Updated: Mar 19
This talk was delivered as part of the 5th annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of the Indian Constitution in July 2019.
I’m really grateful for this chance to present today because it’s based on work that I’ve just started doing. A lot of it will seem unfinished because I’m still doing my detective work in the archives. One of the things that I’m trying to look at is why certain provisions got included in the Constitution, and why certain provisions got dropped. This is part of a larger project on the multiple imaginations of the Constitution. As Gautam Bhatia pointed out in the morning, there is an entire history of the freedom struggle that informed the Constitution. As Rohit De’s work shows us, people brought multiple questions to the courts, which then went on to interpret the Constitution in multiple ways. What we have now is a living text. My interest lies in the time of the Constitution being framed and how deeply people were interested in its final form. Different groups brought multiple petitions to the Constituent Assembly and even drafted different kinds of constitutions including the Hindu Mahasabha, MN Roy and the Socialists. There was also a Gandhian Constitution that the princely state of Aundh alone tried to implement. Babloo Loitongbam will, at some point, tell us about how the state of Manipur had its own constitution.
There was a lot of investment in the idea of the Constitution, something even Professor Rodrigues spoke about yesterday, about how the Round Table Conferences brought up some of these issues. Today I’m going to focus on the 5th Schedule. I would have liked to include the 6th Schedule also, but that won’t be possible due to lack of time and because the work is still ongoing.
I want to look at how Adivasi communities thought about the democratic process at that time, and how they have subsequently used the Constitution. The Constitution is something that is present in our everyday life—we see it in those statues of Ambedkar in his blue suit, holding the Constitution, in small villages across the country. Adivasi groups, for example, have their own interpretations of the Constitution that are increasingly being criminalized—I’ll come to that at the end of talk. I want to start by looking at the making of the 5th Schedule.
The 5th and the 6th Schedules both trace their history in an administrative sense to the Scheduled Districts Act, 1874. According to that Act, certain areas were to remain outside the purview of the government of that area, and the laws that applied to the rest of the province would not apply to those districts, with the provision that the Governor-General could make special laws for them. It is under the SDA that you have specific tenure acts like the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act and the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, which contain a very specific tenure system, land rights system for Adivasi communities in what is now Jharkhand. Similar tenure acts apply to other parts of the country.
The Government of India Act, 1935, also had a provision for excluded and partially excluded areas. The Constituent Assembly (CA) set up an advisory committee that would look at fundamental rights, minorities, and excluded and partially excluded areas through Clause 20 of the Cabinet Mission Plan:
The Advisory Committee on the rights of citizens, minorities, and tribal and excluded areas should contain full representation of the interests affected, and their function will be to report to the Union Constituent Assembly upon the list of Fundamental Rights, the clauses for the protection of minorities, and a scheme for the administration of the tribal and excluded areas, and to advise whether these rights should be incorporated in the Provincial, Group, or Union constitution.
(‘Statement by the Cabinet Mission and the Viceroy, May 16, 1946’ in B. Shiva Rao, The Framing of India’s Constitution: Select Docs, vol. 1 [New Delhi: The Indian Institute of Public Administration, 1966], p. 216.)
I’ve emphasized some words because this was something that was later used to deny Adivasi aspirations by a sleight of hand, by the kind of politicking in the Constituent Assembly that we continue to see in the parliament and our politics today.
The phrase ‘full representation’ was brought to the attention of the Constituent Assembly by Jaipal Singh Munda. He argued that the original text had the phrase ‘full representation’ while the version distributed to the members had ‘due representation’. ‘Due representation’ really meant no representation of Adivasi interests in the Constituent Assembly. Two sub-committees were set up: one under the Chairmanship of Gopinath Bardoloi, which looked at the excluded and partially excluded areas of Assam; and the other under the chairmanship of Amritlal Thakkar, popularly known as Thakkar Bapa, which looked at the partially excluded areas in the rest of the country. Both the sub-committees got hundreds of representations from across the country. Government officials and some CA members talked about Adivasis needing special protection, about not being politically engaged; even Ambedkar, prior to the Constituent Assembly, said that Adivasis should not be given the right to vote because they were not politically capable. It is quite astounding that anyone could believe such a thing even when they were faced with the evidence of politically active Adivasi groups from across the country, demanding representation in the Advisory Committee. They thought that they should be part of the Constituent Assembly themselves, with some suggesting proportional representation and many asking for greater educational facilities. Many of the demands were submitted in the form of printed memoranda which, interestingly, everybody signed in English, and many of them emphasized the idea of democracy, and that the government should be looking to Adivasi communities to learn what democracy really was because it was these communities that were the most democratic in their everyday functioning. The following extract is one of the dozens of petitions demanding a separate state of Jharkhand:
India is marching towards democracy. We will be the future free citizens of India. India will be teaching democracy to her children. We are the most democratic people on earth. We have maintained the principles and ideals of democracy from the very beginning. What we require at present is protection from disrupting us into tribes and sub-tribes by the present Government. This tendency is solely meant to disrupt the democratic Adibasis. In order to keep our identity, our self-entity and for self-determination, we demand a separate province, constituting Chhotanagpur plateau and Santhal Parganas with areas adjacent to it with Adibasi population. By this we will be able to protect our culture, history, civilization and our very own existence for the service of India. We will be in the vanguard in the battlefield of India’s freedom.
Jai Jharkhand Province.
(Printed Memorandum from Adibasi Students Fellowship, Chotangapur and Santal Parganas, to the Sub-Committee on Ex & PE Areas, dated 2 May 1947.)
There were only seven Adivasis representing Bihar in the provincial legislature, and this was proportionately way below the actual number of Adivasis in the province. Even in the Constituent Assembly, there was very little physical representation compared to, for example, the representation afforded to the Schedule Castes. There were only six members in the Constituent Assembly from what later became the Scheduled Tribes—of them, except for Jaipal Singh, and Reverend JJ Nichols Roy the others didn’t really speak at all. One of the letters sent to the CA complained against Phul Ban Shah, a Jagirdar from Chhindwara, one of the 6 members, for buying a position in the Constituent Assembly:
He was born in Palace and passed his life as a Raja. Being Raja hardly knows the difficulties of poor aboriginals. C.P. is full of Gond Zamindars who treat aboriginals as untouchables being deaf and dumb. They have never cared to open schools or dispensaries for them or tried to ameliorate their pitiable condition. The member must be a man of outstanding merit, eminence and calibre. He cannot write even a letter in English or Hindi. He can be tested when he comes to Delhi [this is underlined]. The present moment is a moment of life and death for the aboriginals. His selection is waste of national money and dark future for aboriginals. Phulban Shah gave Rs. fifty thousand to other castes to become MLA and defeated poor able men. he has got tons of money—a part of which will go to the man who has selected him for Advisory Board. His main object is to claim retention of Zamindari. For this purpose a deputation of Zamindars of CP will be in Delhi shortly.
The common idea that the Constituent Assembly was a great space where multiple voices were represented, devoted to the future of the country, is perhaps not quite true. In fact, the only document that I have seen by Phul Ban Shah in the Constituent Assembly is a letter stating that his uncle, the Jagirdar of so-and-so province, should be consulted when the Advisory Committee visited Madhya Pradesh, then called the Central Provinces.
The two people who really mattered in the 5th Schedule were Jaipal Singh and Thakkar Bapa.
In a sense, the story of the 5th Schedule is a story of the clash between these two personalities. Thakkar Bapa, who turned 80 in 1949, was a Gandhian. He started as an engineer, became a member of the Servants of India Society and set up the Bhim Seva Mandal. In the debate about whether Adivasis should be given the right to vote, as a Gandhian and as somebody who was involved in the national struggle, Thakkar Bapa strongly argued for the idea that everybody should be given suffrage, that even the Adivasis can politically represent themselves. There has been a writing-out of the work of the Gandhians in the Adivasi movements, which is a pity because it is a rich history that should be recovered.
So on the one hand, you had Thakkar Bapa, who was going around the country preaching abstinence and temperance, and who spent all his life in the service of the downtrodden. On the other you had Jaipal Singh, former captain of the Indian Olympic Hockey Team, who refused to be downtrodden. Thakkar Bapa refused to travel by anything other than third class on the railway; Jaipal Singh refused to stay anywhere but the Imperial Hotel in Delhi. Jaipal Singh, in one his letters, talks about how he flew to and fro Calcutta on the same day, and about how wonderful it was to be able to fly. Jaipal Singh loved his Black Label whiskey, and was glad to stand people drinks. Some of the most interesting arguments in the Assembly on Prohibition, on the Right to Bear Arms, actually come from Jaipal Singh. Whereas Thakkar Bapa believed that temperance should be one of the provisions of the 5th Schedule. Unfortunately, given the composition of the Constituent Assembly, Thakkar Bapabeing the good Gandhian, was given a lot more weight than Jaipal Singh. Several racist exchanges occurred during the Constituent Assembly debates. In one of them, Bishwanath Das says:
Comparisons are odious, but no option is left. I would not compare my Friend Mr. Jaipal Singh with Shri Thakkar Bapa. It would be ridiculous for me, and for the matter of that for anyone, to be taking anyone, howsoever great he may be, as the sole representative of the hill tribes. A person from his residence in the second or third floor of the Hotel Imperial, ill compares himself with a person like Thakkar Bapa.
To which Jaipal Singh responds:
I am very sorry to disappoint him that, in supporting the Fifth Schedule, I did not dress in my bows and arrows, the loin cloth, feathers, earrings, my drum and my flute. I have disappointed him I know. But I shall be very glad to educate the organization, of which he is the prime mover, next cold weather.
Jaipal Singh had been the Finance Minister in the Bikaner Government. After he graduated from Oxford, when he was the captain of the Indian Olympic team, his first job had been in Calcutta with Burmah Shell. He was married to W.C.Bonnerjee’s daughter; he taught at the Achimota College in the Gold Coast; he had not only travelled the world but also across different parts of India, and was associated with some top British officials. From 1938 onwards, he was also a leader of the Adivasi Mahasabha, and people walked hundreds of kilometres to attend his speeches. The symbol of the Mahasabha was a cock, which everyone could relate to, given the popularity of cock-fights. Jaipal Singh combined these multiple worlds, and that was something our earnest Gandhians in the Constituent Assembly really could not appreciate or fathom.
During the course of the Constituent Assembly, Jaipal Singh had drawn up a long list of names for who should be interviewed in Jharkhand. Thakkar Bapa complained to the secretariat about this list—clearly, an attempt to stifle the kind of representation that Jaipal Singh was trying to bring in. Eventually he relied on Clause 20 of the Cabinet Mission Plan (referred to above) to argue that Jharkhand, which was a big demand at this time, should not be allowed because Jharkhand was not an administrative matter. The demand for self-representation, as far as Thakkar Bapa was concerned, was a political matter and not an administrative one like provisions regarding land. Thakkar Bapa also got B.N. Rau, Rajendra Prasad and others on board to agree with this interpretation.
The provisions that the Advisory Committee came up with were severely watered down, and I’m afraid Ambedkar does not play such a great role in the Constituent Assembly as far as the 5th Schedule goes. The weakened and emasculated Tribes’ Advisory Council is an example. It was reduced to something that the Governor had to consult rather than something that could actually take an initiative.
Many of the points raised by Jaipal Singh in the Constituent Assembly, which were then ignored, are now coming back to haunt the Adivasi communities.Just to give you one example, this is a film some of you might have heard about:
There was a case filed in the Delhi High Court, Prem Mardi vs Union of India, in 2015, where the Santhal petitioner asked for a ban on this film since it encouraged violence against the Adivasis and violated the SC–ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. Justice Endlaw said that there was no such thing as an ‘Adivasi’ in the Constitution—only Schedule Tribes and jan jati. And that the film was fantasy and therefore not offensive. At the time of the Constituent Assembly debates, Jaipal Singh had argued that the term ‘Adivasi’ be used—it wasn’t in the end, and instead, Scheduled Tribes, and in Hindi Janjati, was used. Similar points that Singh raised were rejected or watered down by the rest, and ultimately allowed for the Constitution to be read in this perfectly arbitrary fashion.
A case in point is the Pathalgarhi movement, which is going on right now in Jharkhand— they have been distributing copies of the Constitution to the people and many have been arrested in connection with this movement. The administration is so upset by the fact that people now have access to the Constitution that they have, in fact, jailed all their leaders, and distributed their own copies of the Constitution. The movement also helps erect plaques outside villages with the provisions of the Constitution, talking in particular about Provision 13(3), which states that custom will be the law of the region—which the government blatantly ignores. They also debate how various articles like 13, 19 (5), etc. should be read. This movement has spread to parts of Chhattisgarh and Odisha. It’s interesting that Adivasis are engaging with the Constitution in a way that is making the government terrified of these popular interpretations.
This is a film made by K.P. Sasi, about how Adivasi communities, through movements like Pathalgarhi and others, are implementing the Constitution in their everyday lives.
There is an ongoing case in the Supreme Court on the Forest Rights Act. On the hand, the foresters have gone to court saying that their land is being given away. And on the other, there are hundreds of Adivasi groups protecting their land. Of all the groups that have suffered from the Constitution, these Adivasi groups have suffered the most, and are continuing to fight the most. They fight through the Constitution, they resist on the ground, and they also struggled for their vision during the making of the Constituent Assembly. It is something that invests our whole history, our engagement with ourselves as people, our Constitution and our natural surroundings. All these are played out through their various struggles.
Question and Answer Session
Uma. On the one hand, we talk about the land and rights of the Adivasis being taken away. On the other,we also talk about the very poor representation of Adivasis in higher educational institutions. What is our understanding of education for Adivasis, and is education being used as a tool to take away the rights of the Adivasis, to take Adivasis away from their land?
Nandini Sundar. The Bastar Bhumkaal movement of 1910 was a major rebellion that spread across this whole district. This was a movement against forests being reserved and land being taken away. The government responded by saying that Adivasis should be left to themselves, and that they should not be exposed to sudden outside influences. So they left the thanas and closed the schools. On the other hand, the rebels themselves were demanding education. Both in the Constituent Assembly as well as in rebellion movements, Adivasi groups emphasized the need for education, but the government’s response then was ‘No, you need to be preserved in your own place.’
Now, when the government claims it wants to provide education, the problem is the kind of education they get. There is a wonderful essay by Krishna Kumar, ‘Learning to be Backward’, where he provides an example from a textbook on Bonda life. The book says that the Bondas are very backward, and if they want to advance they should give up their traditional customs. If you are a Bonda child and you have to answer a question in an exam, you have to write that Bondas are indeed backward. If you say this is complete rubbish and we are not backward, you will get a 0. This is the kind of position that the education system puts Adivasis in. It is not that they don’t want education, or that they have never wanted it. It is a question of the kind of education they are being given. That is something that needs to be worked on, and people are constantly struggling with this.
Audience member 1. Right now in India, corporates are also using education to colonize/de-colonize Adivasi communities. In states like Odisha, corporate houses are educating children in such a way that most of them eventually leave their communities. As a result, the communities gradually weaken. The children there don’t connect with their own culture—whether it be their customs or food; they begin to want to settle elsewhere. This is similar to what happened to the indigenous communities in New Zealand and Australia.
In constitutional democracies, it is very important for the marginalized to have a strong voice that stems from solidarity. We have seen an example of this when it comes to the Dalit politics, but in the case of Adivasis, there is still much to do. What do you think about the current Adivasi political leadership and the problems facing it?
Nandini Sundar. There is an interesting article by Virginius Xaxa in EPW which discusses the differences between Adivasi and Dalit communities when it comes to being able to have a voice. Partly, language is an issue, because Adivasi communities have specific language needs which are not attended to. This is also in turn to do with history and historical figures. Adivasis don’t have a pan-Indian leader or historical figure, such as Ambedkar is for the Dalits. Even though Jaipal Singh was perhaps the most important Adivasi leader, he is still not recognized in the same way today. It is also true that although we think of Adivasis as worse off than Dalits in many ways today, within their areas, Dalits, at least historically, were looked down upon even by Adivasis. Today, with education, that dynamic has sort of changed. Adivasi resources are assaulted by a different set of demands and control in a way that Dalit resources are not. The kind of ingress by the Hindutva forces in Adivasi areas today is also something that is going to have, in fact it has already had, a long-term impact on their ability to create an independent voice. We also shouldn’t think of the different Adivasi groups as belonging to the same category, even though the Constitution puts them together. In fact, I think that the Constitution deals with the Adivasis much more unfairly than how it deals with Dalits. This is partly because the Gandhian vision in the Constitution was never recognized. For Ambedkar, the villages were dens of localism, whereas for Adivasis, it is the village community which protects the resources. Not recognizing the village as a unit was fair to Scheduled Castes but unfair to Adivasis. The history of repression against Adivasi communities has been different from the kind of discrimination that Dalit communities faced, which included untouchability practiced by Adivasis. Nobody is innocent yet nobody is a villain in this, except, of course, the corporates.
Manda Wagh. I teach in a Christian college where there are around 500–600 students from the North-East. I have observed that these children are more disciplined, hardworking and united than the others. They respect the teachers. They mingle with others yet retain their own cultures. We also don’t see this unity in the other children. It is not the case that they are incompetent because they got admission due to reservation. They are very talented. I think people must understand this.
Urvashi Bhutalia. Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s PM, came to India to meet with Mr Modi. After their talks, Mr Modi remarked that, inspite of being a woman, Hasina is a very competent leader. When you said that ‘in spite of the students being from the North-East, they are still talented and hardworking’, etc., I saw a similar kind of prejudice. We should be more careful with our use of language when we talk about minorities.
Arjun Chatterjee. Having worked in Indian newsrooms, (I can say that) when we report on crime incidents, we avoid categories like Dalit, Adivasi, Bakarwal, etc. Despite this, all kinds of strategizing and categorization of castes happen in the Indian media.At least in our academic narratives, since this will never happen in Parliament, do you think we should start talking about people as belonging to different socioeconomic backgrounds rather than Dalits, Adivasis, etc.?
NS. Most questionnaires sent out on Tribal Customs, even the ones sent out by the Constituent Assembly, often have questions like ‘Describe the strange and peculiar customs of the people in your area. ’If somebody had sent a questionnaire like that to Tamil Brahmins, asking them ‘Why do you have to dry your sarees by using a stick?’ (practice of madi), ‘Why do you have to wash your hands 10 times a day?’ or ‘Why are you not allowing people in here or there?’, I’m afraid you could come up with very many peculiar customs from different parts of our country. The presumption is that only SC or ST have peculiar customs. That is not true. What is so non-peculiar about caste killings that we see happening all over the country? Or child marriage practiced among various castes? I think that once we have a more equal world, then we can hope for all communities to drop their identity. But till then I think we should spend all our time talking about the peculiar customs of the upper-caste Hindus.
Sagnik. I had a question related to the way history is taught in India. The national narrative of history essentially is a very post-Enlightenment version, where we simply have the 4 Ms, especially at the school level: Mohenjo daro, Mauryan, Mughals and Mountbatten. It is essentially a history of state-formation. I was wondering whether this is what keeps Adivasis and other communities at the margins of history. Do you believe that a slight decentring of this narrative, more in the directions of deep history, can cause some change in the near future?
Sambhaji. What the gentleman said about history textbooks is true. I used to be on the Maharashtra state textbook board. There were a lot of discussions about including Dalits, Adivasis and South India. The syllabus, in many ways, met with great difficulties. I worked on the board for four years and left with the change in government. With great difficulty, we managed to bring in some inclusive material till Class 5, but there is a lot of opposition.
NS. I think for some time now people have been doing different regional histories—looking not just at subaltern histories but also at non-human populations, and trying to bring in a Long-durée perspective. Pranay Lal’s work on geological change, or other works on how forests have developed, is an example of this. There have been writings on Adivasis and Dalits by subaltern historians, but there has not been enough writing on the variety of oral histories. In an era of climate change, we need to take into account a variety of different human and non-human perspectives in our historical framework. Some of the major struggles being fought by the Adivasi communities are not just for themselves and their land rights but for the country as a whole, in terms of preserving the environment. Across the country, some of the major movements that are presently active are about gods on the hills. If you think about what the future is going to be determined by, it is Surjagadh, Niyamgiri, Dantewada,where there is a big struggle raging right now. These gods on the hills, these new gods are going to have to take their place alongside Ram and the other old gods in the popular consciousness, which in the hands of some rabid chauvinists, have become weapons of mass destruction.
Anjali. I teach in school, and I can vouch for the fact that we do teach students about marginalized communities in a good way.
NS. But then we also make movies like MSG that can still refer to Adivasis as shaitans and have lines like ‘Unko khatam karna chahiye!’
Moushumi Sen Bhattacharjee. I want to share some observations from my experience living in Santiniketan for the last 20 years. Santiniketan is close to two Santhal villages. People from these villages help with all my family chores. I have observed that those people who were educated in a formal and mainstream way never went back to their villages. Secondly, the people who were given land by Tagore, were ultimately ousted by the CPI(M) government.Somnath Chatterjee built something called ‘Prantik Township’ where most of us have our houses. The Adivasis meanwhile live in bastis in Goalpara and Bondanga, with no space of their own.
Adivasis and SCs are very different. Adivasis are very conscious that they have nothing to do with the SCs. They have a very rich culture of their own. They never felt that they are lower castes. What have we done to really uplift them with our mainstream education? I would say each culture, each Adivasi, is an indigenous culture by himself/herself. When we educate them, we unlearn their culture and try to impose a postcolonial culture upon them. What has the government really done for them? Educating these clusters of so-called Adivasis has ensured they never went back to their cultures. They have married Christians, they have married Muslims, and taken up those new identities. They are not ready to share their identities. I think this is a serious problem which the academia needs to address.
NS. The problem is that the government has not educated anybody well enough to go back to the people and serve them. We don’t complain about Indians who go abroad after studying in IIT. Yes, we talk about the brain drain, but it is considered their normal right to go and leave their communities and the country. But when Adivasis leave their communities, it is somehow seen as a betrayal of their culture. I agree that education as a whole is a problem, and certainly the kind of education that we have makes Adivasis feel inferior about their lifestyle. I think the problem of the entire education system is that it is not teaching people to work for this country.
Audience member 2. One of the main reasons why there is no strong pan-Indian Adivasi leadership is because the issues of Adivasis are different in different states. I come from Assam and I have worked in the Adivasi belt there. Adivasis in Assam had mostly been brought into Assam by the British to work in tea gardens as labourers. When tea-garden labourers in the next generation were unable to get employment, there was a huge question about what happens to these people. Their demands are not really about forests or resources being taken away, but about not being able to come into the mainstream due to lack of education or skills. In West Bengal, Adivasis have been given ST status for a long time. But in Assam, Adivasis were given the status as recently as January 2019, despite being 19 per cent of the population. The education level among the Adivasis in Assam is among the lowest. Today, in any of the South Delhi elite homes, the domestic worker is probably from the Jharkhand Adivasi community. There are many girl children who get trafficked from this belt. The issues they face are so different from different parts of India, which is why I think it is difficult for a collective leadership.
NS. I think this is also true for Dalits across the country. The crafting together of a pan-Indian Dalit identity under Ambedkar is something that has taken time. There were other region specific Dalit parties in his time, like the Justice Party in the south. Hindus have different problems all over the country, but people still craft a Hindu identity. Even though their gods, forms of worship, are all different, they can still have a Hindutva identity. The south does cross-cousin marriage, but the North says you should be marrying outside your village. Even though Hindus are so diverse, we still talk about Hindutva. Nobody is ipso facto a community, and anybody can be constructed into a community. Perhaps Adivasis are coming together now, under, for example, the Forest Rights Act and other issues, and it will be a good thing if they do.
Audience member 3. I have been born and brought up in this city so I share your love for it. I think we were all cringing when we were watching the MSG film. I take the courage to say this from what Urvashi said, that so much of our culture and language gets normalized in a vicious way. Let us not forget that, in our city, we have an annual festival where a very dark man comes out of a buffalo. Before we start pointing fingers at other people, it is time we start looking at the language that we are dealing with everyday. Because this same community, all of us, are going to be rather horrified when the Right wing encroaches and takes over the puja committees, which is what the first article I read two days back when I came back to Calcutta was about.
NS. In 2005, the government started something called Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, which basically used Adivasi communities to attack Adivasi communities. The images of Durga and Mahishasura are an old form of Salwa Judum. One argument is that Durga was an Adivasi goddess who was then deployed by the upper castes to kill an Adivasi. It has been going on for a very long time, this use of Adivasis to divide and rule and attack other Adivasis. There have been cases against Manish Kunjam, the leader of the Adivasi Mahasabha in Chhattisgarh, and other people, for saying that Durga was an Adivasi goddess who was then co-opted and made to kill an Adivasi. This ongoing battle seems to have existed from the time of Durga and Mahishasura.
Nandini Sundar is a professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics whose research interests include political sociology, law, and inequality. She is a recipient of the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences in 2010. She was also awarded the Ester Boserup Prize for Development Research in 2016 and the Malcolm Adiseshiah Award for Distinguished Contributions to Development Studies in 2017.
Sundar obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University in 1989 and Master of Arts, Master of Philosophy and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University in 1989, 1991 and 1995 respectively. She has previously worked at Jawaharlal Nehru University, The Institute of Economic Growth and Edinburgh University. Sundar was editor of Contributions to Indian Sociology from 2007-2011 and serves on the boards of several journals. She has also been a member of the Technical Support Group to draft Rules for the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2007,as well as served on other working groups in the erstwhile Planning Commission, and NCERT.