9 August marked the International Day of World’s Indigenous People. In India, indigenous people number around 104 million and comprise 8.6% of the population. Adivasi or Adibasi is the collective term used for various ethnic groups who are considered to be India’s original inhabitants. They include various communities such as the Gonds, Bhils, Santhal, Garo, Khasi and Siddi tribes to name a few. The Constitution of India 1950, classifies majority of indigenous people in India as ‘Scheduled Tribes’.
Our Constitution framers identified indigenous people as a group that required special constitutional protection. An early case for this was made by the Constituent Assembly’s advisor B.N. Rau in The Preliminary Notes on Fundamental Rights(1946). The note, which was circulated among Assembly members, provided a clause that read:
"The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the aboriginal tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation."
In the Assembly’s Committee stages, Congress Party member, Rup Nath Brahma demanded special political, economic, cultural and other safeguards for the tribal community at both the Union and State levels. H.J. Khandekar wanted to scrap the Criminal Tribes Acts (1871,1911 and 1924) – a cluster of British authored legislations that categorised certain indigenous populations in India as ‘habitually criminal’ and placed a range of restrictions on their freedom.
During the Assembly’s plenary debates, Jaipal Singh Munda, from the tribal community, emerged as the most vocal advocate for indigenous people’s rights. He criticised the lack of tribal representation in the Constituent Assembly, and specifically pointed out the absence of a tribal women. He argued that legislative intervention was imperative for the adivasi community’s social, economic and educational empowerment. Further, Singh wanted reservation for adivasis in the legislature.
There were other members too who participated in debates around tribal rights. AV Thakur and Biswanath Das felt that it was necessary to ensure that State governments had enough financial resources to develop tribal areas. Brajeshwar Prasad highlighted that tribal communities in India were exploited on a large scale and wanted this stopped. Rohini Kumar Chaudhari also agreed that tribal areas needed to be developed, but the areas "should be administered in such a way that it can be brought up not merely to the level of the rest of the province of Assam but also to the level of the areas of the Union itself."
These discussions and debates led to a rather comprehensive constitutional architecture around indigenous rights in the Constitution. For example, Part X exclusively caters to the administration of Scheduled and Tribal areas. The Constitution also provides for reservations for various tribal communities and sets up a National Commission for Schedules Tribes that is tasked to oversee and ensure the implementation of a range of constitutional safeguards for India’s Scheduled Tribes.