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Who Is An Adivasi And Why Is It Important To Assert This Identity?

Photo credit: Ashish Birulee

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “Adivasi”? Does your mind churn up images of a group of cannibals, clothed in wild leaves, mouthing the tune "Jingalala Jingalala Ho" popularized by Indian cinema? If the answer is yes, make some effort and read histories of colonialism in India because only then will you realize that the image of the Adivasi in popular cinema and media is nothing but a stereotype. If you do some simple research on the Adivasis, your ideas and understanding will definitely change.

Adivasis of India have continually been denied the rights guaranteed by the UN to the indigenous population of countries worldwide. This is why it is essential that we assert our identity so as to protect it from being weakened.

Adivasis are the first settlers of any country. It is a collective term given to the natives of India. The term for Adivasi is different in different continents. In America they are known as Indigenous or Native people, and in Australia they are known as the Aboriginals. In the Indian context Adivasi means people living in a particular area since ancient times, or in Hindi, "आदिकाल से रहना वाला समाज (Aadi Kaal Se Rehne Wala Samaaj)."

Photo credit: Ashish Birulee

An article on Magzter says:

The Supreme Court of India has affirmed that the Adivasis are 'the original inhabitants' of India vide its order of 5 January 2011. Scholars of ancient Indian history, such as Prof RS Sharma, argue that the Adivasis are the descendants of the Indus Valley Civilisation who have been forced to move into forest as the incoming Aryan groups spread across the plains.

Indian Government asserts that all Indians are indigenous but this is simply not true. In reality, not all Indians are indigenous or Adivasis. India is home to 104 million Adivasis which is 8.6 percent of the country's total population. Despite the huge population, Indian Adivasis don’t get the same recognition at the United Nations as American Indigenous population and Australian Aborigines. This is because at the time of signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Indian government kept a condition that after Independence all Indians are indigenous. Therefore, it does not consider the concept of "indigenous peoples", and in turn the UNDRIP is not applicable to India.

Photo credit: Shriprakash

How Adivasis Could Take Pride In Their Identity

There is no dearth of reasons as to why Adivasis should not be proud of their identity. Adivasis in India number about 700 communities who speak 500 languages. Some settlers are 4,000-55,000 years old. Adivasis are culturally very rich, storing large treasures of traditional knowledge with them. They have fashioned a lifestyle away from corporate greed in which they grow their own food instead of being dependent on the market. The traditional medicinal knowledge of the communities is something that modern science has taken centuries to catch up to. Adivasis practice sustainable life in which they preserve the ecosystem around them. The festivals they celebrate are all eco friendly. Compare this to other communities in the world who lead a life that harms the environment. What could be of more pride to an Adivasi person than to have such culturally-rich traditions and lifestyles, a tendency to live in harmony with nature, something that other communities have long forgotten?

Here, we must ask why Adivasis, despite living a harmonious life, are not respected by communities who came to India much later? Aryans and Mughals who invaded India have deprived Adivasis of several rights. The reason behind this is that in the present scenario the Non-Adivasis, so called the invaders, are fueled by power politics. The economy, the power of decision making, the power of imposing laws and policies are all in the hands of the Non-Adivasis. They fear that if the original inhabitants are officially recognized by the UN, then the Adivasis will have access to a larger number of resources as mentioned by the United Nations for the indigenous peoples. Here is the link to the rights of Indigenous people as espoused by the UN.

Do Adivasis know that they are the first inhabitants of the country?

Ruling communities have many a times tried to erase the fact that the Adivasis are the original inhabitants of India. There has been a continuous effort to eliminate this important truth through wide-spread propaganda.

As mentioned by Gladson Dungdung who is a prominent Adivasi activist and writer in Jharkhand: In the Constitution of India, the Adivasis are mentioned as अनुसूची जनजाति meaning Schedule Tribe which portrays them as if the community belongs to a caste system. This is a complete misrepresentation of Adivasis because Adivasis don't belong to any caste system. In the caste system the Brahmins rank top in the caste chart, followed by Rajput, Vaisya and Sudras. According to the Hindu belief system only Brahmins can perform pooja and no one can do that but to be specific in the Adivasi community they have their own Adivasi priest and not a Brahmin priest. This totally separates Adivasis from the caste system.

Adivasis in many parts of the country like to be called Adivasis but the Indian government tries to negate this identity. Therefore, on many occasions, Adivasis are termed as “Vanvasi (People who live in the jungle)”, uneducated, uncivilized, cannibals etc. Such terms are consciously used and spread to target the self-respect of Adivasi communities and create a system of discrimination. The Adivasi youth begin to feel a sense of shame about themselves when they migrate to cities for higher studies. Young Adivasi boys and girls discover that other communities view them differently and this gives rise to a feeling of confusion and hate towards one’s own identity. A direct result of this shame is that Adivasis try to hide their identity when they are in a crowd of non-Adivasis.

Adivasis migrate to cities for education, jobs, and trade where they face the worst kind of discrimination due to the stereotype that Adivasis are backward and uncivilized. It is very important to understand the propaganda set up by groups who want Adivasis to feel ashamed of their identity to the extent that they start hiding it. Fortunately, now Adivasis are increasingly fighting back.

Indian Cinema and the defamation of the Adivasi

Indian cinema has done a great disservice to Adivasis through regressive representations. Movies like Baahubali and Maagadheera have tried to shape the image of Adivasis in a villainous way. There is a study done on the creation/ shaping of public opinion by mainstream cinema. Please read it here.

Today, Adivasis and Non-Adivasis are co-existing but there is a lack of acknowledgement among the non-adivasi communities that they have a history of being colonial. Rather than respecting the Adivasi community and appreciating their lifestyle, the non-Adivasis are trying to snatch away their lands and resources.

We are living in a world which needs peace and this is not possible without the acknowledgement that Adivasis were ill treated and discriminated against by casteist communities in the past. The hegemony of non-Adivasis over Adivasis must not be continued. It is time that communities and societies learn to appreciate each other.


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