By J.J. Roy Burman, Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 32, July 25, 2009
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. It has often been used to convey the position of exclusion of the tribes (Kumar: 2001: 4052-4054) and their subaltern status (Ekka: 2000-2001: 4610-4612) The term Adivasi has been even used to focus the tribal rights (Dietrich: 2000), their resistance (Pati: 2001), protests (Viswanath: 1997), assertions (Hardiman: 1988, Rahul: 1998), struggles (Raman: 2002) and movements. (Bijoy and Raman: 2003) The term in a way conveys a sense of ‘empowerment’ of the tribes. This empowerment is being asserted by linking with the global indigenous people’s movement.
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. At the outset it needs to be realised that a nation-state like India is not a cultural but political entity which was borne due to a quirk of history. […]
Thirdly, it is important to note that the tribes in India are not the only group to claim indigenous status. Even many of the Dalit intellectuals have made similar assertions. (Massey: 1994) Next, the Government of India itself refuses to grant indigenous status to the tribes. One of the important reasons for this is that a few Brahmin and Rajput communities like the Jaunsari in Uttarakhand or the Kanaura in Himachal Pradesh have been enlisted as Scheduled Tribe. 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 indigenous Rabha, Mech and Rajbansi tribes/ethnic groups in North Bengal prefer to identify themselves by their own names and not 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 […]
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.
Source: Adivasi: A Contentious Term to denote Tribes as Indigenous Peoples of India – Mainstream Weekly
Address : https://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article1537.html
Date Visited: Fri Dec 07 2012 21:18:29 GMT+0100 (CET)
Research the above issues with the help of Shodhganga: A reservoir of theses from universities all over India, made available under Open Access >>
“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 >>
“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.” | Learn more about India’s caste system and the effects of “casteism” on tribal communities >>
“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 >>
“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [C]aste 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.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters) | Learn more: Accountability | Democracy | Education and literacy >>
A constitution which guarantees: “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen” – The Sovereign Republic of India | Learn more >>
Find up-to-date information provided by, for and about Indian authors, researchers, officials, and educators | More search options >>
Search tips: in the search field seen below, combine the name of any particular state, language or region with that of any tribal (Adivasi) community; add keywords of special interest (health, nutrition endangered language, illegal mining, sacred grove); learn about the rights of Scheduled Tribes such as the Forest Rights Act (FRA); and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women’s rights, and children’s right to education; specify any other issue or news item you want to learn more about (biodiversity, climate change, ecology, economic development, ethnobotany, ethnomedicine, global warming, effective measures to prevent rural poverty, bonded labour, and human trafficking).
For a list of websites included in a single search, click here. To search Indian periodicals, magazines, web portals and other sources safely, click here. To find publishing details for Shodhganga’s PhD search results, click here >>
- Constructive action is our only future – Prof. Ganesh Devy on the “adivasiness of the tribals” in Gujarat
- Forest dwellers in early India – myths and ecology in historical perspective
- Forest Rights Act (FRA)
- Tribal Politics – adivasi culture, language, and religion in Encyclopedia of India
- Adverse inclusion | Casteism | Rural poverty
- Demographic Status of Scheduled Tribe Population of India (Census figures 2011)
- Denotified Tribes, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes – Report and Recommendations (Technical Advisory Group)
- Fact checking | Figures, census and other statistics
- Imprisonment & rehabilitation
- Map | An alphabetical journey across India: from Andaman to West Bengal
- Search tips | Names of tribal communities, regions and states of India
- State wise population of Scheduled Tribes (ST) and their percentage to the total population in the respective states and to the total STs population
- “What are the Rights of Scheduled Tribes?– Government of India (National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, NCST)
- “What is the Forest Rights Act about?” – Campaign for Survival and Dignity
- “Who are Scheduled Tribes?” – Government of India (National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, NCST)