tribal communities in India

Rights have been historically dormant for tribal communities in India


History of tribal communities in India

During the pre-Mughal period in India, tribals, or adivasis, were not considered impure by the upper caste Hindu population, unlike dalits. Even the adivasi origins of Valmiki were recognized. Unlike the dalits, who were subjugated by upper caste populations in Mughal India, tribal communities in India living in remote habitations had control over their lands (S. Meena & N.P.S. Meena, 2014) based on their segmental organization according to descent systems where their form of lifestyle ranged from hunter-gatherer to agriculture.

This sporadic form of life where tribal communities in India collectively owned land not under larger obligations was disrupted by the spread of the Mughal empire in India, wherein the challenge to sovereignty over ownership of land and the resulting acculturation led to numerous revolts by tribal communities in India against the Mughal rulers. Prominent rebellions against the Mughal rulers include those of the Bhils in 1632 and of the Bhil-Gonds in 1643 (S. Meena&N.P.S. Meena, 2014).The arrival of the British in India was greeted with a similar sort of antagonistic reaction over land ownership and use of resources.

The British and the tribal communities in India

The land policies of the British were very invasive of the rights of the tribal communities in India over their inhabited land. A succession of invasive land policies such as the jagirdari system, the zamindari system and the permanent settlement that the British imposed in Bihar and Bengal exacerbated the already simmering tension between tribal communities in India and the British administration. These convolutions in land policy led to migration of non-tribals into tribal-inhabited land, exploitation of forest resources by non-tribals, especially private interests, deprivation of forest resources and relative impoverishment, coerced taxation systems that ultimately led many to work as bonded labourers, attempts by the British to destroy some tribes out of xenophobia and the spread of disease epidemics among certain tribes such as among certain Andamanese tribals coming in first contact with the outside world (B.K. Pattnaik, 2013). The British period was the period of dispossession of many native tribal communities in India from their land and resources and their subsequent re-organization under the so called ‘civilizing mission’ by the British.

The 19th Century witnessed the establishment of a Forest Department by the British along with certain legislations that made it possible for the British to economically extract forest resources. The sustainable methods of traditional use of forests and the needs of forest ecologies were bulldozed by these revenue-centric legislations, which continued after India’s independence in 1947. The widespread evictions of tribal communities in India from forests due to the timber economy and other revenue sources, and the laws enacted that instead of protecting the historical propriety of tribals over forests, made their land alienable as commercial property, eventually led to concerns over the rights of tribal communities in India over forests. The numerous rebellions against the British by tribes such as the tribals of Bastar, the Kuki, the Nagas, and the Santhals are all examples in this regard.

Although the Indian Forest Act came into being in 1927, which held the condition that any forest area or wasteland that was not privately owned could be marked as reserved areas, no particular system of settlement rights were formulated for tribal communities in India living in forests, and large areas were not surveyed for this purpose. Tribals involved in agriculture continued to practice without official land ownership. This created instead a system of patronage for the government under which nobody was allowed to use resources from forests without permissions garnered from the forest department. The practice of logging, hunting, foraging, or agriculture by tribals and non-tribals alike under this system thus constituted encroachment.

Post Independence and tribal communities in India

After independence, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 was another instance of tribal settlement rights not being included in forest legislation, whereby protection to wildlife habitats created systems of patronage towards the state. Apart from destroying crops sown by tribal communities, tribal communities were seen as such a nuisance that often forest department officials would start plantations by tribal lands with the objective of evicting them. Thus since the time when the rights of tribal communities in India over their residential forests and practices such as hunting and shifting cultivation were unrestricted, a very long period ensued without any such rights recognized, even in forest conservation.

Although most tribal communities in India have been living in forests for a large part of their history, many tribal populations, especially those in eastern India such as Nagas and Khasis have come into the mainstream. However, even so these populations are collectively relatively less well off than the rest of India in the socio-economic aspects. In terms of socio-economic development, two groupings of tribal development in India can be said to have formed. One grouping consists of tribal populations that have assimilated into the mainstream culture, have undergone acculturation to varying extents, and in many instances are not even a primarily agrarian community. They have been the chief beneficiaries of much of the Indian government’s tribal development programmes that create opportunities for people from tribal communities. However, there is another grouping of tribals such as the Dongria Kondh of the Niyamgiri Hills battling against encroachments by mining companies such as Vedanta (Survival International, 2017) who still suffer the effects of the oppressive land policies that led to their dispossession and impoverishment in modern India and some of whom who still live in forests or work in shifting agriculture or as agricultural labourers.

The Forest Conservation Act, 1980 that was a response to a crisis of deforestation as a result of the British colonial legislative infrastructure, seemed to justify the historic dispossession of rights for tribal communities over forests that have alienated tribal communities in India against the government. The protests over this act propelled the government to table the National Forest Policy, 1988 that saw for the first time that the livelihood needs of tribal communities in India in forests are more important than commercial needs. Other than addressing the livelihood needs of forest-dwelling communities, with the provision of forest-related employment for individuals from tribal communities, the act also offered protection for the customary laws of tribal communities with respect to forests.

After recognition of settlement rights of tribals over forest land, the early nineties experienced pressure being put on the government by activists and human rights movements to bring these into practice. Their activities culminated in the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution that offered decentralized governance in rural areas and instituted the Bhuria Committee to extend tribal rights over resources by providing the provisions of the Amendment to Schedule V areas. Based on the recommendations of the Bhuria Committee, the Parliament passed the Panchayats Extension to Schedule Areas Act (PESA), 1996 that recognized a Gram Sabha system for tribal communities and recognized the customary rights of tribals over community resources such as land, forests and water (S. Joshi, 2017). However, till contemporary times the Act has not been fully enforced as regards tribal populations.

Since then many policies have been instituted to provide rights to tribal communities in India such as the policy of Joint Forest Management that have not been able to adequately delineate the rights of tribal populations in rural, remote and forest areas. The main obstacle has been local level specifications and the wide variety of customary interdicts and norms of tribal communities in India. The approach has usually been a top-down approach that fails to adequately address local level intricacies. This lack of last mile delivery creates a lot of ambiguities that translate into agency being routed on the ground, usually outside the prescribed frameworks, lending erroneous consequences to policies. Tribal rights over issues such as evictions continue to be addressed mostly by people’s movements and active organizations such as Survival International.

tribal communities in India

Fig: Toda Hut from Ooty, Tamil Nadu
Source: Mohamed Shareef, flickr

Recognition of Forest Rights

The watershed legislative document so far in regard to tribal rights has been the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The Act recognizes the rights of occupation of forest lands by tribal communities even when their rights are not recorded, with the stipulation however that the occupant must have lived in the forest with at least three generations of lineage since 13.12.2005, with 1 generation being 25 years. The Act fixes a maximum  area of 4 ha for occupation of forest land, including rights for lands falling under national parks and sanctuaries. The Act allows for self-cultivation of forest land and usufructuary rights over minor forest produce falling under the aforementioned area for forest-dwellers belonging to the Scheduled Tribe category. The Act provides for in-situ rehabilitation of Scheduled Tribes who have been evicted or displaced from their forest-dwelling habitats. These rights are heritable but not transferable and importantly stipulated that no member of any forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes can be evicted or removed from the area the person holds rights in, which although is subject to verification. The Act recognizes Gram Sabhas as competent authorities for initiation of procedures for rights under this Act (S. Joshi, 2017). The Act is a huge landmark, for it for the first time clearly demarcates the rights of tribal communities in India over forest land. This makes the Act invaluable in preserving the cultures of tribal communities in India and also in correcting the historic alienation of tribal communities from land that has in many instances left them with a diminished identity.

Tribal Exclusivity vs Tribal Assimilation

The debate over tribal exclusivity as against tribal assimilation usually take place over the issue of the sovereignty of the tribal group. The tribal movements in central India such as those of Bastar and among the Dongria Kondh take the issue of displacement and erosion of livelihoods as the focal point. Similarly many tribes in northeastern India such as Bodos and Karbis claim rights over land claiming to be the original inhabitants of the land areas they occupy.

The problem in India among many tribal communities is one of alienation, and this is intensified by the processes of globalization and homogenization. Tribal assimilation is a problem especially when attempts towards bring individuals in sync with modern life results in a reactionary movement towards essentialism. This comes with a lack of imagination in developmental thought in India towards communitarian understanding at the lower levels of governance, which interacts the most with tribal communities.

Often cross-cultural understanding is missing in a lack of an understanding of compositeness in an ideologically saturated modern civilization, lending prejudice to hold sway over relativistic inferences, which reinforce the normative basis of modern civilization. The lack of last mile service delivery places tribal communities in a disadvantageous power matrix in an absence of the understanding they require. Tribals are not seen as substances for conservation and bearers of history. Their exclusivity and sovereignity must be recognized in terms of their identity for any scientific assimilation and progress to take place, else it becomes a recipe for social unrest for the country, as history proves.

1 thought on “Rights have been historically dormant for tribal communities in India

  1. Very nice article
    We All India Adiwasi Employees Federation are organising one day session on state level to discuss various issues among tribe
    If you are interested to participate please contact me
    Ravindra pusam

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