As the video of two Kuki women being paraded naked in Manipur went viral, Adivasi communities across the country have risen in rage and appealed to India’s first tribal President Droupadi Murmu to intervene and save the interests of indigenous communities. All India First Nations Writers’ Conference, an organisation of Adivasi writers from across the country, in a memorandum submitted to the President has put down its angst and referred to the Manipur incident as an attack by the people who consider themselves ‘civilised’ against those perceived as 'uncivilsed'.
“We believe that brutality done to women is not just a crime but it is a bad act to give terrible wounds to the soul. Sadly, this wound is often inflicted by societies whose history is full of such communal riots and wars, and who consider themselves more civilized and cultured than the tribals,” the letter notes.
Signed by Adivasi intellectuals from across the country, the letter contains big names like Vahru Sonawane, Ushakiran Atram, KM Metri, Jan Mohammad Hakeem, Vandna Tete and Padmashree awardee Mamang Dai. As the custodian of fifth and sixth schedule, the President of India is constitutionally the protector of Adivasi rights.
Referring to the commitment of the undisputed Adivasi leader Jaipal Singh Munda in the Constituent Assembly, the letter says, “In the Constituent Assembly, our supreme leader Jaipal Singh Munda had said that in the new democratic India, tribals should get the right to live with equality and peace because they are the creators and original inhabitants of India.” And that was the reason that tribal communities accepted Indian democracy, it adds.
What tribals expect from president
The silence of the first Adivasi President of the country in the backdrop of such heinous crimes is what is bothering scholars and activists, notes an Adivasi leader from Jharkhand.
Adivasi author and scholar A K Pankaj says, “Definitely, people from our community had high hopes from her when she became the President. It is very natural for Adivasis as we believe in clan-based relationship. But one must not forget the political training of Murmu. Her silence simply shows that her political inclination has taken precedence over her Adivasi values.”
Notably, Murmu started her career as an independent councillor in 1997 and later joined the BJP and became an MLA in 2000 from Odisha’s Rairangpur Assembly constituency.
“We are mostly told that the President, the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister are politically unbiased. But in reality, it is never the case. Political ideology always takes precedence,” adds Pankaj.
Since the viral video came out, several Adivasi organisations have hit the streets demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister. Jharkhand-based Adivasi organisations including Adivasi Jan Parishad, Adivasi Sena, Sarna Sangharsh Samiti and Adivasi Kendriya Parishad demanded accountability from the government. Prem Sahi Munda, the president of Adivasi Jan Parishad, says, “Both the central and the state government have been attacking tribal women in Manipur just for votes. Their silence is deafening.”
Another prominent leader of Kendriya Sarna Samiti, Ajay Tirki, says, “If these attacks on Adivasis continue, we will strengthen our protests ahead of the 2024 elections.”
Does it have any connection with the upcoming elections?
Adivasi scholar Pankaj says, “Definitely. This government is trying to play the caste game ahead of elections in the bordering states. Violence in places like Jammu and Kashmir or northeastern states will actually benefit them to evoke the emotions of nationalism.”
Dilemma over ST status
The government has already introduced Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023 in Parliament. If this comes to fruition, the Pahari ethnic group along with Gadda Brahmin, Koli, and Paddari tribe will be added to the Scheduled Tribe list. In 2022, when the government tried to push Pahari ethnic group into the ST list, Gujjar and Bakarwal communities registered their protests.
Notably, the conflict in Manipur also started with the demand of the Meitei community to be included into the ST list getting approved. “The government is feared of the retribution from Adivasis in 2024 elections and thus they are expanding the ST benefits to the people who would legitimise their pro-tribes claims,” says an Adivasi leader from Jharkhand.
The protests, however, are not limited to Jharkhand. While Adivasis in Bastar region under the banner of Sarna Adivasi Samaj staged massive protest a few days back, 26 tribal outfits in West Bengal are all set to hit the streets in the coming days.