India elected its first President from a tribal community this year. Droupadi Murmu’s election as the 15th President of India is rich in symbolism. She is the first tribal and second woman to hold the coveted post. Her election has also brought renewed attention to the status of tribal communities in Indian politics.
The tribal people, known as adivasis, play a major role in the politics of several states in India. The Santhal tribe, to which Ms. Droupadi Murmu belongs, shapes the politics in Jharkhand. In such a scenario, it becomes imperative to get acquainted with the ‘tribal politics’ in India and the major issues surrounding it.
‘Tribal politics’ is not new to India. It dates back to the era of colonialism, when several tribal communities began protesting against exploitative British policies. In independent India, tribal politics revolves around two major issues—survival and identity. The predominant issues vary with the region. For example, in Central India, the question of ‘development’ and tribal identity predominate. On the other hand, opposition to AFSPA and demand for autonomy fuels the politics in the Northeast India.
Tribal communities are regarded as one of the most vulnerable sections of Indian society. They constitute around 8.6% of India’s population, which is around 8% of the total population. As far as population distribution goes, tribals are mostly concentrated in eastern, central, and western belts of India. This belt covers nine states: Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.
Pic credit – Vikaspedia
The major tribes are Bhils in Western India, Gonds in Central India and Mundas, Oraons, and Santals in Jharkhand and Bengal. The Northeast inhabits the Naga subtribes, Khasis, Garo, Mizo, Kukis, Bodo, and others. There are also some pockets of tribal communities in the South, such as the Chenchus, Todas, and Kurundbas. Some small endangered communities like the Sentinelese, Jarawas, and Onge are present in the Andamans.
Major Issues Concerning ‘Tribal Politics’
Tribals form the subaltern groups in India. And the issues of identity and representation hold central importance in the politics of the marginalised.
Politics of Identity
The Indian Constitution recognises tribal communities under ‘Schedule 5.’ That is why the tribes recognized by the Constitution are known as ‘Scheduled Tribes’.
Article 366 (25) defines scheduled tribes as “such tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under Article 342 to be Scheduled Tribes for the purposes of this constitution”.
Article 342 of the Constitution gives the President the power to schedule or list particular communities in order to render them special protection.
When it comes to identity, one of the pertinent questions that arises is the distinction between ‘tribe’ and ‘caste’. Sociologist André Beteille (1974) asserts that it is not possible to differentiate between a caste and a tribe in terms of size, isolation, religion, and means of livelihood. Contrary to Beteille, anthropologist Verrier Elwin (1964) argues that ‘tribals’ are custodian of a unique culture, thus different from religion or caste. He also fears that labelling tribals as Hindus would lead to them being categorised as low-caste because many of their rituals differ from the mainstream culture.
Thus, there are two streams of thought contrasting each other. One that considers ‘tribe’ as a colonial construct (such as: Bates 1995; Unnithan-Kumar 1997; Pels 2000; Shah 2007). And the other, that reinforces the uniqueness and distinctive tribal identity (such as: Singh 2002; Peffer and Behera 2005).
The Indian government recognises the distinct culture of the tribal communities. Several institutional as well as non-institutional measures are taken by the government to preserve and safeguard the interests and identity of the tribes. For instance, the Fifth and Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution provide safeguards to protect the cultural distinctiveness of the tribal population. The Fifth schedule mentions scheduled areas from 9 states outside the northeast. The Sixth schedule, on the other hand, is related to the administration of the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. Also, since 2021, Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas is being celebrated in the memory of tribal freedom fighters.
Politics of development
Tribes reside in forests rich in minerals and resources. Their livelihood is intricately intertwined with nature. In this backdrop, the narrative of ‘development’ becomes a contested issue. Development often comes with industrialization, which promotes a uniform urban culture. Large scale mining, felling of trees, commercial plantation, construction of dams, etc., cause massive displacement and loss of livelihood among tribes.
Resistance against such projects has been happening since the time of the British. Santhal Hul rebellion of 1855-56, Birsa Ulyulau of 1895-1900, Tana Bhagat movement of 1914-1920, and Bastar Bhumkal of 1910 are some examples of revolts that had forced the British to make special provisions for the administration of tribal areas. The colonial government either established indirect rule or made special administrative arrangements. This policy of exceptionalism was visible in several acts including the Government of India Act 1919 (which permitted the declaration of certain areas as “backwards tribes”), and also in the Government of India Act 1935 (which created excluded and partially excluded areas that later became Schedule Areas).
The Constitution makers were aware of the tribal situation. Thus, several safeguards have been laid down to protect the lives and livelihoods of the tribal communities. These safeguards are a combination of British policies and the fresh thinking of Constitution makers. Continuing the policy of the British, the Indian Constitution enlists Scheduled areas and tribes.
Also, under Articles 15(4) and 16 (4a), people belonging to scheduled tribes get reservations in government services. In 2003, the National Commission for Schedule Tribe was established.
Also, Articles 330, 332, and 335 reserve seats for STs in Parliament, state assemblies, and services. However, reservations in legislative bodies are hardly seen to fulfil the aspirations of those reserved. Leaders elected are more accountable to the party leaders rather than their electorate, to ensure their candidacy. As a result, the aspirations of tribals get relegated to politics.
Thus, the resistance to the forces of industrialization remains a pertinent issue in ‘tribal politics.’ Tribals have responded to it in several ways. Many have succumbed to the forces of industrialization and displacement. Others have joined communist struggles, such as the Telangana movement or the Communist Party of India. The extreme version of such struggles has taken the form of Naxalism, which adopts violent measures. Apart from these, several popular mass struggles, such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan, are another measure to secure lives and livelihoods.
In recent times, several initiatives have come to the fore that cater to the development of the tribes. For instance, the Pradhan Mantri Van Dhan Yojana aims to increase the incomes of the tribes through the value addition of tribal products. Eklavya Model Residential Schools aim to provide quality middle and high-level education to Scheduled Tribe (ST) students in remote areas.