Home > Uncategorized > Where have India’s Adivasis disappeared?

Where have India’s Adivasis disappeared?

“The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”
— Michel Foucault


Where have our Adivasis disappeared?


At Independence we started out with 24 million Adivasis constituting 7.5% of our population.  They would number 82 million by now, about half the size of Pakistan.  Where are these people?  Why don’t they show up in our discourse? Scan the headlines of our main newspapers.  The word Adivasi is conspicuous by its absence.  Their place has been usurped by Maoists, extremists who threaten to overthrow our Government through armed insurrection.  How did the Adivasis morph into Maoists in our discourse? How was this masterful rhetorical transformation of tribal adivasis foisted on us?  Is it justified by reality on the ground?  Why are we so willing to accept such a perverted discourse? What aspects of its reality does it conceal from us in order to accomplish its objectives?  That is a story worth exploring.


Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes constituted 7.5% each of our population. In a unique act of affirmative action, the founding fathers reserved 15% of all seats in educational institutions and Govt jobs for these under-privileged people. The idea was to bring these neglected and  socially disadvantaged sections of our population on par with the rest.  Education was deemed the best way to achieve this objective. The reservations were for 20 years but have continued.   Between these two groups, Scheduled Cates lived mostly in the settled urban and rural areas while scheduled tribes lived predominantly in the forested areas.  Over time, the Scheduled Castes benefited from development, learnt to play the democratic game and have done relatively well.  Their brethren in forests have suffered grievously at the hands of the State. Why is there such a pronounced divergence in the integration of these two similarly disadvantaged groups in our society?


The State simply failed to take governance to the tribes in the forests. There was never any Patwari or Police Patil, let alone a Block Development Officer or a collector. There has never been any census. Rudimentary services like recording of births & deaths, maintenance of land records, issuance of ration cards etc was never done and remains impossible.  No banks, no post offices, no roads, no drinking water, no sanitation, or health care ever reached these people.  Adivasis do not exist as individuals in official records. Their land holdings are not recorded.  They have no identity.  They are faceless non-people.  They have no voter identity cards.  They cannot vote.  They are simply and effectively locked out of our system.  Government chose not to go into the forests.  Its officers were averse to rural postings that had no schools. The problems of tribals were buried in Govt files. This was not just benign neglect. It was criminal.


The State first came into contact with Tribes when it set out to build some 3500 dams across the country.  For the nation this was imperative, but for the tribals, an unmitigated disaster. The dams submerged their valleys and villages, dried up rivers, destroyed fishing grounds, disrupted  the ecology that sustained them.  Tribals were uprooted from their natural habitat and violently thrust into slums on the periphery of small towns. Unfamiliar with money, modern medicine, market economy, and with no skills or education, they simply perished.  First their kids died.  Sans traditional medicine every small infection became life threatening.  Later time & toil took its toll on the adults.  The State maintains no record of how many were so displaced from their habitat. There are no records of what happened to these hapless souls afterwards. The State did not want to burden itself with the guilt of such gory records.  Most vanished without a trace. They just fell off the earth through the cracks in our discourse while we celebrated our dams and development.  That history should haunt us as much as it haunts the tribals. The difference of this institutional memory blinds us to the tribal narrative. They remember while we wilfully forget.


The second round of intensive contact with the tribals was caused by the unprecedented boom in world commodity prices. Overnight cheap bulk minerals such as iron ore, coke, bauxite, chrome turned into gold. It set off a frenetic rush to exploit them in the forested areas that had never been opened up by the State.  This time it was private enterprise rather than the State that spearheaded the move. Much before independence, the British had virtually nationalised mining by divesting mining rights from landownership. Elsewhere in the world, if you own a piece of land under which gold or oil exists, it is yours by law.  But the Indian state continued with the colonial system.  Land, rich in minerals, that was worth billions on the world markets, was sought to be handed over for a song to private miners.  Note there is nothing socialistic about demanding a fair price for something you own. But because the owners were non-people, and the miners rich & powerful, tribals facing expropriation of their assets were painted as anti-development.  Nobody cared to point to the confluence of a commodity boom, tribal lands and first time private miners. Mining the world over is socially and economically disruptive of local communities. But we paid no heed in our greed.


Nature abhors a vacuum. The absence of Government in tribal area was one such.  The commodity boom provided a stupendous profit opportunity to whosoever controlled the tribals and access to their land. It was natural that the two would combine to attract the attention of politicians of all kinds.  Maoists are just one such class of predatory politicians who stepped in to fill the vacuum. Maoists are educated, suave, smart, talented and urban based “social entrepreneurs”. They are not local tribals. They stepped in to organize an insurrection to strike an opportune bargain.  They do so through persuasion and intimidation.  Mining costs are but a small fraction of the value of minerals. The rest, as much 90% of sale value, is pure profit.  Even an equitable settlement between miners and owner-tribals would make both filthy rich.  So there is enough money in it for everybody who buys a stake in the game.  The urban Maoists leadership understands this. They have organized a militia along professional lines. Their strategy and tactics are immensely sophisticated.  Meanwhile our crass discourse fails to distinguish between the Maoists leadership, their cadres, and the poor tribals. We don’t know who the enemy is.


It is imperative to correct our discourse.  Tribal grievances are genuine and need addressing. There can and will be no military solution to the problem.  Each of these problems is locally grounded and will need to be addressed by a local political leadership of tribals themselves.  A one size fits all approach that characterizes the present centrally lead effort is bound to fail. This approach doesn’t give tribals the ownership of any solution. It fails to reassure them of an equitable deal. We need to create and nurture local tribal political leadership. Rahul Gandhi has been making half-hearted efforts at finding a solution to the tribal problem.  Can he buckle down, put in the intellectual homework required, and pull together the party & Govt resources to give local tribals leadership another chance?  If so he will have found himself a pan Indian constituency that is fiercely loyal for years to come.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Rakesh
    July 18, 2011 at 5:42 am

    well thought…

  2. July 26, 2011 at 4:05 am

    Very eloquently put. Your interest in their well being shows.

  3. July 26, 2011 at 6:45 am

    I think part of the problem with integrating tribals is their relative isolation. Not just geographical, but in terms of culture and power as well. Humans have a tendency to take a dim view of anything not congruent with their reality or something they recognize as admirable….

    Wrote rather ramblingly. Not enough time to turn into concise comment. http://aamjanata.com/tribals-in-india/

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