Prof. Dr. Nandini Sundar (Senior Fellow, Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University)

Exploring the Political: 1940s and 1970s

23 July 2019 – 22 January 2020

During my term at ICAS MP, I researched on one of the projects I had set out to do with the metamorphoses of the political in the 1940s. I was unable to embark on the project on student movements which I had proposed.

As part of a long-term project on Imaginations and Absences in the Indian Constitution, where I will be looking at the multiple aspirations that individuals and groups of people brought to Constitution making, I looked at the Making of the 5th Schedule. Within this, I looked at the life histories of some of the key actors involved, such as Rajendra Prasad, AV Thakkar and Jaipal Singh, the way in which this shaped their interaction within the space of the Constituent Assembly, the administrative processes involved and the lingering after effects of the written and unwritten clauses of the Constitution. This paper goes through the initial process of scheduling prior to as well as in the 1935 Act, the process by which the sub-committees on excluded and partially excluded areas were formed, the workings of these committees (focusing more on the committee other than Assam), the representations before the committee, the deliberations in the drafting committee and in the constituent assembly, as well as the prior frictions in the relationships between some of the characters involved.

The hundreds of letters, petitions and telegrams received by the Constituent Assembly and its subcommittees involved in the making of the fifth and sixth schedules, show that the Constitution was not a top down exercise but in fact the public fully recognized the importance of the constitution-making moment. Many of the petitions were about being given adequate representation on the committee for their own communities and challenging the credentials of the assembly members/constitution makers to speak for them. Others made proposals for proportional representation or separate electorates, demanded greater political powers or statehood for their respective areas, or asked for greater investment in education and jobs for tribes along the lines of scholarships being given to the depressed classes (scheduled castes).  In all, they not only challenge the idea of people as passive recipients of a constitution that was given to them, but also prevailing ideas of adivasi politics, as a history of armed rebellions or boots-on-the ground environmentalism. My research on the making of the constitution reveals, however, an earlier trajectory of engagement with law-making and politics, that presage contemporary support for laws like the Forest Rights Act.

A close attention to the processes – both administrative and political – that underlay constitution-making also reveals how these aspirations were ignored or manipulated in the actual process of drafting or debating, with critical provisions such as the powers of the Tribes Advisory Council being watered down by majority vote, or straitjacketed through bureaucratic readings of the Cabinet Mission Plan.

As against a common perception that the 5th and 6th Schedules of the Constitution are merely replicas of the partially excluded and excluded tracts recognized by the Government of India Act of 1935. It is important to recognize the ways in which the 1950 Constitution diverged from the 1935 model, and how this was affected by the politics, as well as administrative exigencies of the time.

The factors that resulted in the Constitution taking the form it finally did in 1950 also explain why it failed to work in the high-minded manner claimed. To expect state governments to accept a limitation on their powers by the Governor in the interests of the scheduled tribes ignores the balance of political power between upper castes and scheduled tribes in the wider electoral politics of the state. In fact, the contours of the debates on the need for protection against land alienation in scheduled areas have remained pretty much the same over the last century, with immigrants declaring that any protection held back growth, and adivasis themselves clinging to the laws as a symbol of their identity. Given the dependence of the 5th and 6th schedules on the powers of the Governor, the rapid deterioration in their roles and status as independent actors, as well as the reluctance of the central government to intervene in the administration of scheduled areas over the heads of the state governments meant that the operation of the 5th Schedule was a doomed cause from the beginning.


Nandini Sundar is Professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University. Her book The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar (Juggernaut Press, 2016, Verso 2019) has been translated into Tamil, Gujarati and Telugu. Other recent publications include an edited volume, The Scheduled Tribes and their India (OUP, 2016); Civil Wars in South Asia: State, Sovereignty, Development (co-edited with Aparna Sundar, Sage 2014); and Inequality and Social Mobility in Post-Reform India, Special Issue of Contemporary South Asia (co-edited, 2016).  She was awarded the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences (Social Anthropology) in 2010, the Ester Boserup Prize for Development Research, 2016 and the Malcolm Adiseshiah Prize for Distinguished Contributions to Development Studies, 2017. Her public writings are available at

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