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Adivasi Identity In The Twenty First Century: We Must Know The Past To Understand The Present

The idea of identities is a human-made concept. In the natural world, what separates humans from other species is our biological characteristics. The concept of human identity was used to distinguish between humans and other species of the natural world. The commonly known identity of “homo sapiens” connotes something special about human beings compared to others. Hence, the concept of identity is used to compare and contrast among various species. The creation of identities did not stop there. In the human world, identities are used to distinguish among various races of humans. In this context, the emergence of Adivasi identity has an interesting history in India.

The word “Adivasi” is a combination of “Adi” (meaning earliest) and “Vasi” (meaning resident)

Some studies find that Adivasi as a term emerged during colonial India. As the British Government wanted to build knowledge about the geographical territory of India to rule it, they came across communities often staying in remote forests and mountainous territories. They found these communities to be quite distinct from the caste-hindu communities of the mainland. British Government termed these communities “Aboriginal Tribes and Semi-Hinduised Aboriginal tribes” in the Census of 1872. These were the first official labels attributed to the communities different from the caste-Hindus. However, these labels kept changing in the Census 1901 and in subsequent Censuses as “Animists'' and “Tribal Religion.”

Some studies suggest that the term “Adivasi” may have originated in Chotanagpur of Bihar in the 1930s. The term was widely popularized by a social worker A V Thakkar in the 1940s. The word “Adivasi” is a combination of “Adi” (meaning earliest) and “Vasi” (meaning resident). Thus, the term created an identity for certain communities and provided strong political implications. Addressing the Constituent Assembly on September 5, 1949, Jaipal Singh Munda unequivocally and strongly demanded that “Scheduled Tribes” identity be translated as “Adivasi.” However, the assembly settled for “Janajati.” These dynamics of changing identities seem to have created a tremendous identity crisis for the communities who were/are distinct from the mainstream caste-Hindu communities.

In the twenty-first century, Adivasi identities have seemingly been replaced by Scheduled Tribe identities. Even the descendants of Adivasi communities are not entirely aware of their historical past and how political contestation influenced the semantics of identity in the Indian Constitution. Adivasi communities seem to be getting amalgamated in the mainstream caste-Hindu communities at a faster rate. Some of the factors could be the lack of awareness about Adivasi identity, increased influence of extraneous sources due to social media and telecommunication, colonization of learning spaces with stories from mainstream societies, among others. These factors could have a devastating influence on the “Adivasi” way of living, which is characterized by Adivasi language, customs, rituals, culture, among others. The richness of these communities’ lives find no mention in the mainstream discourse. External influences play on the present generation of Adivasi youth who then perceive his/her own community as primitive. While this callous approach of the mainstream media serves the interests of caste-Hindu communities, Adivasi communities face the risk of losing their rich way of life and also the political advantage it gives them at the national and international level.

How preserving Adivasi identity benefits the Adivasi communities?

“Adivasi” is no longer an India-specific phenomenon. It is now well acknowledged that “Adivasi” communities or indigenous people are the original inhabitants of many regions across the world. Their lands and territories were colonized by outsiders at different points in history. Colonies like the United States of America, Australia, and Canada, were formed just a few centuries ago. Looking through the same lenses, the Indian territory can also be seen as a colony with a history going back thousands of years. The recent colonization by Britishers can be seen as one of the many waves of colonization that India has seen. It should be noted that no wave of colonization has influenced Adivasi identity as much as the post-independence politics in India. We need to understand why “Adivasi” identity is denied to the communities.

As I mentioned, “Adivasi” identity is not just an India-specific phenomenon. The colonization of lands belonging to indigenous communities has happened in many continents, often through cruelty and violence. Taking cognizance of the historical injustices, global leaders started thinking about how to create equity for the existing generation of indigenous people who have suffered economically, politically, and socially due to colonization. Towards these objectives, the United Nations General Assembly (UN), which is a body of World leaders, adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) in 2007. This was a historical moment as UNDRIP announced several rights for indigenous communities over their land, territories, and resources. India has also ratified the declaration. However, it appears that it has been maintained that there are no indigenous communities in India. We don’t need special intelligence to understand India’s official stance. If they accept the Scheduled Tribes as “Adivasi” or indigenous, it means acceptance of their indigenous claims. Scheduled Tribe communities would be able to have certain rights over their lands, resources and be able to secure their unique way of life supported by UNDRIP.

Currently, members of Adivasi communities seem to be unaware of the implications of embracing a mainstream caste-Hindu way of life. This brings us to the question of why in the twenty-first century, it is more important to remember the demand made by Jaipal Singh Munda and demand that Scheduled Tribes be identified as “Adivasi?”

By reclaiming Adivasi identity, Indian Scheduled Tribe communities can hold onto their rich cultural practices and way of living. For that to happen, the Scheduled Tribe communities need to realize the richness of their culture, language, and customs which have evolved and survived over thousands of years. They need to be cautious about the external attempts to demean their culture. They need to safeguard their land and territories from forces that are trying to snatch them away. Adivasi people need to understand that through the tools of educational propaganda, they are influenced to believe that their culture, language, customs, and ways of living are primitive so that Adivasis stop demanding their identities and all national and international benefits which can potentially accrue to not only them but their future generations. Hence, it is all the more important in the twenty-first century to realise the continued onslaught on Adivasi identity and resist it by appreciating and returning to Adivasi ways of life. Remember that colonization did not end with the departure of the British. If Adivasi culture and customs are shown as primitive with the intention of making them give up their Adivasi identities, is it not cultural colonization? I think building this collective consciousness among the Adivasi community in this century is the only safeguard. This would be the real tribute to Jaipal Singh Munda and his unmet demand of translating Scheduled Tribes as Adivasi in the Indian Constitution.

About the author: Santosh is a Doctoral Candidate at IIM Ahmedabad. He did his PGDM at IIM Bangalore and Msc at TISS Mumbai

Note: This article is one of the three entries that won the Adivasi Awaaz Summit Writers' Award, 2021.

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