The minorities Nehru didn’t forget

Had Nehru not spelt out the ‘Panchsheel’ policy for Adivasis, their forests would have gone for mining long ago

Jawaharlal Nehru in Manipur during a tour of the North-East amid tribal unrest, April 1953
Jawaharlal Nehru in Manipur during a tour of the North-East amid tribal unrest, April 1953
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G.N. Devy

Our cultural and social history often gets obscured by collective amnesia. Even his admirers rarely recall that the post-Independence history of our Adivasis and the erstwhile ‘criminal tribes’ of India would have been very different had it not been for Nehru’s unwavering commitment to protecting and preserving India’s multilayered diversity.

Before Independence, Nehru’s life was all about the turbulence of the freedom struggle. The early years after were about grappling with the social fragility of a new republic post-Partition and the momentous task of settling democratic processes.

Past those early years, he turned to the question of Adivasis and criminal tribes. The ‘denotification’ of these tormented communities came about in 1952, seven decades after their ‘notification’ (as criminals) by the colonial government. The denotification opened a new horizon of freedom for the CTs, and a quick measure of its impact lies in their sheer numbers: the estimated current population of denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes is 150 million.

The annulment of the Criminal Tribes Act was based on the recommendations of the Iyengar Commission, conceptualised by Nehru. While recalling Nehru’s contribution to Adivasi well-being, one can’t but invoke the memory of Verrier Elwin. During the 1930s and 1940s, Elwin documented for the world the great civilisation of Indian tribal communities, who had earlier been characterised as primitive. The destinies of the Adivasis and the criminal tribes were intertwined.

The story goes back to the eighteenth century. The term ‘tribal’ was in use among European merchants and travellers in India from the 17th century, but it was used to designate just any community. Its use in a more specific sense, for only certain communities, was a consequence of a series of conflicts between these communities and the colonial rulers. Between the battle of Plassey in 1757 and the more widespread confrontation between Indian princes and the British during 1857, Indian states kept surrendering to the Company government. As a result, the armies of those princes had to be disbanded. The soldiers in these disbanded armies often expressed their opposition to Company rule by attacking British convoys. To contain the general atmosphere of insecurity prevailing in the north-western parts and central India, the colonial government decided to create a special department to survey the patterns of these attacks. Several officers contributed to this work and shaped a popular image of the Thug.

Through the nineteenth century, thugs and ‘thuggee’ (a derogatory reference to the allegedly deceptive, often violent, actions of thugs) became a consuming obsession of the colonial imagination, leading to legislation meant to isolate and ‘reform’ these communities. This profoundly misguided law was the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. It covered itinerant entertainers, singers, performers, coin-makers, snake charmers, acrobats and such other semi-peasant, seasonally migrating, wandering communities.


Around the same time, the colonial government produced another list for the Tribes of India. These were the communities that had come into conflict with the British on the issue of their sovereignty over forest areas. During the 1860s, the British had created a Forest Department, primarily to provide quality timber for railways and naval ships. The forest-dwelling communities of India opposed the colonial takeover of their forests. They neither cared for the colonial government nor did they understand the idiom of British law. Not surprisingly, these conflicts were often violent and involved armed clashes. Since the political idioms of the warring parties were radically divergent, it became difficult for the coloniser and its diplomacy to forge treaties with these forest-dwelling communities. All these communities, located in all such areas of conflict, were bundled together as ‘tribes’.

Soon after, though, as the perceived need to understand these ‘tribes’ became stronger, a sophisticated machinery of scholarship was put in place to enumerate, describe and define the Indian tribes. By the end of the nineteenth century, the concept of tribe and the notion of criminal tribes had received acceptance even among educated Indians—writers, journalists, lawyers et al. And so, when the 1891 Criminal Tribes Act made a substantial addition to the 1871 list of ‘tribes’, or when the following year the register of forest codes was prepared, there was no evident protest from any quarter. By the turn of the century, ‘tribe’ had come to stay as an unchallenged category of the primitive in Indian society, and while it superficially appeared to be an ethnic category, it was more a political and economic construct.

By the time Elwin made his first trip to a tribal area, the tribals were already a forgotten issue in Indian social discourse. It was Elwin’s historic burden to re-examine the category, turn it upside down and win sympathy, if not respectability, for the tribes. He carried out this seemingly impossible task with an unparalleled dedication. Nehru took a deep interest in Elwin’s work. After Independence, Elwin was asked to join the administration to devise the way forward. He outlined a policy for tribal development, which remains, to this day, the most seminal document on tribal development. The work of Verrier Elwin, a man born in Kent, who accidentally arrived in a tribal village in 1930, continues to influence the destinies of these millions—and had it not been for Nehru’s policy, independent India may not even have properly acknowledged their existence in this country.

It was in 1953 that the government of India decided to establish a special branch of the Civil Services for the North-East. Elwin was first asked to assist the government with the selection of officers for this new cadre, and then to move to the north-east frontier as an advisor. He was given further responsibilities of setting up a tribal research institute and providing policy inputs. Elwin was earlier known as an anthropologist, a scholar-writer, a friend of tribals and a Gandhian of sorts; it was only in the last fifteen years of his life that he emerged as an administrator and a policymaker for tribal development.

Policymaking didn’t, however, diminish Elwin’s concern for tribal rights. His involvement went far beyond an anthropological dedication, an aesthetic fascination or even altruistic community work. In 1959, he was asked by the Ministry of Home Affairs to prepare a report of tribal development. For any tribal development plan to succeed, Elwin argued in his report, it must acquire a ‘tribal touch’: ‘We must look, if we can, at things through tribal eyes and from the tribal point of view.’ Respect for their way of life and tribal culture was the bedrock of the policy framework he suggested. Nehru’s foreword to Elwin’s A Philosophy for NEFA captures the essential features of Elwin’s approach to tribal development. He wrote: ‘We cannot allow matters to drift in the tribal areas or just not take interest in them. In the world of today that is just not possible or desirable. At the same time, we should avoid over-administering these areas and, in particular, sending too many outsiders into their territory.


‘It is between these two extreme positions that we have to function. Development in various ways there has to be, such as communication, medical facilities, education and better agriculture. These avenues of development should, however, be pursued within the broad framework of the following five fundamental principles:

First: people should develop along the lines of their own genius, and we should avoid imposing anything on them. We should try to encourage in every way their own traditional arts and culture.

Second: Tribal rights in land and forest should be respected.

Third: We should try to train and build a team of their own people to do the work of administration and development. Some technical personnel from outside will no doubt be needed, especially in the beginning. But we should avoid introducing too many outsiders into tribal territory.

Fourth: We should not over-administer these areas or overwhelm them with a multiplicity of schemes. We should work through, and not in rivalry to, their own social and culture institutions.

Fifth: We should judge results, not by statistics or the amount of money spent but by the quality of human character that is evolved.’ Had Nehru not spelt out the ‘Panchsheel’ policy for Adivasis, their forests would have gone for mining long ago.

Had he not ‘released’ the former Criminal Tribes and ‘denotified’ them by annulling the CTA, they would have continued to rot and perish in the settlement jails made for them by the British. The minority communities in these two segments have a total population of about 270 million. Even though they are vulnerable once again, the framework of rights that supports their present-day resistance came from Nehru; it was his abiding commitment to minorities, his respect for the dignity of the marginalised that made it possible.

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