(Un)Doing rights: Adivasi participation in governance discourses in an area of civil unrest in India
Gunjan Wadhwa, Brunel University London, Uxbridge, UK
Published in THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF HUMAN RIGHTS, 2021, VOL. 25, NO. 7, 1168–1183
Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2021.1884852
India is considered to be the largest democracy in the world. Yet at the same time, criticism of the country’s human rights record has increased in recent years. Civil society organisations in particular have pointed out the shrinking space for civil society and the increasing repression against human rights defenders (Amnesty et al. 2021, Chaney 2021). This development also affects disadvantaged groups in India as they struggle for their rights. One of these groups is the Adivasi, an indigenous community, referred to in India as the “Scheduled Tribes”. Since India’s independence, the Indian Constitution has contained a principle of positive discrimination for “Scheduled Tribes” (as well as “Scheduled Castes”) and the country employs a political reservation system, meaning that these groups have a reserved share of seats in the state legislative assemblies. Nonetheless, like many other indigenous groups worldwide, the Adivasi face numerous challenges in terms of political, social and economic exclusion.
Against this background, Gunjan Wadhwa looks into “indigenous Adivasi identities in India to explore Adivasi participation and demands for community rights within local structures of governance in a village context” (p. 1168). The article is based on the PhD research of the author, which was framed as an ethnographic case study in a village in Maharashtra, bordering the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. Wadhwa is now an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Education at the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences at Brunel University London. She is leading an ESRC-funded project titled Rural youth identities in India: Exploring intersections of nation, gender and technology in areas of civil unrest.
Gunjan Wadhwa first shows how the colonial regime originally contributed to the shaping of an Adivasi identity in India and how this identity has been re-articulated since independence. Drawing parallels with the African context, she shows how the colonial regime created the notion of “Backwards Tribes”, which were “synonymous with backwardness, tradition, absence of ‘proper’ religion and lack of modernity” (p. 1169). These associations were retained in the category of “Scheduled Tribes” created in post-independent India. At the same time, over the years, numerous examples of rights-based legislation were introduced in India with a particular focus on disadvantaged groups.
Wadhwa argues that the enactment of this rights-based legislation should be viewed in the context of the demands and struggles of the Adivasi community for their rights and citizenship as well as in light of the presence of the Maoists, an armed group operating in different areas of India, including the site of the study. She describes how the Maoists – viewed by the Indian state primarily as a law and order problem – brought more state presence into the area after decades of its absence. However, much of the state intervention consisted of counter-insurgency measures and the use of state violence. Wadhwa points out how – in this context of protracted violence and uncertainty – members of the Adivasi community ally with different power groups, including the Maoists, in “multiple and often contradictory ways” (p. 1173) and describes these shifting antagonisms and alliances in the Adivasi relationships with the state and with the Maoists.
Wadhwa then analyses how community members make use of the Forest Rights Act to engage in governance processes and exercise agency to promote their goals. She finds that “the Adivasi Gond community, through their appropriation of the rights-based discourse, acted in ways which were most suitable to them. They participated in the governance structures and participatory forums set up by the state, while re-negotiating and re-configuring power relations through keeping the ‘agents’ of the state away” (pp. 1179–1180).
Thematically, the paper opens up interesting perspectives on the Adivasi as subjects in a complex and difficult environment who are actively and strategically engaging and siding with different actors and appropriating rights-based discourses. Of particular interest is her focus on Adivasi young people and their aspirations and conceptions of modernity and development. Methodologically, the author explicitly reflects on the “positionality” of herself as an insider-outsider: self-identifying as an Indian national, having already previously worked in the region, yet not herself an Adivasi and belonging to a different social group. It would have been interesting to understand better how this impacted the results of her study. Her study is of relevance to all readers interested in human rights and in advocacy for minority groups.
Reviewed by: Anika Becher
Amnesty International, Civicus, FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), International Commission of Jurists, and OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture). “The EU must break its silence on India’s human rights record”, August 19, 2021. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa20/4628/2021/en/
Paul Chaney (2020). “India at the crossroads? Civil society, human rights and religious freedom: critical analysis of CSOs’ third cycle Universal Periodic Review discourse 2012–2017”, The International Journal of Human Rights, 24:5, 531–562.
Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe