Key words: Adivasis, corporations, democracy, land, Indian Constitution, tribals
Along with the various other communities, India (South Asia to a large extent) is home to the Dalits (formerly known as the untouchables who have been -and still are- discriminated), and, tribals who are nearly 9 percent of the nation’s billion plus population. The Indian Constitution calls the various communities of indigenous people (Adivasis means original or aboriginal people: it is in contrast to the others who arguably came to the Indian subcontinent in waves from elsewhere) as Scheduled Tribes (the Dalits are called Scheduled Castes). In Indian context, people and documents used the word ‘tribal’ descriptively but I shall refer to them here as Adivasis. While the Dalits and their struggles have been documented and are receiving international attention, not many know of Adivasis and the anxieties and uncertainties they face today. Historically, the Dalits suffered discrimination while the Adivasis were exploited economically. Unlike the Dalits, Adivasis lived in the forests and secluded places, surviving and flourishing on a special bond they developed with (jal, jungle, jameen) water, forest and land.
Adivasis are spread all over India but in some states and localities they are densely populated. They have their own diverse religious world-views. Myths and symbols are their lifeline. While they still retain and celebrate some unique features, Indic/Hindu religious thought, and mythology infiltrated their routine life and mindset. Community is central to them and decisions are made collectively. Semi-democratic processes define their social lives and women are endowed with greater freedom in choosing spouses and making decisions. Living closer to the nature, their life has been eco-friendly. Superstitions and other evils, ancient and modern, have not spared the Adivasis. Down the ages, they have been fighting injustices and exploitation, and in the recent decades, they began to assert their dignity and rights. The governmental policies, projects and interventions (initiated since India’s Independence), efforts of the Christian and other missionaries and non-governmental organizations played a critical role in improving their histories and destinies.
Education and empowerment, assertion of human dignity and human rights come with a cost.
Groups of people oppose these shifts and developments. Some traditionalists who cherish and uphold hierarchy and inequality and wish that the West-inspired Constitution is NOT there at all (it promises and guarantees to ALL equality, liberty and fraternity, dignity and rights etc.) are upset. In their worldview, the Adivasis are there to serve the others and not to make claims or cultivate dreams. Some others see the Adivasis as a stumbling block to their prosperity. The Adivasis have been accorded exclusive rights over their lands. With the insistence of Jesuit missionary lawyers and others, from the early 20th century the British have enacted land laws that excluded the possibility of a non-Adivasi purchase land from the Adivasis or settle in those zones designated for them. It was primarily to protect the Adivasis from being exploited by the landlords, money lenders and other ‘outsiders.’ Successive Indian governments approved of the same with some modifications, and the Forest Rights Act of 2006 is another avatar of that.
The national and global corporations and individuals have set their eyes on the land of the Adivasis. Hungry for their forests and hills that hold immense mineral deposits and their land for agricultural and commercial purposes, they are determined to rob Adivasis of the land.
The nation’s Supreme Court gave a ruling, made public on 20th February 2019, which said that more than a million ‘tribals and forest dwellers’ (some assess that this number could go up to four million) have to be evacuated from their homes and lands by the respective states before 27th July 2019. Ironically, it is in response to the cases filed by wildlife protection groups.
To claim or ‘reclaim’ ‘their land’ now, Adivasis have to appeal to the courts, furnishing their title-deeds and ownership documents as a proof. Being illiterate and ignorant of the legal systems some Adivasis may not have any documents and those who have are not able fight the cases. Those who failed the Adivasis include the governments (at the national and state levels) and its officials, as well as the general public. There are attempts by the political parties to fight the Supreme Court’s ruling but in the meanwhile fear and uncertainty stares at the lives of Adivasis. The journalists who are sympathetic to the cause and the lawyers, intellectuals, social workers and activists who are fighting such historical injustices are branded as anti-nationals and are threatened with violence or imprisonment.
It’s a concern that does not make headlines or bother a majority of Indian Christians since they live on the West coast or in the southern states and they are not Adivasis. As elsewhere in the world, the meaning and purpose of democracy in India is also shifting fast. Corporate power has come to define and decide who will be where and who will be marginalized and eventually exterminated. An economic model that favors the affluent at the cost of the poor and their livelihood, is an unjust model that need to be confronted. If a democracy –its governments and courts- fails the people, we have to reimagine democracy in an entirely new way.