Ever since the Portuguese travel writers and missionaries decided to describe the vast variety of ethnic and occupational groups and sects of the Indian subcontinent in terms of “caste” and “tribe”, the terms have stuck to society as long-worn masks that start becoming one’s real personality. The result is that today no Indian describes society without taking recourse to the categories “caste” and “tribe”. In the initial period of India’s contact with western nations the two terms were used as synonyms, the difference lay only in the social status of the groups they described. The synonymy was finally shattered through a legal intervention by the colonial rulers when an official list of communities was prepared by them (in 1872) as the list of tribes. A similar list was prepared in the previous year for communities that were mistakenly thought of as ‘criminal’ and were covered by the provisions of an inhuman “Criminal Tribes Act of India, 1871.” Since then the “tribes” are perceived as a distinct segment of Society.
K. Ramesh Babu
In fact, it is necessary to recognise that every community has certain “caste” characteristics and certain other “tribal” characteristics, the degree of which may differ from community to community.
History has indeed been extremely unkind to the tribal characteristics of the people. The entire burden of the logic and the rhetoric of modernisation has sought to “detribalise” the vast range of communities. Besides, those communities that are now marked as “tribal” have not been viewed with any degree of respect by the alienated middle classes and intellectuals. None of the brave fights of the tribals against the British has ever been treated as part of the “national” struggle for freedom. From the Bihar uprising of 1778 to Lakshman Naik’s revolt in Orissa in 1942, the tribals of India repeatedly rebelled against the British in the North-East, Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. In many of the rebellions, the tribals could not be subdued by the colonial might, but terminated the struggle only because the British acceded to their immediate demands, as in the case of the Bhil revolt of 1809 and the Naik revolt of 1838 in Gujarat.
The fact, however, is that there is so much in the tribal way of life that the country needs to emulate. Tribals are not known for raping their women, beating and abusing their children, exploiting nature beyond satisfying the minimum human needs, lending money at interest, burning widows, and above all things segregating and stratifying labour in terms of caste.
A century and a half of deeply flawed education which has taught us to ape the West in every respect, has also taught us to leave the tribals out as the apes of the great Indian society. And, all that we have so far doled out in the name of tribal policy is but an attempt at extermination of tribal identity so that they remain without a voice and make space for our progress, become our low-grade clones and provide us with cheap labour. In the process, we have forgotten that much that is valuable in society, culture and heritage is of tribal origin, that in fact the tribal still has so much with him which we stand to benefit by learning.
Rarely have we looked at the tribal communities as leaders, at least in certain areas of life, who can reveal to us what civilisation truly is all about. Hence at the turn of the century we must open this question again and work towards formulating a comprehensive tribal policy which will help both the nation and the tribal people. The four principles that we must follow while conceiving such a policy ought to be related to the recognition of the diversity of tribal communities, their special educational needs, an utmost concern for their genetic mutations, and the recognition of the peculiar character of tribal polity.
It is necessary to recognise that all tribal communities are not alike, that they are products of different historical and social conditions and that they belong to four different language families and several different racial stocks and animistic moulds. Some of them belong to the primitive stock with a continuous cultural history, others have been pushed out of the mainstream and have been “drop-outs” of our main history, yet others are created by various legal and economic interventions in society.
Therefore, no uniform policy is ever likely to benefit all tribal communities throughout the country. Next, if the huge work-force has to be given special skills which will improve their economic status, the existing formalities for educational advancement will have to be suspended, and a new kind of non-formal educational structure will have to be evolved. Thus special tribal academies which combine the merits of regular schools and the open universities will have to be instituted.
A National Tribal Academy, to regulate the education network will have to be created for this purpose. Similarly, those tribal communities which have become victims of the mutated gene diseases, such as the Korkus and the Bhils, will have to be provided with a special kind of health monitoring system so that the country does not quietly write off these as communities with defective genes. A close attention will have to be paid by social medicine research to the incidence of sickle cell disease.
And finally, it is necessary to recognise that the tribal polity is more closely regulated by the aesthetic pulse rather than ethical drives, and, therefore the implementation of the tribal self-governance provisions will have to go hand in hand with a special programme for encouraging tribal arts, oral traditions and their unique skill in craft. If we fail to recognise this difference which is vital to the social organisation of tribal communities, and fail to respect it, we will end up creating bands of forced nomads who will multiply the urban chaos already overburdened with problems. Ultimately, what is good for the tribals is also in the interest of the national common good.
One would like to hope that the new millennium at last brings some relief to the ninety million tribals and sixty million denotified and nomadic tribals of our country.
However, the situation as it prevails now clearly indicates that these are but pious thoughts. The entire lot of denotified tribals has been left at the mercy of the crime-merchants. In their lifestyle, death in police custody for men and getting sold several times over for women is a routine experience. Neither the Central Government nor the states has made any concrete plans for a long-term upliftment programme. And whatever provisions do exist are not known to have ever reached the target beneficiary. The situation is so alarming that in many states the governments do not even have complete lists of the nomadic and denotified groups.
The political leadership in tribal areahas been a victim of the party-system. When the tribal representatives get elected, they quickly get submerged in the main concerns of the party to which they belong; and in these, there is at best a nominal place for the tribal issues. On the other hand, when tribal masses express their dissent, it is understood as an anti-state activity, resulting in an unnecessary burden on the state- funds at one end and a blatant violation of human rights at the other.
Those tribals who have accepted facelessness as the only option for survival and have migrated to cities have yet to find a place even in the city slums. The slums too have their caste-structure; and tribals do not fit into it easily. Their children remain without any education and add to the already swollen ranks of child labourers.
Colonialism has left many undesirable legacies for us to negotiate. But its impact on our self-perception has been among the most disastrous of those legacies. The categories of “caste” and “tribe” have coloured our vision of society so much that no time in the near future will we be able to recognise the people we call tribals by any other token but “tribal”.
The new millennium policy therefore will have to be designed to create a general respect for the term “tribal”. Verrier Elwin had tried in his time to create a sense of respect for tribals.
The policy of cautious intervention that he advocated unfortunately turned, when put in practice under tokenism. Today, it is necessary to think of a genuinely pro-active policy which is aimed at helping the tribals by creating a favourable climate for the general tribalisation of Indian communities. It is ultimately in the continuous segregation of tribals with castes that will makes India a more humane culture. If it happens, it will be a major battle won in favour of human dignity.
Call us adivasis, please
If Adivasis were to start writing their own Discovery Of India, it would be something like this: There are those who talk of India’s “5000 year-old culture,” there are those who talk of its “timeless traditions.” If India has a timeless tradition, it is ours. The cultures running back for tens of thousands of years are the cultures of the many Adivasi communities in the subcontinent. We are Bhils, Gonds, Oraons, Mundas, Hos, Santals, Korkus and Irulas, the large and small groups of people who live today in the hilly areas of the country and are scattered across its central belt, we who have kept ourselves apart from feudal States and Brahmanic hierarchies for thousands of years, we who have resisted hierarchy and maintained our ancient collectivities and ways of life.
We were here before the founders of that Meluhha known to far-off Mesopotamia built their cities on the plains of the Indus. Before Mohenjo-daro and Harappa and Lothal, before drains were laid out, before seals began to be stamped and goods traded and granaries made, we lived off the forests, gathering the abundant food we found, sometimes burning down the trees for planting but always moving on to let the forest regenerate. We traded occasionally with the Indus cities, but we remained free; they never conquered us or tried to conquer us.
We were here before the Aryans came thundering in their chariots through the mountain passes; they could break the dams, flooding the plains and destroying the remnants of the Indus cities but they could not destroy us. They knew us as Nishada and Naga; they called us Rakshasa, they burned the forests to destroy us and free the land to fashion their agrarian society stamped with the hierarchy of caste. They were the ones who remembered us as their enemies. Ekalavya was one of our great archers, so skillful that the hero of the Aryans, Arjun, could not stand before him. But they assaulted him, cutting his thumb, destroying his ability to fight – and then fashioned a story in which he accepted Drona as his Guru and agreed to surrender his thumb! Ram was one of their heroes, given the task not only of destroying the Dravidians but also of slaughtering the rakshasas in the forests.
While the Indus civilisation was destroyed, its remnants absorbed into and providing the foundation for the developing Indian civilisation, our culture did not die. It is true that some of us were conquered and turned into village-bound peasants, or, enticed by religious cunning and the flourishing village society to become the Bahujans and Dalits of that society, farmers, craftsmen, labourers. All of these sections bear even today the marks of our democratic forms of government – panchayats, collective traditions, clan solidarity. But in accepting Brahmanism they accepted a tyranny of the mind, a poison of superiority and inferiority, purity and pollution.
We who refused this, who were not conquered, who were not enticed, who remained outside, who remained free – we are the Adivasis of today. Not all of our cultures are the same. We speak different languages, some Dravidian, some Mundari, some like those of the Nagas similar to the languages of China and Tibet, some related to the languages of our more caste-bound Indo-European speaking neighbors. Our religions are also different. Some follow the sarna religion with traditions linked to sacred grove, some know only the general sacredness of all nature and its beings. However, whatever their variations, our religions are of this world; we know nothing of karmakanda and moksha; our gods are not divine beings of mystery beyond our ken, but people like ourselves, our ancestors, even our friends.
We fought the British colonisers when they came. Our heroes like Birsa Munda, Khazya Naik, Tantya Bhil are remembered in our songs and legends but forgotten in your textbooks. Why is this, you who are so concerned about the history of national independence in your textbooks? In many ways, though, the British conquered us more thoroughly even than the earlier Aryans, taking away our autonomy as they extended control over the forests, making us “encroachers” on land that had been ours for ages. And they were the first to call us “tribals,” for thinking of us primitive was the only way they could explain the difference between our equalitarian, community-oriented cultures and the hierarchical lives of peasant caste societies. With this, they romanticised us on the one hand, but also characterised us as children and arrogated to themselves the authority to control our lives and grab the wealth of the forests.
After Independence, with State control of the forests continuing, with cultivators moving in to capture our lands, and companies moving in to grab our timber, we became more “marginalised” than ever. Our rebellions had forced the British to pass some laws to protect us – but after Independence, those who held the land rights were called “landlords” and the people who had been encroaching on our lands got control over them as “tenants”. The post-independent elites have continued the policy of the British they claimed to fight, calling us “tribals,” treating us like conquered people, with few schools, no industry, no development, and above all maintaining in their own hands the control over our forest wealth.
Now as a result we have become landless labourers and poor farmers and day labourers, and some, forced to migrate from lands we have known for generations, the poorest of the refugees crowding the cities. You call us “girijan” and “vanvasi” as if we only knew hills and forests. We have the least education of all the Indian people and we are among the poorest; it is only those Adivasi communities in the North east who have States of their own who seem to have any prosperity, so not surprisingly many of us fight for States like Jharkhand. Now you are trying to weaken us with religious divisions, claiming some of us “Hindus” and others “Christians,” and inciting vicious attacks by your thugs under the name of protecting Hinduism.
You constantly tell us to “join the mainstream” of independent India. But what is this “mainstream” you speak of? Is it the mainstream of cultures which force widows on to funeral pyres, of harassing young brides for dowry, of mumbling chants and pujas in a language that not even the priests really understand? Women in our societies may not quite have full equal rights, and we should change that part of our traditions that tries to keep them subordinate, that attacks them as “witches” if they try to claim land rights. But they are still more independent than women in the caste societies. Our young people chose their own partners, and our weddings are more democratic – where one Brahman or Christian priest controls the marriage ceremony among the so-called great religions, in our traditions the whole community sits together and announces its “agreement” to the marriage.
Finally, many of you romanticise us, and talk as if “development” is something for others, as if we should be “tribals” forever and live in a timeless world apart. We don’t want to live apart, we want to be part of a true mainstream of equality and liberty, one we will fight for along with all others. We want schools, hospitals, education, computers, but we don’t want them as gifts, with you pretending to be patrons. Give us back the lands and forests you have snatched away, let us develop our own wealth, let us have the profits gained out of sharing with the world our knowledge of medicines and herbs, and we can have all the development we need, under our own control. We are not against trade and exchange, but we want to be able to control the terms and conditions on which we trade. We want a development that will preserve the best parts of our culture, our sense of community and collectivity, our equalitarian life, our freedom. We do not believe that should be so difficult in the world today, but you seem to be following a different path. And finally, why not drop such senseless terms such as “Scheduled Tribe” and “anusuchit jamati” in the Constitution also and call us by our proper name, “Adivasis”?
A society in transition
Words like “tribe” and “tribals” have come to acquire extensive usage in our discourse on social science and social change. They denote both, an anthropologial category akin to its classical form as it has been in the Americas, Africa and Australia, and as a metaphor for the most victimised segments in our society. The expression “tribal identity” has sharp political resonance. But that resonance is felt and read almost entirely in ethnic-social terms. The cultural and cognitive salience that underlies the tribal sense of unique distinctness and possibility remains dim and almost invisible.
The modern faith stems from an axiomatic certainty of immense consequence. The grand certainty is that the continually enhanced human capacity to reshape the material world is an unfailing assurance of human liberation and freedom. Progress is the sovereign quest of modern civilisation as also its cardinal referent for meaning and significance. Hence the perception that tribal cohesions represent the survival of archaic social formations which the ever expanding reach of the modern historical process would in time transform and completely recast. And true enough, the power to reshape the material world has linked and unified the most distant corners of the earth. But for communities and rhythms of life, towards which words like tribe direct our attention, modern unification has meant a virtual half-life on the very margins of modern life and discourse.
Consider in this context the intellectual and cultural lineage of the discipline of Ethnology. Its origin and orientation are unmistakably modern. Its mission is to understand and make sense of social facts and forms of thought that clearly do not belong to the modern universe. Levi-Strauss sensed in ethnology a belated sence of remorse. As an intellectual artifact it is inherently ambiguous. It seeks remembrance for facts and forms, which it knows, are marked out for extinction by the very mode of doing and thinking from which ethnology arises. Recognition of definitive difference constitutes as it were its formative substance. And all the while, it knows, that this difference has at best a bleak future in the modern world. In its rare moments of repose modern thought invests rhythms of living forsaken by history, in the words of Levi-Strauss, with “nobility. Unaware of having eliminated savage life”, it seeks to appease the “nostalgic cannibalism of history” with mere shadows preserved with great care in museums and libraries.
One could ask at this point, as to what is the nature and significance of the survival of tribal life in India? Is that survival in any way different from what survives of tribal life in the Americas? Or, is it the case that what survives of tribal life in India is also no more than a shadow of what had once been full and truly complete unto itself.
In India, the tribal situation is marked by two paradoxical facts: the absence of neat demarcations of the tribal as a homogenous social-cultural category, and the significant magnitude of what is accepted as comprising tribal reality. No one can demarcate a clear divide between the tribal and the non-tribal in India. The intensely fluid nature of boundaries between the tribal and the non-tribal are evident in the insuperable difficulty in arriving at a clear anthropological definition of a tribal in India, be that in terms of ethnicity, race, language, social forms or modes of livelihood.
D. V .Jainer/ Telepress Features
The Constitution provides for the notification of certain communities as tribal. The notification is on the basis of a varied mix of ethnic, social, linguistic and economic criteria. Hence the prevalent usage as also the only available working definition of a tribal in India: Scheduled Tribes. It would truly be impossible for anyone to say that all the diverse communities listed as Scheduled Tribes conform to the notion of a tribal in its classical sense. At the same time, it would be impossible for anyone to say that all communities that can primarily be regarded as tribal are included in the schedule of Tribes. And yet, for all practical purposes, be it legislation, social-political intervention, collation of data or social theory, the schedule of tribe notified by the Government is the only meaningful referent.
Almost every thirteenth Indian is a tribal. Social magnitudes and their persistence as distinct entities over long durations are of immense significance. For they suggest, in however diffused and indirect ways, the structure of cognition and judgment by which a civilisation seeks or could seek to orient itself. The sheer magnitude of tribal survival in India directs attention towards ways of reckoning and engaging with differences that are strikingly unlike the modern historical process. In the brief span of a few centuries, peoples and cultures as old as Man on earth have been swept to near extinction from the vast continents of America and Australia.
To speak of the strikingly different ways of reckoning and engaging with difference as characteristic of India’s past is not to suggest that it is a past without blemish. The past of tribals in India bristles with cruel inflictions. For thousands of years tribal communities have been pushed steadily deeper into the hinterland of remote hills and forests. Vast stretches of land, upon which they had lived their lives, worshipped their deities and nourished their own dreams, have been lost to them. But with all that it remains a past of interaction, utterly unlike the modern past of tribal extinction.
One could speak of the tribal presence in India at two levels. One, the fragmented and fragmentary tribal presence in the very midst of non-tribal life. Two, the tribal presence in tribal contiguities comprising regions that are or were until recently predominantly tribal. The historian Kosambi records in prescient detail the fragmented tribal presence in the midst of non-tribal life. In the early Fifties, he had to just step outside his house in Poona to encounter the still unfolding “historical processes” of “interaction of obsolete with modern forms”. In the shadow of the Law College dwelt a “nomadic group of rus phase Pardhis” whose men wear only the “loin cloth” and “never take a bath”, but retain the “natural cleanliness, mobility, superior senses” of the wild. Pardhis are “expert bird snarers”. But hunting and trapping animals can no longer provide enough for even bare survival. Forests have shrivelled and “game has almost vanished”. Besides, “not one of them can afford a hunting license”. They have been reduced to making a precarious living by trapping birds, “begging and petty stealing”. The idea of “racial purity” makes no sense to them. On the “payment of a fee” strangers could always be admitted into their clan. The names of five of their six exogamous clans “have become the surnames of feudal Maratha families: Bhonsale, Powar, Cavahan, Jahdav, Sinde”. And Kale, the name of their sixth clan has become a “Citpavan brahman surname”.
Tribal presence in regions that are predominantly tribal signifies a distinctly different historic quality of tribal-nontribal interaction. Such regions constitute what could be termed tribal contiguities. Within tribal contiguities, choices available to tribal communities for working out their own equations between man and Nature have not been entirely foreclosed in favour of a more advanced mode of livelihood. True, powerful non-tribal rulers did seek to control over tribal contiguities. But pre-modern conquest could never exact more than a nominal annual tribute. The divide in these regions between resistance and restraint, submission and defiance was always somewhat fluid. Nature, little touched by Man, was an unfailing refuge beyond the reach of invading armies. One could speak of the texture of this interaction as a complex of impingements and relationships between several distinct social cohesions and modes of livelihood subsisting in close proximity.
In a rough and ready sense settled cultivation or kheti, could be said to be the defining feature of non-tribal life. And shifting cultivation or jhum could be said to be the defining feature of tribal life. Open plains watered by rivers have been the prime regions of kheti hills and dense forests have been the prime regions of jhum. The Gangetic plain has been the largest prime region of kheti. The Vindhyan highland has been the largest prime region of jhum. Between these two modes, kheti represents what in modern cognition would be designated as the manifestly more evolved and higher level of man-nature equations. Quite in accord with modern expectation, the region of kheti even in the pre-modern context tended to expand and enclose new areas. But in the long and complex process of extending its reach, kheti in the pre-modern context could never completely displace jhum. The significant fact is that in the very process of extending the reach of kheti came to be mediated by varied modes of livelihood, which partook of the world of both kheti and jhum.
Social and technological mediations within these two modes of livelihood are ordered differently. Kheti marks out a permanent human presence riveted to a particular piece of land. The same plot of land is cultivated year after year, from one generation to the next. From that plot of land nature is sought to be more or less completely banished. It requires constant human care. In the event of failure or withdrawal of human care, Nature does return to the lands of kheti but almost always in a shrivelled and degraded form. The spatial boundaries worked out in kheti tend towards more or less straight lined geometric patterns. Within the fields of kheti, man’s mastery over nature is complete and unrivalled. Nothing that man does not like or find useful is allowed to survive. The considerable surplus this activity generates makes possible trade and exchange of goods and services, urban centres, as also varied range of skills, crafts cultural links over vast distances. Along with all that, it also makes possible mechanisms of coercion and dominion: steadily enhanced revenue demands, standing armies and imperial ambition. But in years of scanty rainfall or epidemics, hunger and death ravage the lands of rich yields.
Jhum, in sharp contrast to kheti, marks out only a fleeting human presence in the midst of untamed Nature. The cultivated patch of jhum keeps shifting. In the little jhum clearings on hill slopes, Nature in all its wild resilience and variety retains its sway albeit a little subdued. Crops once sown on a jhum slope require virtually no human care. After the crops have been harvested, jhum slopes merge back into Nature. The spatial boundaries worked out in jhum tend to be somewhat like the intensely diffused uncertain lines found in nature. Jhum secures an ample supply of crops useful to man. Its yields in comparison to a kheti field are much smaller. But jhum, by allowing nature to linger on its slopes ensures that harvests never completely fail. Famines simply never happen in the prime regions of shifting cultivation. The surplus generated is small and chiefs in the world of shifting cultivational have had to rule without the support of a standing army or a regular supply of revenue.
The tribal presence within tribal contiguities and its fragmented survival in the midst of non-tribal life may seem at first sight to be far removed and unconnected with each other. But a deep and complex relationship subsists between them. For they together define the place and possibility for tribal life and self-sense in the civilisational matrix of India. Consider in this context the rise to political pre-eminence of the tribal kingdom of Garha in central India during the Sixteenth Century. The stark simplicity of the explanation given by the Abul Fazal, the grand Mughal chronicler, for the rise of Garha invokes rhythms distinctly tribal. For a very long time, records Abul Fazal, rulers of Garha had commanded “reverence” in the region. Yet, they remained powerless until mid Fifteenth Century to translate this “reverence” into political control. Implicit in this fact is the resilience of the distance between reverence and the ability to garner a disproportionately large share of the local surplus. To this day something of that sense and reality remains alive and vivid in the everyday rhythms of living.
Unfettered access to nature furnishes the vital clue to the manifest capacity of tribal cohesions to survive as a distinct entity, despite a long and not always peaceful history of interaction with powerful centres of political authority. Definitive shifts in the relationship between tribal communities and political power began with the consolidation of the modern colonial state in the mid-nineteenth century. As the effective reach of the modern state extended deeper into the hinterland, access to nature came to be progressively restricted. Choices available to communities even in the remotest parts came to be ever more rigorously foreclosed in favour of the requirements of the state and the world market. Land revenue settlements initiated the process of appropriating vast stretches of tribal lands as “reserved forests” and “government lands”. In the tribal contiguity people have lived on a combination of gathering forest produce, grazing, craft skills and shifting or intermittent cultivation. The idea of personal property has been very weak. It is the idea of usage, which defined access to the livelihood resource of the locality of the region. The notion of modern property has destroyed access to what had always been a shared livelihood resource accessible to all the inhabitants.
True, life and livelihood of tribal communities in the past were always simple and sparse. But prior to the modern onslaught the rhythm of life in the remotest hamlet was vibrant with a profound sense of its own intrinsic worth. Cultural sensibilities and modes of livelihood subsist in a relationship of intimate distance. Destruction of modes of livelihood are also moments of profound cultural loss. The sense of one’s self and the world are traumatically shaken. It is imperative that the modern sensibility learns to own in adequate measure the destructive consequences inherent in the modern process. For instance, unlike the West, ecological devastation in our context has also to be comprehended as a question of livelihood and survival.
Tribal survival in the modern world would be possible and meaningful only if we learn to recognise it as presence with its own intrinsic worth, and not merely as a grim illustration of the logic of progress. We have to learn to converse with tribal sensibility about its meditations on the nature of the human presence, and the inherence of limits in the fact of life itself. That perhaps may in some measure serve as a corrective to the selfish and ultimately suicidal self-centredness of modern civilisation.
To be governed or to self-govern
Over four years ago, without visible drama and fanfare, India’s statute books witnessed a new addition that represents one of the most significant legislative changes in post-Independence India. Those concerned about the social health of the country have been largely oblivious to this historical legislative change. Even those that are concerned about the rights of historically oppressed and discriminated communities seem to have by and large (with a few exceptions) fallen short of adequately responding to the enormous potential it has for one of India’s most culturally plural and diverse constituents to secure a future that is dramatically better than today.
Prem Kapoor/ Fotomedia
I am referring to the provisions concerning self-government in Scheduled areas (primarily adivasi areas identified for special protection in a special schedule – section – of the Constitution) after the enactment of the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (I will refer to this as PESA in the rest of this essay). The provisions also question and potentially transform the structure and powers that have been given to Panchayats.
For nearly two centuries, adivasi communities have spearheaded the most remarkable struggles for social justice in the country. They were among those who first resisted British colonial interests much before the independence movement – a contribution that (despite a few rare accounts of historic movements in a few regions) remains largely unrecognised. Predominantly living with India’s forests, they faced a steady assault on their livelihoods when the British legislated the crown’s control over India’s forests in 1865.
With one legislative change, they became trespassers in their own forests victimised by externally motivated systems of forest management that directly violated various facets of their economic and cultural survival. Their forests and other resources in their areas were increasingly seen as commodities, their lands expropriated as private property and their growing dependence on ruthless moneylenders linked with powerful feudal landlords and local politicians led to massive land alienation, and permanent or seasonal migration. The final act of violence legitimising these onslaughts of systemic violence on a largely unsuspecting population was the imposition of an alien judicial system and “law and order” machinery that subjugated them further compounding their vulnerability and subservience. Their own, highly subtle and organically embedded systems of conflict resolution were undermined. The result of all these processes was the erosion of their dignity, the devaluation of their identities and the disrespect of their ways of living.
Unfortunately, after Independence too, the Indian government retained the same laws and continued the erstwhile colonial attitudes and policies over adivasi communities. They continued to be victimised, their cultures and lifestyles disrespected, their resource base exploited, with hardly any benefit accruing to them. In actual practice, such state policy was aimed at assimilating them into the “mainstream” on terms that they had very little say in. In effect, while they participated in elections, the promise of democracy and justice was largely denied to them.
In fact, in most areas there was further erosion of the relative autonomy and dignity that they enjoyed in their communities, thanks to the additional steamroller impact of party politics and the consequent homogenisation of a rich heritage of cultural diversity. Participation in the electoral process was no guarantee of their own democratic rights being respected. Instead, elections have substantially lost legitimacy as reliable institutions for ensuring cheap, quick, reliable and transparent justice for rural people, especially those belonging to disadvantaged groups.
In the first two decades after Independence, in anticipation of policies that would change colonial attitudes and practice, there were fewer agitations and revolts in adivasi India. It was not long, however, before disillusionment started setting in with the realisation that the brown sahib’s governance was largely driven by the same mentality and attitude as those who had colonised them before. There were remarkable exceptions as a few enlightened administrators and community leaders asserted the rights of adivasi communities. Gradually, in a growing number of places, agitations and mass assertions became the emergent culture of what began as mere disillusionment. Coupled with the expressions of countervailing power from below were efforts by a few sensitive administrators and support groups. In the mid-1980s, people like the then Commissioner of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, B. D. Sharma, used his constitutional office to highlight the plight of the adivasis and the constitutional responsibility to them. Numerous collective mobilisations crystallised, including several demanding greater autonomy from exploitative external forces. Another important development was the formation of various alliances cutting across adivasi community and region.
General Gaur/ Fotomeida
Notable among these are the Bharat Jan Andolan (Indian People’s Movement), the National Front for Tribal Self-Rule, Adivasi Sangamam and the Indigenous and Tribal People’s Initiative all of whom spearheaded a series of agitations representing the growing unrest in adivasi areas.
Relenting to these widespread agitations by adivasis protesting against continued violations of their customary and resource rights by state and non-state actors, the Parliament set up a committee headed by an adivasi MP, Dileep Singh Bhuria. Mr. Bhuria’s report argued that adivasi society had been marked by its own representative systems of governance through the Gram Sabha (village council comprising the assembly of all adult village residents), which should be legally recognised as the primary centre of adivasi governance. Released in 1995, the report also argued that the long-standing demand of adivasi control over productive land and forests should be conceded to and that administrative interference in adivasi affairs should be minimised. The government largely ignored the Bhuria Commission’s report reflecting the continuing dichotomy between the real needs of a majority of adivasis and an exploitative governing structure.
Public agitations, including several major events in Delhi, have since been stepped up. The assertions of the adivasis were powerfully summed up in one of their central motive slogans, “Our Rule in Our Villages.” This declaration did not imply secession from India but the affirmation of relative autonomy from what was experienced as an intrusive and exploitative state apparatus and the unjust social and economic order that it legitimated at the expense of their livelihoods, identities and systems of self-governance. In December 1996, the Parliament passed PESA finally (at least legally) recognising the adivasi right to self-rule.
PESA is historic because it legally recognises the capacity of adivasi communities to strengthen their own systems of self-governance or create new legal spaces and institutions that can not only reverse centuries of external cultural and political onslaught but can also create the opportunities to control their own destinies.
If implemented in both letter and spirit, the Gram Sabha of the village would become the focal institution, now endowed with significant powers. For instance, under section 4(d) of PESA: “every Gram Sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution.”
Many administrators, academics, even activists working among adivasi communities argue that the institution of Gram Sabha is non-existent in most adivasi areas and that the law does not recognise the dramatic social and economic changes that have taken place in adivasi society in the past two centuries. They argue that modernity, the external market, representative democracy and centuries of exploitation have transformed adivasi communities to the point where a recovery of a cohesive community could well turn out to be a romantic invocation with no basis in reality.
What is not recognised in this critique is that PESA is a dramatic opportunity to undo a history of wrongs and that it is flexible enough to mould to local conditions. For instance, even if an institution called Gram Sabha is unknown or has eroded, it can provide the basis, under changed conditions, of a new democratic institution that the adivasis themselves would come to recognise as an organic entity that facilitates the restoration of their comprehensive rights. PESA even makes it possible to redraw the administrative boundaries that presently inform their governance. India’s administrators and policy makers have been reluctant to even recognise PESA because it empowers the Gram Sabha to approve development plans, control all social sectors – including the processes and people who implement these programmes and policies – as well as control all minor (non-timber) forest resources, minor water bodies and minor minerals. As and if all this happens, it could result in outcomes that may well prove dramatic. For, PESA also gives powers to manage local markets, prevent the manufacture and sale of alcohol and not just control land alienation but seek its restitution.
Understandably, administrators see a grave threat to their power and privilege if local communities were to pave the way for more autonomous systems of self-governance. In effect, the potential of PESA is to make these state functionaries play a transformed role of facilitating processes for the devolution of power. Their role would then also assist in restraining forces that prevent the realisation of the comprehensive rights that PESA provides.
The most far reaching potential and impact will be ecological. PESA would restore primary control over natural resource systems to the Gram Sabha. There is some concern that in the age of commodification and commercialisation, if given rights over resources, adivasis will themselves become predators. Communities (like the Warlis who are part of the Thane district based Kashtakari Sangathna) who have begun to realise the potential of PESA argue that while the dangers do exist, this should not be used as an excuse to delay the implementation of PESA and in fact efforts should be made to discuss how the whole gamut of democratic institutions need to be rethought to strengthen local autonomy and provide checks to its misuse. The reality at the moment is that as communities assert greater control, they encounter apathy, even hostility from local administrators who are under pressure from external and internal interests who want to retain their exploitative hold over adivasi India.
The reluctance of those who have historically enjoyed power to accept such devolution and eventual loss is understandable. Some of this can even take vicious forms as those in power try to subvert local unity. In an eloquent yet grim assessment of the present situation, Harsh Mandar, a senior officer of the IAS states, “The seriousness of the situation is that for tribal policy in India, darkness continues to prevail. Protective laws are rarely implemented, budgetary measures like the Tribal Sub Plan strategy have failed to achieve genuine financial devolution, and educational strategies have been assimilative and destructive of the moorings of tribal culture. Light at the end of the tunnel can be seen only in a powerful and radical recent law that provides for self-governance by tribal communities. However, so far, the state has forgotten or subverted the interpretation of its own law. The perils of the tribal identity and survival remain as real as ever.”
There are several internal challenges that also have to be addressed – internal hierarchies and discriminations, traditional practices like witch-hunting that have become means to suppressing the growing assertions of women, etc. Building safeguards and processes that address these endemic problems are an equally serious issue that must be simultaneously faced.
It is time, however, that the administrator, the planner and the politician realise that the growing aspirations of historically discriminated and exploited peoples will no longer give way. Across the country, there is growing demand for greater transparency of government functioning and greater participation in defining what the content of development should be. Additionally, there are steadily growing instances of innovative efforts to redefine the structure and content of democratic institutions so that power emanates from the people. This has brought into sharp focus the severe limitations of representative democracy and the need to recognise and strengthen structures of direct democracy, particularly where communities depend on natural resources for sustaining their livelihoods.
Similar mobilisations have been witnessed in indigenous and tribal regions all over the world and several major global alliances have been formed. These, coupled with the efforts of many groups to articulate their concerns before a special sub-commission and the human rights committee of the United Nations, can also be seen as part of an effort of deepening democracy at all levels – from the local to the national and the global – firmly rooted in local democratic processes, contrary to and often in dramatic opposition to the current trends of economic centralisation and undemocratic political processes.
Strong sense of self and place
How do you describe an attachment to a particular landscape? How do you express what a place means when its sounds, smells, look and feel are so deeply imprinted in your mind and soul that it becomes a part of you? When you are away from it, you ache to return. Whatever its shortcomings, this place is home and this is where you belong.
D. Nayak/ Fotomedia
Four years ago, while walking through Sakarja, a Bhilala adivasi village along the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh, in the submergence zone of the Sardar Sarovar Project, I met a girl. She was driving some goats along a narrow track up a hillside. I was hot and out of breath, and seized the chance to stop and chat. It turned out that she was alone, her family had moved to Gujarat where the government had given them land. She had gone too, but after a few months at the rehabilitation site, she returned to Sakarja to stay with her uncle’s family. When I asked why, she shrugged. “I like it here”, she said, “it’s so open”.
Looking around at the panorama of hills, streams,fields, and patches of forest, I could see what she meant. “But aren’t things better at the new place?” I asked, “your family is there too”. “I feel stifled in the plains”, she said, “I feel free here”. And she went off nimble-footed along the hillside, urging her goats on with shrill cries.
In the analysis of costs and benefits associated with the Narmada dams, the discussion focuses on “oustees” and “PAPs” (Project-Affected Persons) and the “rehabilitation package” of two acres land per adult male. But men do not live by land alone. personhood comes from having honour and dignity. And these qualities in turn spring from a sense of self and place, at home and in the eyes of the world. These aspects of what makes a person human and worthy of regard do not figure in the discussion of the dam.
The discourse of the dam could never explain why a girl, scarcely more than a child and clearly extremely poor, would choose to come back and live in a village about to be drowned.
Whenever I am in the Narmada valley, I am overwhelmed by the rugged majesty of this place. The Narmada is a beautiful river, aptly called “the giver of bliss”. At the same time, I am daunted by the hard lives of the adivasis who stay along its banks. The land, forests and river yield just enough to live by and, in bad years, not even that. Modest crops of sorghum and maize, pulses and oilseeds, are the product of unremitting toil in the monsoon months and, if the rain fails, even this labour cannot stave off starvation. In bad times, the forests stand the adivasis in good stead; there are tendu leaves,mahua flowers, gums and fruit to be collected. If all else fails, adivasis must migrate in search of work.
The effects of an uncertain and inadequate livelihood are writ large in the people’s lives. Almost every adivasi woman has known the trauma of an infant or child dying an untimely death. Without enough food and medical care, people suffer entirely avoidable illnesses with phlegmatic fortitude. The absence of schools denies children a chance to learn and improve their lives. Poverty puts people at the mercy of a callous government bureaucracy and rapacious traders to whom adivasis do not matter, except as people to be pushed around and cheated. The exploitation of adivasis has a long history that can be traced to the state’s refusal to recognise adivasi rights to lands and forests, and the almost total failure of the welfare state in this region. Every year, crores are spent on “tribal development” but the only people who get richer are the traders and officials with their new Maruti cars and their rising houses in town.
Despite its hardships, this life is all there is for adivasis, and they value it. Amidst the vicissitudes of drought, malnutrition and exploitation, what keeps adivasis going are the certitudes of community, their faith in the bonds of kinship, the knowledge that relatives will help out in times of trouble. Walking along the Narmada, one witnesses as small yet steady traffic of travellers – a youth in a smart turban with a bow and arrow in hand going off to visit his married sister, or a middle-aged woman carrying a pot of buttermilk for her ailing mother. Their little courtesies indicate the larger structures of material and emotional aid that enable adivasis to hold their own in a hostile world.
It seems marvellous that such spartan material circumstances should generate a vibrant life of the mind. The adivasi world is richly imagined and interpreted through myth, story and song. The central thread of this repertoire is the gayana, an epic poem that describes how Narmada created the world. Will the gayana, and all the other aspects of Bhilala knowledge and practice that are anchored on the banks of the Narmada, survive relocation to a new place? Does it matter that people will have to surrender so much of what they hold dear for the sake of a dam?
Whether the dam will bring water to the thirsty people of Kutch and Saurashtra, and I don’t believe it will, we must be clear about who is paying the price for this transfer of resources. As Arundhati Roy asks, are we prepared to acknowledge the true “cost of living”? Our lifestyles are made possible because adivasis in the Narmada valley and elsewhere are forced to give up the little that they possess. To add insult to injury, they are told that leaving their lands and river will entitle them to an “attractive rehabilitation package” and the gifts of development – hand pumps, schools and health centres. As the headman of Kakadsila village asked the District Collector, “For forty years, you didn’t come to our village even once. You didn’t care whether we lived or died. Now when you want our land you come with folded hands and make promises. Why should we believe you?”
The wisdom of this scepticism is borne out by most experiences of resettlement. Waterlogged land, no livestock, fragmented families, hostile neighbours, no commons to collect fuel and fodder – sums up rehabilitation so far. Adivasis end up as urban refugees, permanent members of an ever-growing army of footloose labour. If this is what the future holds, no wonder that adivasis make desperate choices, vowing to stay on in villages slated for submergence.
Though their chances of victory look increasingly grim, adivasis continue to fight. For fifteen years, these villagers have borne the brunt of a sustained government campaign to oust them. They have been denied development inputs, their lands were forcibly surveyed, protest brutally suppressed, and false cases filed against them. Now the threat of submergence looms ever larger. “Leave now”, say government officials, “or you will drown like rats when the water comes”. And yet, despite the might of the state, people continue to fight because their sense of self, their only vision of a good life, is rooted to this place that they call home, the Narmada valley.
Dishonoured by history
The following headlines will be familiar to an average newspaper reader in the Capital:
Amar Talwar/ Fotomedia
“Haryana to flush out Criminal Tribes” (Indian Express, February 27, 1999) followed by “Bansilal orders crackdown on criminal tribes” (Indian Express, February 28, 1999), “48 Pardi Robbers from Guna held” (Tribune News Service, September 9, 1999), “Stoneage Robbers – Pardhis Know No Mercy” (Express News Service, Mumbai, November 6, 1999), “11 of criminal tribe held for dacoity in N-W Delhi” (Hindustan Times, January 17, 2000).
In recent years, a spectre of the so called “Criminal Tribes” has begun to haunt the middle class readers of newspapers in Delhi. There is a marked increase in news items which claim that a gruesome murder of an elderly couple was committed by a group of Sansis who robbed them of all their valuables, or that a woman living alone was brutally done to death in the dead of night by a group of Pardhis. There are also frequent television programmes on these communities putting the fear of the devil in the minds of the terrified spectator, and the very words “criminal tribes” have become synonymous with criminality of a mindless, violent kind.
Who are these so called criminal tribes – Sansis, Pardhis, Kanjars, Gujjars, Bawarias, Banjaras and almost 200 such communities? Is it just a descriptive label, or is it a category of some special new kind of criminals? Such a terror in the public mind is being fanned regarding these people that public lynchings of a hapless Sansi or Pardhi have already become acceptable to even civilised members of our increasingly brutalised society.
A visit to localities where most of these people drudge out their daily lives may reveal the grossest poverty and want, shocking even to those hardened eyes which daily witness sickly, hungry, unwashed, unclothed children at every major crossing in the Capital. The question then to be asked is this: if all members of such communities are merciless robbers, why then, does the community live in appalling conditions of poverty?
Moreover, even educated members of these communities, who constitute a few first-generation office-goers or professionals, are subjected to the deep suspicion and insults by the wider society when they set out to look for jobs, and at their workplaces: there is constant, relentless humiliation they have to suffer at the hands of “respectable” people. Swimming against the tide each day, they struggle to enter the virtuous cycle of education, work and respectability which has eluded them and their children for several generations. Since “criminal tribes” make such sensational headlines so frequently, the phenomenon needs to be examined historically in some detail.
The people mentioned above are a staggering 60 million in number, and fall in the category of today’s Denotified Tribes. The term “criminal tribes” was concocted by the British rulers, and entered the public vocabulary for the first time when a piece of legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act was passed in 1871. With the repeal of this Act (which was condemned by Pandit Nehru as a blot on the legal books of free India, and a shame to all civilised societies) these communities were officially “denotified” in 1952.
Intensive research on the issue shows that about 150 years ago, a large number of tribal communities were still nomadic, and were considered useful, honourable people by members of the settled societies with whom they came into regular contact. A number of them were small itinerant traders who used to carry their wares on the backs of their cattle, and bartered their goods in the villages through which they passed. They would bring interesting items to which people of a particular village and a little further away – spices, honey, grain of different varieties, medicinal herbs, different kinds of fruit or vegetables which the region did not grow, and so on.
Almost invariably, nomadic people were craftsmen of some kind or the other and in addition to their trading activity they would make and sell all sorts of useful little items like mats and baskets, brooms and brushes or earthenware utensils. Some like the Banjaras or Lambadis functioned on a larger scale, and moved in larger groups with pack animals loaded mainly with salt, and their women in addition to the salt also bartered the exquisitely crafted silver trinkets with settled villagers.
Some nomadic communities also became cattle traders, herdspeople or sellers of milk products, since they bred their own cattle for carrying their merchandise. The nomadic communities were not just useful to the villagers on a day to day basis – they were also acknowledged for averting the frequent grain shortages and famine like conditions in villages where crops failed. In addition, among them were musicians, acrobats, dancers, tightrope walkers, jugglers and fortune tellers. On the whole, they were considered a welcome and colourful change in routine whenever they visited or camped near a village.
There were several reasons for these communities first becoming gradually marginalised, and finally beginning to be considered useless to the settled societies. First, the network of roads and railways established in the 1850s connected many of the earlier outlying villages to each other as also to cities and towns.
The scale of the operations of the nomadic traders was thus drastically cut down to only those areas where wheel traffic could not yet reach. This was the single most important reason for the loss of livelihood of a number of nomadic communities. Further, under newly imposed forest laws, the British government did not allow tribal communities to graze their cattle in the forests, or to collect bamboo and leaves either, which were needed for making simple items like mats and baskets for their own use and for selling. These two developments had disastrous consequences for the nomadic traders.
There was one other major historical factor responsible for the impoverishment of a very large number of nomadic communities. The nineteenth century witnessed repeated severe famines – during each successive one the nomadic communities lost more and more heads of cattle which were the only means of transporting their goods to the interior villages. The cattle were in fact becoming more crucial than ever, as with increasing network of roads and railways these communities had to travel longer distances to sell their wares. Loss of cattle meant loss of trading activity on an unprecedented scale.
The British government gradually began to consider nomadic communities prone to criminality in the absence of legitimate means of livelihood. There was a parallel process taking place all along. A number of tribal chiefs, especially in the north, participated in the 1857 events, and earned the title of traitors and renegades with the British government. Elsewhere, hill tribes determinedly resisted the attempts by the British to annexe their land for establishing plantations, and to try and use them as plantation labour. A number of tribal communities, thus, would not yield to the British armed forces and consistently fought back, though whole habitations were burnt down in retaliation by the frustrated British officers deputed to co-opt them. Generally, it began to be felt that most tribal communities, including nomadic ones, were dangerously criminal. The Criminal Tribes Act was born in these historical circumstances.
A large number of communities were officially declared criminal tribes from 1871 onwards. The British government subsequently ran special settlements for them where they were chained, shackled, caned and flogged while being surrounded by high walls under the provisions of the Criminal Tribes Act. In the name of the homegrown science of “curocriminology” it was declared that they would be cured of their criminal propensities if they were given work and such an understanding had an obvious corollary: the more they work, the more reformed they would be. They could be thus forced to work for up to 20 hours a day in factories, plantations, mills, quarries and mines all through the first few decades of the twentieth century. This was an era when the Factories Act had come into existence, but the British employers were officially able to do away with those provisions of the Factories Act which restricted the number of hours of work in a day, or number of days in a week, or allowed minimal facilities at the workplace.
An important point for our purposes here is that the British government was able to summon a large amount of public support, including the nationalist press, for the excesses committed on such communities. This is because the Criminal Tribes Act was posed widely as a social reform measure which reformed criminals through work. However, when they tried to make a living like everybody else, they did not find work outside the settlement because of public prejudice and ostracisation. This curious logic and anomalous situation has continued to this day.
Once more we are at a juncture when the issue of “criminal tribes” needs to be reviewed so that the wider public, 130 years later, does not end up supporting measures to “flush them out” of the existing system. What needs to be emphasised here is that police harassment and rounding up of “criminal tribes” in the last few years has not improved the crime situation on the ground. Less obtrusively and much less glaringly, news items of the following kind have also appeared in print which were earlier asserting to the contrary, confirming that the worst criminal gangs are not constituted by the members of denotified communities: “Police still baffled by attacks on farmhouse” (Indian Express, January 21, 1998), “Many sensational murders remain unsolved” (Hindustan Times, November 27, 1999).
As has happened all through the history of denotified tribes, confessions are wrested out of “busted gangs” of Bawarias or Sansis or Pardhis through a variety of savage methods which often involve abuse of their women. The National Human Rights Commission, in a historic meeting held in February, 2000 has recommended repeal of the Habitual Offenders Act, which in effect replaced the Criminal Tribes Act after independence. The Habitual Offenders Act has spelt terror to these communities for half a century, as they can be still summarily rounded up whenever there is unexplained crime. The NHRC has also promised to take steps to monitor atrocities on these communities and reorient the police training systems to change the attitudes of the police towards them at all levels. It has also accepted the need to protect denotified tribes through a comprehensive package of welfare measure, including employment opportunities.
However, no welfare measures, or recommendations by a Human Rights Commission can create a more humane public opinion – that is an autonomous process which has to begin to take place among thinking citizens on their own. These communities have merely got caught in the web of relentless historical changes encompassing colonisation, modernisation and urbanisation and they need to be supported in their severe ordeal and distress. In addition to being hunted and hounded by the police, they remain on the periphery of society because of the suspicion and active hostility of the average mainstream person.
Six crores of fellow humans wait to regain the honourable place that they once held and lost.
Curators of biodiversity
The tribals of India have been seen by some developmental planners as agents for the destruction of biodiversity though they are its curators and victims of its destruction due to thoughtless developmental interventions. Two hundred years ago, before the establishment of British colonial rule, most of the Indians could claim to be tribals, living in a state of harmony with organic and inorganic communities in nature. The British created the issue of a separate tribal identity by inventing categories like tribal and non tribal, criminal and non criminal tribes, included or excluded territories, to isolate rural Indian communities from one another. The British opened up rural India to western technology – railways, roads, banks, courts, forest contractors, liquor, flesh and poppy traders, land grabbers, comprador and bureaucratic capital. With this began the degradation of the biocultural habitats of rural Indian communities and the erosion of their coevolutionary dependence on the country’s ecosystems.
Because of their thin physical presence, the British had confined themselves to indirect rule in India and their penetration in the rural hinterland was thin. After their departure in 1947, the destruction of biodiversity was accelerated by an interventionist policy of development. Universal democratic mechanisms superseded ecospecific community systems of subsistence, resource management and self governance.
Internal colonial elites aligned themselves with external colonial elites, to carry homogenising developmental processes, geared to mega-irrigation, power, forestry, building and mining projects, into the farthest hills and forests. Rural or tribal India continued to be a stage affixed to urban India, and was subjected to the self assumed, redemptive, civilising mission of the latter. The colonial jurisprudential concepts of res nullius and terra nullius assigned land and forest, that had not been assigned by the sovereign, and were not under visible occupation, to the sovereign. These concepts have been allowed, even after Independence, to supersede the precolonial Indian jurisprudential approach, akin to lex loci rie sitae, whereby law derives legitimacy from the relationship, traditionally established by the people, with their land and forest.
In this manner, the biocultural democracy of Indian communities, sustained by principles of symbiosis, reciprocity, diversity and sustainability, are being eroded in the name of political and economic democracy. Fragile and biorich ecosystems, like coast lines, savannahs, mountains and rain forests, managed by tribal communities, have been invaded by biocultural pirates. Whether it is in the primary sectors of agriculture, industry or mining, secondary sectors of drugs, chemicals and foods, or, in the tertiary sectors of education, culture, and social services, social and ecological categories have been steadily reduced to economic and industrial categories.
The tribal has been stereotyped as a consumer rather than as a producer, since, as per colonising discourse, the tribal only reproduces with nature, and the real production takes place in organised factory or laboratory conditions. The role of the forest as the source of physical and psychological sustenance for biocultural diversity has been ignored for treating forest as a timber mine, for monocultural commercial plantations, as empty land for development, as carbon sink or ecological park. The consumptive tribal uses of forestry for shelter, food, fodder, medicine, mulch, fire wood, has been dissociated in planning from their non consumptive uses of forestry, including photo synthesis, climate regulation, soil and water conservation. The sui generis community intellectual property right regimes of tribal stake holders and stewards of biodiversity are being integrated into the western individualistic IPR regimes, without their prior informed consent, consultation or compensation. The onus of proof for establishing the novelty, uniqueness, stability, uniformity or biosafety of tribal knowledge systems is being put on the tribal community by individuals regarding, court, lawyer and money mediated laws and institutions. As a consequence, there is a beginning in the unprotected flow of knowledge from gene-rich India to the capital-rich West, and a protected flow in the reverse direction.
The result, despite positive political, institutional and financial commitment to tribal development, has been large scale displacement and biological decline of tribal communities, a growing loss of genetic and cultural diversity, and rising trends of shrinking forests, thinning soils, sinking aquifers, crumbling fisheries, surging temperatures, increasing unemployment, hunger and conflict.
The solutions are implicit in these problems. The developmental planners have to stop acting as teleological agents of history and refrain from appropriating biocultural diversity curated by tribals, by treating them as passive objects of history. The affirmative discrimination in favour of homogeneous developmental interventions for the tribals has to be reoriented to replenish the variety of life sustaining technologies, adapted by tribals in response to specific agro climatic situations. The validity of slow track “tribal” science has to be recognised over fast track “modern” science. High yielding, fast growing, mass producible, monocultural, hybrid species adapted in the green revolution in agriculture, white revolution in dairying, blue revolution in fisheries, have to give way to the slow growing poly cultural, natural species, grown, gathered or managed by tribals. Support has to be extended to the variety of tribal water management strategies of drip, terrace, diversion and least interference. Different tribal architectural technologies, adapted to thermally efficient local material, have to replace uniform use of steel, concrete and glass. The diversified trophic base of tribals of nutrient giving food and medicine, should be prized over a homogenised trophic pattern, dependent on a few animal and plant families and a limited fruit and cereal basket. The multiple forest use and conservation approaches, adapted by tribals through niche specialisation, seasonal restriction, restriction by life history stages, sacred groves, should replace exploitative silvicultural approaches.
The holistic, neurophysical, psychosocial folklore medicinal knowledge of tribals should be processed into a digital bioinformatics data base in global knowledge network for IPR protection. The developmental process has to be enriched with inputs from the life enhancing knowledge which has been codified, classified and communicated transgenerationally through tribal oral traditions. The layering of the languages of tribal cultures should be unravelled by linguists and glottochronologists, to recover the blend of beauty and utility, form and function, equity and efficiency in tribal biodiversity conservation approaches.
Just as 95 per cent of the DNA has been dismissed as junk, valuable crops and herbs as weeds and scrub because of ignorance about their functions, so tribal knowledge about biodiversity protection has been ignored as irrelevant. To the tribal, nature is homologous to the maternal womb. It is a source of his affinity and consanguinity. Its denizens, animate or inanimate, are his siblings, lovers and friends. The hum of the forest, the wind, the dance of the fire fly, the stalk of the crane, the prowl of the tiger are part of tribal dance and music. Every pebble, river, mountain is instinct for them with life, vibration and purpose.
Tribals officially constitute about 7.5 per cent of the country’s population. But, they have preserved 90 per cent of the country’s biocultural diversity. They have protected the polyvalent, precolonial, biodiversity friendly Indian identity from biocultural pathogens. The question of tribal survival is also a question of the survival of this identity.
Treading lightly on earth
It is a sign of our times that the one group of people who have hardly participated in the global parleys on “sustainable development,” are the ones who probably live most sustainably. Adivasis in India, natives in the Americas, aborigines in Australia… variously termed, but all characterised by a lifestyle far more in tune with nature than any of us who call ourselves environmentalists or eco-developmentalists.
I do not pretend to know even a tiny fraction of the lifestyle of India’s adivasis, but can cite others who do. Adivasis consider themselves a part of nature, not outside of it, and examples of this abound. The widespread phenomenon of sacred spaces and species is well-known: entire valleys in Sikkim, forest groves ranging from a few trees to a few hundred hectares at thousands of sites across India, totemic animal and plant species that are not exploited. Anthropologist Savyasaachi details the universe of the Koitors of Abujhmarh Bastar, in which a complex set of rituals combines rights to use land and forests with the collective responsibility to protect nature. Forests cannot be owned, as they are a creation of nature. Even in shifting cultivation, universally condemned by the “modern” agricultural scientist and the forester, there are rules on how to treat the forest so that its regenerating capacity is not extinguished.
Vasumati Sankaran tells us of the fishing methods of the Korkus of Maharashtra. From temporary bunds across streams to the use of plant-based poisons, these methods are sustainable and cause no irreversible harm to aquatic biodiversity. My friend Madhu Ramnath, once a student and scholar like many of us but with the guts to give up urban life and take up long-term residence with adivasis in central India, gives other examples. Forest-dwellers here tell of the changes in season, of the oncoming rains, by close observation of the behaviour of flowering plants, ants, and mushrooms. Deviations in the seasons are predicted through deviations in this behaviour . . . with probably as much accuracy as our sophisticated meteorological devices!
Are their footsteps still light?
Respect and even awe of the adivasi lifestyle cannot blind one to some of the problems inherent in such ways of living, and the changes that have taken place in them. Social, political, sexual, and many other forms of exploitation have existed traditionally, and continue to exist, in adivasi society. But the much more serious problem is the way in which adivasi cultures and livelihoods have been transformed over the last few decades.
Two simple stories tell it all. Madhu Ramnath recounts the changes that came into the resource use patterns of adivasis in central India. Traditionally, these people used to fish in a stream by making a temporary barrage of sticks and stones, and using plant based poisons to stun the fish. The barrage would be dismantled at the end of the session. Then came the Kanger Ghati National Park of Madhya Pradesh, with the objective of conserving the area’s dwindling wildlife. Fishing was banned. But the adivasis still needed fish for survival, so they started sneaking in, swiftly killing fish with DDT, and rushing out. The same people had a tradition, that the wild mango trees in the forest would not be harvested till the birds had had their first feed. This ensured that seeds were spread out through fall of fruits or by animals, and hence the trees regenerated. “Development,” meanwhile, brought in a mango pickling plant in an urban area nearby. With a great demand for raw mangoes, the villagers began to pick the fruit even before it had ripened, thus hastening the decline of wild mango in the area.
Such stories can be told from virtually every part of tribal India. Excessive and indiscriminate demand of the urban market has reduced adivasis to raw material collectors and providers. It is a cruel joke that people who can produce some of India’s most exquisite handicrafts, who can distinguish hundreds of species of plants and animals, who can survive off the forest and the streams with no need to go the market to buy food, are labeled as “unskilled” by our economy! And it is supremely ironical that areas with the highest deforestation rates in India include the predominantly tribal parts of north-east India, where, till the Supreme Court recently put a halt, timber logging was being carried out by the same communities that earlier nurtured these forests. The reasons? The insatiable demand for paper, plywood, furniture, housing, from the rest of India.
Centralised politics and governance have done as much damage as the external market. Though Independent India’s leaders appeared to give special attention to the needs of adivasis, actual governmental programmes have only served to destabilise the self-governance systems in tribal areas. Universal franchise is fine as a principle of democracy, but when it divides a hitherto well-united community between two or more political parties, and when this causes the breakdown of carefully evolved systems of common property governance, we must question it. We must also cast a doubtful eye on centralised resource management systems that are sometimes counterproductive. The example of the Kanger Ghati National Park is symptomatic. Wildlife conservation is a laudable aim, and protected areas are a powerful tool for achieving this, but such steps can boomerang when they ignore local human realities and sensibilities.
And so, in many parts of India, no longer are adivasis living “in harmony with nature.” But we who influence public policies and programmes, for whom the markets and the State runs, must look within ourselves for the reasons for this change. Fortunately, adivasis themselves are forcing such a rethink among us.
Revitalisation and Resistance
A quiet revolution is spreading through local communities. Alarmed at the dwindling natural resource base around them, tired of waiting for governments to deliver on promises, and concerned about the increasing rootlessness of their own youth, adivasis and other communities have begun reviving aspects of their culture and traditions that enabled wise management of resources, and resisting external and internal pressures of destruction.
At Mendha (Lekha), Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, a tiny village of 300 Gonds have stayed off a paper mill that was destroying their forests, and halted (in association with thousands of other adivasis of the area) two huge dams that would have submerged their lands. They now protect and manage 1800 hectares of forests, including relatively, sustainable extraction of bamboo and other products. They have initiated livelihood programmes, built irrigation tanks and biogas plants. But much more remarkable is the political, social, and intellectual empowerment they have achieved. Through a unique institution called abhyas gat (study circle), comprising villagers and guest experts, they have striven to obtain greater understanding of ecological, political, and policy issues. With the aid of local NGOs, the villagers are now armed with a high degree of knowledge about the policies and rules that impinge on their lives. And the gram sabha is so powerful, that no government agency can now work in this village without its permission. Such a movement of adivasi self-rule is spreading in many parts of India, though not always with the same successful results as seen in Mendha (Lekha).
Tribals and non-tribals have teamed up in several hundred villages of Alwar district, Rajasthan, to regreen the land. With several hundred small johads (checkdams) placed at sites chosen with local knowledge, an area that was chronically drought-prone just 15 years back has become water-surplus. Seasonal streams have become perennial, catchment forests are reviving and being protected. Several villages of the Arvari river basin have even formed a Arvari Sansad (Parliament), for decisions regarding land, water, forest, and agricultural use, and for dispute resolution.
All these examples, customary or community-based rules of resource use have been drawn up, some of them new. Residents are fined or ostracised for violations. Major decisions are taken by the adults of the village, not by a supposedly representative panchayat. Women are encouraged to participate, though in many areas this is as yet far from satisfactory.
Equally critical are the paths of resistance that many adivasi areas are displaying. Koel Karo, Bodh Ghat, Inchampalli, Bhopalpatnam, Rathong Chu . . . big dams that were proposed by our development planners and would have destroyed adivasi homelands and forests, have all been halted by mass movements. As part of the larger fishworkers’ movement, adivasis on our coasts are fighting off ecologically destructive and economically inequitous commercial trawling and aquaculture. At the Nagarahole National park, adivasi groups fought on the ground and in the courts, to halt a luxury hotel project.
All the above examples do not yet amount to a comprehensive response to the threat faced by adivasi cultures and the biological diversity they live within. The overall slide continues. Mass hunting (unsustainable and cruel in today’s context), increasing consumerism, and corruption among the tribal elite, remain burning. But these examples of revival and resistance are signs of hope, indicators of a growing trend. If the rest of India wants to, it can learn from them. It can attempt to understand the dynamic nature of adivasi lifestyles and traditions, to use sustainable practices as a mirror to showcase our own rampantly destructive consumerism. It can respectfully give much greater decision-making and planning powers to adivasi communities, including in conservation programmes. In so doing, it can jointly forge a way to once again live lightly off the earth. If, on the other hand, adivasi India sinks with the sheer weight of our ill-conceived development models and ideas of “progress,” we too will sink with it.
A symbiotic bond
“What do you see as the difference between your people (the adivasis) and the others?” I asked Badichi, a Bettakurumba adivasi woman. We were discussing religion and Badichi lived in a forest village called Chembakolly in the Gudalur Valley of Nilgiris district. Her reply was confident and direct. It left me absolutely speechless. “It is our good fortune,” Badichi explained, “that our gods live with us in our villages all the time. We don’t have to go to any church, mosque or temple to find them, pray to them or offer puja. They are a part of our lives.”
K. Ramesh Babu
Adivasis or indigenous or aboriginal people the world over, have never given a name to their religion. We knew all about the Bettakurumba seances and calling of the spirits. But anthropology had programmed us, putting everything into neat little boxes unimaginatively labelled “animism” and “ancestor worship”. Adivasis do not “worship” their ancestors, although this is a long held anthropological fallacy. But they revere the spirits of their ancestors and integrate them into their society. These spirits return after death to guide and protect the tribe.
Death in adivasi society is not seen as the end of life – it is an integral part of life. The adivasis talk about the spirits of their dead using the present tense enhancing the perception that the dead are very much part of society still. When anyone dies their spirit is gathered to the fold of the ancestors to remain forever with their people.
This is a universal truth for all aboriginal and indigenous people from Australia to Africa to North and South America. It is embodied in the immortal words of Chief Seattle’s speech in 1854 when the American Indians surrendered their ancestral land to the white conquerors. “The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget the earth for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us.” The ashes of our fathers are sacred. Their graves are holy ground and these hills, these trees, this portion of the earth is consecrated to us.” “You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin’.
The same sentiments were echoed by the Kattunaicken, Paniyas and Mullukurumbas we spoke to. Each tribe had different names for their gods but they were kinship names like Mutthachan (grandfather) and Ajji (grandmother). Their relationship with their gods was an equal one. The Mullakurumbas who have much in common with the Keralite Nair traditions often have Hindu gods and goddesses in their homes but their everyday rituals remain linked to the ancestors. All the tribes celebrate Sivaratri.
Mahasweta Devi points out that adivasis predated Hinduism and Aryanism. She argues that Siva was not an Aryan god and that in the 8th century, the tribal forest goddess or harvest goddess was absorbed and adapted as Siva’s wife.
“Goddess Kali definitely had a tribal origin, the goddess of hunters” asserts Mahasweta Devi. Kali and Mari are common adivasi names. Religion and culture are inextricably linked to each other. Most discussions on adivasi culture tend to dwell mostly on customs, traditions, dress, dance, music and exotic rituals. However what has struck us most forcibly after over a decade among adivasis, was the fact that adivasi values are the most beautiful and least discussed aspect of their lives. Their values are what make their lifestyle the only truly sustainable one in the world. Anyone, anthropologist, activist or humanist, who lives closely among these people comes away convinced of the beauty and value of adivasi culture.
The whole of adivasi society is built on a rock solid foundation of equality. It is based on an unconditional acceptance of all life forms including trees, water, the earth. This acceptance is based on a recognition of all things being mutually dependent on each other. What is often referred to as their symbiotic relationship with nature. Since this acceptance is total and unconditional, it automatically means that the other person or element in a relationship is treated with respect. Equality therefore in adivasi society is not some distant dream or goal to be attained – it is an integral part of how their society is structured. It is the natural outcome of treating everything with respect.
People are given respect and status according to their contribution to society but only when they are performing that particular function. Hence a priest or hunter is treated with respect when he is calling the gods or leading the hunt. After the event, he is equal to anyone else in the village unlike in our society where priests, politicians or officials are supposed to be treated with deference all the time.
Much of this attitude stems from the fact that it was a non-acquisitive society. This non-acquisitiveness is the very core of their culture and it impacts on everything – their relationship with nature, their social environment and even on their economy. Hunter gatherers collected what they needed, enough for the day. Then they relaxed till the supply of food – tubers, fruit, fish or meat was finished, before going out foraging again. People never had any need to prove their wealth or status by accumulating possessions.
The way these values are integrated into everyday life is what astounds people who live among them. We have seen children digging up a tuber from the forest and then cutting out the eyes delicately and replanting them with great care. They take from the earth just what they need. But they nurture it because they respect it. Most of the adivasis had utmost contempt for chemical fertiliser and pesticides, what they termed “English manure”. We get enough from the earth. And the rice we get using chanagam, (cowdung) is tastier and good for health. The other, chemicals, gives plenty but it leaves the soil ruined. You must not treat the soil, the earth like that, “farmer after farmer told us.”
Yet, this attitude is constantly denigrated. They are written off as lazy because they do not work from dawn to dusk in order to accumulate gold, dowries, big houses or bank balances.
For most of us, sharing is linked to our concept of ownership. Where does the issue of sharing arise if everyone owns everything equally? “Sharing” in this case does not arise from the generosity of the giver but is the inherent right of the receiver. This is part of the philosophy of indigenous people. When the Mullakurumbas go hunting a share is given to every family in the village, even those who were absent, sick or could not participate. An extra portion is added for any guest in the village and even non tribal passersby will be offered a share. Not sharing is something they find difficult to comprehend.
“Over on Maanjeri hill you will find the turmeric, in the Padhari river there are mussels. And if you will share with me your tobacco, my friend, together we can go there”.
This Paniya song captures the tribal attitude to knowledge and education. Knowledge, like the land and the air and water is common property – everyone must share it. Some Paniya would have discovered turmeric on the Maanjeri hill and mussels in the Padhari river and what does he or she do with this knowledge? No intellectual property rights, or discovery patents here. On the contrary a song is composed and sung – what better way of making it public. Not only is it made public, it is also offered free – all that is asked in return is companionship.
This attitude to knowledge has been constantly exploited by researchers and scientists who claim “discovery” of some new flora or fauna when in fact it was shown to them by adivasis who had used it for centuries. It is the Columbus “Discovery of America” syndrome.
The main threat to adivasi culture and religious beliefs comes from the fact that it does not exclude others. The very nature of this philosophy has left them wide open to exploitation, both material and spiritual.
The most difficult threat to deal with however, comes from the onslaught of modern consumerist culture, cinema, popular music, fashion, TV all of which combine to tell the young adivasi that in order to be smart and fashionable they should modernise their dress, language, manners and customs. Indeed this is an onslaught that all of traditional Indian culture is facing. And the change in society is visible.
Romanticising adivasi culture makes little sense. Somewhere, we need to have a blend. An understanding that technology can be used to create not merely a more comfortable world but a compassionate kind, just, truly human one. A society that is driven not by the “market” but by a vision for an equitable, decent world for all human beings.
We need the adivasi voice to resound, to be heard above the clamour of the global marketplace.
In 1871, the British passed the Criminal Tribes Act. It notified about 150 tribes (“communities” is probably a more correct word, but I will stick to the more-used “tribes” in this article) around the country as “criminal”. It gave the police wide powers to deal with members of such tribes, including restricting their movements and requiring them to report at police stations regularly.
Tribal hunter’s necklace, North East.
Picture courtesy the Crafts Museum, Delhi.
Independent India repealed this Act in 1952, thus “denotifying” these tribes. That is why they are now called denotified tribes (DNTs). Except that term is rarely used. Half a century later, they are still nearly always referred to as criminal. While studying DNTs on a recent fellowship, I heard industrialists, journalists, farmers and policemen call them that. For there is a view that just will not die: DNTs are congenital criminals.
And it is this view, more than anything else, that defines the way DNTs live today.
A typical example is a report in The Telegraph (Calcutta) of July 31, 1998:
“Madhya Pradesh: Chief Minister Digvijay Singh has expressed concern over a series of recent robberies in MP by Pardhi tribals, identified as having criminal antecedents. These tribes (sic), listed as criminal ethnic groups, have defied the efforts of the Government to rehabilitate them. The CM said state projects to provide these people with education did not have any impact on their criminal instincts.”
“Criminal antecedents,” criminal ethnic groups,” “criminal instincts,” this is the kind of language that is still routinely used to describe DNTs. Now some of them do indeed commit crimes, and serious ones too. Still, hardly all of them, and hardly on a scale that would justify such a blanket prejudice.
If society and Governments look at “these people” this way, the police is no exception. This means that DNTs are invariably the first suspects in area crimes. What happens to them when rounded up is no surprise: they are usually, and brutally, beaten. Sometimes they die.
In 1998, activists filed writ petitions about two such custody deaths: one in the Bombay High Court and one in the Calcutta High Court. They also informed the National Human Rights Commission about the two deaths. In a little-known victory for justice, both efforts resulted in compensation being awarded to the families. One came through a direction from the NHRC, the other via a judgement in the Calcutta High Court. While the compensation is welcome and may act as a deterrent, the really revealing thing about these cases is what they say about attitudes towards DNTs.
Examining police affidavits, I was astonished at how carelessly drafted, almost deliberately filled with lame mistakes, they were. It is as if these officers were arrogantly certain nothing could touch them – even though they had hammered a DNT to death. It is as if they considered laughable the mere thought of being accountable for a mere DNT’s murder.
Take the case of Budhan, a 30-year-old member of the denotified Kheria Sabaras in Purulia Distirct, West Bengal. Taken into custody on February 10, 1998, Budhan died in the Purulia Town police station on February 17. The police claimed he committed suicide. In response to a writ petition about his death (No. 3715 of 1998, Paschim Banga Kheria Saber Kalyan Samiti vs State of West Bengal and Others, filed on February 23, 1998), Purulia police officers filed several affidavits in Court.
Consider these extracts.
On page three of his affidavit, Biplab Dasgupta, Purulia’s Jail Superintendent, says that as soon as he reached home that February 17 evening, he got a call about Budhan’s death. “(I) rushed back,” he goes on, “and at about 6.25 p.m. I entered the jail . . . (and) found the said Budhan Sabar lying on the floor (dead).” However, on page 10 of the very same affidavit, Dasgupta says
“I saw the body at 6.18 p.m. on 17-2-98.”
One affidavit, one supposed event, two different times. A simple mistake?
In paragraph three of his affidavit, Syed Liakat Hossein, the Sub-Divisional Officer in Purulia, says: “I proceeded on February 17, 1998 to District Jail, Purulia, at 7-30 p.m. to inquire into the alleged suicidal death of . . . Budhan Sabar.” In paragraph 4 – the very next one – Hossein says: “I entered into the District Jail . . . at 7.15 p.m. on February 17, 1998.” And as if that 15 minute difference in consecutive paragraphs were not enough, Hossein’s Annexure “A” says: “I proceeded to the District Jail, Purulia at 8.30 p.m. on 17-2-98 to enquire (sic) into the alleged suicidal death of . . . Budhan Sabar.”
One affidavit, one supposed event, three different times.
The jailer, Kumaresh Roy, began his statement thus: “While I was working in the office on the evening of 14-2-98 . . . (I was informed) that (Budhan) committed suicide in cell.”
Apparently Kumaresh Roy could not be bothered to get even the date right.
Ashoke Roy of the Barabazar Police Station was the officer who arrested Budhan. In paragraph four of his affidavit, Roy says he picked up Budhan for interrogation “in connection with Barabazar Police Station Case no. 37/97 dated 15-9-97.” (This was a bus robbery Roy claims Budhan was a suspect in). In paragraph 10, Roy says: “(Budhan) disclosed startling facts in connection with . . . Case no. 37/97 dated 5-9-97.”
One affidavit, two different dates for Case No. 37 of 1997.
One or two such discrepancies might be put down to typos. But this entire series speaks of an attempt to cover up: an attempt so shabby that we must conclude that these officers were confident their affidavits would not even be read. But they were. “(They were) several other contradictions and inconsistencies in the affidavits,” observed Justice Ruma Pal in her judgment July 6, 1998 in the case. “(T)here is no credible evidence of the alleged suicide of Budhan.”
Justice Pal ordered a CBI investigation into Budhan’s death, departmental proceedings against the police officers involved and Ashoke Roy’s transfer out of the district. She also awarded Rs. 2,00,000 compensation to Budhan’s widow Shyamoli.
Good news, and yet this is just one case. The attitudes in those affidavits are what DNTs all over the country face every day, right now. Potential harrassment is a constant preoccupation. The chances of being reasonably treated if arrested are minimal. Rights and justice are utterly unknown concepts.
All this, because of the easy belief that DNTs are criminal.
The result is the profoundly insecure lives DNTs live. Their huts are regularly demolished by expanding municipalities; they must live outside village limits; villagers do not like DNT children in schools; one or the other member of their little communities is constantly in jail and cases drag on in court; and periodically one or the other member is beaten to death.
Any wonder, then, that many DNTs are still largely nomadic? And their wandering lifestyles fuel still more suspicion. That vicious circle has a lot to do with the state’s continuing willingness to view DNTs as criminal, to treat them that way.
To kill them that way.
A better quality of life?
The World Health Organisation defines health as a complete state of physical, mental, social, and spiritual well being and not merely an absence of disease. The common man, the world over understands this better than many health professionals, and no one is better placed than the adivasis to actualise this state of well being; for as communities they have not lost a holistic vision of life.
Unfortunately, in society, the polarisation between the rich and poor is increasing. Adivasis in India are struggling to make both ends meet. Displaced from their natural forest habitats, their economic, social and psychological poverty is steadily increasing. It is in this context that we must look at tribal health.
Tribals in different parts of India, and even within the same geographic regions are at different stages in this transition. At one end of the spectrum are those “untouched by civilisation”. These groups still inhabit the forests that are closely linked to every aspect of their lives. It must be stressed that these people generally enjoy a healthy lifestyle. Their daily routines with periods of work and rest are linked strongly to seasonal cycles. They often have a balanced diet accessed through agriculture, hunting and food gathering. Here people’s concept of health is more functional than biomedical, in that a person is considered healthy unless she/he feels incapable of doing normal work assigned to that age/ sex in that culture. The cause of illness is also attributed to specific acts of commission or omission, “spirits”, or in some cases physical factors in the environment. Healing can take place through a herbal preparation or an act of atonement, all advised by a shamanic medium. This scenario is steadily changing, and will rapidly be a thing of the past.
At the other end of the spectrum is the adivasis displaced completely from the forest, whose modern lifestyle mirrors many of the problems of our age. As opportunities in mainstream society are limited, these people suffer all the ills of the very poor. In addition, they suffer social discrimination as the outside world has a stereotyped image of the “uneducated junglee”. Through interaction with other groups in society, they may follow a more clinical/ biomedical model of health and disease and accept other systems of medicine – allopathy, ayurveda and siddha. However, as there is a difference in the very expression of the symptom complex, understanding of the causation of illness and even the language used for communication, there can be huge gaps in the process of healing.
The vast majority of tribal people lie somewhere in between these poles.
The list of illnesses that they suffer from is similar to their non-tribal counterparts. They suffer from communicable disease and non-communicable, lifestyle induced disorders, the proportions varying, depending on which pole they are closer to. A minority suffers from a few genetically determined disorders like sickle cell anaemia, thalassemia and G-6-PD deficiency. The difference lies in the extent of suffering that the tribal undergoes, which is further accentuated by an unsympathetic health service. The derogatory behaviour of the staff undermines their confidence and self-esteem and builds on their existing fear. This is turn results in a tremendous reluctance to approach the health services. A classic example of this is the high maternal mortality among their women.
Our own experience in understanding tribal health needs stemmed from our trying to respond to the needs of the five tribal groups living in the Gudalur taluk of the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu. As fresh graduates with a strong community health training from CMC Vellore, we joined the NGO-ACCORD in 1987 and started looking for solutions. Greatly supported by the community organisation work that had already begun among the tribal people to fight for their land rights, the sanghams and the health workers that they chose became our partners in the search. We discovered that whenever the hamlets had access to forest and land they were never impoverished, nor their children malnourished. The bountiful Mudumalai forests met all their basic needs. When dispossessed of their basis resources like land, or access to forest, they quickly fell prey to their exploitative non-tribal neighbours, and soon found themselves in debt.
Caught in this trap, their predominant emotions were fear and mistrust. The attitude of these non-tribals (ranging from their neighbours to the health professionals) did not help. So they preferred to die a dignified death in the village rather than seek medical help.
The village health workers through sheer hard work and perseverance were able to build their faith in the alternative allopathic system we proposed. As we went along we learned to look at health through their eyes and facilitated their own system of healing being transferred wherever we could. While we started out hoping that as the fear went they would slowly access the government systems, with time we realised the futility of expecting the Government Taluk hospital and the Primary Health Centres to function. In 1990, the Gudalur Adivasi Hospital came into being, now a 30-bedded institution owned and run by the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam. In keeping with all the lessons learned, the staff is entirely adivasi and their own philosophy and culture provide the foundation for its management.
In terms of a learning experience that has also been validated in other tribal belts in the country, some things are outstandingly clear and bear reflection and acting upon. There is an immense need for sympathetic sociological research towards improving the quality of life of the adivasi people. For raising the level of health for these people, a multisectoral, holistic effort must be implemented. It is a myth that tribal people do not utilise modern systems of medicine. Rather poor utilisation is due to geographical, financial and socio-cultural barriers. Inefficiency and lack of accountability of the health services and the ever-present corruption only add to the problems of these people. Finally, in the context of the growing concerns about the ecosystems and environment, an increasing interest in herbal remedies, and a return from the reductionist scientific view of health to a more holistic perspective, we have much to learn from the adivasis. After all their very survival from another era must teach us something.
A history of alienation
The history of the Andaman and Nicobar islands is today a conveniently comfortable one: of the British and “Kalapani”; of World War I and the Japanese occupation, of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Veer Savarkar, the first hosting of the Indian National Flag and of modern mini India where all communities and religions live in peace and harmony.
But like all histories, this one too, is incomplete. It is the story of the victors, of the people who have today come to dominate these islands. The vanquished as they say, have no tales to tell. The history of these islands as we tell it, as we are told it is, is silent in many parts. There are gaping holes that are conveniently allowed to remain so.
This history says nothing of the past, the present and the future of those people and communities that originally belong to the islands. For that matter, the islands belong to them, but ironically the people who write the history are we, the modern democratic Indian state. The people in question are the ancient tribal communities that live here, particularly the negrito group of the Andaman islands – the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese. These are communities that have lived and flourished here for at least 20,000 years, but the end could well be round the corner. Just a 150 years ago the population of the tribal communities was estimated to be at least 5,000. Today however, while the total population of the Andaman and Nicobar islands has risen to about four lakhs, the population of all these four communities put together is not more than a mere 500.
These communities of thousands of individuals with a living lineage going back to 20,000 years have been brought to this sorry state in a mere 150 years. It definitely began with the British and their policies. And was continued with clinical efficiency (sic) by modern independent India.
Independent India was only about a couple of decades old, a young thriving democracy as would have been called then. But this vibrant democracy was then already set on course to becoming a coloniser itself. From colony of the British to coloniser of the Andaman islands (and many other places too), the step for India was an amazingly easy one, almost, it would seem, a natural one! In the late Sixties an official plan of the Government of India to “colonise” (and this was the term used) the Andaman and Nicobar islands was firmly in place.
The forests were “wastelands” that needed to be tamed, settled and developed. It did not matter that these forests were the home of a myriad plants and animals that had evolved over aeons. It did not matter that ancient tribal peoples were already living here for centuries, neither that they were physically and spiritually sustained by these forests. The idea that forests could mean more than just the timber the trees provided had not even taken seed in the national consciousness. The Nehruvian dream of massive industrialisation was still calling and the rich evergreen forests of the islands promised abundant timber to fuel it. The tribals, too, had to be civilised; brought into the Indian mainstream. There was no question of trying to understand, forget about asking what was it that the Onge, the Andamanese or the Jarawa wanted themselves.
Tribal cultures the world over are intricately linked with the forests they live in. The story or should we call it the “history” of modern civilisation is largely one of the taming and the destruction of the great forests of the world and the innumerable tribal communities that lived therein. The Andaman islands is a good example. By various means, both intended and unintended, the tribal communities have been constantly alienated from their forests, their lands and their very cosmos that is built around all these. One of the subtle but classic examples is the Hinduisation of the name Andaman itself and the attempt to pass it off as the only truth. The standard and universal answer to the question of its origin is the well known Hindu god Hanuman. That the state too conveniently believes this is evident from the fact this is the story that goes out in the sound and light show that plays every evening at the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. No one is bothered that there are many other explanations why the Andamans is called so. Researches On Ptolemy’s Geography Of Eastern Asia,” a book written by Colonel GF Gerini in 1909 makes incredible reading in this context, but obviously not many have bothered to read it. It is hardly surprising then that we care even less to know what the tribals call these islands.
The repercussions of this dominant mindset is all too evident when one looks at what is happening to the forests and the tribal communities. The Great Andamanese have been wiped out as viable community. This community which had an estimated 3,000 members about a 150 years ago, is today left with only about 30. The Onges of the island of Little Andaman (they call it Egu-belong) today number only 100. The 1901 census estimated it to be 601. Till a couple of years ago the Jarawa were extremely hostile to the outside world. This hostility and self-maintained isolation in the impenetrable rainforests of these islands had ensured that their community, culture and forest home remained intact and unharmed. It was however, never our intention to let them be. The Andaman Trunk Road was constructed through the heart of the very forests the Jarawa call home. It destroyed precious forests and bought in various developments that are proving to be disastrous for the Jarawa. As a result of a combination of such factors, most not known or understood, the Jarawas recently shed their hostility and have begun to come out from their forests “voluntarily.” It could well be the first step on the route that the Great Andamanese and the Onge were forced to take many decades ago. Annhilation! A huge epidemic of measles recently affected the Jarawa and a number of them are undergoing treatment for tuberculosis.
The lessons of history have not been learnt. May be they are being deliberately ignored. It could well be worth our while to get these tribals out of our way. Only then can the precious tropical hardwoods that stand in their forests and the very lands that these forests stand be put to “productive” use. Little Andaman is a classic case. Thousands of settlers from mainland India were brought and settled here and the forests were opened up for logging in the early Seventies as part of the “colonisation” plan. An Onge tribal reserve was created, but for more than a decade now this reserve has been violated for timber extraction. The attitude of the settlers who today live on the land that belongs to the Onge only reflects that of the powers that be. They ridicule the tribals as uncivilised junglees. Vices like alcoholism were introduced; the addiction is now used by the settlers to exploit the resources from the forests. Poaching and encroachment inside the Onge reserve too, are ever on the increase.
In the early Sixties, the Onge were the sole inhabitants of Little Andaman (Egu belong). Today, for each Onge, there are at least 120 outsiders here and this imbalance is rapidly increasing. What more needs to be said?
The organising of Indian society has been among the most highly complex in the world and its intricacy and depth have contributed to its great endurance over two millions. A Hindu society divided into a hierarchy of castes and considering itself amenable to change and advancement but only within the compartments of caste, has found no spiritual conflict in living with tribal societies which have their own highly sophisticated social mechanisms while being considered simple and primitive. Many scholars believe that rigid Hindu society in fact had a subterranean need for the vitality, robustness and sensuality of the tribal cultures, and thus constantly reinvigorated itself with facets of these cultures.
V. Muthuraman/ Wilderfile
According to Richard Lannoy in The Speaking Tree, a study of Indian culture and society, “Every well-documented case of a great creative Indian personality abounds in evidence of such contacts with the non-rational culture of excluded peoples and classes”. The major waves of ingress into India divide the tribal communities into the Veddids, similar to the Australian aboriginies, and the Paleamongoloid Astro-asiatics from the north-east. Some of them evolved group totemism which can still be seen in the Birhore tribe of the Chota Nagpur region of Bihar. The Mongoloids who spread further into Bihar and Orissa are the Mundas of today. The third were the Greco-Indians who spread across Gujarat, Rajasthan and Pakistan from Central Asia.
Wooden tribal mask, Bastar, M.P.
Caste Hindu society never consciously tried to assimilate tribal communities into their fold but in the process of economic, cultural and ecological change, tribals have attached themselves to caste groups in a peripheral manner and the process of de-tribalisation is a continuous one.
The most significant forum for interaction between tribals and caste Hindus has been at weekly village markets. Artisan castes have traditionally produced and marketed their wares at these haats and consequently moulded them to suit the tastes and needs of their local clientele. In Orissa, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh where the tribal population is considerable there are also a preponderance of village haats. In the north-east too there are large and small marketplaces where tribal women sell their handloom textiles, medicinal herbs, foodstuff and various types of forest produce. Handcrafts combs, mud pots, bamboo, baskets, musical instruments and wooden cooking implements are among the items that may be termed as tribal products.
While it may be stated that any hand-made item for decorative, ritualistic or utilitarian purpose within their cultures can be termed as tribal craft, it may not necessarily be true that all such items are made by the tribals themselves. In areas where the population is largely caste Hindu in composition, the crafts made for tribals are often actually fashioned by Scheduled Caste artisans and mistaken for tribal crafts in urban minds. What is interesting however, is that as in Orissa, many of the Hindu communities have absorbed the cultural practices of the tribals.
Courtesy: The Ford Foundation, New Delhi.
Warli tribal painting.
Festivals, wedding rituals, and other forms of social interaction follow all the tribal procedures. The articles they manufacture for tribal votive offerings at times of marriage, sickness, birth and death thus acquire a personalised meaning for the producer. While studying the lives and markets of such artisans it was found that in areas of missionary activity, where tribals were converting to Christianity and giving up the use of votive objects such as dhokra metal figurines, artisans were fast losing the clientele that sustained them and were having a seek markets for their products in larger cities through development agencies and government organisations. Age old cultural-economic links are thus breaking down as a result of social change. The process of industrialisation also replaces artisan products at village markets. Metal buttons, hair clips, combs and other forms of female fashion accessories among tribals are giving way to fluorescent plastic substitutes leaving the already impoverished Scheduled Caste artisan further deprived.
In Bihar many social work and development oriented organisations work among tribals to bring them a modicum of education, health and sanitary conditions. Among them the Birhore tribals have seen remarkable change in the past few years. Highly skilled in producing woven cloth for saris, lungis and scarves, grass baskets, hats and fans, they have been gradually brought out of their cave-like dwellings and have begun to discover the possibilities of using their skills to produce articles suited for urban needs. The Rathwas of Chota Udepur in Gujarat are another tribe discovering the urban world through their craft skills. They fashion semi-glazed pottery, the forms of which are highly aesthetic and sophisticated. Women use their leisure hours to make head necklaces and the men recently learned the more “settled” skill of wood carving to make distinctive statuettes.
Marie D’Souza/ Fotomedia
The most significant forms of creative expression of the Rathwas are their ritual wall paintings pertaining to the myths of creation and their deities, Babo Ind and Babo Pithoro. Mythological ideas of the Rathwas combining realism and symbolism, are depicted on walls in their homes and elaborate rituals are conducted in the process of their making and consecration. The Warli tribes of Thane in Maharashtra, the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh, the Rathwas of Gujarat all express an energetic assertion of adivasi cultural identity through their paintings at a time of socio-political change.
Outstanding innovators like Jivya Soma (Warli), Jangadh Singh Shyam (Gond) and Mansingh Rathwa (Chota Udepur) ared bringing their community art greater recognition and encouraging others to present their work to an urban and international audience. But today these paintings are also being done on cloth and paper and sold as tribal art, and when the paintings are further translated onto modern utility items they will, no doubt, enter the world of “tribal craft” as a rather sad transformation of myth and cosmos to market and commerce.
Almost all tribals (except in the north-east and Lakshadweep) characteristically adorn themselves with many silver, white metal or brass ornaments ranging from hair clips and combs to necklaces, shirt buttons, earrings, armlets, bangles, waist belts and anklets. Even men use ornamental shirt buttons and wear earrings and amulets. These items are generally made by settled Hindu and Muslim artisans and is applicable also to the nomadic communities of Jammu and Kashmir. The Gujjars and Bakarwals descend from the Greco Indians and are interrelated with the Gujjars of Gujarat and the tribes settled around Gujranwala in Pakistan. Their finely embroidered caps, mirrorwork embroideries (Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh) and distinctive freestyles consisting of innumerable tiny braids and ornamental hair clips have offered ideas for the designs of the “ethnic chic” style of urban fashion. Their embroidered blankets and quilts use geometric motifs common to Punjabi phulkaris, Iraqi rugs and Central Asia textiles.
Tribal communities are greatly fascinated by the comb. They are made of wood, bamboo, horn, metal, yarn wound onto wood, root fibre, gum or latex from trees. Patterns and designs vary according to communities. Not only are they used for setting the hair in place but as necklaces, gifts, sacred objects, magic rituals and as a form of communicating affection to a loved one. Tribes in Orissa who specialise in comb making are the Santhalis, Dharnas, Koyas, among others. Most tribes in Madhya Pradesh and Nagaland also make distinctive combs, while in Thana Mandi in Jammu a small oil container within the comb releases oil into the hair while combing.
Tribal textiles almost always demonstrate the identity of the community. Border designs and colours used for sarongs or shawls define the village of the tribe. Motifs in the north-east symbolise, mountains, streams, houses, snakes, birds or a temple. Specific colours are worn by designed priests on ritual occasions. There are ways of differentiating between a shawl woven by a hill tribe and a plains tribe and the chieftain’s shawl is always distinct. Sometimes shawls are woven by one tribe and embroidered by women in another tribe, as among the Dongrias and Damas in Orissa. The use of the colours symbolise forest, fertility, unity and peace, gods and the sacrifices of animals.
Close knit communities like the tribals interweave their forms of cultural expression. Painting, wood carving, weaving, songs, festivals, birth, death, animals and forests are components of a cycle which metamorphose together to give their philosophy and understanding of the cosmos a holistic dimension. Artefacts such as cattle belts, buttermilk churns, spice grinders, blankets, jewellery, totems, garments and votive articles have the unmistakable imprint of community identification. It is only after these serve their basic purpose., whether ritualistic or utilitarian that they become crafts for the marketplace. A better understanding of their skills and offerings to the composite culture of India will help in preserving the true value of these crafted objects.
Through Adivasi eyes
Reams have been written about adivasis by so-called experts. Much of it is subjective interpretation, an exercise I have always been wary of indulging in. For this issue, therefore, my husband Stan and I recorded reflections of different adivasis on how they view life, their religion, politics, the past, the present and the world around them. This then is what the adivasis themselves had to say.
Govinda, a Mullakurumba elder from Onimoola hamlet, Erumadu village began! “Thirty years ago we had hundreds of cattle. There was enough manure to cultivate as much as we needed. Only after all the land has gone do we understand the value of it. We used to hunt every week. We were good archers. Now we sit at home even for Uchchar, our biggest hunting festival. We used to make a kutty bow even for the tiniest baby in the village. He had to hold this for Uchchar. When we had land life was better. Now everyone has more money because they work as labourers. But that cannot last you till you die. It’s only for the able-bodied, only as long as you can go for work.”
On agriculture: “Our people prefer cowdung. You can see the places where they have used “English vallam” (chemical fertiliser).” He spat in disgust. “The soil is totally ruined. We never use “English vallam“. Our people can taste the difference in the rice grown with “chanagam” (cowdung) and the other rice. We feel eating rice grown with “English vallam” brings illnesses. For us whatever we get from the land is enough. Our people were never greedy. We could have claimed the entire hillside where we live. We didn’t. Now we’re hemmed in by outsiders.”
Chathi, a Paniya tribal leader from Kayunni grinned, “We say whatever we get is enough. But our non-tribal neighbours say whatever they get is not enough.” Chathi who 10 years ago had never been out of his Nilgiris district has been to Germany and back. Not for him an NRI existence though!
“Life in Germany is good for the Germans,” he announced wisely. “But for me, my village is enough. Germany was nice, but it is like a dream. When you wake up after a dream you remember the nice parts but you do not expect to get all that you saw in the dream. What use is money? I know people who have gone to Dubai and come back rich. But a man must live among his people, his community, his gods. If I cannot see these hills, these paddy fields, hear our adivasi children laugh, hear our music and dance for our festivals, I would pine, grow sick and die.”
Shanthi, a Paniya school teacher was also invited to Germany. “My father and the old people used to talk about the importance of preserving our culture etc. But for me these were only words. When we went to Germany thousands of people were willing to listen to our stories, our music, to come and watch our dancing. I realised the importance of sharing which we take for granted in our adivasi society. People there who had lost their sense of community and sharing envied us. Only then I realised how all this could slip away if we don’t hold on to it. Leaving home made us value our simple life much more.”
Ammani, a Paniya woman leader is typical of her tribe. Strong and forthright, she told us a story of how she solved a family problem. “My husband is very supportive and a good man. But he got into drinking. It is something I wouldn’t tolerate. We had decided in the Sangam to fight alcohol. I warned him a couple of times. One Saturday night, he turned up drunk again. I locked the door and told him ‘you can stay out all night, you won’t enter this house drunk again’. It was a hard decision because it was the monsoon. He begged me, ‘I’ll get ill, how can you be so heartless?’ But I steeled myself and let him be. That was the last time he came home drunk.”
Kapalla Chinnu’s son Krishnan is a young Mullukurumba from Erumadu village. He is a curious mixture. Worldly-wise yet appreciative of the old ways. Everyone was discussing the budget. KCK was disgusted, “What kind of government will hike the price of rice and kerosene and cut the price of cell phones? And I thought the BJP would be better.” “You’ve seen the old and new ways. What do you think of the changes in everyone’s lifestyle?” We asked him.
“The sense of community is disintegrating,” he began. ‘Take a wedding. Previously it was the entire community’s responsibility. Everyone helped. Everyone contributed. For my wedding I had to go away to Gudalur for a day. The bunches of bananas had to be buried to ripen. I’d forgotten. But someone else did it for me. I didn’t even have to ask. Everyone thinks for you. But when couples go off on their own, they have to do everything themselves.”
“There are new differences emerging. Earlier every family in the village was more or less the same. Now if I decide to bring my child up traditionally, I know in my mind that its the best decision. But my neighbour sends his child for computer classes. What chance has my child got with farming and hunting in today’s world? When he grows up won’t he curse me for not educating him like the others?”
He laughed. “In the old days if a woman had ten children, everyone looked at her with awe and said ‘That’s some strong woman, she’s borne ten children.’ Our children were our wealth. Now they would look with pity and say, ‘Devamme (My god)! ten children! Poor thing she must be some stupid ignorant woman.’ Earlier, our children, the stock of paddy, our cattle were the signs of wealth. Now it is only money.”
Chathi moved to rituals. “When someone dies we question the gods. For us gods and people are equal.” KCK added, “We don’t worship our gods. That is the difference. We ask their advice, their help. But we scream and curse them when someone is ill or dies.”
Kali and Badchi, two Bettakurumba women added to this. “It is our good fortune,” Badchi explained “that our gods live with us in our villages and among our people. So we don’t have to go to find them in any mosque, temple or church. Religion, the fuss about conversion, being Hindu, Muslim or Christian is difficult to understand. For us the gods are important not the religion.”
Radhakrishnan, a Paniya leader from Devala was shocked when he visited an old people’s home in Germany. “At first we thought it was a hospital. They told us ‘no, they live there’. ‘Why?’ we asked. ‘Do they not have children?’ ‘Yes, but their children cannot take care of them’. We could not believe it. This kind of progressive, wealthy society we could not comprehend. We decided no matter how wealthy or advanced we become, we must never let such a thing happen to our old people, to our adivasi society.”
And that, for me, said it all. Any further comment would be superfluous.
A Toda friend
While sorting out papers, letters, slides and photographs as a necessary antecedent to moving house (a moving experience in more ways than one: the past keeps appearing in more rapid flashbacks than in an Ingmar Bergman film), I came upon an archival picture of a beautiful Toda woman that I had taken in 1975 in New Delhi. It was Pelgiji, with her hair worn in ringlets, deep set eyes and a wonderful dignity of bearing. What a presence! Befriending her was not difficult and I found that what we shared as persons seemed much larger than what we did not share in customs and rituals. But let me begin at the beginning of the story.
The year was 1975, the month, November. Delhi was pleasantly cool in the early winter and the Mandi House area was the hub of the Universe. Naturally! A crafts show with a difference was being held, titled “Craftswomen at Work.” The women had gathered from all over the country and the exhibition area in the interior of Rabindra Bhavan had become a hive of activity. One could see the process of something being made, seeing it grow, evolve, become more complex, get embellished or get transformed. The variety was astounding: Zardosi from U.P., delicate bamboo baskets from Tripura, a Kalamkari hanging from Andhra Pradesh – the list was unending, seemingly. It was greatly satisfying to make a transaction directly with the artist. While moving around, one came upon two Toda women, doing their traditional red and blue embroidery, on table linen and household linen,as well as on shawls. The Ooty of one’s childhood was instantly revived and I spoke to them. “You can speak Tamil?”, they asked with joy. “There is no one here we can talk to. Our words are getting stuck in our throats.” I invited them to have a meal with me in my small apartment at the College and then go sightseeing on Sunday.
When asked what they wanted to see in Delhi, they said, “Gandhi Samadhi” and “Nehru Samadhi”. I included the Red Fort also in the itinerary and they were thoroughly happy. At lunch and in transit to the various sites, we talked. I found that the name Pelgiji meant the sound of silver bells and she lived up to her name, while her companion took part mostly with nods and smiles. Pelgiji told me that the land that the Todas held dated back to a pact with the British. Each family had access to 15 acres of land, which the young male got when he turned 21. No one was allowed to cultivate more, even if some land was lying fallow. Only men could enter the house of prayer and the entire community was cohesive and tightly controlled.
Pelgiji mentioned that her husband, Muthakken would be coming to Delhi for the Republic Day the next year and that she would suggest that he call on me. (That cordial visit did happen).
I got a standing invitation to visit Ooty as their guest – an offer I regret not taking then. Twenty five years later, if I do go, will they remember me? I wonder.