In literate societies designating a particular date and time to remember and mark is a conscious and deliberate attempt. But for every culture and people, memory is an ongoing process. It is dynamic and evolves through deliberate and sometimes unconscious progression. Some cultures record and preserve systematically and history is made by passing along that knowledge and defining a community. Historians, artists, scientists, religious leaders, and philosophers all contribute and share responsibility for the cultural memory. And there are other communities that pass on cultural practices and nuances through oral histories – memory plays an even greater role in transmitting what drives the individuals to be part of the whole.
Here I am thinking of “adivasis” – the collective name used for India’s many indigenous populations. Derived from the Hindi word “adi” meaning of the earliest times or the original and “vasi” meaning resident was coined to forge a sense of identity among various indigenous peoples of India. Not in any way a homogeneous entity some of the Adivasis are “scheduled tribes”, a constitutional category that made provisions for socially and economically backward sections of the populations. Others remain indigenous but not included in this legal category.
Not part of the Hindu society Adivasis comprise 8% of the population and live primarily in mountain and hill areas. The greatest concentration is in Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Bihar. Adivasis belong to their territories, which are the essence of their existence; the abode of the spirits and their dead and the source of their science, technology, way of life, their religion and culture. Their traditional practice of self-governance and communal land ownership and a more or less egalitarian set up was and is vastly different from the segmented Hindu society. Adivasis do appear in Hindu epics.
Remember Ekalavya from Mahabharata? Ekalavya was a skilled archer from a community living in the forests and was denied training by the eminent Dronacharya because of where he came from. Ekalavya then embarked on a path of self-study and practiced archery in front of a statue of his teacher. Soon his skills surpassed those of Dronacharya’s disciples (who came from high ranking Hindu communities). Drona demanded “dakshina” or payment for learning and Ekalvya obliged by cutting off his thumb. Cruel as it sounds, for Drona, Ekalavya posed a veritable threat to the empire and the royal students he served. From the adivasi perspective this was an act of abject, violent method of limiting potential by the mainstream community. Till date, they continue to face prejudice and remain in the lower rung of the socio-economic ladder.
The invasion of Adivasi territories, which for the most part commenced during the colonial period, intensified in the post-colonial period. The notion of “private” property was alien to them and when it was first introduced by the British colonial rulers, it destroyed their economic base and environment posed grave threats to their traditional way of life. Most of the Adivasi territories were claimed by the state. Over 10 million Adivasis have been displaced to make way for development projects such as dams, mining, industries, roads, protected areas and so on. Of these 45 major minerals (coal, iron ore, magnetite, manganese, bauxite, graphite, limestone, dolomite, uranium etc) are found in Adivasi areas contributing some 56% of the national total mineral earnings in terms of value. Yet the Adivasi has been driven out, marginalized and robbed of dignity by the very process of 'national development'. With subsequent loss of subsistence economy existing in harmony with nature, the Adivasis are relegated to the margins of development. Several cases of land disputes and incidents of police firing on innocent adivasis protesting against land grabbing by powerful corporations (in Odisha) have further exposed the brutal mechanisms used by big business against unarmed adivasis. Similar uprisings have been reported from Muthanga, Kerala. “The forest is ours. Our rights over forest produce in inalienable!”
Slogans such as these are heard across north eastern states to the south western tip of the Indian peninsula. Recently the voices of Adivasis have been heard by the international community.
Dayamani Barla for instance, received the Elln L.Lutz Award in recognition of leading people’s movements against corporate and government led land grabs.
While this may lead to revisiting the histories of adivasis and their role in defining the nation and its democratic practices, it may well also pave the way for inclusive processes. Encouraging and promoting indigenous people’s knowledge system albeit unwritten might illustrate traditional ways of learning in maintaining the sustainability of a community. It is imminent that such systems of knowledge often passed down orally be recognized as sophisticated and that they are capable of guiding societies – in agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting, fishing and gathering, disease, understanding natural phenomena and strategies to cope with ever changing environments. Their social, economic and political participation is important to develop responsive and specific policies and institutions in lieu of those that are designed on the basis of preconceived notions of ‘modernization’ and ‘homogeneity’ of indigenous livelihoods.
Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.