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As nationalism grips India, indigenous struggles persist

An Adivasi family pictured in Koraput, Odisha. Credit: Shiv/Wikicommons

Indigenous people around the world will probably be celebrated, if that’s the right word, on World Indigenous Day on 9 August. Few people will be aware, however, that the world’s largest population of indigenous, aboriginal or tribal people lives in India.

Here, they are dubbed Adivasi or ‘original inhabitants’. Yet consecutive governments have been loath to use the expression, fearing the implications for the rest of the population. ‘Indigenous?’ an old lady once said to me, her voice quivering with indignation. ‘So what does that make the rest of us? Am I not indigenous to this country, to my motherland?’ Our indigenous people, according to the 2011 census, consist of 8.6 per cent of the population, or, according to Article 342 of the Constitution of India, over 700 scheduled tribes in India. This adds up to a whopping 104 million indigenous people.

At the time of Indian independence, people in general were still imbued with the spirit of patriotism. There was jubilation that the beloved country was free at last. Everyone wanted to forge ahead, for peace and prosperity to prevail. When the constitution was being written, certain oppressed groups were recognized as having suffered centuries, even millennia of oppression, including slavery and exploitation by the dominant classes and castes. The Dalits were classified as Scheduled Castes while the Adivasis were classified as Scheduled Tribes. Positive discrimination accrued, supposedly to atone for years of exploitation. This, in practice, meant seats were reserved in education and employment. They were called ‘reservations’.

A few decades on, however, a restlessness seized the soul of the nation. Corruption, nepotism and greed became the order of the day. As the population increased exponentially, so did the demands for seats in schools and universities and for jobs in government. The restlessness turned to anger and loud demands to stop the preferential treatment. ‘Reservation for how long?’ asked the elite. They failed to mention that a few decades of shockingly poor quality, inadequate education – which was what the poor and underprivileged received – did not make up centuries of neglect and abuse.

A new breed of exploiters took control of the land. These were the captains of industry, in cahoots with corrupt politicians. Mining barons and billionaire tycoons used development – industry, jobs, employment, the economy – as justifications to systematically take over Adivasi territory. Survival International regularly disseminates information about the genocide taking place in Brazil and other parts of South America. Several such stories appear in the Indian media. Heart-breaking Indian films have been made, highlighting the rape and exploitation which continues unabated, in the name of development and progress.

Our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had the soul of a poet and a way with words, wrote a directive to the bureaucrats of newly independent India that talked about the need to take modern development projects into the most isolated regions of India. Referring to Adivasis, he begged civil servants, ‘Let us not turn them into pale imitations of ourselves’ and exhorted government when working on policy for tribal areas to ‘respect their genius’. ‘People should develop along the lines of their own genius, and the imposition of alien values should be avoided,’ Nehru instructed.

India’s Adivasis have been greatly sinned against if Nehru’s panchsheel or five principle guidelines are used as a measure.  He would probably have been accused of romanticizing them. Times have changed. Giant leaps aided by technology have plunged Adivasis into the 21st century with a vengeance. Television and mobile phones have invaded most Indian villages. Is this good or bad? Young people do not want to be left behind after they’re exposed to modern media. They want to be like everyone else. Along with anthropologists, the old Adivasis mourn the passing of an era long gone, of old traditions, customs, a veritable way of life.

Nehru and anthropologists notwithstanding, little has changed for India’s Adivasis in spite of billions spent on development. Most of the money went to corrupt, venal politicians and government officials. Not many Adivasis would even know that 9 August has been declared World Indigenous People Day. It barely touches their lives. Hopefully though, more people will be made aware of their plight, will opt to continue the fight for their cause.


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