On equality and sharing: “a truly amazing sight” – Tamil Nadu

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara, The New Internationalist, September 14, 2012

Culture is a tricky thing. How do we define it? Who decides when customs and traditions, even ancient, cherished ones, can be dispensed with? These and many other similar questions have been debated by the Adivasi groups we (ACCORD, an NGO in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu) work with for the last 25 years. Yet, culture was not a priority, it was neither life threatening, nor in clear and present danger (we thought). And so land, human rights, health, education and housing took priority.

A quarter of a century later, we realize with dismay that the Gudalur Adivasi kids who go to local schools are losing their language, customs and traditions.  […]

The young people began discussions about each other’s customs. The youngsters doing the course were Paniyas, Bettakurumbas and Kattunaickens. They exchanged stories of how equality and sharing was instilled even in little children in their individual tribes. We non-adivasis were constantly stunned by the fact that Adivasi kids never fought for a sweet, however tiny. They always shared it solemnly and equally, a truly amazing sight to see.

At the end of the first week, Stan then gave them a weekend assignment. They were to go home and ask their parents and grandparents to tell them stories of the past. The stories about customs, traditions and food, or just stories, were to be recorded and shared when they returned.

The group came back on Monday morning brimming over with information.  […]

‘We are going to teach all the kids what Adivasi means and that our people are spread out all over India and all over the world.

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara, The New Internationalist, September 14, 2012

Culture is a tricky thing. How do we define it? Who decides when customs and traditions, even ancient, cherished ones, can be dispensed with? These and many other similar questions have been debated by the Adivasi groups we (ACCORD, an NGO in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu) work with for the last 25 years. Yet, culture was not a priority, it was neither life threatening, nor in clear and present danger (we thought). And so land, human rights, health, education and housing took priority.

A quarter of a century later, we realize with dismay that the Gudalur Adivasi kids who go to local schools are losing their language, customs and traditions.  […]

The young people began discussions about each other’s customs. The youngsters doing the course were Paniyas, Bettakurumbas and Kattunaickens. They exchanged stories of how equality and sharing was instilled even in little children in their individual tribes. We non-adivasis were constantly stunned by the fact that Adivasi kids never fought for a sweet, however tiny. They always shared it solemnly and equally, a truly amazing sight to see.

At the end of the first week, Stan then gave them a weekend assignment. They were to go home and ask their parents and grandparents to tell them stories of the past. The stories about customs, traditions and food, or just stories, were to be recorded and shared when they returned.

The group came back on Monday morning brimming over with information.  […]

‘We are going to teach all the kids what Adivasi means and that our people are spread out all over India and all over the world.

Read the full blog and earlier ones by Mari Marcel Thekaekara here:
Lessons of the past for young Adivasi — New Internationalist
http://www.newint.org/blog/2012/09/14/adivasi-kids-learn-past/
Date Visited: 16 December 2020

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Forest Rights Act) gives members of tribal communities the right “to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce including bamboo, brush wood, stumps, cane, tussar, cocoons, honey, wax, lac, tendu or kendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots, tubers.” – Azim Premji University Team

“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/

“Tribal communities are a standing example of how women play a major role in preservation of eco historic cultural heritage in India.” – Mari Marcel Thekaekara (writer and Co-Founder of ACCORD-Nilgiris) | Learn more >>

adivasi_folio2000_index_screen
ADIVASI Download the complete Folio issue as a single file (PDF, 969 KB) >>
Articles and authors

Rethinking tribals by GN Devy

Call us adivasis, please by Gail Omvedt

A society in transition by Suresh Sharma

To be governed or to self-govern by Smitu Kothari

Strong sense of self and place by Amita Baviskar

Dishonoured by history by Meena Radhakrishna

Curators of biodiversity by KK Chakravarthy

Treading lightly on earth by Ashish Kothari

A symbiotic bond by Mari Thekaekara and Stan Thekaekara

Vicious cycle by Dilip D’Souza

A better quality of life? by Roopa Devadasan and N Devadasan

A history of alienation by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Cultural expressions by Jaya Jaitly

Through Adivasi eyes by Mari Thekaekara and Stan Thekaekara

A Toda friend by S Anandalakshmy

Source: Folio (Special issue with the Sunday Magazine): ADIVASI: JULY 16, 2000 from the publishers of THE HINDU
Date Visited: 15 March 2018 (discontinued since)

Research the above issues with the help of Shodhganga: A reservoir of theses from universities all over India, made available under Open Access >>

Reports in the Indian press | List of periodicals included in this search >>

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A Nomad Called Thief:
Reflections on Adivasi Silence and Voice by Ganesh [G.N.] Devy | Publications >>
See also

ACCORD – Action for Community Organisation, Rehabilitation and Development

Articles by Mari Marcel Thekaekara (writer and Co-Founder of ACCORD-Nilgiris)

Ashwini community health programme

Childhood | Childrens rights: UNICEF India | Safe search

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Forest Rights Act (FRA) | Legal rights over forest land

Gudalur | Communities: Paniya | Kattunayaka | Mullukurumba | Bettakurumba

Health and nutrition | Recommendations by the Expert Committee

Shola Trust | Nilgiri biosphere

Success stories

Tribal elders

Viswa Bharati Vidyodaya Trust

Western Ghats – tribal heritage & ecology

What is the Forest Rights Act about?
Who is a forest dweller under this law, and who gets rights?

“Who are Scheduled Tribes?”: Clarifications by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes – Government of India

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