India, Sept. 6 -- Satyabrat Nayak's house is hard to distinguish in the rows of thatched, asbestos-roofed homes with laterite stone walls covered in patchy plaster. Like most others in Abhimanpur -- a village of roughly 60 families from the Saara community, who believe they are adivasis but are not listed as tribals in government records -- the Nayak family has little of material value other than a small television set. When his wife cooks rice, she does it on an earthen chullah. Till early August, their biggest worry was whether the paddy they cultivated would wither away due to the lack of rain in the region.

Then, on the morning of August 2, his family's quiet life was torn asunder. News arrived that Nayak had died, a day after he was...