Indian tribal woman
Indian tribal woman Wikipedia

Up to 100,000 of India’s landless and homeless laborers and farmers have embarked on an epic 220-mile month-long march from Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh, to the capital of New Delhi to demand land reforms and to end the state’s policy of land evictions on behalf of corporations.

A similar march in 2007 led to many promises by the government to provide more jobs and land to farmers but largely led nowhere, according to activists. Nonetheless, amidst deepening outrage over corruption by government officials, India’s vast army of poor and landless are again seeking to publicize their grievances through this high-profile march.

A significant portion (at least 40,000 according to a report in the New York Times) of these protesters comes from India’s many “tribal” peoples.

The “tribals” (also known as the Adivasi) are India’s original indigenous people --- they are spread out all across the subcontinent and number some 700 distinct tribes, according to the Constitution. The Adivasis are believed to account for about 10 percent of India’s total enormous population.

More than half of the tribal population resides in six states: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Jharkhand and Gujarat. The Northeast of India has a particularly heavy tribal element. These ancient aboriginal peoples tend to live in isolated communities in hills and forestlands, far from urban centers.

While their ancient history is largely a point of conjecture, scholars generally believe that when Indo-Aryans invaded what is now India at least 3,000 years ago, they pushed these aboriginal peoples into more remote parts of the country, where they have largely remained to this very day.

As such, many tribal communities remained far outside India’s mainstream and became self-governing entities (and, importantly, fell outside of the rigid Hindu caste stricture; although some Adivasis intermarried with the “invaders”).

Adivasis are classified as “Scheduled Tribes” by the Indian Constitution, although this definition differs from state to state. Tribals are also distinct from the Dalits (the Untouchables), who are largely trapped in bonded servitude.

However, the Adivasis have also suffered greatly in India as the nation moves headlong into becoming a modern economic superpower. Their land and ancient customs have come under dire threat from the inexorable forces of progress. They also endure discrimination, prejudice and displacement, despite the fact that the Constitution guarantees them many rights.

Tribal lands (once protected by government decree) have been illegally seized and occupied by outsiders (and now by corporations) for decades.

C.R. Bijoy, an expert on India’s aboriginals, wrote of the Adivasis: “The struggles for survival… -- for livelihood and existence as peoples -- have today intensified and spread as never before in history… Adivasis belong to their territories, which are the essence of their existence; the abode of the spirits and their dead and the source of their science, technology, way of life, their religion and culture.”

Adivasis enjoy representation in India’s parliament, but because they are a minority in virtually every province, their hopes for passing legislation favorable to tribals tend to be defeated by other more powerful vested interests.

According to Minority Rights Group International, more than 95 percent of the scheduled tribes in India still live in rural areas – and less than 10 percent work as itinerant hunter-gatherers, while more than half depend on forest produce for their survival.

“Today most forest land [in India] is effectively nationalized, with large areas contracted out to private commercial interests,” the group stated.

“This has progressively deprived Adivasi communities of rights in the land, and they can be fined or imprisoned for taking forest produce which has traditionally been theirs. The ostensible reason for state intervention has been to stop the destruction of forest land which has continued throughout this century.”

Some Adivasis, particularly in India’s restive northeast, have formed political organizations to agitate for the preservation of their ancestral lands. In West Bengal, the Communist Naxalites combined its own demands for land tights for the poor with the needs of tribals. As such, some Adivasis found themselves as part of a violence insurgency movement that made them enemies of the state, subject to severe prosecution and retribution.