Adivasis of India have spoken, are speaking, and will always speak. They do not just speak for themselves but also in speaking forth and communicating their ecological and Indigenous knowledge, they speak for the good of the country and its inhabitants. But, the pertinent question here is, are you listening when the Adivasis speak?
In colonial times, the Adivasis spoke through revolts in an attempt to protect their sovereignty, forests, culture, and knowledge. Yet, they were labeled as 'criminals', 'primitive’ and 'barbarians' who were in much need of being 'civilized’. This marked the beginning of the systemic silencing of Adivasi voices that persists even to this day. This silencing of Adivasi voices gave rise to a paternalistic discourse where control over Adivasi development and welfare are often not in the hands of Adivasi communities. This is evident in how Adivasi communities continue to face endemic displacement and land alienation, even with the introduction of constitutional safeguards such as the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) and The Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). Furthermore, tropes of primitivism and backwardness continue to plague the ways in which Adivasi communities are portrayed. Manish Meena raises a beautiful question at the end of his article titled ‘The Brahminical and Colonial history behind Adivasis’ Demonisation and Criminalisation’. He writes, ‘Despite a plethora of Indigenous knowledge systems across the world, Adivasi knowledge and culture have never been considered intelligible by the so-called civilized and mainstream society. Do Adivasis have all to learn but nothing to teach?’ (Meena 2020) Thus, it is not a question of whether Adivasi communities can speak. Rather, we require a proactive approach that amplifies and centers Adivasi voices, concerns, and perspectives in all areas. It is an approach that requires us to reflect on what the Adivasis have spoken in the past, reiterate what the Adivasis are saying now, and resonate with what they will say.
Here, I suggest three points to help us develop this proactive approach to listening to Adivasi communities.
First, we need to learn how to be an ally to Adivasis. By allyship, I refer to how we, those of us who are non-Adivasi but see ourselves as allies, place their voices, concerns, and issues as our primary concern. There is a tendency for allies, especially those in privileged positions (myself included), to speak for the Adivasis. This exacerbates the silencing of Adivasi voices and creates an exploitative mechanism in which Adivasis are constantly being spoken for. To be an ally is to first and foremost, listen to what the Adivasis have to say. It means giving them space and opportunities to frame issues, problems, and solutions on their own terms. It means to value their inputs when it comes to policies affecting their everyday life. As allies, we help draw attention to their issues and echo their views.
This brings me to my second point, which is to amplify the voices of Adivasi communities in India. Here, I want to applaud and appreciate the hard work of the people behind websites such as Adivasi Lives Matter, Adivasi Resurgence and Adivaani, etc. These websites play an important role in amplifying Adivasi voices, be it through the Internet and social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) etc. We need to continue supporting the work of the people behind these websites as they are crucial in disseminating, preserving, and propagating Adivasi knowledge and perspectives.
My third, and perhaps, the most crucial point, is to acknowledge the place of Adivasis in India's society. This acknowledgment of the place of Adivasis in India has a few levels. First, we need to acknowledge the authority that Adivasi communities have over their land, history, and culture. This requires a rejection of the tropes of primitivism and backwardness and a move towards accepting that Adivasis have the right to decide what constitutes development and progress for them. Next, it is to acknowledge that the Indigenous knowledge of Adivasi communities need to be protected and preserved. I give an example from my fieldwork amongst the Koyas of Telangana. In June 2018, the Koya youths in my host village designed a research project to document Koya Indigenous knowledge. Over the period of nine months, they amassed information on forest food and medicines, rituals and traditions, ways of predicting rainfall etc. This culminated in the publication of a three-hundred page book in Telugu and a three-day book launch event. We should encourage Adivasi communities to document their forms of knowledge and to link back to my first point, ally with them in such endeavors.
In conclusion, I reiterate that the Adivasis have spoken, are speaking, and will speak, It is time for us to listen, to listen as allies, to listen by amplifying Adivasi voices, and to listen by acknowledging the place of Adivasis in India's society today.
About the author: Elvin Xing is a Singaporean PhD scholar from the Australian National University. His research is on articulations of Koya identity in Telangana, India.