NEW DELHI: Tribal people who account for 8.2% of India’s population can be broadly classified into three groupings. The first grouping consists of populations who predate the Indo-Aryan migrations. These are termed by many anthropologists as the Austro-Asiatic-speaking Australoid people. The Central Indian Adivasis belong to this grouping.

The late Professor Nihar Ranjan Ray, one of our most distinguished historians, described the central Indian Adivasis as “the original autochthonous people of India” meaning that their presence in India pre-dated by far the Dravidians, the Aryans and whoever else settled in this country. The anthropologist Dr. Verrier Elwin states this more emphatically when he wrote: “These are the real swadeshi products of India, in whose presence all others are foreign. These are ancient people with moral rights and claims thousands of years old. They were here first and should come first in our regard.”

The other two major groupings are the Caucasoid and Sino-Tibetan or Mongoloid tribal people of North India and Northeastern regions who migrated relatively recently. These two broad tribal groupings have fared much better in the post-independence dispensation. Clearly all Scheduled Tribes are not Adivasis. There are some 573 communities recognized by the government as Scheduled Tribes and therefore eligible to receive special benefits and to compete for reserved seats in legislatures, government, universities and schools. Most of these benefits have gone to the non-Adivasi tribal’s.

Unfortunately, like indigenous people all over the world, India’s Adivasis too have been savaged and ravaged by later people claiming to be more “civilized”. They are now easily its most deprived and oppressed section. The biggest tribal group, the Gonds, number about 7.4 million; followed by the Santhals with about 4.2 million. Central India is home to the country's largest tribes, and, taken as a whole, roughly 75 percent of the total tribal population live there. These are the now troubled Adivasi homelands.

The failure of Government in the Adivasi homelands is well documented. In a meeting on November 27, 2009 to discuss the Naxalite challenge Dr. Manmohan Singh conceded that the Indian state and establishment have abused and exploited the tribal people. “There has been a systemic failure in giving the tribal’s a stake in the modern economic processes that inexorably intrude into their living spaces. The alienation built over decades is now taking a dangerous turn in some parts of our country. The systematic exploitation and social and economic abuse of our tribal communities can no longer be tolerated.”

On December 16 1946, welcoming the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly, the legendary Adivasi leader Jaipal Singh stated the tribal case and apprehensions explicitly. He said: “The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.” The Adivasis paid dearly for taking Jawaharlal Nehru at his word. Even if the provisions of the Constitution were implemented in some measure if not all of its spirit and word, the present situation would not have come to be.

In the early days of our Republic, Jawaharlal Nehru on the advice of people like Verrier Elwin sought to insulate the tribal areas from the predations of the new order that was emerging in India. The migration of outsiders into the traditional Adivasi homelands continues unabated. Despite this there are still 332 tribal majority tehsils in India, of which 110 are in the Northeast. Thus there are 222 Adivasi majority tehsils with a population of over 20 million or about a third of the central Indian Adivasi population.

The Fifth and Sixth Schedules under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution in 1950 provided for self-governance in specified tribal majority areas. The Fifth Schedule covers Tribal areas in 9 states of India namely Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Rajasthan. The Fifth Schedule provides protection to the Adivasi (tribal) people living in scheduled areas from alienation of their lands and natural resources to non-tribals.

This seldom-enforced constitutional safeguard is now under imminent threat of being amended to formally effect transfer of tribal lands to non-tribal’s and corporate bodies. This move has serious implications for the very survival and culture of the millions of tribal people in India.

In 1999 the Government of India issued a draft National Policy on Tribal’s to address the developmental needs of tribal people. Special emphasis was laid on education, forestry, healthcare, languages, resettlement and land rights. The first NDA government even established a Ministry of Tribal Affairs. The draft was meant to be circulated between MP’s, MLA’s and Civil Society groups. It never was.

The draft policy is still a draft, which means there is no policy. But it must also be stated that this sudden concern for tribals was mostly motivated by the fears of conversion to Christianity that would have precluded their assimilation into the Hindu Samaj. Thus, even though the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were carved out of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, real tribal issues relating to their culture, way of life and aspirations were not addressed. Political power has still, by and large, eluded them. Not to be left behind the UPA government drafted the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill in 2005 but did not act upon it due to pressure mounted by self-styled wildlife activists and the wildlife tourism lobby.

Much has happened since independence and the failed promises of the Constitution. But it is still possible to retrieve some of the original promises. As provided by the Constitution, all tribal majority areas must be consolidated into administrative divisions whose authority must be vested with democratically chosen institutions. This body could be called the Adivasi Maha-panchayat and enabled to function as a largely autonomous institution. All laws passed by the state legislatures must be ratified to the satisfaction of the Maha-panchayat. Instead of the state capital controlled government, the instruments of public administration dealing with education, health, irrigation, roads and land records must be handed over to local government structures. The police must also be made answerable to local elected officials and not be a law unto themselves.

But there are several paradoxes that must also be dealt with first. The most important of these is that to provide good government in the worst of law and order environments. A better civil administration structure must come up in place of the one present. Perhaps it is time to constitute a new All India Service, similar to the former Indian Frontier Administrative Service. The IFAS was an eclectic group of officers drawn from various arms of the government to administer the northeast. Unfortunately it was merged into the IAS.

Till then the lament of a popular folk song of the Gonds will hold true: “And the Gods were greatly troubled/ in their heavenly courts and councils/ Sat no Gods of Gonds among them. / Gods of other nations sat there/ Eighteen threshing-floors of Brahmins/ Sixteen scores of Telinganas/ But no Gods of Gonds appeared there/ From the Glens of Seven Mountains/ From the twelve hills of the valleys.”