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Outlook India: Unacknowledged Victims

April 14, 2010


More deprived and dispossessed than the Dalits - or Muslims - the Adivasis in India remain not just marginal but invisible, crushed in the violent war between the Indian state and the Maoists.

On 13th December 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru moved the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly of India. This proclaimed that the soon-to-be-free nation would be an ‘Independent Sovereign Republic'. Its Constitution would guarantee citizens ‘justice, social, economic and political; equality of status; of opportunity, and before the law; freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship, vocation, association and action, subject to law and public morality.'

The resolution went on to say that ‘adequate safeguards shall be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes...'. In moving the resolution, Nehru invoked the spirit of Gandhi and the ‘great past of India', as well as modern precedents such as the French, American, and Russian Revolutions.

The debate on the Objectives Resolution went on for a whole week. Among the speakers were the conservative Hindu Purushuttomdas Tandon, the right-wing Hindu Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the Scheduled Caste leader B. R. Ambedkar, the liberal lawyer M. R. Jayakar, the socialist M. R. Masani, a leading woman activist, Hansa Mehta, and the communist Somnath Lahiri. After all these stalwarts had their say, a former hockey player and lapsed Christian named Jaipal Singh rose to speak. ‘As a jungli, as an Adibasi', said Jaipal,

I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of the Indus Valley civilization, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the newcomers-most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned-it is the newcomers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness....The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.

Sixty years have passed since Jaipal took Nehru and all the others at their word. What has been the fate of his people, the adivasis, in this time? This essay will argue that, in many ways, the tribals of peninsular India are the unacknowledged victims of six decades of democratic development. In this period they have continued to be exploited and dispossessed by the wider economy and polity. (At the same time, the process of dispossession has been punctuated by rebellions and disorder.) Their relative and oftentimes absolute deprivation is the more striking when compared with that of other disadvantaged groups such as Dalits and Muslims. While Dalits and Muslims have had some impact in shaping the national discourse on democracy and governance, the tribals remain not just marginal but invisible.

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