Tribal Rights Issues in India

Many tribal groups still feel deprived of their own linguistic identity.

Recently India witnessed the demise of Fr. Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest and a tribal rights activist. He had been in the news for a while after being found falsely accused in a controversial case. Later on, he was arrested from his residence in Ranchi, Jharkhand. Due to deteriorating health conditions, he filed for multiple bails that either remained pending or got rejected. This year, as his health worsened, he was immediately shifted to the hospital, where he took his last few breaths. His demise was a grievous shock for the entire country, especially for the ones who were equally involved in Tribal Rights activism. He was respected and revered for his benevolent actions, and many believed that his arrest and rejection of bails despite his health conditions was sheer injustice.

Fr. Stan was a renowned campaigner for the tribal community. Although he was born in Tamil Nadu, he actively worked for the tribal community (Adivasis) and understood their struggles from his residential base in Jharkhand. This state is popularly known for its tribal population. The late 1990s was when he started his journey by working for an organization for Human Rights, and later in 2006, he set up his own NGO named “Bagaicha.” Through this, he envisioned transforming it into an institution to conduct research and improve the lives of tribals and youths. One of his most pivotal research papers, ‘Deprived of rights over natural resources, impoverished Adivasis get prison: a study of undertrials in Jharkhand’, was published in 2016, showing that the “percentage of tribals in jail was much even more than that of the total population.” Apart from this, he effortlessly worked for causes of the displaced and marginalized in the eastern states ever since the planning and implementation of various development-related projects in the country began taking place.

Like Fr. Stan, many other such activists in India have been fighting for a cause that has affected the tribal community since British colonialism. During that era, the issue mainly was centered towards forest rights as the Colonists considered forests as the most precious resources that could be tapped into and owned by them. Such ownership was entirely alien to the traditional systems of India. When it comes to natural resources, Indian culture has always favored community sharing rather than individual ownership. Such contradictions led to a trail of revolts against colonial attitudes. At the same time, these tribes were the primary inhabitants of the forests and faced a major brunt of the intrusion. For the colonizers, the Tribal communities were stereotyped as ‘primitive and savage’ and didn’t find the need to understand their grievances. With time, the community became an ostracised and an illegal presence in their own homes. Thereby, with the influx of non-Adivasis (dikus), their voices were further marginalized. The tribal communities always believed in collective living. Still, the colonists’ changes in policies and legislations completely overturned their ways of living, including the religious, social, cultural, political and economic aspects.

After Independence, the community’s struggle for their rights seemed to persist. India was now heading towards a phase of development and industrialization. Thus, large hectares of land and other natural resources were essential for building construction dams and heavy industries. Inevitably, this led to further displacement of the tribal population that significantly impacted their lives and livelihood. However, this did not mean a complete ignorance from the newly formed Central and State Government. While drafting a free India’s Constitution, the makers ensured to include provisions that would identify the cultural distinctiveness of the tribal population. Whilst also promising to give them enough protection on account of their economic disadvantages so that they can maintain their identity without any fear of coercion or exploitation. For example, the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Indian constitution deal with the administration and are used to control the Scheduled Areas and Tribes in all states within the country. Similarly, Article 46 emphasizes on economic and educational upliftment of the tribal people while at the same time protecting them from exploitation.

The government also earmarked funds as part of its Five Year Plans. They aimed to understand that those from tribes are inhabitants of lesser developed, remote areas with less exposure to technological developments, an increase in lower literacy rates and a lack of awareness about health, sanitation, and female empowerment. Through this, the government envisioned uplifting tribal groups in these areas while keeping in mind their inclination towards their knowledge systems. Beyond Constitutional provisions, various welfare and development programmes implemented by the Government and Non-Governmental Organizations worked independently on providing justice to these marginalized groups. Their primary emphasis was on understanding the issues that are either ignored or not implemented despite the higher authorities’ provisions and demand for revitalizing their traditional culture.

Looking at the current scenario, it is clear that the upliftment of the tribal population has still not reached its desired levels. Inevitably, this is mainly because of the weak implementation of policies and misappropriation of funds at the local level. Many tribal groups still feel deprived of their own linguistic identity due to the imposition of the dominant language in their respective states.

Overall, this indicates a greater need for the implementation of policies of tribal rights in a way that it reaches the remotest grassroots levels. A friendly coexistence between the tribal and the non-tribal population can also ensure trust between the cohorts that can go a long way in the overall development of the country. When discussing development, it is crucial to maintain a proper balance between shaping India as per global standards and ensuring that the fundamental rights of marginalized communities are safeguarded and protected in the process.


Medhaa Priya is a sophomore pursuing Integrated Masters in Humanities and Social Science from IIT Madras. She is interested in Research and Data Analysis and wishes to pursue a career that integrates both. She likes to advocate about Education, Financial Literacy, Mental Health and Fitness.

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