The term ‘Adivasi’: neither an equivalent to ‘Tribe’ nor used in the Indian Constitution – Mainstream Weekly

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
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