India has the largest population of tribal or ‘indigenous people’ [as defined by the UN] in the world. The recent 2011 Census of India put this number at 104 million or 8.6% of the total Indian population of 1.2 billion.1 If they were a stand-alone nation, they would be numerically 30% bigger than Germany today.
There are believed to be upwards of 600 distinct tribal communities and almost 2/3rds of them are concentrated in a swath of seven contiguous States that run across Central India: Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
In 2001, the Bhils and Gonds numbered 12.7 million [15%] and 10.9 million [12%], respectively making them the two dominant tribal groups within the country.
It was Verrier Elwin [1902-1964], born in England and later taking Indian nationality, who produced some of the early anthropological studies of the tribals of India. He was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a participant in the national movement for independence from British Rule. He lived among the Gond tribals of Central India, married a Gond and was a fierce defender of their rights. He was later appointed Advisor to the Government of India on tribal affairs in North East India.
Elwin writes in Tribal Art of Middle India:
“Tribal India is to be filled with thousands of small schools – there is danger that they will be led to reject the old life and that they will be given in its place little idea of how to have rhythm and vitality, exuberance and delight.”
A long and tragic history of discrimination has pursued the tribals going back to pre and post-colonial times. They were always ‘outsiders’ who, when the local monarch’s rule did not reach their forest domain, were able to govern themselves. Caste-based religious and ‘private property’-based economic sanctions gradually moved them to the lower rungs of the social ladder.
C.R Bijoy, an ardent activist of the interests of the tribals writes:
“It is a cruel joke that people who can produce some of India’s most exquisite handicrafts, who can distinguish hundreds of species of plants and animals, who can survive off the forests, the lands and the streams sustainably with no need to go to the market to buy food are labeled as ‘unskilled”
“….the official and popular perception of Adivasis [tribals] is merely that of isolation in forest, tribal dialect, animism, primitive occupation, carnivorous diet, naked or semi-naked, nomadic habits, love, drink and dance. Contrast this with the self-perception of Adivasis as casteless, classless and egalitarian in nature, community-based economic systems, symbiotic with nature, democratic according to the demands of the times, accommodative history and people-oriented art and literature”
Despite many well-intentioned laws and measures by the Government of India, including protective arrangements, affirmative action and developmental resources/benefits, measures of progress relating to the economic well being, health and education of this vulnerable community remain elusive.