The Future Of Tribalism In India

Irrespective of the quality of education received in cities or in the tribal hinterland, Adivasis must arise and claim the promises of equality, justice, liberty and fraternity encoded in the Constitution to count as citizens rather than samples


Photo: Getty Images
Demanding Equal Rights: Adivasi villagers at the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan rally against land acquisition held in New Delhi Photo: Getty Images

This is a sincere attempt to assess change in order to estimate the future of tribalism in post-truth politics, acknowledging the challenge. In times of rapid changes in various global phenomena such as economic growth, technological advancements, Artificial Intelligence (AI), etc., to delve into the topic of ‘‘Tribes’’ or for that matter tribalism, may not help in corelating the trends, looking back at history in order to determine the future.

The task begins with decoding a gamut of terms commonly used to denote tribals in the existing literature as well as in conversations. Here are a few of the many: ‘defeated people’, ‘uncivilised’, ‘illiterate’, ‘culturally primitive’, ‘impoverished’, ‘exploited’, ’anti-development’, ‘technology-unfriendly’, but ‘exotic’, ‘privileged’, and, the self-referred term Adivasi. The assertion of the Adivasis as the original settlers of the peninsula has been denied due to the inadequacy of the definition of tribes in India, besides the historic and political reasons. Thus the first matter at stake is the identity of Adivasis, and all the terms related to their actions such as ‘revolt’ instead of ‘resistance’. Some of these autonomous actions for preservation and assertion are known in history as Santal Hul, Tana Bhagat Movement, Birsa Munda Movement, including Adibasi Mahasabha, in Chota Nagpur and Santal Pargana. Similar historical accounts in other tribal-dominated areas of the Northeast region and western India are also available.


Dr Nirmal Minz and Padma Shri Dr Ram Dayal Munda—two first-generation Adivasi intellectuals—accelerated the Adivasi discourse in the face of the onslaught of development, from various national and international fora in the post-development era. In his numerous writings, Minz passionately raised the issues of identity, deprivation, dispossession, complete disregard of the Adivasi self-governance model, and issue of survival, etc. Munda’s culture-based reclamation emphasised self-reliance from the perspective of self-governance. Dr B D Sharma, on the other hand, based on his first-hand experience as a collector in Bastar, overcame the possible biases of a diku as he interacted with Adivasis in various areas of erstwhile Madhya Pradesh, and raised and published a systematic critique of the policies and outcomes of various Commissions from his perspective of ‘Unbroken History of the Broken People’. Identity, a descriptor, is not only perception-based or interpretation of survey data, such as terms mostly used in academic writings have certain paternalistic and pejorative connotations, but it also includes indices such as relationship with land, language, culture, art, philosophy, etc., which were the inheritance, systematically transferred down the generations, and have thus survived for thousands of years in the small world of limited needs and plentiful resources.


Today, nearly two decades after a slew of prophetic voices, is tribal identity in good stead having moved from an economy of sufficiency to mainstream trends?

Today, nearly two decades after these prophetic voices, is tribal identity in good stead having moved from an economy of sufficiency to mainstream trends, having achieved a decent literacy rate and presence in public and private sectors, etc.? Rather, the question now is vis-à-vis the two quantifiers of development, namely consumption and quality of life, thus changing the goalpost to the question of the impacts of these two. The Adivasis are faced with the identity question afresh, amidst the disinheritance of the land, left with the memories of a symbiotic relation with nature. Secondly, the question of nutritional indicators and uniform health schemes ignoring the novel and nutritious traditional tribal food, having also been debarred from access to minor forest produce. Thirdly, they also face the imposition of mediums of instruction in education disparaging tribal languages and traditional knowledge systems.

The cultural ethos of the Adivasis in transition is my other concern. Historically, after being discovered, the tribal areas were approached by the rulers and the dominant classes, either for selfish gain or charity, clearly denying equal dignity. Community Ownership and Individual Use (COIU), an Adivasi system of administration, in this time of global economic paradigm appears to be mythical fairy tales. Further, the efforts of humanist acts, as interpreted again by the mainstream society, blatantly negated the agency of Adivasis. “The tribal people are the most democratic people on earth”—the assertion of Jaipal Singh Munda in the Constituent Assembly is only limited to the annals and libraries. An example of Adivasi governance, the decision-making by consensus, in times of 51 as the majority against 49 that oppose, is an unthinkable process for common good. For the divided people in the Fifth and Sixth Schedule areas, the policies of assimilation, Nehru’s Panchsheel to Forest Rights Act 2006 (or even 2023), and the constitutional provisions of being scheduled in the list towards protection and preservation seem to be faced with newer tools of exploitation, further marginalisation and dehumanisation. To aspire for a better quality of life presently is at the cost of giving up on land compensations by way of ‘‘voluntarily opting’’ to move out of conflict zones of forests, a zonation done by a ‘‘department’’ against the people who nurtured the forest so far. The question I am faced with is, do Adivasis have any role in nation building except joining the academia or bureaucracy in spite of such adverse conditions? Much unlearning is required. The dominant cultures could consider giving up unfounded biases, and Adivasis could question the culture and knowledge accelerating climate change, thereby initiating an alternate culture, and not subaltern, through restoring their very own inheritance(s).


Finally, what are the issues that matter to an Adivasi in the global village vis-à-vis adaptive tribalism? Changes are mostly irreversible. So what is undiluted among the Adivasi population scattered across the country, yet exhibits a common thread of distinct culture and history, shared commonalities with other marginalised communities in India and indigenous populations of other continents? The second or third generation citizen is identified as one of Indian origin in a foreign land based on their ancestral ties with India. The values, the criteria for decision making, the soul of Adivasis of one geographical/scheduled area, whether listed in the scheduled list or not, bear witness to the respect for creation and equality of all created, and peace over dispute. These values must prevail over all consequences of inequalities, all measures of greed, all impacts of transition aligning with the open moral challenge and ‘‘revolt’’ in the nineteenth century by Tana Bhagat: “God created the Earth, we are children of God, Pray, Wherefrom has the government appeared?”


In the data-oriented global framework, as number crunching has become the base for everything from national education policies to drug-design, the schemas appear to be ends, not means. Utilitarianism tends to make each data point count. Therefore, more than ever before, irrespective of the quality of education received in cities or in the tribal hinterland, Adivasis must arise and claim the promises of equality, justice, liberty and fraternity encoded in the Constitution to count as citizens rather than samples. One cannot overlook the agency expressed in late Dr Abhay Favian Xaxa’s poem ‘I Am Not Your Data’:

I am not your data, nor am I your vote bank,


I am not your project, or any exotic museum object,

So I draw my own picture, and invent my own grammar,

I make my own tools to fight my own battle,

For me, my people, my world, and my Adivasi self!

(Views expressed are personal)

Sonajharia Minz is professor, School of Computer & Systems Sciences, JNU

(This appeared in the print as 'The Future Of Tribalism')