A phrase that eclipses key histories


The 15th session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues opened at New York last week. This annual two-week forum of the United Nations attracts over 1,000 indigenous participants from across the world. On May 10, 2016 a historic statement was made by Canada’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, when she announced that they were officially adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples after having objected to it in 2007, when it was adopted by the General Assembly. This news had every indigenous person, Canadian or not, celebrate with cheers and tears. This is a milestone in recognising rights of Indigenous peoples. But I was left wondering when that recognition would come to us.

Make no mistake, India did sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples after making it clear that this did not apply to India. But who then are we, the 85 million Indians constitutionally recorded as Scheduled Tribes and who call ourselves Adivasis, Tribal and Indigenous peoples?

A ‘tribe’ as understood in Sociology or Anthropology is generally applicable to a community or cluster of communities characterised by a common territory, language and a cultural heritage, albeit a sub-culture. During the British period, for purposes of administration a number of legislations were enacted for protection of the tribals, but no legislation defined the term ‘tribe’ in that time.

The transition from the terms ‘Tribe’ or ‘Tribal’ to ‘Scheduled Tribe’ took place during the framing of the Indian Constitution. Jaipal Singh Munda, one of the six tribal delegates in the Constituent Assembly of India, advocated for the acknowledgement and rights of identity of India’s original inhabitants, between December 1946 and January 1950. On December 11, 1946, B R Ambedkar, chairman of the Constituent Assembly, introduced Munda as the representative of the ‘aboriginal tribes of Chhota Nagpur’.

Munda used the term ‘Adivasi’ for tribals in all his speeches and debates, determining the location and identity of tribals as the original inhabitants of India. He championed the insertion of the term ‘Aboriginal’ in the draft constitution but it was dropped in favour of ‘Scheduled tribe’ in the final version. Even the word ‘Adivasi’, which he had hoped would be used in place of Scheduled Tribe, at least in Hindi translations of the Constitution, was paid no heed to.

In striking out ‘Aboriginal’  and refusing to include ‘Adivasi’, the term ‘Scheduled Tribe ‘made us a technical status and not one to determine or articulate ethnicity or identity.

The Constitution does not, therefore, recognise Scheduled Tribes as original inhabitants, or peoples who have been victims of conquest and colonisation since foreign invasions. As citizens, Scheduled Tribes are just backward peoples who need uplifting, mainstreaming and affirmative action, and who can be awarded security based on that primitiveness. The phrase itself has managed to eclipse a key part of Adivasi history.

Not only did the Constitution refuse us rights as Aboriginals, Adivasis or Indigenous peoples but that rejection has happened at the UN too. The Indian representation at the UN Working group on Indigenous Peoples Assembly in 1984 repeatedly stated that ‘Scheduled Tribes’ were not indigenous peoples. They stated, “India has long been a melting pot and through an ongoing process of absorption they have become part of wider society of India.”

The Indian representative of the UN Working Group in 1992 said, “the extent of intermarriage made it impossible to say who was tribal who was not.” In his statement to the working group, he said, “It was now very difficult to come across communities which retain all their pristine tribal character.”

Again the Indian representative in the group’s meeting in 1993 argued that the term ‘indigenous’ was inadequate for his country, because the entire population had been living on its land for millennia. All these people were ‘indigenous’ and any attempt to make a distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous would be artificial.By refusing to acknowledge that there are indigenous peoples in India, the government evaded all responsibility of awarding the Adivasis rights of first citizens of the nation.

On January 5, 2011, a momentous judgement by the Supreme Court in dismissing a criminal appeal (Kailas & Ors v State of Maharashtra), in a case of stripping, beating and parading pregnant Nandabai of the Bhil tribe in 1994, placed on record the historical injustice done to India’s Adivasis, aboriginals and indigenous population

The Court framed the case as a typical instance of the manner in which many Indians treat those who are “probably the descendants of the original inhabitants of India”. “These Adivasis make up about 8 per cent of India’s population. They are among the country’s most marginalised and vulnerable communities, with the everyday realities of their lives marked by a high level of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, disease, and landlessness.” Further stating that “India is broadly a country of immigrants” and that unlike the United States and Canada, both of which are countries of ‘new immigrants,’ India “is a country of old immigrants. Roughly 92 per cent of people in India are descendants of immigrants”. It declared: “It is the duty of all people who love our country to see that no harm is done to the Scheduled Tribes.” Towards the end, it declared: “It is time now to undo the historical injustice to them.”

Adivasi struggles and perspectives come from experiences of discrimination, marginalisation and powerlessness and ours has been one of a long, ongoing call for justice for our rights of restitution and repatriation. Is anyone listening?


The article was earlier published in ‘The New Indian Express – 18th May, 2016’.

Ruby Hembrom

Ruby Hembrom is the founder and director of adivaani, an archiving and publishing outfit of and by Adivasis. Email: rubyhembrom@adivaani.org

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