The mainstream has always viewed Adivasis as 'alien'. Adivasis have been perceived as 'Noble Savages', living away from ‘modernity’. The constant representation of Adivasis, as ‘uncivilized’ ‘forest dwellers’, is misleading, unjust and alienating. The Adivasis (which were classified as Scheduled Tribes during colonial times) were termed as Noble Savages by the colonial anthropologists and bureaucrats, like E Dalton and H Risley. They considered Adivasis as primitive people living an uncomplicated and simple life, who refused to get ‘modernized’. The colonial masters who premised their invasion, occupation and colonization on the very idea of ‘civilizing people’, viewed and represented Adivasis as an anomaly, antithetical to the ‘modern’ ‘civilized’ State.
Subaltern Scholars like R Guha and S Sarkar made similar points. They argued that Adivasis were rebellious and Anti-Statist communities. Such arguments have their roots in 19th century history produced by the colonial masters. Adivasis were rebelling against the colonial government, which had encroached upon their traditional style of governance, taken away their forests and controlled their lands. Around the early decades of the 21st century, several scholars made similar points regarding Adivasis, considering them the people living outside of the modern state and having an alien culture. Famous anthropologist Alpa Shah argued that Adivasis (Mundas) were participating in the election to get benefits of affirmative provisions and 'keeping the state away'. Furthermore, she argued that Adivasis considered politics as 'polluting' and 'impure' and had their own moral 'sacral politics'.
However, in recent years, we have seen the emergence of new strands of scholars arguing that Adivasis across India are deeply entwined with modern state power logic. They are well within the ambit of modern states. These scholars show us examples of Bhils and other tribes across India who interacted with Mughals in the past and at present are interacting with the postcolonial Indian state. As Uday Chandra argues, historically, India's hill and forest people, who later became tribes, were neither stateless nor outside the purview of history. They were not just simple people with uncomplicated lives. They had their own system of governance and living, which can not be over simplified by describing Adivasis as noble savages. Indeed, they were fully involved in kingships, land and forest politics, tributary relationships with other groups, particularly occupational specialisations and even commerce and war. In one of his works, Alf G Nilsen argued that Adivasis negotiate with the state on a daily basis. So to think of Adivasis as noble savages and as very primitive people is misleading and misinterpretation of their history and culture. To reduce them to such narrow prejudicial definition is not only problematic but also responsible for the consistent discrimination against these communities.
In the survey report of Oxfam India (2021), about 20% of Adivasis faced discrimination. Anjela Taneja, who led the survey team, said, "Doctors were reluctant to explain the nature of diseases and treatment to Adivasis believing they were not likely to understand the information" (Scroll 2021). This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are perceptions about the food, clothing, language and cultural aspects of the Adivasi people that belittle them and their practices as that of ‘savages’. Parallely, the notion of Adivasi people being simple, rejecting politics and modernity give them the imagery of being ‘noble’, a glorified conception which in reality is highly discriminatory for people upon whom it has been imposed.
It is alarming how such representations of the Adivasis have resulted in reproducing knowledge that degrades and misrepresents them. Such oversimplified and narrow understandings need to be debunked in order for the Adivasi people to live with dignity.
About the author: - Chhotelal Kumar has have done Master's in Political Science from Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has research interests on Adivasis Politics.