For several decades academic studies on Adivasis in India were clouded by a perspective promoted by a prominent right-wing nationalist and academician G.S. Ghurey who, motivated by his Hindu nationalist sentiments, had stated that the Scheduled Tribes of India were “backward Hindus.”1 Indeed, this was a part of the broader plans of the Hindu nationalists in their efforts to project India as a Hindu nation. This brand strives to maintain the brahmanical caste (Varna) system intact by maintaining their control over resources (wealth) and politics. This, in the words of Swamy Agnivesh, is an attempt at naked domination by holding on to a “brutal cosmology based on killing and eating: higher things kill and eat lower ones, the stronger eat the weaker, i.e., life is a zero-sum game where one’s victory is another’s defeat.”2 This cosmology was later developed in to what is called the Manusamhita, (an ideology that goes well with social Darwinism or law of the fish). By labelling Adivasis or Scheduled Tribes (STs) as backward Hindus, Ghurey did the following: (1) blamed STs for their perceived backwardness; (2) assigned the responsibility of “developing” the STs to those who labelled them “backward;” and (3) approved and affirmed the caste system which is nothing but graded inequality. Perhaps, he did not know that any tendency to dominate the other results in colonialism first and then when the dominated becomes impoverished and subjugated, they are labelled as “backward” or “uncivilized,” etc., and this labelling results in racism. Thus, colonialism and racism complementing each other constitute a system (process and praxis). Reflecting in this line, it is useful to conceptualise the so-called “Indian mainstream” as a colonial civic order running through millennia starting from the formation of ancient caste system with British colonialism being a passing phase in the country’s long history. Such a conceptualisation would enable us to better understand who Adivasis are.
Adivasis in India always remained an exception to this caste-based colonial civic order (the so-called “mainstream”) that emerged and prevailed in the plains. Adivasis were distinct so far as they managed to keep away the caste-based hegemony and the unjust appropriation of resources and consequent subjugation by the self-proclaimed “uppers” of the plains. While the state-craft based on the brutal ideology of the Manusamhita grew and expanded by assimilating more egalitarian social formations in alluvial plains, those who continued to hold on to their more equitable, humane, democratic, non-hoarding and egalitarian ideas had to withdraw to the hills and forests with water bodies and minerals underneath, that remained inaccessible to the mainstream. Thus, it is no coincidence that Adivasi ethno-territories have been endowed with natural resources that are seen as necessary to keep the pace of present day global crony capitalism whereby the state gives more importance to business than people’s lives and rights. In India, this has come about by a comfortable fusion of Manusamhita and the idea of the State.
Adivasis believe in symbiotic principles of life in accordance with nature and practice authentic reciprocity in relationships with fellow beings and nature. Thus, they enjoy the abundance of the socialism of nature. The so-called “Adivasi culture” is a reflection of this mode of existence, relations and production with a more egalitarian, socialist and democratic values that constitute their moral economy embedded in the essential in-group solidarity of each Adivasi group which had evolved in sharp contrast to the graded inequality and exploitative colonial civic order that emerged and prevailed in the alluvial plains.
Nevertheless, the boundaries of these two – the self-aggrandising colonial civic order of the plains and the egalitarian, freedom-loving and non-exploitative, solidarity based in-groups of hills – were not demarcated either. The former’s ideology and the State formed out of it intruded into the hills and forests. The outcome resulted in processes of unequal incorporation and unjust appropriation: those who turned out to be more vocal and economically stronger among Adivasis adapted themselves easily to the plain’s ideology of the colonial civic order and were able to enjoy many privileges thereof. Those who turned out to be less vocal and economically weaker got relegated to the “lowers” category. This scenario of the accelerated blurring of boundaries of the plains and the hills, in the context of British colonialism and thereafter, was analogically called a “melting pot” by several British colonial ethnographers and administrators who had observed these processes. These were indeed very complex and conflict ridden processes of Indian history on which very few researchers have shed some light– histories from below.
These were the historic contexts of Adivasi rebellions against dikus (exploitative strangers entering Adivasi ethno-territories to grab their resources). These rebellions, generally seen as the Adivasis’ fight against the British, were also equally against the plain’s exploitative intruders. The period of rebellions stretched from the late 18th to the 19th centuries. It resulted in legislations on Adivasis’ ethno-territorial rights. Importantly, it was the great Kol-rebellion of Ranchi, Khunti and Kolhan regions during 1831-32 that compelled the British to introduce special regulations in the so-called “backward” tracts, later called scheduled districts / areas, and the North and South-West Frontier Agencies to protect Adivasis from diku invasions. This has also been the basis of the concept of Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas, whose regulatory mechanisms are mentioned in the Sixth and Fifth Schedules of the Indian Constitution, respectively. Hence, the recognition of the Adivasi distinctiveness based on their equalitarian imaginations, symbiotic relationships, mode of production, egalitarian, more democratic social organisations in sharp contrast to the brutal ideology of graded inequality, the devouring and inequitable assimilation of the former by the later, and consequent legislative interventions to arrest these processes have laid the foundation of the Adivasis’ distinctive cultural identity and their ethno-territorial rights as distinctive ethnic groups. This distinctiveness would have continued only if their ethno-territorial resources – water, forest, land and minerals – had been utilized justly as per legal and constitutional regulations and provisions.
The Adivasi issue, therefore, is a national issue for all people who have been seriously concerned about making a more humane, pluralistic, equitable, democratic and just society. This might have been the reason why the Jesuits and Jesuits-run research institutions and initiatives in India have pioneered and consistently focused on to defending the Adivasis ethno-territorial rights enshrined in numerous legislations and constitutional provisions. For instance, Fr. John Baptist Hoffman, a German Jesuit missionary/social worker in Ranchi during late 1800s, was instrumental in promulgating the significant 1908 Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) which restricts land transfer from Adivasi ethno-territories in Jharkhand to non-Adivasis. Thereafter, several significant studies have been undertaken by several committed Jesuits especially on land alienation and development induced displacement and allied processes of impoverishment of the Adivasis in India. However, much more remains to be done in this regard especially when the last seven decades of development and educational policies and schemes thereof, have focused more on incorporating the Adivasis into the colonial civic order rather than empowering them by affirming their constitutional and human rights.
1 Although G.S. Ghurey was projected as an acclaimed sociologist during the 1950s, he has done only three days of fieldwork during his entire career; the rest of the materials of evidence that supported his arguments were based on British colonial records.
2 Žižek, S. (2012) ‘The Apostate Children of God’, Outlook Magazine, 20 August.