Why have the tribals not been able to get their concerns addressed by the formal political system?

It is commonly acknowledged that Dalits and Tribals are the two most disadvantaged sections of Indian society. Then, why is it that the former have been more effective in making their claims heard by the formal political system?

1. Weak literacy rates among tribals accompanied by a weak ‘articulation ratio’:

The literacy rate of tribals is 23.8%, considerably lower than that of the Dalits, which stands at 30.1%.

Tribals do not have national leaders; while such men as do represent them are not conversant enough with the languages and discourses of modern democratic politics.

On the other hand, in the case of the Dalits the presence of Ambedkar, in the past, and of Mayawati, in the present, has been complemented by an articulate second rung of activists, who know how to build political networks and lobby within and across parties.

2. Inability of tribals to project themselves on the national stage:

Dalits have been able to constitute themselves as an interest group on the national stage—they are treated in popular discourse as communities that are pan-Indian.

On the other hand, tribal claims remain confined to the states and districts in which they live. Unlike the Dalits, the adivasis continue to be seen only in discrete, broken-up, fragments.

3. Aspects of geography and demography:

The tribals of central India usually live in tribal villages, in hills and valleys where they outnumber the non tribals among them. However, in no single state of peninsular India are they in a majority. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, adivasis constitute 6% of the state’s population. In Maharashtra, the proportion is 9%; in Rajasthan, 12%. Even in states professedly formed to protect the tribal interest, such as Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, roughly two-thirds of the population is non tribal.

The Dalits too are a minority in every state, but unlike tribals, they live in mixed villages, alongside other castes and communities. This means that when election time comes, they can have a decisive impact even on constituencies not reserved for them. In most states of the Union, and in most districts in these states, they command between 10% and 20% of the vote. Therefore, political parties have to address the Dalit interest in a majority of Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies.

Tribals, on the other hand, can influence elections only in the few, isolated districts where they are concentrated.

4. Lack of mobilization

Dalit mobilization on a provincial and national scale is also enabled by the structural similarities in the ways they experience oppression. For the caste system operates in much the same manner across India. It is therefore possible for them to build links and forge solidarities horizontally, across villages and districts and states.

On the other hand, there are many variations in the forms in which tribals experience oppression. In one place, their main persecutors are forest officials; in another place, moneylenders; in a third, development projects conducted under the aegis of the state; in a fourth, a mining project promoted by a private firm. In the circumstances, it is much harder to build a broad coalition of tribals fighting for a common goal under a single banner.

5. Role of intellectuals:

The Dalits have also been helped by the posthumous presence of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. He has been for them both example and inspiration, a man of towering intellect who successfully breached the uppercaste citadel and who, long after he is gone, encourages his fellows to do likewise.

The tribals, on the other hand, have never had a leader who could inspire admiration, or even affection, across the boundaries of state and language. Birsa Munda, for example, is revered in parts of Jharkhand; but he is scarcely known or remembered in the adivasi areas of Andhra Pradesh or Maharashtra.

6. Role of media:

The contrast between a relative Dalit visibility on the one hand, and tribal invisibility on the other, can also be illustrated with reference to the mainstream media. Both newspapers and television give a fair amount of coverage to the continuing victimization of Dalits. The tribals on the other hand, rarely have their concerns discussed or highlighted in talk shows, editorials, reports, or feature articles.

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