Tribal Politics

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TRIBAL POLITICS The "tribal" peoples or adivasis of India, according to the 2001 census, constitute roughly 8.1 percent of the country's population, some 83.6 million people, classified under 461 different communities. They occupy a belt stretching from the Bhil regions of western India through the Gond districts of central India, to Jharkhand and Bengal, where the Mundas, Oraons, and Santals predominate. There are also pockets of tribal communities in the south like the Chenchus, Todas, and Kurumbas, and very small endangered communities in the Andamans, like the Jarawas, Onge, and Sentinelese. Northeast India contains another major portion of the tribal population, including the different Naga subtribes, Khasis, Garos, Mizos, Kukis, Bodos, and others. The intellectual, political, and administrative rationale for treating all these communities together under a single "tribal" rubric remains unclear.

One feature common to all these communities, however, whether in central or northeastern India, is their division between different state and administrative boundaries, including national borders (e.g., the Chakmas are divided between Mizoram and Bangladesh, the Nagas and Kukis cross the Indo-Myanmar border). In central India, although communities like the Gonds and the Bhils number some 7.3 million people each (1991 census), none of them has been recognized as peoples, nor have they been given statehood, as have other linguistic communities. Even though the struggle for a tribal but multiethnic state of Jharkhand preceded that of many other linguistic states, it was finally achieved in truncated form in November 2000. In the Northeast, struggles for autonomy range from complete independence to statehood to autonomous district councils. Another common feature is the combination of special legal provisions for tribals on the one hand, and repression by the police and army on the other, when tribal peoples try to assert their own visions of the good life.

The "tribal question" in central India has traditionally been posed in two ways by academics and policy makers: the question of differentiating between tribes and castes on the one hand, and tribes and peasants on the other; and the question of how best to improve what is universally seen as a poverty-stricken condition among tribals. In the Northeast, struggles for autonomy, statehood, and secession have put the question of identity at center stage. For the government, the main issue there is law and order, and solutions are usually conceived in military terms, such as the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, which gives armed personnel the right to shoot on sight on mere suspicion, arrest without warrant, and enter and search premises at will. To understand contemporary tribal politics, however, it is essential to start with the colonial period.


In the pre-colonial period, while hill and plains people occupied different ecological, social, and often political spaces, there was often considerable trade and even intermarriage between the two. Both in central and northeastern India, hills people would raid the plains, and were in turn looked down upon as savages. Yet categories were often fungible, and the balance of power was never fixed. Colonialism was a significant watershed, both in epistemological and material terms. The production of census records, gazetteers, official or semiofficial ethnographies, grammars, linguistic surveys, and land tenure records all served to create sociological and epistemological categories such as castes and tribes. The characterization of the tribal in India was similar to that in Africa, drawing on evolutionary classifications based on race and anthropometry, the denigration of any indigenous kingship or polity in favor of an acephalous, kinship-bound society, and the perceived primitiveness of modes of production. The categories "tribal," "primitive," "savage," or "wild" were also used interchangeably to characterize those peoples who resisted colonial rule, and formed part of the justifciation for particularly violent campaigns of "pacification," such as the burning of Kond villages in Orissa in the nineteenth century, ostensibly to suppress human sacrifice, or Naga villages in the twentieth century, to outlaw head-hunting.

But the Indian "tribe" was further understood to be differentiated by religion and culture from the Indian "caste." The census reports, with their agonizing over the distinction between animists and Hindus, in particular contributed to this objectification, which continues to fuel social science debates. There were of course dissenters from the conventional view, for example, sociologist André Beteille (1974), who pointed out that in terms of size, isolation, religion, and means of livelihood, it was often not possible to distinguish between castes and tribes.

In material terms, the colonial view of tribal communities as isolated, poor, and backward created conditions for their exploitation. Shifting cultivation, which was a widely practiced form of agriculture, was dismissed as wasteful and destructive of the forests. Reservation of the forests to make space for monocultures, which would contribute to the British shipbuilding, railway, and war efforts, was introduced in the guise of "scientific forestry." Restrictions were introduced on the collection and sale of nontimber forest produce, which was a major source of income for most tribal communities. These changes set off more than a century of conflict over access to the forests. Some of the major rebellions in tribal India, such as the Bastar Bhumkal of 1910 and the Jharkhand Sal Andolan of the late 1970s, have been over forest rights. In many places, the forest department claimed land that adivasis had been cultivating for generations but on which their rights had never been recorded. Forced evictions from such lands, and the precarious situation of forest villages, remains a central and burning issue for large numbers of forest communities. Similarly, colonial settlement policies that transformed community lands into individually owned plots, higher rents, and unfamiliar legal systems led to significant land alienation. Moneylenders, traders, and others found a foothold in tribal areas, which they progressively expanded into complete dominance. Industrialization has further transformed the demographics of several tribal regions. In Jharkhand for example, tribals were down to approximately 26 percent in 2001 from roughly 50 percent in 1901.

Despite this clear history of underdevelopment, official policy attributes adivasi poverty to the backwardness and primitiveness of adivasis themselves, or in other words, regards it as an internal condition of their society. In the 1930s and 1940s, there was considerable debate among "isolationists," "integrationists," and "assimilationists" about whether to leave tribals alone, integrate them with some perceived "mainstream," or attempt assimiliation as a path toward progress. In neither case was it acknowledged that they had already been integrated, but on disadvantageous economic terms, as labor and supplier of raw materials. While the official policy of the government of India, as reflected in Jawaharlal Nehru's five principles for tribal policy, or Panchsheel, is culturally "integrationist" and leaves space for adivasis' own distinctive customs, in practice, assimiliationist pressures predominate, especially in the sphere of schooling, language, and religion. For instance, the census automatically records adivasis as Hindus. The struggle to be recorded as followers of sarna dharm has been an important part of adivasi politics in Jharkhand in recent years.

Constitutional and Policy Provisions for Tribes

Like the scheduled castes, tribal communities are officially characterized as among the most vulnerable populations in the country, in need of special protective laws. In addition, however, tribal resistance to colonialism ensured that they were governed under distinctive administrative arrangements, some of which are now being rapidly eroded. Maintaining special tenure laws like the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act is now an important part of tribal politics in the state of Jharkhand. The constitutional provisions for scheduled tribes are inevitably a mixture of colonial legacy and fresh thinking at the time of the framing of the Constitution.

Following the various rebellions in adivasi areas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the Santal Hul of 1855–1856, the Birsa Ulgulan of 1895–1900, the Tana Bhagat Movement of 1914–1920, and the Bastar Bhumkal of 1910, the colonial government responded either by maintaining indirect rule (as in Bastar or the Dangs) or by setting up specific areas, under the direct rule of an agent to the governor-general, where the land, forest, and other laws applicable to the rest of the British province did not apply and where special administrative arrangements could be made that recognized, at least to some extent, community rather than private property (see, for example, the Bengal Regulation XIII of 1833 which followed the Kol rebellion of 1831–1832). This state of exceptionalism was continued in the Scheduled Districts Act (Act XIV) of 1874, which listed scheduled districts across British India. Special provisions for tribal areas were continued in the Government of India Act of 1919, which allowed for certain areas to be declared "backward tracts," followed by the Government of India Act of 1935 and the Government of India (excluded and partially excluded areas) Order of 1936. These excluded and partially excluded areas later became the scheduled areas of independent India.

There are two broad types of scheduling in the Indian Constitution: area-based and community-based. Under Article 244 of the Constitution (Part X), which deals with the "Administration of Scheduled Areas and Tribal Areas," there are two types of arrangements. The Sixth Schedule applies to tribal areas in the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram, while nine states have scheduled areas under the Fifth Schedule: Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and Rajasthan. While there is a strong overlap between the category of scheduled tribes and scheduled areas, the fit is imperfect. Some states that have the most vulnerable adivasi populations, like West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, have no scheduled areas at all, and even in the states where the Fifth Schedule is in operation, not all areas where adivasis constitute a majority are covered under the schedule.

Article 342 of the Constitution gives the president the power to schedule or list particular communities in order to render them special protection. These lists are state specific; for instance, the Santals and Mundas are a scheduled tribe in Jharkhand, but not so in Assam or the Andamans, where some of them migrated. Even in their states of origin and despite clear poverty, not all tribal communities are scheduled as tribes, for example the Kols of Sonbhadra and Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh.

While the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution have colonial antecedents, the detailed provisions were framed by three subcommittees of the Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights and Minorities. The committee, which was to look at the tribal areas "other than Assam" and whose work resulted in the Fifth Schedule, was chaired by the Gandhian A. V. Thakkar, who believed in a policy of "uplift" rather than "rights." The basic assumption underlying the 1833 Bengal Regulation, the 1874 act, and the 1919 and 1935 acts, which has continued in the Fifth Schedule as well, is that tribal areas are best governed by a paternalistic and personalized administration with special and fewer rules than those that apply to nontribal areas. The Fifth Schedule makes provision for Tribes Advisory Councils and for certain laws to prevent alienation of land to nontribals and exploitation by moneylenders. The governor of the state has wide-ranging powers to modify or forbid existing laws or to propose special laws for these areas. In practice, experience with the Fifth Schedule has been very disappointing. The Tribes Advisory Councils have hardly any teeth, laws applicable to the rest of the state are routinely extended to scheduled areas, the governor rarely exercises the powers vested in him or her, and the net result is demonstrated by the miserable human development indicators for adivasis.

The Sixth Schedule, pertaining to former Assam, gives greater recognition to the right to self-governance, through the formation of autonomous district and regional councils with legislative powers in a variety of important matters, including the management of forests, the regulation of shifting cultivation, the appointment of chiefs or headmen, property inheritance, and social customs. The District Councils also have the power to levy taxes, regulate money lending, establish and manage primary schools, dispensaries, and markets. However, it still falls short of the autonomy that many groups in the Northeast region were demanding at the time.

In a parallel stream, the 73rd Amendment Act of the Constitution (1993) made it mandatory for every state to constitute panchayats, or councils, at the village, intermediate, and district levels. Past experience with elected panchayats that supplanted traditional tribal systems, however, led to a legal challenge by adivasi groups, and in 1995 the Andhra Pradesh High Court ruled that a separate act was needed for scheduled areas. Accordingly, in December 1996, Parliament passed the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA). This act is applicable to Fifth Schedule areas, since the Sixth Schedule already contains many of its provisions regarding customary law. In fact, PESA explicitly aspires to implement Sixth Schedule–like arrangements in Fifth Schedule areas. PESA mandates that any "State legislation on the Panchayats . . . shall be in consonance with the customary law, social and religious practices and traditional management practices of community resources" and that "every Gram sabha [village assembly] shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution." However, most states have not passed appropriate legislation to implement the act, and there is widespread and often purposeful ignorance of its provisions on the part of officials.

In addition to the Fifth and Sixth Schedules and PESA, a number of constitutional provisions are addressed to adivasis as individual citizens. These include: Article 15 (4), which enables special provisions for the advancement of socially and educationally backward classes; Article 16 (4a), which enables reservations in government services; Article 275 (1), which relates to central grants-in-aid to states for the specific purpose of scheduled tribe welfare; Articles 330, 332, and 335, which stipulate seats for scheduled tribes in the Parliament, state assemblies, and services; and Article 339, which mandates the setting up of a commission to report on the administration and welfare of scheduled areas and scheduled tribes. Successive five-year plans have also created special plans for tribal development, in the shape of multipurpose tribal blocks (second plan), tribal development agencies (fourth plan), and tribal subplans (fifth plan).

Tribal Politics in Central India

However, even as the state created paternalist schemes and legal provisions for tribal "development," it contributed to their poverty and landlessness through land acquisition for mining, hydroelectric projects, defense projects, and other "development" activities, leading to massive displacement. The Bailadilla iron ore mine in Bastar, the Hirakud and Upper Indravati hydroelectric projects in Orissa, and the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat are all examples. Apart from displacement, the two other axes of tribal politics are struggles over the forest and everyday encounters with the police.

Adivasi communities have responded to their situation in several ways: many of them have succumbed to the forces of industrialization and displacement, losing their lands and migrating to urban centers or other states in search of employment. A significant number, however, have joined communist struggles, like the Telengana movement and become members of the various "Naxalite" parties, such as the Communist Party of India (Maoist), to demand land reform and access to resources. They have also been active in various struggles against displacement by large dams led by organizations like the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the Koel Karo Andolan, as well as in the struggle against insensitive and overly exploitative mining as in Kashipur, Orissa. In each of these struggles, people have been arrested and killed by the police, their houses have been razed, and their crops destroyed.

Since the late 1990s several tribal groups have mobilized to retain rights to forest land, which are in danger of being usurped by the Supreme Court decision of 1996, in the Godavarman forest case, which gives the forest department the right to manage all "forests," as defined in the dictionary, regardless of their actual ownership. With one stroke, this judgment negates decades of struggle for more participatory forest management, as well as the specific rights provided by local tenurial acts like the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act.

Another major plank of adivasi politics today is to claim the rights promised by PESA. Many nongovernmental organizations and social movements have promoted the setting up of village assemblies (gram sabhas), on the grounds that they have a constitutionally recognized "competence" to manage their own resources. The government, however, does not recognize these assemblies. In Meghalaya, there has been a parallel move to revive Khasi syiems, or chiefs. Several adivasi groups have also begun to make alliances with international networks of tribal and indigenous peoples.

Given the desperate situation in which many of the central Indian adivasis live, survival issues have usually dominated over identity questions. Competitive proselytization by Christian and Hindu groups has also served to reduce the space for the expression of an autonomous adivasi culture, language, and religion. In recent years, while some adivasi communities have been mobilized by Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) political forces, primarily through the work of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh fronts like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the Bajrang Dal, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, others have attempted to revive traditional adivasi religions like the sarna dharm (sacred grove religion).

Tribal Politics in the Northeast Region

Many of the movements in the Northeast date back to the colonial policy of excluded areas and inner line permits, which cut off existing links between the hills and plains peoples, creating isolated tribal areas and communities. Christian missionary activities in these areas, particularly what is now Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya initially resulted in a loss of indigenous identity, culture, and religion, but eventually led to the formation of new identities, like that of the Naga and the Mizo peoples out of different subtribes, and the emergence of an educated middle class, which could articulate nationalist aspirations. The failure of the Indian state to recognize people's aspirations, forced accessions at the time of independence, as well as subsequent military action and repression further fueled secessionist politics.

The Northeast is marked by a multiplicity of insurgent outfits representing different ethnic groups, some of whom are engaged in interethnic warfare (e.g., the Naga-Kuki tensions) as well as conflict with the Indian state. Within the space demanded by larger nationalities like the Assamese or the Mizos, there are several minority groups that are also engaged in autonomy struggles, including the Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas, and Koch Rajbanshis in Assam, and the Hmars and Reangs in Mizoram. Some of them, like the Bodos, have been successful in negotiating accords with the Indian government, resulting in the Bodoland Territorial Council within Assam. Immigration by nontribals into tribal areas, especially Bangladeshis, is a major political issue in the area. Since it would be impossible to go into the histories of each movement, what follows here is simply a representative glimpse of two major nationality struggles, those of the Nagas and the Mizos.

Until the 1960s, Arunachal Pradesh (earlier known as North East Frontier Area or NEFA), Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Mizoram were part of the province of Assam. Manipur and Tripura, which were princely states, were absorbed into the Indian union as Part C states and then union territories, and were given separate statehood much later.

The Naga movement, which is the oldest and most powerful autonomy movement in the area, goes back to 1918, with the formation of the Naga club, in which exmembers of the World War I labor corps played a major role. In 1946 leadership of the Nagas was taken over by the Naga National Council (NNC), with representation from different subtribes. Apprehending that Indian independence and the absorption of Naga areas into India would mean a loss of autonomy, and yet with no clear alternative, the NNC wanted a ten-year interim agreement with India, during which it could decide whether it wanted complete independence. A nine-point agreement to this effect was signed between the NNC and the governor of Assam, Sir Akbar Hydari, in 1947. However, there was a dispute over the interpretation of the ninth clause, which stated that "at the end of this period (10 years) the Naga council will be asked whether they require the above agreement to be extended for a further period or a new agreement regarding the future of the Naga people arrived at." While the Nagas interpreted it to mean that they would be given the choice of independence, the Indian government interpreted it to mean that the Naga hills were now an integral part of India. The Nagas hills became a district of Assam, to be administered under the Sixth Schedule. This led to a split within the NNC, with A. Z. Phizo demanding complete independence. From about 1953, the NNC was forced into underground resistance by the presence of the Indian army. Since then, the Naga peoples have seen continued insurgency, as well as severe army repression involving rapes, killings, and the occupation of churches and schools, all of which is "legally" sanctioned under the Naga Hills Disturbed Areas Ordinance, the Assam Maintenance of Public Order Act, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1858 (amended in 1972). Pressure by Naga moderates on both the insurgents and the Indian government bought some peace in the form of statehood for Nagaland in 1963. Like the Hydari Agreement, the 1974 Shillong Accord between the central government and the insurgents died a quick death, and in 1980 the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) was formed. This in turn split into two factions, named after their leaders, the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) and NSCN (Khaplang). From 1997 onward, again due to pressure by civil society groups like the Naga Hoho, the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights, and the Naga Mothers Association, there have been talks between the NSCN (I-M) and the Indian government. However, the Indian government's proposal to extend a cease-fire to all Naga areas in 2001 created huge unrest in Manipur. The cease-fire was read as an initial step toward accepting the NSCN demand for a greater Nagaland, or Nagalim, which would incorporate the three northern districts of Manipur. Naga unification would also affect Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, creating resistance within those states.

Among the Mizos, the earliest social and political associations were the Young Lushai Association and the Mizo Union. The early struggles of the Mizos were against their own feudal chiefs, and around the time of independence, the left faction of the Mizo Union was in favor of merging with India as a way of abolishing the chiefship. Another faction, however, wanted independence or union with Burma (Myanmar). Eventually, in 1947, the Mizos became a part of India, but were split between Bangladesh (Chittangong Hill Tracts), and the Indian states of Tripura and Manipur. Unlike in Tripura, however, where there was a long struggle for the tribal areas to be brought under the Sixth Schedule in an Autonomous District Council, in Mizoram the Sixth Schedule was applied from the start. In 1958 the cyclic flowering of the bamboo led to a huge multiplication of rats and famine. Inadequate relief, the Assam government's imposition of the Assamese language, and the construction of a separate Christian and Mizo identity led to the formation of the Mizo National Front (MNF), led by Laldenga. The MNF carried out attacks on government offices and communication lines and on 1 March 1966 declared independence. The Indian government's response was to declare the Mizo hills a disturbed area, aerially strafing villages and forcibly regrouping several villages into concentrations along the highway. This effectively destroyed the Mizos' own subsistence economy, based on shifting cultivation and made them dependent on government rations. After episodic peace talks, an accord was signed in 1986 between Laldenga, the Mizoram government, and the government of India, whereby the MNF became part of the government in Mizoram.

Nandini Sundar

See alsoEthnic Conflict ; Ethnic Peace Accords ; Insurgency and Terrorism ; Mizoram ; Nagas and Nagaland ; Northeast States, The ; Tribal Peoples of Eastern India


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Tribal Politics

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