Written by Pragya Uike
Whenever people hear the word ‘Adivasi’ or ‘tribal’, they immediately start thinking about scantily clad people living in the forests and many other mainstream misconceptions come to their mind! Rarely do people know the right facts about Adivasis and tribals. This isn’t entirely their fault either, because there is negligible discourse around tribals and Adivasis and even where there is one, it is very stereotypical and reductive. Thankfully, there is a day to help people become more aware of Adivasis and tribals, and this day is the 9th of August.
December 23, 1994, was a remarkable day for Indigenous people around the world. It was on this day, the United Nations General Assembly decided in its resolution that the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People shall be observed on the 9th of August every year. Tribals and Adivasis are among the most vulnerable sections of Indian society. There are many problems they have to face across various aspects of life. So what better day than 9th August to talk about their issues? Here are some of the issues that Adivasis and tribals in India have to face:
Whenever there is mention of tribal and Adivasi rights, do not forget to talk about their land and forest rights first. This has to be on top of our list when it comes to discourse on Adivasi and tribal struggles because this issue has been around for many decades.
We have heard stories from our ancestors of how their lands were forcefully snatched or taken away from them by fraud. Even in my hometown, I can still see so much land under the control of other people, which once upon a time belonged to Adivasis.
The forest rights of Adivasis and tribals were taken away by the British because of their greed for natural resources. Various policies like The Forest Rights Act, 1865, 1878, The Forest Rights Act, 1927 among others were disastrous because these laws substantially stripped tribals of their forest rights like collecting raw material, grazing, hunting etc.
Today, we have the Forest Rights Act, 2006 to safeguard the individual as well as their community rights of Adivasis and tribals. This Act looks promising on paper, but in reality, people have managed to find loopholes in the Act. They often surpass the provisions of this Act by various means like organizing fake Gram Sabhas, like in the case of Hasdeo Arand forest), by converting Gram Panchayats into Nagar Panchayats, like Premnagar in Chhattisgarh, by the faulty rejection of claims by the authorities, etc.
When we speak about Adivasi and tribal land, it is important to talk about their displacement from the land. There is a significant difference between the number of Adivasis and tribals who were displaced and those who were rehabilitated. Approximately 85 lakh tribals and Adivasis have been displaced due to development projects and natural calamities and only 21 lakh were shown to have been rehabilitated so far.
The unfortunate part is even the Supreme Court sometimes doesn’t take their history and reality into account and this is the reason why we have unfortunate judgments like the recent 2019 judgment – Wildlife First & Ors. V. Ministry of Forest & Environment, where the Supreme Court rejected claims of lakhs of tribals and Adivasis. It is only when some states protested vehemently, that the Supreme Court put a stay on the judgment.
I often tell my friends that people are digging up history from as early as 1500-1600 to claim their rights but if Adivasis and tribals start digging up the past, they will also uncover some uncomfortable truths which people won’t even be in a position to hear. We can not only give examples of thousands of years earlier but also of the recent past.
There are important tales of brave warriors like Birsa Munda and Gundadhur who fought for these very rights. For others, forests might only be for jungle safaris, adventure and wildlife, but for tribals and Adivasis, it is their source of livelihood, it is their world, it is their faith, it is associated with their culture. Basically, their life revolves around the forest.
The recently announced coal auctions, if not withdrawn, will be disastrous for tribals and Adivasis because many of the coal auction areas are in Scheduled areas and this will lead to displacement, malnutrition and a threat to the safety of tribal and Adivasi women. Snatching away the land and forest of tribals and Adivasis is equal to snatching away their life.
In various reports and commissions such as The 1931 census, The Kalelkar Committee and The Lokur Committee, a few things were common when they talked about the characteristic features of Scheduled Tribes, words like primitive traits, distinctive culture, shyness of contact with the community at large, geographical isolation. Even the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) says that few of the requisites of being indigenous are distinct language, culture and beliefs. So, we are now clear that distinct cultural traits are very essential for determining if a community is indigenous or not. Unfortunately, tribals and Adivasis are slowly forgetting their culture. If we don’t wake up now, a day might soon come where there won’t be any indigenous community left because the culture has been lost.
Most of the tribals and Adivasis in India don’t even speak their own language. According to UNPFII, one indigenous language dies every two weeks. Tribals and Adivasis are losing their culture after coming in contact with the mainstream society. For instance, in the Gond Tribe, earlier there was no tradition of wearing a blouse, but after they came in contact with mainstream society, they started wearing blouses.
Now, Adivasis and tribals don’t even want to acknowledge the rich heritage of Ghotul where boys and girls used to sleep together and have drinks together. Now, they have found a new sense of ‘morality’ where they don’t accept their own culture! The biggest disappointment comes from those who have become a part of the mainstream culture and have shunned all cultural aspects of being an Adivasi or tribal. Some of them don’t even write their surnames but just write some mainstream surnames, because they want to hide their identity from the world.
Tribals and Adivasis elect leaders from their community to represent their issues. It is often seen that after winning elections, many of these leaders completely forget about the issues they promised to work on. In some cases, tribal and Adivasi leaders act as puppets of other people. This is a very serious issue because it makes the community they represent hopeless.
Some people brand Adivasis and tribals as destroyers of the environment. This is done by those who are having specific propaganda because this branding as destroyers makes it easy for them to plea for the eviction of Adivasis and tribals. They want to set a narrative in the mainstream society that these communities are dangerous for forests.
However, the truth cannot be hidden. The United Nations says that where indigenous groups have control of the land, forest area and biodiversity flourishes. The United Nations also says that nearly 70 million indigenous people depend on forests for their livelihood, and many more are farmers, hunter-gatherers or pastoralists. One should at least use their common sense and wonder why would anyone destroy their means of livelihood?
Human rights violations are rampant in tribal areas, especially in the Naxal belts, because in these areas security personnel are deployed in large numbers. There are numerous cases of fake encounters, sexual assaults, food grains being looted by armed personnel and custodial torture. This list goes on. These things have time and again been brought to light by infamous cases like the Sarkeguda Fake encounter (where 17 tribals were killed) and Soni Sori’s custodial torture.
Draconian laws (which are sometimes even more draconian than UAPA) make the situation worse as these give enormous power to the authorities. For example, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 has made the situation miserable in Bastar. This Act contains vague and broad definitions and this makes it very dangerous. The Peoples Union For Democratic Rights (PUDR) said that this Act goes beyond UAPA. So, we can very well imagine the implications of this Act.
Under this Act, many activists, journalists, researchers like Bela Bhatia and Santosh Yadav have been arrested. Not only that, they are charged with draconian provisions like sedition. Recently, a report by Supriya Sharma left a lot of people shocked. This report revealed that as much as 10,000 people were charged under sedition in one district of Jharkhand! Can you believe it? Sedition! Fortunately, Mr. Hemant Soren decided to drop these cases.
All Adivasis and tribals (like Soni Sori) who protest or raise their voice are often branded as Naxalites! Many still face prejudice because of a British made law – The Criminal Tribe Act. Under this Act, the British used to brand an entire community as criminals. This was obviously to suppress dissent. Though this was abolished later, it left an everlasting stigma around these tribals. Kiran Bedi’s bizarre tweet in 2016 shows it all.
If this is coming from a retired IPS officer who is also a Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, we can very well imagine the mentality of laymen about tribals. Human Rights Violations are severe in tribal and Adivasi areas because many do not have formal education and don’t understand or speak the mainstream languages. In such a situation, how can we expect that they will fight for their rights?
Malnutrition is rampant in tribal and Adivasi areas. As per the NFHS-4 report, As per the report, in India 44% of tribal children under five years of age are stunted (low height for age), 45% are underweight (low weight for age) and 27% are wasted (low weight for height). Malnutrition in Adivasi and tribal areas is very peculiar. Apart from the general causes like poverty and lack of awareness, there are other specific causes which amount to malnutrition among tribals and Adivasis like displacement, denial of forest rights and harassment by armed personnel.
The distinct culture of tribals and Adivasis is important to them. Unfortunately, children are forgetting their culture just by going to school. In Narayanpur (an Adivasi dominated district in Chhattisgarh), in a school which is run by Ram Krishna Mission, there are Adivasi children who have started following the Hindu culture.
Adivasis and tribals are not bigoted. Therefore, I don’t have any problem with them holding the idol, per se, but the main issue is that they are slowly forgetting their own culture and this is very dangerous because we have already seen the importance of culture for the determination of Adivasi and tribal identity.
That’s why there is a need to set up more educational institutions which balance modern education and their culture, like the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University (IGNTU).
I have observed that people rarely include Adivasis and tribals when they talk about oppressed communities. Take a look at these posts/stories of Swara Bhaskar, Zoya Akhtar and Kiara Advani, where they have included almost every group except Adivasis and tribals.
It is not like they don’t support Adivasis and tribals but it is because we don’t come to mind when they think of oppressed communities. This again brings up the point of representation of Adivasi and tribal communities in the mainstream. It is the duty of those tribals and Adivasis who are now a part of the mainstream society to bring these stories to light. These are the various issues which I feel are crucial and need to be addressed. It is important to spread awareness about these issues and talk about them because the grievances of Adivasis and tribals deserve to be heard.
Would you add another point to this list? What other issues faced by Adivasis and tribals do you think need to be addressed? Tell me in the comments below!
About the author: Pragya Uike is a writer and poet pursuing a law degree from Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU), Raipur. She belongs to the Gond tribe. She loves to write about social issues pertaining to tribals, marginalized people and gender equality. You can follow her on Twitter @PragyaUike