The Plight of Tribal Communities

And the role the youth can play in bringing the tribal narrative to the mainstream discourse in India.

Dec 1, 2022

“Adivasi and environment are one and the same.” (CK Janu, 2003).

Separating Adivasis from forests means ripping apart Adivasis from their safe havens and depriving the forests of their caretakers. The direct relationship shared between Adivasi communities and nature is extraordinary. The forest ecosystem might seem fascinating to an ordinary man, but the thought of living in harmony with wildlife seems too ‘wild’ to be true. Adivasi communities have gone centuries without exploiting natural resources, instead carefully preserving and worshipping them. While we marvel at this ‘otherworldly’ concept of harmony, it is important to note that the aforementioned statement has other implications as well; indiscriminate destruction of our forests is equivalent to displacing entire communities and destroying their lives. These atrocities inflicted upon human lives receive little attention from the ordinary man, for this is ‘the cost of development’ and it shall not be questioned.

Indigenous communities in India have been at the receiving end of systemic oppression for centuries. The Forest Rights Act (2006) and Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (2016) are legislations which had been brought into force in an attempt to empower forest dwellers and mitigate the impact of large-scale destruction of forests. However, in a gross violation of the true objective of these laws, forests still remain under the jurisdiction of forest department officials who fail to empathise with the Adivasi narrative and continue to put our forests under threat.

As times have changed and civilizations have progressed, tribal communities have found it harder to survive. Financial security is a far-fetched dream for tribals who are at the mercy of powerful moneylenders with arbitrary rules. The vulnerability of tribal communities has also been exploited by private developmental firms, who have been given the advantage of ‘speedy environmental clearances and removal of red tape’.

While there is still debate over whether such conflicts are justified or not, one thing remains clear — facing constant harassment at the hands of powerful people is just ‘the cost of survival’ for tribal communities.

While the previous paragraph barely scratches the surface in highlighting the injustices meted out to Adivasi communities, it reflects how tribal issues have been systematically kept out of the media for years. Marginalization from the mainstream has forced Adivasis to put up a lone fight for their community, hence, mobilization and activism have been powerful tools used by tribal communities across the nation. Several activists have emerged from different tribal communities to fight for land rights which are synonymous to ‘right to life’ in their context. CK Janu, a notable activist from Kerala who successfully led an agitation in Muthanga and helped in assigning 4000 hectares of land to the local community at the age of 31, is one of them. Similarly in Jharkhand, the steel plant project proposed by Arcelor Mittal has been forced to come to a halt because of the relentless efforts of local tribals led by Dayamani Barla, at the age of 35.

But raising their voice comes at the cost of their lives for many Adivasi activists. Soni Sori, a tribal leader from Bastar, Chhattisgarh, was sexually harassed by officials while locked up in jail based on incorrect allegations. CK Janu also had to face endless allegations and several lawsuits against her, merely for raising her voice against injustice.


This gloomy picture forces us to ask an important question — Where is the political representation that our tribal communities so clearly deserve? There have undeniably been several attempts by tribal leaders to get their issues addressed in the political sphere, and have political parties raise tribal issues through certain legislative measures. These attempts at politicisation have been able to gain fruition only sparsely. The geographic and cultural isolation of indigenous communities from the mainland has been a major factor in the limited political discourse on their issues. Despite the historical negligence towards them, these communities have often been involved in the campaigning process of several political parties who, in turn, assure them representation in local governance. Over the years, several tribal activists have tried to enter politics — while some leaders like Dayamani Barla and Soni Sori tried to make their mark by contesting elections through established political parties, some others like CK Janu have chosen the path of establishing their own political party.

Nonetheless, all these leaders have one thing in common — they have been wronged constantly by the same political organisations and leaders who had entrusted them with their full support before elections. This vicious cycle of oppression never seems to end.

It is imperative to bring our attention to the driving force which has been feeding the structural oppression of tribal communities in India for years. Invisibility; a complete disregard to indigenous issues by the Indian populace. Late Dr. Abhay Xaxa remarked in an interview with Bloomberg that “We are living in an age where being naïve about Adivasi issues is either accepted as normal or perhaps we Adivasis are considered stupid and unable to grasp such contradictions.” Being uninformed about tribal movements or about the cultures of the tribal communities native to our respective states is socially acceptable. This disconnect between the urban, rural and the tribal serves as grounds for indifference towards each other’s issues.

It is hence clear that political engagement of tribals is impossible without the civic engagement of the majority population, and the most viable tool for civic engagement is youth activism.

How can the youth help?

Indian youth, with its pro-activeness and innovative approach, has been successful in bringing a wide range of cultural and political issues to public notice. They have campaigned for human rights, press freedom, climate action, and various other large-scale issues. It has now become vital for our youth to take on the mammoth task of bringing the tribal narrative to the mainstream.

Increasing discourse on tribal lives requires a holistic approach which can only be adopted if young minds become the drivers of change.

Young Indians should use the fourth pillar of democracy, mass media, as the foundation of this movement. Tribal stories, which have rarely found a place in prominent talk shows, reports, editorials, etc. should be discussed alongside stories of mainland India. Public events, feature articles, major publications, as well as active social media campaigns can help sensitise a large section of our society towards tribal issues. However, these campaigns can only be effective if they are made equally accessible to tribal folks. Thus, making appropriate technical and linguistic adjustments to make information accessible to all is a task as important as any. Parallel to this, it is imperative to focus on policy-based action in tribal regions. The Panchayat Raj (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 was enacted to promote self-governance in tribal regions by establishing local political bodies. Youth from the Munda tribe in Jharkhand have given a unique twist to the Pathalgadi tradition of the region. Several stone slabs have been erected all across the district with constitutional provisions like the Panchayat Raj Act inscribed on them.

Urban youth leaders need to become true allies of tribal people by doing the most in their power to push for policy-based change while also helping them reclaim their identities.

As youth intervention into the issues of tribal locals increases, pressure on state and national parties will increase to formally address them. Although manifestos of major parties during 2019 Lok Sabha elections which barely talked about their agendas for rehabilitating tribal communities provide a grim picture of the on-ground scenario, it should not discourage youth activists from directing their efforts to the cause of marginalization of Adivasis. After all, a future where our society is sensitive to tribal issues is possible only if the youth of India strives towards it.

The objective of a ‘Think Article’ is to bring knowledge about policies in the sphere, in context to the youth of India and, if possible, influencing the policy process. The article has no motivation to pass any political judgments.


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