The Adivasi Question

Adivasis in Pre-1947 Nationalist and Communist Discourses

Pranjali Bandhu

There was more than one stream with various undercurrents in the nationalist movement regarding the Adivasi question. There was the Gandhian radical reformist stream striving for changes in the Hindu religion and in society. Right -wing Hindu organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha also took an interest in the question and carried out interventions. The Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission also got involved in Adivasi uplift work. All of them were opposed to the policy of isolation being carried out by the British colonialists and strove for the integration of these marginalised peoples into the mainstream of society.

Then there were those who were oblivious of the significance of the Adivasi question in the movement for national freedom. The mainstream nationalist movement and its historians seldom took into account the anti-colonial uprisings of Adivasis as battles against imperialism; in fact, some of the top-ranking leaders of the mainstream anti-colonial struggle (e.g. Jawaharlal Nehru) were even sublimely ignorant about the problems of the original inhabitants until European anthropologists like Verrier Elwin educated them about the seriousness of the Adivasi question in the country during the post-1947 period. This is certainly shameful on the part of a leading nationalist freedom fighter; but more than that the ethnic and caste bias of the upper caste freedom fighters in general is vivisected through this illustration. Nehru's "Discovery of India" is an excellent illustration of ignorance about the real India and her past. It is only a partisan Aryan-biased historiography that, unsurpri-singly, is devoid of India's actual history. Even a clearly defined anti-colonial and anti-feudal uprising over vast stretches of land that happened around a hundred and fifty years ago (such as the Santhal rebellion) was never seriously taken into account by mainstream historians and politicians. Seldom do the names of the brave Adivasi heroes of anti-colonial struggles as Birsa Munda, Kanhu Santhal, Tantya Bhil, Lakshman Naik, or Alluri Sitaram Raju find mention in nationalist historio-graphy but they are remembered and revered in the songs and stories of their respective communities.

M K Gandhi understood the need for special organisations to tackle the problems of marginalised social groups as the 'untouchables', the Adivasis and women. Rendering service to the Adivasis (and they were properly called as such by him) was included as the fourteenth point of his Constructive Programme in 1942. Nationalists in Gujarat had started working among the Adivasi people during the Non-cooperation movement of 1920-22 itself. Pioneers in carrying out work among the Adivasis in the country were A V Thakkar and Verrier Elwin. Thakkar, as a member of the Servants of India Society, had started the Bhil Seva Mandal in Gujarat in 1923. Sometimes, work for the Adivasis was done together with that for the other marginalised category of Harijans because Adivasis were also regarded as untouchables by mainstream Hindu society. The Vidura Harijjin Ashram worked among the Kanis and Kurumbas of Travancore. Other organisations were also formed in the various parts of India such as the Vanavasi Seva Mandal in the Central Provinces in the pre-Independence period.

As in the case of 'Harijans' the approach towards the Adivasis was two-pronged. On the one hand, if any Adivasi group showed any inclination to Hinduise or accept the worship of Hindu gods and goddesses, they were welcomed to do so; the prejudices of caste Hindus were sought to be allayed; a change of heart and self-purification were recommended. In any case, Gandhi was working towards a reformed Hinduism which would not make distinctions between high and low and nurture feelings of superiority or inferiority among its adherents. This was also to circumvent proselytization activities by western Christian missionaries, which were perceived as playing a divisive role and helping the colonisation process, or even to obstruct conversion to Islam, which these people might take recourse to in order to improve their lowly status. On the whole, the Adivasi Seva organisations formed during this period made no direct efforts at Hinduisation, though the attempts to purify the Adivasis by encouraging abstention from liquor and meat and 'immoral' sexual behaviour patterns and marriage customs to make them more acceptable to the dominant castes can be viewed as a form of assimilation into mainstream society through a Sanskritisation process. There were Adivasi reformers and movements, which themselves took this internal reform path of self-assertion for self-rule, such as the Tana Bhagat movement among the Oraons of the area in present day Jharkhand, Gonds in Central India and in the case of the Devi movement in South Gujarat.

The other side of work among these ethnic groups emphasized ameliorative welfare measures aimed at helping folk considered to be backward, primitive, less civilized, sub-human, ignorant, superstitious, secluded, much neglected, malnourished, poverty-stricken, diseased, exploited and suppressed, living in unhygienic conditions and wastefulness and not as useful members of society. The slash-and-burn method of cultivation was regarded to be primitive and environmentally destructive. Sedentarisation in their own areas and a settled life in the plains were encouraged. Help was rendered mainly in the form of medical aid, educational services and improved agricultural practices.

Understanding regarding the importance of promoting small-scale artisanal and forest produce based village industry such as iron smelting and blacksmithy, charcoal making and so on was also there. The role of the British forest laws in leading to food deprivation and starvation, the exploitation by traders, contractors, usurious money lenders, and the government through heavy taxes, land alienation by 'foreigners', the competition of foreign commodities—these problems were understood and sought to be alleviated through providing loans at low rates of interest and lobbying for the lowering of tax rates by the government. During the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930-31 Congress workers joined Adivasis and poor peasants in Central India, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh for Forest Satyagrahas, which consisted in disobeying the government forest regulations prohibiting cattle grazing in forests.

The approach recommended was to reorganise these village industries "purely in the interests of the aboriginal tribe folk under Government care on a cooperative basis with the help of social workers..." (Swami Anand : "Planning with a Village Bias". Harijan, March 9, 1947). In this sense, the Adivasi question came within the ambit of the programme for the rejuvenation of village India on a democratic equalitarian basis without an undue exploitative drain of wealth from village to town/city. In the post-independence period the question of ownership of land and means of production, i.e., abolition of the zamindari system and control over the resource base, for e.g., forests, is raised by some.

Amongst the Gandhian constructive workers there were also those who desired greater emphasis on the positive attributes of Adivasi culture, and who considered calling them backward and professing to 'civilize' them an insult. Even calling these suppressed people "aboriginals" as the British did was incorrect, according to them. Rather, there is much in tribal cultures that could be emulated by modernisers such as their general simplicity and concept of friendship. The subsistence economy of the Adivasis, who work the land with just the spade and hoe rather than using cattle and the plough, clearing small patches of land and operating largely on barter basis is considered to be on Gandhian lines. ("Approach to the Aboriginal". Harijan, Jan. 6 & 13, 1951 by Mahavirprasad Poddar and V Raghaviah respectively).

The cause of the so-called Criminal Tribes and their rehabilitation was paid special attention. Addiction to alcohol that had been promoted by colonial and allied native interests was declared a social evil that had to be eradicated by all means. The Adivasis were encouraged to improve their standard of living by spinning and weaving, improved methods of cultivation and cattle rearing. The schools encouraged the study and enrichment of their own religion, culture and literature. Non- violent methods of protest against their oppressors were encouraged.

Work among the Adivasis was considered a humanitarian and solid part of the national movement for independence. The aim of working for tribal uplift was to incorporate them into the anti-colonial movement and integrate them into mainstream society not allowing separatist sentiments to come up. "No province and no clan or tribe of India can be kept backward if India is to stand up erect before the world." (M K Gandhi : Harijan, September 21, 1947). The Constructive Programme as delineated in 1947 emphasised the importance of "securing civic rights and the removal of social disabilities in any form in respect of Harijans, Adivasis and other neglected communities, and should carry on an effective campaign for the cultivation of public opinion in support of social equality..." (Harijan, March 9, 1947)

The emphasis on the civic rights of the downtrodden communities was a direct contribution of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar's interventions. Some Adivasi movements of self-assertion at the height of the nationalist movement were pro-Congress, such as the one led by Alluri Sitaram Raju in 1922-24 in the Gudem Rampa forest tracts of Andhra and that led by Motilal Tejawat among the Bhils of the border areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan during this same period. They were ready to come under the ambit of the Gandhi led nationalist movement. Others, such as the Adibasi Mahasabha led agitation in Chotanagpur in the late 1930s, which actually had a good number of non-Adivasi local people as members, were outrightly hostile to the Congress leaders.

By the time independence came there were about 20 organisations working for the service of the Adivasis in various parts of the country with Adivasi and non-Adivasi workers and some of them were being run entirely by the Adivasis themselves. An all-India coordinating organisation was  formed in 1948 by the name Bharatiya Adim-Jati Sevak Sangh (the Association for the Service of the Primitive Tribes of India) with the object of working for the non-politicised social, economic, cultural and educational advancement of the Adim-Jati (primitive and aboriginal tribes). Interesting is the use of the term Adim-Jati instead of the term Adivasi invariably used by Gandhiji and Thakkar Bapa.

The pro-Adivasi stance of the Gandhian Constructive Programme with many organisations working for their welfare was one thing. But the dominant caste landlord support base of the Congress was another, which created tensions at the ground level and prevented fundamental changes from coming through. In any case the concept of Swaraj (self-rule), the right to govern their lives according to their own traditional ways and interact with outlying society and its polity on their own terms was not accepted. This was the case in Gujarat as well as in the case of the revolt by the Gond Adivasis of the Rampa and Gudem hill tracts of the Andhra-Orissa border region. In the latter case Congress members belonged to the exploiter classes of the Gonds and the traders, contractors, usurers and immigrant cultivators whom they were resisting. Not receiving the kind of support expected from Congress leaders on the local level the militant communist approach seemed to promise better returns for the Adivasis and attracted them into their fold. This happened during the Tebhaga agitation in Bengal, which saw the participation of Santhal, Rajbanshi, Oraon and other Adivasi peasants of Jalpaiguri, Dinajpur and Rangpur districts; among the Warlis of Thane district in Maharashtra and during the Telangaiia Uprising, all on the eve of independence. In these movements landlordism and its varied forms of exploitation of the peasantry, including of the dispossessed Adivasi peasantry, were the target. They, along with the Dalits, constituted a shock brigade in these rural movements.

In 1947, the CPI proclaimed as a programmatic point: "Autonomous Regions for tribal people and Adibasis wherever they live in compact areas".2 In these autonomous regions the administration was expected to be controlled by the elected representatives of the respective Adivasi groups. Education was also expected to be imparted in the tribal languages after evolving suitable scripts. This was probably in the context of the tribal peoples' struggle in Chotanagpur for a separate state under the leadership of the Adibasi Mahasabha formed in 1938. The slogan of an Adibasisthan was advocated by some CPI members as a confederation of autonomous units of territories of Hos, Mundas, Santhals, Oraons and others in the central Indian tribal belt incorporated as a unit of the Indim Federation.3 The idea of an autonomous Adibasisthan came in the background of the CPI becoming aware of the multi-nationality nature of India in the context of the slogan for Pakistan and their subsequent arguments for self-determination and even secession rights for the various nationalities, even though these nationalities were not in each case identified in a scientific manner and overemphasized communal and religious factors without adequate study. The economic model projected for this separate homeland of the Adivasis was one with a modern industry and agriculture and concomitantly modern education and health services while at the same time preserving and revitalising their languages, folklore, songs and dances and other sound cultural practices. This approach took its cue from the approach to non-Russian nationalities of the East in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Dange's book, "From Primitive Communism to Slavery" (1949) is exemplary in its dogmatic and mechanical materialist approach, not to speak of its being just as pro-Aryan as bourgeois oppressive and exploitative dominant caste nationalists like Nehru and Tilak. In a review of this book4 D D Kosambi aptly queries: "Did the Aryans bring a primitive commune into an empty wilderness?" This is because Dange in his book completely fails to even mention the pre-Vedic aboriginal and Dravidian populations of this subcontinent and, following Engels, tries to prove that Indian (read Aryan) history followed the universal historical pattern of development from primitive commune to capitalism through slavery and feudalism and is, therefore, also on the path to socialism. He goes to ridiculous lengths to prove a primitive commune among the Indo-Aryans, whereas this existed perhaps only in the early stages ol social organisation of the pre-Aryan matriarchal inhabitants of India, the Aryans having reached the stage of patriarchal militarised nomadic pastoralism (cum agriculture and associated crafts) by the time they entered the subcontinental area.

The second problem, also mentioned by Kosambi in his critique, is that mass slavery used in agriculture, crafts, manufacture, mining and even as sailors (as in ancient Greece) has not been proved in the subcontinenlal context, so it becomes a misnomer to speak in terms of a stage of slave society in the same sense as the European one. The existence of domestic and agrestic slaves and of Sudra slavery (which is closer to helotism, while having its differences there from) in the late Vedic period have to be recognised with their specific features particularly that of caste-class formation, if at all a stage of slavery is to be acknowledged5. In fact, the entire historical development in India through various socio-economic formations, which often co-exist simultaneously and interact for long periods and develop unevenly through its vast and geographically diverse terrain, has followed its own specific trajectories, which have to be understood in their specific details for a liberationist theory to be worked out.

The Adivasi question in India is strongly linked with the caste question. In the case of the CPI, being a slavish follower of the so-called Marxist method, it subsumed caste to class to fit into the Eurocentric Marxist maxim that "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." In India's case it would be more appropriate to also emphasize the component and specificity of caste conflict and not to equate the two, as even D D Kosambi has done, by saying that caste (varna) is class in Indian context.

The fact that in India the democratic anti-feudal, anti-imperialist revolution has to take the factor of caste domination and subordination into account was not cognized by the various incarnations of the Left parties. Following Marx who opined that modern industry would dissolve the hereditary division of labour upon which the Indian castes rest, (The New York Tribune, Aug. 8, 1853) they concentrated on class struggle only to resolve the problem of caste too. They have so far refused to fully take into account that no radical land reform is possible without the abolition of caste (and gender) based hierarchies and that this needs a specially focused struggle. In fact, the upper caste composition and bias of the Marxist intelligentsia in India has been fairly evident leading to the charge of their being Brahmin communists by Dr Ambedkar. Similarly, there can be no caste annihilation without class struggle.

Moreover, theoretically, neither the Gandhians by and large nor the Communists broke completely away from the colonialist anthropological approach of treating the indigenous people's societies as being 'primitive' and backward on a linear evolutionary scale in line with Darwinian sociology. Today's progressive anthropologists do not have such a linear historical viewpoint and view indigenous peoples' societies in a comparative way, seeing them as more developed in some aspects and less developed in others. Wherever they have been able to and do still retain remnants of their culture and values and way of life their huge sensitivity and knowledge about nature enable them to live sustainably.

1.    Hardiman. David: Gandhi in His Time and Ours : The Global Legacy of His Ideas. Hyderabad, Orient Blackswan, 2003. p 146-7.
2.   Communist Statement of Policy for the Struggle for Full Independence and People's Democracy. Resolution on the Present Political Situation passed by the CC of the CPI at its meeting in Bombay from 7th to 16th December, 1947.
3.   Ghose, A K : A Note on Chotanagpur and its People. Marxist Miscellany, vol 6, April, 1946. PPH, Bombay.
4.   D D Kosambi : Marxism and Ancient Indian Culture. Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol 29, (194H), pp 271-7, published 1949. Also in Chattopa-dhyaya Brajadulal (compiled, edited and introduced) : Combined Methods in Indian and Other Writings : D D Kosambi. New Delhi: OUP, 2002. pp 784-89.
5.   According to Walter Ruben the similarity lay in the subjugation of an entire pre-existing population rather than individuals in slavery, but they were not assigned to individual landless citizens of the conquering tribe as their domestic or agrestic slaves as in the case of helots in areas ruled by Sparta in ancient times. In ancient India the subjugated aboriginal populations were largely allowed and able to retain their autonomous autarkic village communities up to colonialism and the forces unleashed by it (See pp 88-89 of his work : Die Entwicklung der Productionsverhaltnisse im Atien Indien (The Development of Production Relations in Ancient India, Band I, Berlin : Akademic-Verlag, 1967).
6. Padel, Felix and Das, Samarendra: Anthropology of a Genocide : Tribal Movements in Central India Against Over Industrialisation. For the South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi, 2006. [Available online at www. freewebs.comlepgorisia/FelixPadel-SamarendraDas.pdf]

Autumn Number, Vol. 48, No. 14 - 17, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015