“We have to write our own stories, about our issues, from our own perspectives”: Remembering Abhay Xaxa, a Fiercely Unapologetic Adivasi Scholar-Activist – Chhattisgarh & Jharkhand

Abhay Xaxa Facebook photo on TheWire >>

A champion for Adivasi rights, Xaxa played an active part in anti-displacement movements in central India. […]

Xaxa passed away because of a heart attack. A native of the Jashpur district of northern Chhattisgarh, Xaxa had completed his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) after receiving his masters in social anthropology from the University of Sussex, UK. […]

His research at JNU involved looking at Tribal Marginality and Laws related to Land in Jharkhand. In Xaxa’s understanding, there is a deeply embedded relationship between the legal structures governing land laws and the marginality of the tribal communities. In his view, the relationship is dual in nature as these laws not only impact the marginal situation of tribal communities, but they also, in turn, get influenced through their marginality.

Further in his research, he went on to argue that the agency of tribal communities along with their capacity to negotiate has been undermined because of their marginal position in the broader social structure. Hence, there is a knowledge gap in the understanding of the ways in which legal systems, including law-making and implementation function in the tribal areas. Only by filling up this gap, he observed, would there be an alternative argument about the functions of legal structures vis a vis Adivasis of India. […]

While he worked with non-Adivasi groups and civil society organisations closely, he was very clear that Adivasis had to write their own stories. He was critical of both academia as well as civil society organisations. In a detailed interview in 2010, he said, “(A)ll the stories we hear (from Adivasis) are from Oxford graduates and ‘upper’ caste people. Those are not our stories. But nothing is too late; we have to write our own stories, about our issues, from our own perspectives. It is better late than never.”

His poem from 2011 I Am Not Your Data is an apt commentary on the way civil society organisations treat Adivasis and what’s wrong about it. In November 2017, he sent me a poem titled, Beautifully Damaged People. It didn’t just explain the plight of Adivasis but also declared that the future was the Adivasis! The last stanza of his poem read:

“For if there is any hope of future for this world,
It is by the beautifully damaged people.
Who among the doom and gloom, smile and survive
In togetherness with nature,
The Adivasis!”

There is no doubt that the struggles of the Adivasis will go on uninterrupted. But with Xaxa gone, many have lost a true friend, a fine researcher, a passionate scholar, a committed activist, an able mentor and a budding actor. Xaxa had worked in a yet to be completed feature film called Sonchand, which according to him was the first Adivasi community film project based on crowd-funding and community resources, challenging the Eklayva mythology relating to Adivasis.

Source: Excerpt from the obituary by Mahtab Alam in TheWire (10 April 2020) “Remembering Abhay Xaxa, a Fiercely Unapologetic Adivasi Scholar-Activist”
URL: https://thewire.in/rights/remembering-abhay-xaxa-a-fiercely-unapologetic-adivasi-scholar-activist
Date accessed: 10 April 2020

Usage in legal and historical records

“Two main streams within Indian anthropology influenced the literary and visual representations of tribes by mainstream writers, artists and film-makers.” – Dr. Ivy Hansdak clarifies how they are associated with “assimilationist” and “isolationist” positions or policies >>

Abhay Xaxa, national convenor of the coalition National Campaign on Adivasi Rights, quoted in The Indian Express | To read the full report, click here >>

Several Adivasi rights groups have issued statements against the Supreme Court order. These include the All India Forum of Forest Movements, National Advocacy Council for Development of Indigenous People, Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, Campaign for Survival and Dignity, and National Alliance for People’s Movements. […]

The Supreme Court order of February 13, directing states to evict Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Traditional Forest Dweller (OTFD) whose claims over forest land have been rejected, notes that Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Telangana are the states that rejected maximum claims, and where more than 4 lakh claimants are set to be evicted. […]

Under the Forest Rights Act, until the claims process is on, Adivasis (STs) and OTFDs should not be evicted. Lakhs of claims are in process, as also the appeal process against rejected claims. The process is taking so long due to bureaucratic delays. There is also the issue of corruption, where to suit the agenda of powerful mining and other private companies, genuine claims are rejected. The fate of over a million Adivasis, who are worse off than minorities and Dalits, has taken a disastrous turn and they don’t have a voice in this decision.

Source: “With Supreme Court order on forest land, 4 lakh claimants set to be evicted in 3 states”, The Indian Express (23 February 2019)
URL: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/with-supreme-court-order-on-forest-land-4-lakh-claimants-set-to-be-evicted-in-3-states-5597400/
Date visited: 10 April 2020

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

“Tribal men and women mix freely, but with respect for each other [but] caste Hindu society in India is so convinced of its own superiority that it never stops to consider the nature of social organisation among tribal people. In fact it is one of the signs of the ‘educated’ barbarian of today that he cannot appreciate the qualities of people in any way different from himself – in looks or clothes, customs or rituals.” – Guest Column in India Today >>

Photo: Report on Women’s Rights, p. 15

Equality of Opportunity in matters of Public Employment
Constitution Article 15

Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.—(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. (2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to— (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public. (3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children. 2 [(4) Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.]

Source: pp. 9 & 16, “Women’s Rights in India: An Analytical Study of The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and The Indian Constitution, Legislations, Schemes, Policies & Judgements 2021” by Research Division, National Human Rights Commission, India (www.nhrc.nic.in) | Learn more >>
URL: https://www.jorhatjudiciary.gov.in
Date Visited: 9 May 2023

“The contribution of [over 200,000] charities—which range from small concerns to vast India-wide networks—to development and the individual lives of millions of poor Indians is incalculable. Activist groups helped India gain independence in 1947 and have since helped restrain the state’s excesses and compensate for its weaknesses.” – Civil society in India >>

“Doctors in the region [Palakkad district] argue that while the proportion of people with mental illnesses is not unusually high, the problem is a crisis because of their socioeconomic vulnerability.” […] “The non-inclusivity of Adivasis is nothing but racial discrimination. Adivasis were always ruled.” | In-depth analysis (Scroll.in 5 April 2023) >>

“Tribal languages are a treasure trove of knowledge about a region’s flora, fauna and medicinal plants. Usually, this information is passed from generation to generation. However, when a language declines, that knowledge system is completely gone.” – Ayesha Kidwai (Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) quoted by Abhijit Mohanty in “Seven decades after independence, many tribal languages in India face extinction threat” | Learn more about the work done by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and endangered languages worldwide >>

“The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.” – Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta (The Hindu) | Learn more about the role of tribal communities in fostering biodiversity, ethnobotany and cultural diversity | Success stories | Tribal identity >>

“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and … toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.” – George Orwell | Learn more: Childhood | Customs | Games and leisure time | Literature – fiction | Storytelling >>

[*] Some clarifications on caste-related issues by reputed scholars

Understanding “caste” in the context of Indian democracy: The “Poona Pact of 1932”
“Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar differed over how to address caste inequities through the electoral system. Their exchanges led to the Poona Pact of 1932, which shaped the reservation system in India’s electoral politics. […]
Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. Their subsequent debates have shaped the course of Indian society and politics. While Gandhi denounced untouchability, he did not condemn the varna system, a social hierarchy based on occupation, for most of his life. He believed in reforming the caste system through the abolition of untouchability and by giving equal status to each occupation. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, argued that the caste system disorganised and ‘demoralised Hindu society, reducing it to a collection of castes’. […] 
And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)
URL: https://www.indiatoday.in/history-of-it/story/ambedkar-gandhi-caste-system-poona-pact-1932-reservation-2445208-2023-10-06

~ ~ ~

“That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.” – Romila Thapar  (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviewed by Nikhil Pandhi (Caravan Magazine, 7 October 2015)
URL: https://caravanmagazine.in/vantage/discipline-notion-particular-government-interview-romila-thapar 

~ ~ ~

Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” – Book review by Dilip Mandal for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (The Print, 23 August 2020)
URL: https://theprint.in/opinion/oprah-winfrey-wilkerson-caste-100-us-ceos-indians-wont-talk-about-it/487143/

~ ~ ~

“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [However] caste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption. There is a tendency to assume that caste is as old as Indian civilization itself, but this assumption does not fit our historical knowledge. To be precise, however, we must distinguish between social stratification in general and caste as a specific form. […]
From the early modern period till today, then, caste has been an intrinsic feature of Indian society. It has been common to refer to this as the ‘caste system’. But it is debatable whether the term ‘system’ is appropriate here, unless we simply take for granted that any society is a ‘social system’. First, and this is quite clear when we look at the history of distinct castes, the ‘system’ and the place various groups occupy within it have been constantly changing. Second, no hierarchical order of castes has ever been universally accepted […] but what is certain is that there is no consensus on a single hierarchical order.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021), pp. 1-2
URL: https://www.academia.edu/49963457

~ ~ ~

“There is a need for intercultural education. We all need to work together to bridge these divides not only between religions and castes but also regions. It is not correct to think that one part is better than the other. Some of the limitations of India as a whole are due to our common heritage, say the one that has restricted women from having a flourishing life for themselves.” – Prof. V. Santhakumar (Azim Premji University) in “On the so called North-South Divide in India” (personal blog post in Economics in Action, 13 April 2024)
URL: https://vsanthakumar.wordpress.com/2024/04/13/on-the-so-called-north-south-divide-in-india/

Usage in legal and historical records

Read the inaugural Speech by Dr. Ivy Hansdak: “Is tribal identity relevant in today’s world?” delivered during the conference titled “Tribes In Transition-II: Reaffirming Indigenous Identity Through Narrative” | Conference report | Video presentation “Tribes in Transition III” (September 2021): Inaugural Session & Keynote Speech by Prof. Anvita Abbi >>

Backgrounder & image © Economic Times
  • Ekalavya* Residential School Scheme (EMR): a network of boarding schools where tribal children are to be educated in accordance with rules and syllabi provided by the government; such schools are being designated as “Eklavya Model Residential School (EMR)” with the objective of empowering students “to be change agent, beginning in their school, in their homes, in their village and finally in a large context.” – Government Guidelines 2010 | Backup >>
  • Residential School and Ashram School
    In some regions there are similar “Residential Schools” and “Ashram Schools” for tribal children, as in Tripura where they are managed by a society called “Tripura Tribal Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TTWREIS)” – Tribal Welfare Department, Government of Tripura
  • Factory schools “exist to turn tribal and indigenous children – who have their own language and culture – into compliant workers-of-the-future. The world’s largest Factory School stated that it turns ‘Tax consumers into tax payers, liabilities into assets’.” – survivalinternational.org/factoryschools | Learn more >>

    Up-to-date information about these and related issues: Safe custom search engine >>

* Ekalavya (Eklavya, Eklabya): the name of a legendary archer prodigy “who, being a Nishada [Sanskrit Niṣāda, “tribal, hunter, mountaineer, degraded person, outcast”], had to give his thumb as a fee to the brahmin guru thus terminating his skill as an archer.” – Romila Thapar (“The epic of the Bharatas”) | Read the full paper here | Backup download link (pdf) >>

Note: “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” amounts to genocide, which the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention defines as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (Article II, d & e)

Learn more about Childrens rights: UNICEF India | Ekalavya (Eklavya, Eklabya), EMR & Factory schools | Rights of Indigenous Peoples >>

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