In their villages, the Adivasis have their own land. Their ancestors had worked hard to prepare these fields by clearing the forests and battling wild animals. They till these lands now. They do have grains to last a year, but as soon as they go out of the village and into the market, they want to educate their children, buy oil, soap and salt. They do not possess the money, so they sell paddy, ragi and gondli, a type of millet, at very low prices to traders who camp in the villages with their sacks ready or roam around in vehicles. Whatever money they earn, they use it to educate their children and buy some basic necessities like oil, soap, salt and clothes.
If some year, the paddy in the house runs out, or the crop fails, they migrate to the city to work as labourers and also force their children to find some work at a young age. The children drop out of school and move to the cities to work. Some of them send money back home and sometimes visit their families. But some of them never return to their villages. Girls often disappear in the cities. Their parents do not have the money to look for their lost children in the cities. At times, the children start liking the cities and they do not want to return. This is the reality of many Adivasi areas.
The Adivasis are not given bank loans against their ancestral lands, but in their own area, a non-Adivasi person who has settled there by buying a small parcel of land is eligible for a bank loan against the plot. The Adivasis cannot use their land to secure a loan for education, housing or any other purpose. Such a system is geared to completely crush them, keep them poor. Although in October this year, the Jharkhand State Cooperative Bank announced a loan scheme for teachers of the SC and ST categories, whose salaries are deposited in the bank. The loan with a cap of Rs. 20 lakh will also be granted to other people under the SC and ST categories against land covered by the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act. But there is condition. All loans will be granted only after securing 100 per cent security in the form of fixed deposits, LIC policies, Kisan Vikas Patra and so on. On the other hand, even government jobs are being handed out on temporary or ad hoc basis, making reservations irrelevant. Poverty does not allow the Adivasis to get their children admitted to schools and colleges which levy heft fees. As a result, they lag behind in the race supposedly based on ‘merit’. They find themselves in this vicious economic circle. This is often seen as a clash of cultures.
In 1938, when Marang Gomke, an honorific title, Jaipal Singh Munda returned to the erstwhile Bihar after completing his education, he launched a movement when he realised that there was widespread poverty among the Adivasis and that they did not get government jobs. He established the Adivasi Mahasabha and raised the demand of a Greater Jharkhand. He wanted to unite the Adivasis spread over West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and other states into a single province for people with similar languages and culture, so that they could develop themselves on their own terms. However, it is only the Adivasi areas that house large amounts of natural resources and a Greater Jharkhand would have taken these riches out of the hands of the states formed after reorganisation of provinces. Therefore, in the year 2000, merely a small area was separated from Bihar and handed to the Adivasis as Jharkhand, putting paid to the dream of Greater Jharkhand.
Many leaders advocating Adivasi rights insist that today Adivasi areas resemble internal colonies in their own country. Millions of acres of land have been acquired for big companies and dams. The unrestricted migration of outside populations to work in these projects has led to the Adivasi population reducing in their states. This means that they are unable to have a significant impact on politics despite repeated attempts. Majoritarianism in the name of democracy hurts them badly. In the fight for resources, the state and the system continue to exploit the Adivasis and their land in the name of development or national interest. In this struggle, it is difficult to see how they will survive and to what extent. It is possible that only a handful of Adivasis may survive after losing their own distinct identity within the so-called civilised society, while the aborigines would become extinct from their land.
Therefore, the Adivasis’ fight is fundamental, a question of their existence. Their struggle cannot be rejected by any –ism, based on a narrow vision, as a struggle for identity only. The Adivasi society is fighting not only for its beliefs, language and culture but also for its survival. The demand for a separate religious code for Adivasis has gathered steam in recent days. The Census form does not have a column for those who worship nature, as the Census does not go beyond the six listed religions. This effectively forces them to register themselves as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Buddhist or “Other.” Nature-worshipping Adivasis are opposing this, demanding a separate religious code for themselves.
As different cultures mix with each other, people adopt a lot of practices from others. According to the 2011 Census, Jharkhand’s population stood at 3,29,88,134, out of which the Adivasis numbered 86,45,042. In terms of religion, the Census listed 14,18,608 people as Christians in the state. Subsequently, in 2015, Sarna cleric Bandhan Tigga and Karma Oraon, the former dean of social sciences at Ranchi University, claimed that the 42,35,786 people who chose the ‘Other’ column to denote their religion in the Census are nature-worshipping Sarna Adivasis. If it is true, it means the remaining 29,90,648 Adivasis checked in the Hindu column as their religion, as very few of them have turned towards Islam and almost none to Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. This implies that in Jharkhand the number of Adivasis following organised religions, like Christianity and Hinduism, is higher than those following their original nature-worshipping practices. Many Adivasis believe that they are considered easy prey by the followers of organised religions to boost their numbers, who devise various strategies to bring them into their fold. Some use education and healthcare to lure them, while others launch campaigns against conversion in Adivasi areas. It seems everyone wants to turn Adivasis into foot-soldiers of their religion.
In other parts of the world, the indigenous communities had begun recognising their power long ago and worked to strengthen their languages, dialects, culture and literature. The economically empowered natives started educating their younger generations from an indigenous perspective. Today, they have grown stronger in their areas through a cultural and political consciousness. They are fighting for their rights effectively.
Across the world, the indigenous communities’ word for themselves in their languages usually translates as ‘humans’. This is true for India’s Adivasi languages too, which address their community as humans. However, these humans are pitted in a direct struggle against those who have turned ‘intelligent’ in the course of development and their system. This group has been addressed as ‘Sapiens’ by historian Yuval Noah Harari in his eponymous book. While indigenous groups have empowered themselves in the rest of the world, in India, comparatively they seem to be going through a period of acculturation and disintegration. They have become entangled in the tensions and power struggles between different religions and sects. These struggles, their own lack of unity, economic debility and lack of direction weakens their struggle. However, even though the Adivasis’ struggle appears a daunting one, it continues relentlessly.
In the end, it is pertinent to highlight a quote from Harari’s Sapiens: Brief History of Humankind, “Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on Earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals.” He further says, “We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Colonialism Within")
(Translated by Iqbal Abhimanyu. Views expressed are personal.)
Jacinta Kerketta is a young Oraon Adivasi poet, writer and freelance journalist from Jharkhand