state intervention has been to stop the destruction of forest land which has continued throughout this century. There are a number of reasons for deforestation which is often blamed on Adivasi shifting cultivation practices; one has been the increase in demand for firewood as fuel; another is the impact of commercial, sometimes illegal, cutting down of forests. Although many Adivasis already have a similar lifestyle to small peasant farmers, farming marginal plots of land, they are even less likely to have the traditional agricultural skills to exploit such land, or the knowledge of government to enable them to get the loans and grants to which they may be entitled.

Another threat to Adivasis is large-scale dam building, for irrigation and hydro-electricity. A number of such schemes have been carried out since independence but the largest is the giant World Bank-financed Narmada Valley project which involves 30 major, 135 medium and 3,000 minor dams and which will flood 350,000 hectares of land, including 11% of the forests of the Narmada Valley. Up to 300,000 people, the majority of them Tribals, may be forced to relocate to make way for the dam. Furthermore compensation is limited to landowners (which is difficult for many Adivasis to prove) and is normally given in money rather than land. There have been campaigns by organizations within India and internationally to at least give compensation in the form of an equal amount of land to the displaced but, although these schemes have achieved a limited amount of success in delaying the project and gaining better compensation terms, the dams will still go ahead. Furthermore it is doubtful whether sufficient land for resettlement is available in such a densely populated country, where pressures on land are already high.

Social developments

As with the Scheduled Castes, members of Scheduled Tribes are beneficiaries of “positive discrimination” provisions laid down in the constitution, reserving places in education, the civil service and nationalized industries. Problems of remoteness, poverty and prejudice mitigate against Adivasis exploiting these provisions however. For example, in Andhra Pradesh the Tribal literacy rate is only 11% against an all-India level of 29% (in the north-east, however, Tribal literacy is considerably higher). Because few Adivasis finish their schooling, few are able to use the reserved places in higher education or the civil service. Nevertheless some Adivasis do manage to achieve positions of responsibility in government and education, although they continue to be under-represented in almost every field.

Some Adivasis have been organized by left-wing groups, known commonly in India as “Naxalites”, to press for higher wages and payments for forest produce. As a result Adivasis may become victims of both Naxalite pressures and government counter-insurgency campaigns. More commonly police, forest guards and officials frequently cheat, bully and intimidate Adivasis and large numbers are routinely arrested and jailed, often for petty offences. In such circumstances many Adivasis prefer to bribe officials to escape harassment or flee into the jungles when they appear.

Although Adivasis are not, as a general rule, regarded as “unclean” by caste-Hindus in the same way as Untouchables are, they continue to face prejudice and often violence from society. They are at the lowest point of almost every socio-economic indicator. The majority of the population regards them as primitive and government programmes aim to “integrate” them with the majority society, rather than to emphasize their distinctiveness. While the larger tribal groups and languages will survive as a result of numbers, the destruction of their economic base and environment poses grave threats to those who are still able to follow the basis of a traditional way of life and may result in the cultural extinction of many of the smaller Adivasi peoples.

(See also Andaman Islanders; Chittagong Hill Tract Tribes of Bangladesh; Nagas of India)