India is a settler state, like Australia, the United States, South Africa, Israel, Canada, Taiwan, and many other states where the indigenous population was displaced by later migrations. The difference is that the initial migrations which displaced India’s native populations happened in prehistoric times. With so many thousands of years of history you would think there would be little left of India’s indigenous population, usually referred to as “Tribals” or “Adivasis” (which means indigenous people); to the contrary, Adivasis remain 8.14% of India’s population, or 85 million people (according to the 2001 Census). These communities were squeezed by migrations both from the North and from the South, creating what is called the “Tribal Belt” across central India, from Gujarat and Maharastra in the West, all the way across to Arunachal Pradesh in the far Northeast. Within these states they account for a sizable portion of the population: 15% in Gujarat, 24% in Madhya Pradesh, and between 60 and 90 percent in many Northeastern states. Some new states, such as Uttaranchal (where I am now) were formed in part to give greater political voice to Adivasis by making them a majority within their state. Altogether, the space occupied by India’s Adivasi communities takes up about 15% of the total. These figures are taken from the book Adivasis: Legal Provisions, Languages, Locations put out by the Adivasi Academy and Bhasha Research & Publication Centre in Baroda (aka Vadodara). The book has this to say about the economic conditions of Adivasis:
Whether it is maternal and child mortality, size of agricultural holdings or access to drinking water and electricity, tribal communities lag far behind the general population. While their percentage which is Below Poverty Line is unacceptably high (52%), what is staggering is that a full 54% have no access to economic assets related to communication and transport.
The Adivasi literacy rate (29.6% in 2001) is far below that of the country as a whole (52.2%), with female literacy a stunningly low 18.2%. There are 14 official languages in India, and it is against the law to teach any of the other 1500 languages in schools.
Adivasi populations suffer disproportionately from India’s modernization. Many depend on India’s forests for their livelihood, and they have suffered from both the destruction of these forests as well as state efforts to preserve the forests which often fail to account for the populations that live within them (for instance, by preventing them from selling materials they collect from the forest to anyone but the government, keeping their earnings artificially low). They are increasingly becoming migrant laborers, a process which tears at the social fabric of their communities.
The condition of Adivasi populations varies quite considerably from one state to the next. National law gives states considerable power over defining who counts as a “Scheduled Tribe” and who does not. As a result, the same group might be considered a Scheduled Tribe in one state, but not in the neighboring state. This affects what kinds of scholarships, benefits, and affirmative action programs are available to members of that community.
Despite their marginal position, Adivasis have contributed greatly to Indian history and society. Over time, many Adivasi traditions were incorporated into Hinduism and Buddhism. In various parts of India Adivasis were incorporated into local states. In some cases they became the ruling families, in others the untouchable lower castes. Some were hired to fight wars for Indian kings, and under British rule they offered some of the fiercest resistance.
As soon as the British took over Eastern India tribal revolts broke out to challenge alien rule. In the early years of colonization, no other community in India offered such heroic resistance to British rule or faced such tragic consequences as did the numerous Adivasi communities of now Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Orissa and Bengal. In 1772, the Paharia revolt broke out which was followed by a five year uprising led by Tilka Manjhi who was hanged in Bhagalpur in 1785. The Tamar and Munda revolts followed. In the next two decades, revolts took place in Singhbhum, Gumla, Birbhum, Bankura, Manbhoom and Palamau, followed by the great Kol Risings of 1832 and the Khewar and Bhumij revolts (1832-34). In 1855, the Santhals waged war against the permanent settlement of Lord Cornwallis, and a year later, numerous adivasi leaders played key roles in the 1857 war of independence.
But the defeat of 1858 only intensified British exploitation of national wealth and resources. A forest regulation passed in 1865 empowered the British government to declare any land covered with trees or brushwood as government forest and to make rules to manage it under terms of it’s own choosing. The act made no provision regarding the rights of the Adivasi users. A more comprehensive Indian Forest Act was passed in 1878, which imposed severe restrictions upon Adivasi rights over forest land and produce in the protected and reserved forests. The act radically changed the nature of the traditional common property of the Adivasi communities and made it state property.
Despite some changes, the position of most Adivasis in post-independence India has not significantly improved. The situation is even worse for the so-called “Denotified Tribes” about whom I intend to write a separate post, as their condition is quite different, having been landless nomadic groups to begin with, and subject to special persecution under the British and continuing to this day. One group that is doing something to help the Adivasis is an organization called Bhasha which means “voice” (or “language”). Founded by literature professor and critic, Dr. G. N. Devy, Bhasha has established an Adivasi Academy:
Bhasha has set up a Tribal training institute in Tejgadh, Gujarat, to educate adivasi graduates in setting up water banks, grain banks, plant and gene banks, micro-credit groups, literacy and health care, giving them a diploma in Tribal Studies. Teaching occurs through non-formal schools where tribal children are taught in local dialects, and a number of skills are taught — forming micro-credit groups to alleviate poverty, organizing migrant laborers to demand a minimum wage, forming artists’ co-operatives to increase visibility for and fair trade in the arts of these people.
I visited this academy two weeks ago and was greatly impressed by what they are doing. They already have a museum, an artist’s workshop, a library and several hundred students, all of whom are themselves Adivasis: college graduates who want to give something back to their communities. Their goal is self-sufficiency, rather than dependency on government handouts and foreign aid (although they reject neither). Dr. Devy has a special “moonlight calendar” which he can use to plan events for evenings when they won’t need artificial light. They also have solar powered lamps, and they have built special devices which consist of an exercise bike hooked up to a battery. One hour of peddling (it doesn’t need to be contiguous) will generate enough electricity to power a light bulb, ceiling fan, and a radio for up to eight hours. They can make these devices for as little as $20, and they plan to generate income by selling them to other villages.
I am just beginning to learn about India’s Adivasi communities, but I think I will likely come back and do more. I hope to find ways to link my work in Taiwan, with the Aborigine community there, with work here, and perhaps work in mainland China as well. It means I will need to learn at least one local language. Since the Adivasi populations are so spread out I will probably choose Hindi, especially since Shashwati can help teach me. I’ve made a few baby steps on this trip, but I will definitely need more time to make any real progress. After finishing my Ph.D. the future seems wide open, only time will tell how far I am able to develop this new interest.
NOTES: More on Bhasha here, and here.
The Adivasi community was horribly implicated in the violence against Muslims which erupted in Gujarat in 2002. Dr. Devy has written a thoughtful article about the sources of that complicity, arguing that many of the community were manipulated by the money lenders. It is a complex issue, about which I know little about, so I suggest reading the article in its entirety.