The word Adivasi literally means “original inhabitants” a people who risk being forgotten in the shadows of Indias rising economy. Now classified as scheduled tribes under India’ constitution, the term Adivasi is difficult since centuries of cultural exchange make it difficult to define them surrounding castes.
To this we can add the ill effect of the colonial pseudo science of anthropmetry. Racist Colonialists was used spread ideas of a shared Indo-Aryan share racial origin. Whether Aryans were a distinct race or group of tribes I will let the historians decide. However, the idea was grabbed by upper caste to emphasize distance from original peoples. Buttressed by ideas of caste pollution or purity, Tribal’s are often seen as anachronistic fringe dwellers, called savage or backward by Hindu, Muslims or Christians if unconverted.
Even today, poor Adivasi in western India discouraged from sitting in front of bus if upper caste Hindus travelling. Their women typified as promiscuous and subject to sexual harassment. I find this ironic since my experience has seen many promiscuous upper caste making a public appearance of being moral examples.
While the term Adivasi may be difficult and imprecise, international law has given a legitimacy hard to ignore. India is a signatory to the 1957 International Labour Organisation sought to protect “indigenous and other tribal and semi-tribal populations” that protects Adivasi under provisions five and six.
Since then India added the Panchayati Raj Act for Scheduled Areas (PESA) inspiring some Adivasi to lay claim to their traditional resources both material and symbolic.
Adivasi lag behind income, literacy, life expectancy, and infant mortality. The welfare state has failed them. The post colonial society has deprive them of their land based, forest economy. Resources such as minerals are mined and rivers dammed.
Many are now seasonal labourers.
There is a stark difference of bazaarias (towns people, upper caste Hindus, Muslims) but for some educate Tribals the difference is less defined. Wealthier Adivasi families may send a son (rarely a daughter) to school.
He hangs out in chai or coffee shops, or cigarette and paan kiosks, looking ‘cool’ in bazaaia life. It appears more egalitarian. More probably it is subsidised from a home proud of their white colour child who feels the contempt of other city dwellers.
Lacking the connections or academic qualifications for hard to get government t jobs he scrounges for work driving jeeps, and running petty trades while trying to strenuously avoid manual work. .
Bazaaria life may appear cool, but the unending promise of urban comforts are an illusory drain on the wallet.
Their are also inter tribal distances in the village. Bhil, Bhilala and Tadvi keep a strict distance in marriage and food . The Bhilalas, who have greater economic and political resources will not accept water from Bhils whom they derogatorily call padkhadya (beef eaters).
Also there are differences among the powerful Chaudhiris in Gujurat and the Meenas in Rajasthan.
Will Adivasi’s fit in the new India?
As Adivasis attempt to move forward, some urban commercial upper caste Hindu question whether those Adivavasi converted to Islam or Christianity can be considered indigenous.
I have no personal view on the rise of Indian nationalism. I live in the BJP controlled state of Madhya Pradesh and while their has been some issue by some suspicious of me as a foriegner, my experience has been remarkably positive.
Madhya Pradesh (MP) capital Bhopal proudly show cases the India’s Tribal diversity with the Tribal Museum ad the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (IGRMS).
Still, it is easy to be romantic of the past. It is easy to blame British or Muslim invaders “corrupting” a tribal purity. For example, nationalist Sangh Pariwar consider Hinduism India”s original religion and Christianity and Islam colonial intrusions. Although mainstream historians suggest masculinised Aryans were themselves foreigners who conquered earlier Dravidians and, according to Vardana Shiva, destroying the more inclusive Matrisitc feminine Tribal culture.
What of the question of national and tribal identity with the change of India’s new BJP government? Philosophically attached to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), teaching dedication to ‘Selfless service of the motherland’. During the anti colonial period, M S Golwakar advocated that the boundaries of nation (rashtrabhoomi) coincide with Motherland (matribhoom) and Sacred Land (punyabhoomi)could only be applied to Hindu’s. Muslims look to Mecca and Christians to the Vatican, as if their primordial loyalties will always subordinate loyalty to India. In the past there have been reports of RSS cadres attempting to turn Hindu Adiivasi on their non Hindu brothers.
The suspicions of non Hindu Adivasi remind me of how in 1962 people feared US president JFK would be controlled by the Pope. Now Americans laugh at it. The word wide rise of nationalism, accompanied by economic downturn, is increasingly polarising the world.
Travelling between India and Australia, I find Indian peoples that include Modi supporters whether the new RSS government of Nahendra Modi will undermine India’s tradition of inclusion. Frustrated by the perceived failures of a corrupt Congress, they still hope political realities will tone down any claims of combined nationalism, religion and Fascism.
It is my prayer that Tribal harmony will be stronger than short term spasms of nationalism.