Article 366 (25) of the Constitution defines scheduled tribes as “such tribes or tribal communities or part of or groups within such tribes or tribal communities as are deemed under Article 342 to the Scheduled Tribes for the purposes of this Constitution”. The criteria for classification being geographical isolation, backwardness and having distinctive culture, language, religion and “shyness of contact”.
Scheduled tribes are found in the greatest numbers in Madhya Pradesh (12.23 million, or 20.3% of the state’s population), Maharashtra (8.58 million or 8.9%), Odisha (8.15 million or 22.1%), Jharkhand (7.1 million or 26.35%), Chhattisgarh (6.16 million or 31.8%), Andhra Pradesh including Telangana (5.02 million or 6.6%), and West Bengal (4.4 million or 5.5%).
By proportion, however, the populations of states in the North East have the greatest concentrations of scheduled tribes. Thirty one per cent of the population of Tripura, 34% of Manipur, 64% of Arunachal Pradesh, 86% of Meghalaya, 88% of Nagaland, and 95% of Mizoram are scheduled tribes. Other heavy concentrations are in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Lakshadweep (94%).
Still, if a headcount is done, the overwhelming numbers are in Central India.
The real swadeshi products: There are some 573 communities recognised by the government as scheduled tribes and, therefore, eligible to receive special benefits and to compete for reserved seats in legislatures, government and educational institutions. The biggest tribal group, the Gonds, number about 7.4 million, followed by the Santhals with a population of about 4.2 million. The smallest tribal community is the Chaimals of the Andaman Islands who number just eighteen. Central India is home to the country’s largest adivasi tribes, and, taken as a whole, roughly 75% of the India’s tribal population lives there.
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 their presence in India pre-dated by far the Dravidians, the Aryans and whoever else settled in this country. The anthropologist Dr Verrier Elwin stated 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 word adivasi carries the specific meaning of being the original inhabitants of a given region and was specifically coined for that purpose in the 1930s. Clearly then, all scheduled tribes are not adivasis.
Unlike the adivasis, the other two broad tribal groupings have fared better in the post-independence dispensation. Within them, some – such as the Meenas and Gujjars of Rajasthan, and the Khasis, Mizos, Angami and Tangkhul Nagas, and the Meiteis in the North East – have done exceptionally well, which should make us wonder if they should be eligible to claim benefits as scheduled tribes anymore? Unlike the North Eastern tribes, the Meenas and Gujjars don’t even meet the stipulated criteria of geographical isolation, backwardness, distinctive culture, language and religion. Forget “shyness of contact”.
Newfound concerns: Even before Independence, the legendary adivasi leader Jaipal Singh, while welcoming the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly on December 16, 1946, stated the tribal case and apprehensions explicitly and succinctly:
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… read more: