More than a question of terminology: ‘Adivasi’, ‘Indigenous Peoples of India’, ‘Vanvasi’, ‘Vanyajati’, and the administration of constitutional privileges for ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (ST)

Adivasis are not a homogeneous group; there are over 200 distinct peoples speaking more than 100 languages, and varying greatly in ethnicity and culture. – Source: World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – India | Read more >>

J.J. Roy Burman, 27 July 2009, | Full article >>

In India the term ‘Adivasi’ has gained immense popularity in the last few decades to identify the tribes. This term is more commonly brought to use by the NGO circles and activists of the ‘mainstream’ or ‘mainland’ India. The term has also gained currency amongst the tribes mainly belonging to central India. In Kerala too the tribes of late prefer to be identified as ‘Adivasi’. In Hindi the term ‘Adivasi’ means original settlers.

The term Adivasi is not portrayed just for literary reasons. It has a political underpinning […]

Bijoy (2003) writes:
The 67.7 million people belonging to ‘Scheduled Tribe’ in India are generally considered to be ‘Adivasi’, literally meaning ‘Indigenous People’ or original inhabitants, though the term ‘Scheduled Tribe’ (ST) is not coterminous with the term ‘Adivasi’. Scheduled Tribe is an administrative term used for the purpose of ‘administering’ certain specific constitutional privileges, protection and benefits for specific section of peoples historically considered disadvantaged and ‘backward’. However, this administrative term does not exactly match all the peoples called ‘Adivasi’. Out of the 5653 distinct communities in India, 635 are considered to be ‘tribes’ or ‘Adivasis’. In comparison, one finds that estimated number of STs varies from 250 to 593.

It must, however, be stated that the Indian Constitution does not use the term ‘Adivasi’ and instead refers to the STs as ‘Anusuchit Jana Jati’. Traditionally ‘Jana’ was the more popular term to refer to the tribes in the Hindi heartland. (Ray: 1972)

One of the prime factors for claiming aboriginal or indigenous status for the tribes is to enable them to gain territorial, land rights and control over natural resources. There are, however, vicious forces in the country who are overtly active in not conceding these rights. The Hindutva forces term the tribes as ‘Vanvasi’ [vanavasi]. This term not only conveys a sense of primitiveness but also tries to deny the territorial rights. The Gandhians too were not very far from it and they considered the tribes more from a culturological position and referred to them as ‘Vanyajati’.

It is disconcerting that most of the anthropologists and sociologists have either remained indifferent to such developments or have passively supported the ‘Adivasi’ terminology and thus jeopardised the legitimate rights and interests of the tribes dwelling in the regions beyond the Hindi heartland. […]

More importantly, the term ‘Adivasi’ is popularly used in North Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura to refer to the tea plantation labourers—the tribes like Santhal, Munda, Oraon and Ho who had migrated to the region during the British colonial period. The local tribes in these States find it humiliating to identify themselves as ‘Adivasi’. […]

The term ‘Adivasi’ therefore, remains a generic name in East and North-East India for identifying the migrant tribal labourers and small peasants from central India. […]

It needs to be reiterated that it would be a gross mistake to consider the term ‘Adivasi’ to be equivalent to the term ‘Tribe’ in India. This could only reinforce the anti-Indian feelings among many of the tribes inhabiting, North Bengal, Sikkim and other North-Eastern States. The term will be considered pejorative and humiliating to most of them. It must be realised that the term tribe itself is a colonial construct and ‘aboriginal’ ‘autochthon’ percepts are outcome of colonial conquests. The so-called ‘friends of tribes’ in India have been amateurishly trying to romanticise the term in the name of radical empowerment. The tribal situation in India is extremely heterogeneous and a unified approach may not do justice to all the communities. It must also be understood that the definition of ‘Indigenous Peoples’ as projected by the UN Working Group for Indigenous Peoples has an European bias as it states.

Indigenous peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with their pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies, now prevailing in those territories or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generation their ancestral territories and their ethnic identity as the basis of their continuous existence as peoples in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

The tribes residing in territories not externally colonised are not deemed to be indigenous as a consequence. This leaves out the scope of around 120 tribal communities in Europe from being declared as indigenous peoples (Griggs: 1993). Their rights of self-determination too are denied as a result. The Basques of Spain and Portugal, Skanians in Sweden, Cornish, Welsh and Shetlanders in the UK are consequently denied of several rights and privileges enjoyed by indigenous people in other parts of the world. It is similarly feared that the use of the term ‘Adivasi’ in an unqualified manner may fail to ensure legitimate rights of many of the authentic indigenous tribes/ peoples in India. […]

To conclude, the term ‘indigenous peoples’ itself appears to be contentious in the Indian context as there are many claimants to it; these include the Dalits (claiming their Dravidian antecedence), the Vaishnavite Meiteis of Manipur and the caste Hindus of Assam. It will perhaps be always better to avoid using the popular NGO nomenclature ‘Advisai’ in the tenors of serious academic discourse when dealing with the notion of indigenous groups in the Indian context.

References […]

The author belongs to the Faculty of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Source: ‘Adivasi’ – A Contentious Term to denote Tribes as Indigenous Peoples of India – South Asia Citizens Web
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