Adivasis and the Indian State: Stereotyped as 'primitive' and 'savage', tribal communities fight for right to choose social, cultural, land-owning systems

Editor's Note: In this eighteen-part series, we will attempt to address the tropes associated with the communities in question from an adivasi perspective while also exploring the contemporary relationship of adivasi citizens with the Indian government. This is the opening article of the series on adivasi communities in peninsular India. 


Contemplating on how I should introduce a series of articles on contemporary concerns of Adivasi/Tribal communities has led me to believe that it would be pointless to have ahistorical conversations. We need to place the contemporary, everyday resistance of the communities within the ambit of historical developments.

Adivasis or indigenous people are the descendants of those who inhabited the region since before the time when people of different cultures and geographical regions arrived. Our communities have languages, religions, cultural, social, economic and political systems of our own, that rest on the pillars of our jal, jungle, jameen (water, forest, land.) Each Adivasi community is distinct and unique; and firmly believe that the community collectively is steward of the jal, jungle, jameen.

The Indian subcontinent has been home to various Adivasi communities much before the Aryans arrived between 2000 BC and 1500 BC. After the movement of the Aryans in the Adivasi regions of the Indian subcontinent, the Adivasi communities and the Aryans continued to have different ecological, cultural, religious, social and political spaces; often interacting with other communities and societies via trade, conquests, sharing of technology, language etc.

 Adivasis and the Indian State: Stereotyped as primitive and savage, tribal communities fight for right to choose social, cultural, land-owning systems

Karnpura agitation in Jharkhand. Source: ICR India

For example, 'langal' (Sanskrit word meaning plough) is of Mundari origin, language of the Munda tribe (N Sengupta (1985) in Tribal India: History, Politics Polemics.) Through history, as the Indian subcontinent witnessed multiple invasions and kingdoms rise and fall, Adivasi communities continued to bear the brunt. In fact, more often than not, dominant society was not even aware of the existence of some of the Adivasi communities (KS Singh (1978) in Colonial Transformation of Tribal Society in Middle India). With the rise of European colonialism in the Indian subcontinent, particularly the rise of British Empire through the East India Company during the 18th, 19th and 20th Century, the influx of dikus (meaning: outsiders, a person who is not an Adivasi) increased exponentially in the Adivasi regions.

Anthropology defined and described Adivasis, as 'primitive', 'savage', 'uncivilised' and 'junglee'; laying the foundation stone for the communities to be colonised and marginalised. In the Indian subcontinent, anthropologists derived their knowledge from the dominant upper-caste communities (H Schwarz (2010) in Constructing the Criminal Tribe in Colonial India: Acting like a thief) Starting in the late 18th Century till the 20th Century, European invaders (especially Britishers) with the support of the non-Adivasi rulers colonised Adivasi land. Colonial rule in India produced several policies and legislations aiming to "civilise" the "savage and uncivilised" Adivasi communities; in effect invalidating our knowledge systems, our way of life, and our existence. The most prominent examples of this are laws such as the Permanent Settlement of 1793 and the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871.

Adivasi rebellion during British India. Source: Jagranjosh

Adivasi rebellion during British India. Source: Jagranjosh

Adivasi communities believed in collective living wherein the resources — jal, jungle, jameen — belonged to the community collectively. The administrative policies and mechanisms brought in by the British disrupted this Adivasi way of life and collective existence. Under the garb of civilising the Adivasi communities, colonial rulers tried to rip them off their resources, their identity, and their religious, cultural, social, economic and political systems; a practice which remains prevalent in present day independent India.

The British Raj witnessed numerous revolts and andolans led by various Adivasi communities. Halba rebellion (1774-79), Tilka Manjhi revolt (1784), uprising of the Mahadev Koli Tribes (1784-85), Tamar revolt (1789, 1794-95), the Kol revolt (1832), Khond revolt (1850), the Naga revolt (1879), revolt by the Munda Tribal community (1895), Kuki uprising in Manipur (1917-19), Tebagha Movement (1946-47) to name a few. These revolts and andolans by the Adivasi communities were not only against the Britishers but also against the dominant caste society encroaching on Adivasi regions through the Zamindari system.

Archival image of the Tebhaga movement in Balurghat

Archival image of the Tebhaga movement in Balurghat

India's Independence in 1947 did not mean the end of the colonisation faced by the Adivasi communities, of their land or their knowledge systems. To the contrary, India furthered its 'development' agenda by looting the Adivasi communities of its resources. Post Independence, the Adivasi/indigenous citizens were categorised and listed as Scheduled Tribes. The listing was purely for administrative purpose and was based on colonial notions that Adivasi communities are 'primitive'. As a result, not all of these Adivasi/indigenous communities were listed as Scheduled Tribes. For instance, the Mundas, the Santhals and the Oraons in Assam or the Andamans, and the Kols in Uttar Pradesh.

While deliberating upon the nature of Indian State and its relationship with its citizens, the Constituent Assembly of India had a clear understanding that the way of life of citizens from Adivasi/indigenous communities is distinct from that of the non-Adivasi citizens. Based on this understanding, the Constituent assembly included Fifth Schedule and Sixth Schedule in the Constitution of India. The Fifth Schedule is extended to adivasi/tribal regions in 10 states in India namely: Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Telangana. Sixth Schedule is extended to tribal regions within 4 states in the north-eastern region namely: Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.

The Fifth Schedule makes provisions for Tribes Advisory Councils (TAC) at the state level. In the original draft of the Fifth Schedule, TACs were given constitutional powers to take up administrative matters concerning tribal communities residing in the Scheduled region, and to advise the Governor of the concerned state. The Governors were bound to act upon the advice of the TACs. Jaipal Singh, an adivasi member, vehemently argued in the Constituent Assembly demanding that TAC should be given constitutional powers mentioned in the original draft. But the Constituent Assembly conveniently decided to withdraw all such powers earlier given to TAC, making it toothless body which would operate only when at the discretion of the Governor of the state.

Jaipal Singh, who belonged to the Munda community and led the Indian hockey team to victory in the 1928 Olympics, made a statement in the Constituent Assembly which provides the perspective on what the TAC's would eventually turn out to be. "I find that this new proposed Fifth Schedule has, somehow or other, perhaps without meaning it, emasculated the Tribes Advisory Council."

A map of scheduled area districts.

A map of scheduled area districts.

The colonial description of Adivasi communities, of them being primitive, savage and uncivilised, was reflected within the Constituent Assembly debates. Making TAC toothless gave powers to the caste society to decide for them, contrary to their historical way of life. Laws applicable to the rest of the State were routinely extended to scheduled areas. The governor rarely exercised powers and TAC could not advice unless asked by the Governor. The net result was demonstrated by the miserable human development indicators for Adivasis. Also, the Fifth and the Sixth schedule were not extended to some of the states where historically the adivasi communities have been residing.

Adivasi/tribal communities share a close symbiotic relationship with their immediate natural world and have always been viewed as the "other" with the need to being incorporated into the "civilised" "progressive" world. India has continued to make policies to further industrialisation and modernisation of these communities by colonising the tribal areas and their knowledge systems. The Adivasi/tribal communities still continue to self-determine their religious, cultural, social, economic and political systems. We hope that the Indian State constitutionally and in praxis recognises our religious, cultural, social, economic and political systems.

In this series, we will be looking at the various forms of assertions from Adivasi/tribal communities. Since the 16th Century, globally there have been numerous Adivasi/indigenous cultures that have been purposely murdered in the hands of European colonisers. Post-Independence, the Government of India, with its developmental agenda, has continued to further build its castle on the Adivasi communities.

The present BJP-led government is no different. The legislations and policies of the present government show that it is striving towards furthering its definition of 'industrial development' in which the Adivasi citizens are in no way included. The Indian State has for long disrespected its Adivasi communities and citizens by not recognising their right to self-determine their own cultural, social and religious systems.

This series is an endeavor to amplify Adivasi voices in peninsular India. This series is an attempt to look at the concerns of the Adivasi communities from an Adivasi perspective in a way the communities want to define their concerns.

The author is a scholar at the School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

Updated Date: Aug 21, 2019 18:50:12 IST