The Adivasis and Tribals of India have traditionally shared their knowledge in the form of oral narratives. Colonial conquests, however, twisted their beliefs and worldview and portrayed them as inferior and savage. Recovering from colonialism has been a steady process which requires that we keep speaking and telling our stories despite all odds.
There is a story among the Rongmei Nagas about a particular aspect of their existence. Once upon a time, their god invited all his creations to gather at a place so that he could assign them their roles in this world. When his creations, including a man, had assembled, he forbade them to look up at the sky as he read out the roles. Once the roles were assigned, all the creatures sat down to eat. While eating his meal, the man raised his head upward to chew down a long mustard leaf. As he looked up, he saw the house of god. Thereafter, he built a replica on earth and that is how the Rongmei Nagas, currently inhabiting Manipur and Nagaland, began to shelter themselves.
These snippets of knowledge reflect the tribal wisdom and worldview carried forward through the centuries via oral narration. Adivasis and tribals have spoken for a long time and continue to do so. However, historically, when Adivasis spoke, they came under attack. Their stories and wisdom began to be reduced to a "myth" that denoted their inferiority. In the discourse about the East by the West or to use Edward Said’s term “Orientalism”, such a world was perpetually projected as backward and underdeveloped in comparison to the West that was always presented as developed and superior. For the most part of history, right from the colonial period, the Adivasis have been spoken for. Not that they could not speak but rather the whole enterprise and network of printing and statecraft belonged to the West. From what has been written about the Adivasis, they have been stereotyped as primitive people with an insatiable desire for drinking, dancing, sex, and violence. Mary M. Clark’s A Corner in India (1907) provides a typical narrative framework of the Adivasis of Nagaland. The people are described as lawless bloodthirsty warriors who take pleasure in warring and reveling in heathen houses. Such a world, although volatile, is presented as the ideal site to introduce culture and civilization, and the heathen house is transformed in the likeness of western architecture. But such knowledge about the East was created for the interest of the western world. As Spivak puts it in “Can the subaltern speak?” the discourse about the East is designed for political and economic gains of the West. Texts like A Corner in India was written as an economic commodity to be consumed by the West and to justify the political subjugation under the guise of civilizing the East. And in such a paradigm, the Adivasis cannot speak.
Even today, the prism of developed and backward is not the only model that stifles the tribe. The development projects of one’s state or rather the bio-political power of the state that seeks to optimize life by regulating healthcare, wealth, resources, irrigation, and others, do not take into account that way of life of the Adivasis. Development projects such as dam building and mining in most instances are planned in areas inhabited by the Adivasis and tribals of India. Such development projects look at development from the perspective of modernization, and not from the perspective of the native residents. For instance, the mega-dam project over Kolab river threatened the very survival of many tribal villages in Odisha. And instances of eviction from their ancestral homes are numerous.
The indigenous people of this country and elsewhere live in equilibrium with the environment. When conservation projects are announced, paradoxically, they end up alienating the very people living on that land for centuries. But nothing can be more ironic than a tribal university conceptualized to study tribal societies in India is built in the area where the major general community inhabits and not in some tribal inhabited district or region. This happened in Manipur, where Indira Gandhi Tribal University was established in Imphal, the capital of the state inhabited by people mostly belonging to the major general community. Such illustrations do not seek to antagonize any community, rather they are used to highlight that development is often not from the Adivasis’ perspective. Such projects only dislocate the Adivasis and keep them away from development.
In the field of Academics too, social hierarchies keep Adivasi literature at a disadvantage. The whole enterprise of printing reinforces the relationship between the center and the margin. The publishing industry provides a vivid picture of this relationship. A book written in English is prioritized over other languages. English and Hindi are the popular mediums of instruction in schools and in the media. Such discourse doesn't just kill the Adivasis’ languages, but it marks an economic divide in the sense that English and Hindi have more scope and utility. And also a question arises, in what language do the children think to cope with lessons taught in school? If they think in foreign language, they are losing one of the markers of identity. And as time passes by, history would repeat again, and the language of Adivasis would be limited to folktales and with little grammatical components for documentation. The languages would take back stage just like the books in the shelves.
And so against all the odds, can the Adivasis really speak? The answer to this question lies within the Adivasi communities' quest to come up with alternative narratives. One example of this would be the incident that took place in 2015, when the Manipur state government passed three bills that could potentially render the tribals stateless. In the chaos that ensued, eight people were killed by the state police to stop the protest on the streets against the bills. The state government dismissed the issue as a law and order problem and referred to the dead people as mobs. The Paite tribe in coordination with other tribes in Manipur condemned the three bills as anti-tribal and countered the state narrative and produced their own narrative promulgating the eight deceased as tribal martyrs who had sacrificed their lives for their ancestral homeland. A memorial hall was set up to display the photos and coffins of the martyrs, songs were composed to sing at protest sites, and protesters themselves underwent a process of spiritual self-disciplining to not indulge in election malpractice since corrupt leaders were behind the passing of the anti-tribal laws. These events were not only captured by local media and aired on home televisions. The network of communication established by them went beyond Manipur and reached Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya; and even in metropolitan cities like Bangalore and Delhi. Through print and media networking the people could at least imagine themselves as one and speak for themselves. The resistance against the state was not only revolutionary in scale; the state also accepted the martyrdom of the people who had died in the protest and the anti-tribal bills were withdrawn.
Partha Chatterjee writes that a nation is first imagined in the cultural realm and then in the material domain. In the discourse to resist the colonial state intervention and influence in the cultural realm, the nationalists established a new network of printing presses, publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, literary societies, and media houses. This rationality seems to operate in the approach adopted by the Adivasis towards the dominant society. It opens the possibility of developing their own culture that includes language, literature, philosophy, history and others, and to resist and preserve them from foreign influences or interpretations. Should they succeed, they would no longer be subjects for investigations susceptible to the interest of the investigators.
Such discourse is important to shake off the docile and subdued subjectivities that history has molded the Adivasis into. Resistance is integral to society because where there is power, there is resistance since it is not external to power. And such resistance would entail what Michel Foucault calls 'a game of truth or the sum of tactics and strategies used to determine a truth.
The scale of progress among the Adivasis is not uniform, but recent developments have shown that they are not passive spectators. The Adivasis can speak and they must. Who else can better articulate and put their thoughts into words but them?
About the author: Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He is currently a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.