Review Article

Encountering the Adivasi Question

C R Vijoy

The discourse on the Adivasi Question usually treads two beaten tracks; sometimes they are intertwined. The first track combines their primitive traits, distinctive culture, low levels of education and technology, anti-development world view and lack of awareness with geographic isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, backwardness and innocence resulting in their being unfortunately left behind in civilisational progress, and becoming particularly vulnerable. Yet they are miraculously believed to come easily under the spell of extremists and anti-nationals. Put together, they constitute a stumbling block to the progress of the nation. The solution to this is their mainstreaming and co-option by assimilating and integrating them through welfare, development handouts, affirmative action through reservations, assorted privileges and concessions and even recognition of ‘rights’. Showcasing their culture, dress, songs and dances, and arts and artefacts on important national occasions and events are now a matter of pride. These, along with infrastructure development and wealth generating development projects, both agrarian and industrial, and carbon sequestering afforestation in the regions where they dwell, will positively wean them away from their isolation in the jungles into modern civilisation, and from the vice grip of anti-nationals. This mainstream perspective of the State and the ruling class is the predominant one that is widespread across varied sections of the society.

The second track asserts that Adivasis, the first settlers in the sub-continent, have unique traditions, customs, languages, religions and knowledge. Organised in autonomous villages on their ancestral lands, they have diverse nature-dependent sustainable livelihood practices. Their communitarian mode of production resulted in relatively an egalitarian community who refuse to be assimilated into the mainstream. They resist incursion into their homelands, or withdraw into secure tracts rather than be assimilated. Their autonomous existence was tacitly recognised, and got reflected in laws, both colonial and post-colonial. Criminalised by various laws and policies of the State, they are deemed to be encroachers on their own ancestral lands. Excluded and systematically deprived and displaced from their source of livelihood, they now constitute the most marginalised and impoverished. Their assertion of rights and resistance to oppression leads to persistent confrontation with the arms of the State. They demand the right to self-determination. This counter narrative has inched ahead getting reflected in international laws, though not as much in domestic laws.

Both these narratives are widely prevalent; the former much more powerful and wider in its reach and hold. Decisions taken and actions executed based on these perceptions then shape the Adivasi existential reality. These perspectives cut across social groups, the Adivasis included, sometimes confusingly inter-mixed. Encountering the Adivasi question requires going beyond these narratives to understand the processes that give rise to these narratives in a specific ecological and historical milieu, subject to the regional, national and global forces and their impacts on the local. It also requires outlining the complex socio-political processes where Adivasis were and are active participants. These determine the concrete living reality of their relationship with nature, with others and within themselves in their specific ecological setting at any point of time. The authors attempt precisely this in their *book Encountering The Adivasi Question: South Indian Narratives, confining to a geographical region, much more than the Niligiri Biosphere, the tri-junction of the three southern states. This book is a sequel to their earlier book of 2009, Reflections on the Caste Question: The Dalit Situation in South India.

The book begins by briefly exploring and examining the discourses within the written traditions, from the ancient to the colonial and post-colonial, within the context of the times. The concerns that propelled these to be written, the interests that they were intended to serve and possibly actually served, are attempted to be traced from the manner in which history actually unfolded. The possible linkages between the texts, the times, the events and the peoples are underlined as an explanation of both what was written, the people and the interests involved and how it could have played out. These provide the coordinates of the social and ideological location of Adivasis of the times.

Portraying the status of the Adivasis at the all-India level from within the frame of development indices often projected as Adivasis problems, when these are but the outcomes of what they were and are subjected to. Even though most are marginalised, there are sections that are better-off, even well above the national average of the general population, such as the tribals of the North-East. On the other, the denotified tribals, declared inherently criminal since colonial times, are at the worst receiving end. Moving on to the southern region, from the less contacted and vanishing tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the militant uprisings in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the more recent struggles of Karnataka and Kerala are captured. Not just as reportage of what happened, but also indicating the process that led to these outcomes. The responses of those in powers of influence ranging from the State and the political parties, particularly the different Left parties; NGOs to global capital and their international instruments are all critiqued with a view to expanding the domain of the Adivasi question.

The book then completes its cycle by reverting back to the Adivasis, to the way they organised their production and life that permeates and becomes the core force that gets expressed in culture, religion, art, language, world view and values. The authors argue that within this great tradition of civilisation lie vast meanings and constructs of life that indicate a shining path towards the future of humankind itself, and is, therefore, of great value to the conceptualisation of revolutionary change itself.

Unlike most writings on the Adivasi question, more often caricaturing the observable couched in clichés, the authors of this book put blood and breath into the body to bring alive the multifarious dimensions of Adivasis’ lives through history, social relationships and the material base objectively. This adds immense value, not just in understanding the Adivasi question, but in confronting it as well.

*Encountering the Adivasi Question: South Indian Narratives
By P Bandhu and T G Jacob
Studera Press, New Delhi, 2019
ISBN: 978-93-85883-92-7
356 pp. Hardcover, Rs. 1795.00 [Available as e-book also]

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Vol 55, No. 23, Dec 4 - 10, 2022