The Indigenous World 2021: India
In India, 705 ethnic groups are recognised as Scheduled Tribes. In central India, the Scheduled Tribes are usually referred to as Adivasis, which literally means Indigenous Peoples. With an estimated population of 104 million, they comprise 8.6% of the total population. There are, however, many more ethnic groups that would qualify for Scheduled Tribe status but which are not officially recognised; as a result estimates of the total number of tribal groups are higher than the official figure. As an example, the Supreme Court in its judgment dated 18 December 2020 held that the Bombay High Court “could not have entertained the claim or looked into the evidences to find out and decide that tribe ‘Gowari’ is part of Scheduled Tribe ‘Gond Gowari’, which is included in the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950.”
The largest concentrations of Indigenous Peoples are found in the seven states of north-east India, and the so-called “central tribal belt” stretching from Rajasthan to West Bengal. India has several laws and constitutional provisions, such as the Fifth Schedule for central India and the Sixth Schedule for certain areas of north-east India, which recognise Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land and self-governance. The laws aimed at protecting Indigenous Peoples have numerous shortcomings and their implementation is far from satisfactory.
The Indian government voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) with a condition that, since independence, all Indians are considered Indigenous. However, the Government of India has increasingly been using the term “Indigenous populations”. In its notification dated 27 September 2018, the Government of India created a High-Level Committee to look into the “social, economic, cultural and linguistic issues of the Indigenous population in the State of Tripura”. In 2019, India while introducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) stated that: “The Bill further seeks to protect the constitutional guarantee given to indigenous populations of North-Eastern States covered under the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and the statutory protection given to areas covered under the ‘Inner Line’ system of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873”. The state government of Jharkhand declared the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples celebrated on August 9 every year worldwide as a state holiday. These are major developments in terms of the official recognition of Indigenous populations.
Legal rights and policy developments
India abruptly declared a nationwide lockdown effective from midnight on 24 March to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The media reports on the suffering of millions of migrant workers, including Indigenous Peoples, shook the world. Reports and images emerged of police officers beating migrant workers with batons for breaking quarantine rules and even allegedly spraying migrant workers on the road with disinfectant. Unable to pay for rent or food, and in the absence of inter-State public transport, migrant workers were compelled to undertake long and perilous journeys on foot in the scorching summer. Many migrant workers died on the road due to exhaustion, including Kasa Madkami, a 22-year-old Indigenous man from Odisha who died on 11 May 2020 while walking back home from Hyderabad.
Instead of addressing the primary concerns of the people regarding food, health, shelter and livelihoods during the lockdown, the Government of India used the lockdown period to evict Indigenous Peoples from their lands and take policy decisions with far-reaching consequences for the environment and the well-being of people, disproportionately impacting the Indigenous Peoples of the country. Among these measures was the government’s recovery plan for the COVID-19 pandemic. On 12 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of the Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Self-reliant India Campaign) as a recovery package to help the country recuperate from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this plan, on 18 June, Prime Minister Modi launched an online auction of 41 coal blocks (later brought down to 38) in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Odisha for commercial mining. These coal mines are mostly located in the dense forests and areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples whose livelihoods are dependent on the forests and forest resources. This new coal policy will undoubtedly facilitate more evictions and oppression of Indigenous Peoples as highlighted in the report, “Bearing the Brunt: The Impact of Government Responses to COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples in India” published by IWGIA in September 2020.
The government’s decision to auction the coal blocks was met with a surge of protests from local inhabitants, coal workers and environmental activists. On 2 July 2020, coal workers’ unions started a nationwide protest against the central government's decision to auction the coal blocks. The state government of Jharkhand has moved the Supreme Court and challenged the government’s decision stating that it has an environmental impact, and that the tribal population and its forests are likely to be adversely affected. The state governments of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh have also written to the union government opposing the auction. A number of organisations working with the Indigenous communities such as Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan and the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) have opposed the coal mine auction. Several villages in Chhattisgarh have also opposed the move. On 15 June, nine Gram Panchayats (village heads) representing 25 villages wrote to the Prime Minister requesting the removal of five coal blocks in the state from the auction list. Twenty Gram Sabhas (village councils) from the state had already passed resolutions in 2015 opposing any auction of coal mines in the Hasdeo-Arand region of the state arguing that an auction would violate the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006. The FRA empowers Gram Sabhas to block any move to divert their lands without consent. On 20 June 2020, protests were also reported in Chandrapur, Maharashtra. On 6 November 2020, the Supreme Court in its interim order declined to halt the e-auction of coal mines in Jharkhand but clarified that any action of the centre would be subject to its final orders.
Further, in the midst of the complete lockdown, on 11 April, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) released the Draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 to replace the existing EIA Notification of 2006. The new draft undermines the rights of Indigenous Peoples and the authority of the Gram Sabhas. The consent of the Gram Sabha is mandatory for commencing any project under the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) and the FRA, which the Draft EIA Notification violates/dilutes. The Draft EIA Notification 2020 also proposes ex post-facto clearance, which means that any project functioning without environmental clearance will have an opportunity to become a legal unit by submitting a remedial plan and paying the prescribed penalty. Due to overwhelming objections from the length and breadth of the country, the Government of India has not yet finalised the EIA Notification 2020.
On 22 April, the Supreme Court quashed the January 2000 order of the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh which provided 100% reservation to the Scheduled Tribe candidates for the post of teachers in schools in the Scheduled Areas, saying it was “arbitrary” and “not permissible” under the Constitution. The court reiterated the 1992 Indira Sawnhey judgment which held that constitutionally valid reservations cannot go beyond 50%. The judgment, passed by a five-judge constitution bench, came on the plea challenging the Andhra Pradesh High Court order which had upheld the government’s order providing 100% reservation. The 100% reservation of the Scheduled Tribes was intended to promote the educational development of the Scheduled Tribes given the absenteeism of non-indigenous teachers in the educational institutions in the Scheduled Areas. The Supreme Court order is therefore a setback for the educational upliftment of the Indigenous Peoples. The order also undermines the sanctity of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which is meant to protect Indigenous rights.
Violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples by security forces
Security forces continued to be involved in human rights violations throughout 2020, including custodial death and torture of Indigenous Peoples. Some Indigenous persons who died due to alleged torture in police custody after they were arrested for petty crimes included two Indigenous men killed at Madhuban police station in Giridih district of Jharkhand on 5 September and at Mayakonda police station in Davanagere district of Karnataka on 6 October.
The Adivasis in central India were victims of torture and extrajudicial killings during anti-Maoist operations. On 20 March, an Indigenous man was shot dead by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) during anti-Maoist operation near Kumhardih village in Khunti district of Jharkhand. On 15 June, CRPF personnel allegedly tortured several tribal villagers during an anti-Maoist operation at Anjadbera village in West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. A fact-finding committee from Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha (JJM) confirmed that 11 tribal villagers were tortured by the CRPF.
Violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples by armed opposition groups
Armed opposition groups, particularly the Maoists, continued to be responsible for gross violations of international humanitarian law during 2020, involving abductions and killings of civilians, including Indigenous Peoples. The Maoists continued to torture and kill people on charges of being “police informers”, or simply for not obeying their diktats. In a press statement on 8 October, the Maoists claimed to have killed 25 tribals after a summary trial in a janadalat (People’s Court) in recent months, as a punishment for working as police informers in Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh. A spokesperson for the Maoists said those killed by the Maoists included 12 secret agents, five covert operatives and eight police informers. While the Maoists’ statement did not specify when these killings were carried out, the police claimed that the Maoists had killed 16 tribal villagers in the last week of September 2020. Some other killings of tribals took place in the Sarjamburu forest under Goilkera police station area in West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand on 19 April; near Chintalaveedhi in Pedabayalumandal in Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh on 3 August; and at Khajuriguda village in Malkangiri district of Odisha on 21 October.
Non-restoration of alienated tribal land
There are a plethora of laws prohibiting the sale or transfer of Indigenous Peoples’ lands to non-indigenous persons and restoring alienated lands to the Indigenous landowners. These laws, however, remain ineffective and seldom invoked to either protect Indigenous lands or restore the alienated lands. Alienation of Indigenous Peoples’ lands through fraudulent means or by force continued to occur during 2020.
In early 2020, 420 Indigenous families in Kerala found out that their lands, roughly 2,730 acres, had been leased by the Attappady Cooperative Farming Society (ACFS) to LA Homes, a Thrissur-based construction company, on 8 February 2019. The society is a state-run project at Attappady village in Palakkad district and was set up in 1975 to provide land to 420 Indigenous families. The pattayam, or title deeds, of this transferred land are in the names of these 420 Indigenous families but they came to know about the illegal transfer, which is effective for 25 years, in early 2020 when businessmen began touring the land. On 18 September, 50 tribal activists, from various tribes of Attappady, filed a petition against the ACFS board’s decision before the Kerala High Court. On 22 September, the court stayed the contract for a period of two months, pending further proceedings. On 20 November, the court further stayed the contract for another three months.
Indigenous Peoples in the Northeast region faced attacks for protecting their lands. On 22 October, a tribal was grievously injured (and later died in hospital) in an attack by non-tribals who wanted to grab his land at Laljuri in Kanchanpur, Tripura. Indigenous Peoples who resisted land alienation were detained, tortured and implicated in false cases. On 2 November, a tribal was allegedly abducted, tortured and later implicated in a false case by the police after he protested against illegal occupation of farmers’ lands by a private company in Vijawada in Andhra Pradesh.
Conditions of the internally displaced Indigenous Peoples
The Government of India does not have any data on the number of Indigenous people displaced as a result of various construction/development projects or conflicts. The government has failed to rehabilitate Indigenous people displaced due to both conflicts and development projects over the years. Thousands of Bru (Reang) tribals continue to live in sub-human conditions in relief camps in Tripura since their displacement from Mizoram due to ethnic conflicts in 1997. On 16 January, the Government of India signed an agreement with the state governments of Tripura and Mizoram and leaders of the Bru community to permanently settle around 34,000 Bru IDPs in the state of Tripura. As per the agreement, each Bru displaced family shall get one-off assistance of Rs 4,00,000 as a fixed deposit, a 40 by 30 foot plot of land, Rs 1,50,000 to build houses, financial assistance of Rs 5,000 per month and free rations for the next two years from the date of settlement. The Government of India has sanctioned some Rs 600 crore (a monetary and number measurement in India equalling 10 million units) as resettlement package. Although Union Minister for Home Affairs Amit Shah presided over the signing of the agreement, which the Government of India described as “historic”, the Brus could not be rehabilitated by the end of 2020, largely due to fierce opposition from local Bengalis (non-tribals) and Mizos (tribals) who opposed the alleged plans of the state government of Tripura to settle 5,000 Bru families in six locations in Kanchanpur sub-division. On 21 November, the Joint Movement Committee (JMC), comprising Bengalis and local Mizos, blocked the Assam-Agartala National Highway-8. The protest turned violent and one protestor was shot dead by the Tripura State Rifles (TSR) and one fire service personnel, a tribal, was beaten to death by protestors at Panisagar in North Tripura district.
Repression under forest laws
A large number of forest-dwelling Indigenous Peoples continued to be denied their rights in 2020. According to information available from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, as of 31 March 2020, a total of 4,251,545 claims had been filed under the FRA of which 41.22% were rejected. Section 4(5) of the FRA specifically states that no member of a forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dwellers shall be evicted or removed from the forest land under their occupation until the recognition and verification procedure is complete. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 also provides that the Gram Sabha or the Panchayats at the appropriate level shall be consulted before acquiring land in the Scheduled Areas or implementing development projects and before resettling or rehabilitating persons affected by such projects in the Scheduled Areas. However, the Indigenous Peoples were evicted despite their claims under the FRA being under adjudication.
The governments continued to evict Indigenous Peoples even during the COVID-19 lockdown when ordinary people were struggling for basic needs such as housing, food, education and medical facilities, etc. The forced evictions exposed the victims to extreme poverty, destitution and vulnerability to COVID-19 infections and left them severely traumatised. Cases of forcible evictions by forest officials during the lockdown period included three families of the Gutti Koya tribe at Kotha Kotturu village in Chintooru mandal in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh on 13 April; 32 tribal families comprising 90 persons at Sagada village adjacent to the Khandualmali forest area in Kalahandi district of Odisha on 24 April; 81 families belonging to Koya tribe at Satyanarayanapuram village in Bhadradri-Kothagudem district of Telangana in June; and 20 tribal families evicted from Dugli village in Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh on 13 October. In many cases, the authorities burnt down houses, destroyed standing crops and set fire to food grains leading to pauperisation of the evicted IP families.
Situation of Indigenous women
Indigenous women and girls in India are deprived of many of their rights. Both collective and individual rights are violated in private and public spaces. Sexual violence, trafficking, killing/branding as a witch, militarisation or state violence and the impact of development-induced displacement, etc. remained major issues. In its latest report “Crime in India 2019” published on 1 October 2020, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of the Government of India stated that 1,133 tribal women were raped in 2019. Indigenous women faced sexual assault from both civilians and the security forces. The trend continued in 2020 with several reported cases. A 21-year-old Indigenous woman was allegedly raped by a constable of the CRPF when she had gone to graze cattle near the CRPF camp in Dubbakota area under Sukma district of Chhattisgarh on 27 July 2020. The CRPF constable was arrested after the victim filed a police complaint. On 1 July 2020, the Inspector-In-Charge of Biramitrapur police station in Sundargarh district of Odisha was arrested and dismissed from service for repeatedly raping a 13-year-old tribal girl inside the police station.
Men and women, including Indigenous Peoples, were humiliated, brutalised and killed in the name of witch-hunting. According to the latest report of the NCRB, cases of “witchcraft”-motivated murders increased from 63 cases in 2018 to 104 cases in 2019, showing an increase of 65%. Yet there is no national law prohibiting witch-hunting. Incidents of witch-hunting continued to be regularly reported in 2020. On 26 June, a Koya tribal couple were allegedly beaten to death by two persons on suspicion of practising witchcraft at Pendalguda village in Malkangiri district of Odisha. On 24 July, a 36-year-old tribal widow was tied to a pole and tortured by some villagers on suspicion of being a witch near Valod town in Tapi district of Gujarat. Another tribal woman was tortured and set on fire by her relatives in Gujarat’s Rajkot district on 18 November. In October, three members of one Munda tribal family, his wife and daughter were beheaded by the villagers at Kuda village in Khunti district of Jharkhand on suspicion of “practising witchcraft”. On 30 September, two tribals identified as witches, including one woman, were lynched, beheaded and set on fire by an angry mob over suspicions of practising witchcraft at Rahimapur village in Karbi Anglong district of Assam.
With the majority of the victims being women, witch-hunting remains one of the most common forms of violence against Indigenous women. These attacks are motivated by a combination of superstitious beliefs, religious practices and patriarchal norms. The witch-hunted victims are often those who dare to challenge patriarchal norms and superstitions within their communities.
Dilip Kanti Chakma is an advocate and President of the Indigenous Lawyers Association of India (ILAI).
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 Since the Scheduled Tribes or “tribals” are considered India’s Indigenous Peoples, these terms are used interchangeably in this text.
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 ASRP Mukesh. “World Indigenous People’s Day: Jharkhand CM declares public holiday, Congress plans grand celebration.” The Times of India, 9 August 2020. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ranchi/world-indigenous-peoples-day-cm-declares-public-holiday-cong-plans-grand-celebrations/articleshow/77438738.cms
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 Konikkara, Aathira. “We all refused: Adivasis contest lease of 2,730 acres to private firm in Attappady, Kerala.” The Caravan, 23 November 2020. https://caravanmagazine.in/communities/we-all-refused-adivasis-contest-lease-of-2730-acres-to-private-firm-in-attappady-kerala
 “FIR lodged against Vivekananda Memorial Club for attempt to murder in Laljuri, Kanchanpur.” The Jummo Times, 23 October 2020. https://www.thejummotimes.com/posts/fir-lodged-against-vivekananda-memorial-club-for-attempt-to-murder-in-laljuri-kanchanpur#
 Subba Rao, GVR. “TDP writes letter to NHRC, ST panel over attack on tribal.” The Hindu, 17 November 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/tdp-writes-letter-to-nhrc-st-panel-over-attack-on-tribal/article33111372.ece
 Response of the Minister of Tribal Affairs, Government of India to Unstarred Question No. 71 in the Lok Sabha on 14.09.2020 relating to “Displacement of Tribals”
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 Government of India, Ministry of Tribal Affairs. “Monthly update on status of implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 for the period ending 31st March 2020.” 31 March 2020. https://www.fra.org.in/document/FRA%20Status%20Report%20up%20to%2031st%20March%202020-MoTA.pdf
 Tippana, Appala Naidu. “NHRC takes note of ‘assault on tribal people by forest staff’.” The Hindu, 19 April 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/nhrc-takes-note-of-assault-on-tribal-people-by-forest-staff/article31384186.ece
 Dubey, Mithilesh Dhar. “The Odisha Forest Department demolishes homes of 32 tribal families amid the lockdown.” Goan Connection, 28 April 2020. https://en.gaonconnection.com/the-odisha-forest-department-demolishes-homes-of-32-tribal-families-in-kalahandi-amid-the-nationwide-lockdown/
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 Pal, Sumedha. “Chhattisgarh: Tribal Houses Razed to Ground in Dhamtari District.” The News Click, 26 October 2020. https://www.newsclick.in/Chhattisgarh-Tribal-Houses-Razed-to-Ground-in-Dhamtari-District
 National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs. “Crime in India 2019.” 2019, p. 615. https://ncrb.gov.in/sites/default/files/CII%202019%20Volume%202.pdf
 Press trust of India. “CRPF Soldier Arrested For Allegedly Raping Tribal Woman In Chhattisgarh: Police.” NDTV, 31 July 2020. https://www.ndtv.com/cities/crpf-soldier-arrested-for-allegedly-raping-tribal-woman-in-chhattisgarh-police-2271698#:~:text=The%20accused%2C%20identified%20as%20Dulichand,her%20parents%2C%20senior%20police%20said&text=Sukma%3A,the%20police%20said%20on%20Thursday
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