New Internationalist

Adivasi people: proud not primitive

Two Paniya women  [Related Image]
Paniya Women at their Sacred Grove © Stan Thekaekara

A German pastor once accused me of romanticizing India’s adivasi people. I was arguing that adivasis had their own spirituality. He said ‘they have no world view’. Majority India, unfortunately, shares this opinion.

Defining what’s special about India’s adivasi or indigenous people is complicated. People, mostly anthropologists and human rights defenders, who know adivasis and have worked closely with them, also tend to be accused of romanticizing tribal peoples. Yet you can begin to understand what’s special about them if you read India’s first Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru’s lyrical descriptions about the tribes of India. In his Panchsheel, or development guidelines, he begged our civil servants to respect adivasis and for Tribal Belt development to focus on ‘respecting their own genius’, not turning them ‘into pale imitations of ourselves’.

Yet almost 66 years after Independence, India’s adivasi people continue to be treated shabbily. They are described practically universally, in even our best newspapers and magazines, as primitive and backward. Our media is totally ignorant about the meaning of adivasi culture and history. It is common on major festivals to see them depicted perhaps as ‘noble savages’, dancing in feathers and grass skirts, for an uninformed public to gawk at like creatures in a zoo.

Paniya jewelry
Paniya jewelry Adivasi Cultural Centre, Gudalur

When we arrived in the Nilgiris in 1984, my husband Stan and I often asked young adivasi people what they thought the word adivasi, ‘original people’ in Sanskrit, meant. Their replies were predictable. They answered ‘ignorant, uncivilized, wild, jungle folk, illiterate, uneducated and even stupid people’. Children joining local schools had their adivasi names changed by their teachers and were instructed to civilize their communities. They were taught to feel ashamed of their people and their culture. Since 1986, we have aimed to help these communities assert their rights, especially over land. Also to join the outside ‘mainstream’ if they so wished, on their own terms, with pride in their culture, with heads held high. We consistently worked on issues of pride and self-esteem.

So, the news that Survival International has launched a campaign called ‘Proud not Primitive’ is really welcome. Adivasis constitute nine per cent of the Indian population. They once led lives of quiet dignity. Now they live and die in quiet desperation.

‘Development’ in the areas where adivasi people live leaves them exploited and deprived, in total contradiction to Nehru’s beautifully worded Panchsheel. The reality of the adivasi existence, most of the nine per cent, is nothing short of shameful. For centuries, it is the outsiders who have savaged them. Their lands have been taken away by the likes of Vedanta and Posco mining companies – and the Narmada and Damodar Valley projects, huge dams which submerged thousands of adivasi villages leaving them pauperised. The forest department has criminalized their existence, treating them as intruders when in fact the recent Forest Rights Act acknowledged the historical injustice perpetrated on them and declared that their rights to an ancient forest heritage would finally be recognized.

women dancing
Nilgiris Paniya women celebrate their culture Adivasi Cultural Centre, Gudalur

Adivasi people have an alternative world view, which has rarely been acknowledged or recognized. Their existence was never based on accumulation or consumerism. To understand the cliché, they have a ‘symbiotic relationship with nature’, needs close observation of a forest community. They took what they needed from nature, but never in excess. They never hoarded. This is viewed by non-tribal neighbours as ‘lazy’ and unambitious. They never had a need to subdue, conquer or master nature. So, unlike their neighbours, they did not cut down vast tracts of forest. They plant vegetables between the trees.

Until recently, our government classified 75 tribal groups ‘primitive’. They have now changed this to ‘particularly vulnerable tribal groups’. Such epithets, prevalent for over a century, have taken their toll on the adivasi psyche. Young adivasis view their society as primitive and backward and seek to ape the lifestyles and aspirations of the dominant society. Tragically, we are watching a replay of Achebe’s Things fall apart in tribal India.

It is in this context that Survival India’s campaign is sorely needed. There is a new generation of adivasis educated in the dominant society’s ‘world view’ who are beginning to look back at their own heritage and culture, Alex Hailey-like, to their ‘roots’. This cultural revival is crucial for the survival of the adivasi world view, the only truly sustainable lifestyle when the world is looking desperately for solutions to save the earth.

Perhaps it’s time for us Indians to look back to the Independence era, to the spirit of Nehru’s tribal Panchsheel, to make amends to these once-proud people who have been historically wronged for centuries in the name of development and progress. All of us can learn from them. And it’s about time we started.

Find out more, and join the ‘Proud not Primitive’ campaign here at the website.

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  1. #1 madhukar 16 Jul 13

    nice article, Mari!
    and very perceptive about the terms, and their effect on our and their psyche - which are used to describe them.


  2. #2 suja rangaswami 16 Jul 13

    thank u mari....couldnt agree more about how we write and speak about less developed and more developed and civilised and primitive. I have wondered how closely it follows the white man's burden and the civilisational mission of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - the words havent changed ...just the actors playing the role ....uncomfortably close to home. thanks again!

  3. #3 agnes 16 Jul 13

    Thank you for this great article and your insights!

  4. #4 chandrika sen sharma 16 Jul 13

    So true Mari! Couldn't agree with you more!

  5. #5 Ludwig Pesch 17 Jul 13

    each of your blog posts have widened the horizon of readers like myself even if most wouldn't have commented.
    This one is special because few outsiders have stayed amidst the people concerned, the Adivasis whose identities and aspirations would greatly differ in accordance with their surroundings and cultural roots. Nor should they be subjected to outsiders' curiosity or unsolicited ’assistance’ - the ’Last of the Wild’ cliché doesn't apply anyway as the communities in your area are flourishing; and this in spite of the many struggles in maintaining their heritage, their lifestyles.
    Time and again your posts brings home the fact that freedom is about informed choices - it can't be repeated often enough, like a mantra, and accompanied by demands for justice.
    Nehru's wisdom in these matters, too, needs to be recalled especially in regular education. So keep it up!
    The rights of indigenous peoples aren't the result of anyone's generosity or charity. They are legally and morally binding and therefore the Indian state has been well advised to subscribe to them. Its officials will surely be held accountable by future generations as for compliance with the UN's provisions just as those of its own constitution with all its extra provisions for the ’tribes’ under its protection.
    And not to forget: I believe that Survival India’s campaign is noteworthy because we tend to be lured into thinking that economical trends or statistics should inform our decision making when, in fact, governments and financial institutions instrumentalize them for ends best known to them, not for the benefit of responsible citizens. Consumerism cannot be the answer given that a large part of consumer goods are rarely used more than once and disposed to make room for newer ones (according to US survey I read recently). This merely helps to fill company's accounts and garbage dumps.
    Except for very basic needs that keep us alive and connected, most consumption that ’fuels the economy’ seems unsustainable by definition. The Adivasis have long known that, thanks you for giving us the privilege of learning more about their value systems!

  6. #6 Beulah Kaushik 18 Jul 13

    Very good insight into the tribals! Yes they should never ever be an imitation of us. I remember my son-in-law in Malaysia who very proudly took me to see the ’asli's’ their tribals and what a shock I got seeing them in jeans and reeboks ......
    Anyhow we do need to read more about them and you and Stan doing such wonderful work is so commendable. Living in cities we just can't fathom the other way of living and here are people who could be like us but have chosen their way of life which would have made us maybe more peaceful!
    Kudos and do keep sending write ups on tribals so we don't remain ignorant on these wonderful people.
    Beulah Kaushik

  7. #7 david cohen 18 Jul 13

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's moving and respectful blog on respecting adivasi culture, reminds me of a great United States failing: our treatment and respect for Native American culture and customs.
    Our history, apart from being replete with broken promises to Native Americans, is suffused with examples of changing names, destroying culture and customs, doing what Nehru urged Indians not to do: making people over like us when we should be celebrating difference.

    Our rights are universal and should be advanced, protected and respected. Culture, customs, modes of worship can be different and must be accepted and respected.

    We in the United States, as you in India, have a long way to go.
    Let us get started!

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    July 18, 2013

  8. #8 Stephen de Silva 19 Jul 13

    Is this a world wide phenomena? Here in Australia we have the same problems linked to our indigenous brothers and sisters. A well written piece.

  9. #9 priya 19 Jul 13

    Dear Mari,

    Thanks for sharing this with all of us.It is unfortunate that adivasi communities are represented as violent rebels and only that in mainstream media. These other representation are so important!

    so thanks!

  10. #10 Nishita 19 Jul 13

    There is a poster at the tribal research centre( Ooty) which says ’ adi manav’ which means ’early man’ or ’primitive man’! Adivasis portrayed as primitive and uncivilized people is not uncommon even among reputed conservation NGOs which have worked closely with indigenous people for many years. This is really sad.

  11. #11 ayush mishra 19 Jul 13

    Ayush Mishra (friends with Madhukar Shukla) comments
    Ayush wrote: ’There still are few remote hamlets in J'khand where the houses don't have doors. Coz, the very thought f smthng like ’theft’ is an unknown concept there. The same superior cultural ethos was prevalent in tribes of Northern Europe and Native America, till the ’developed civilizations’ took over.’

  12. #12 Rahul 20 Jul 13

    To understand a culture requires deeper understanding.To see truth of culture we need get away from our conditioning.Conditoning mean clinging on to opnion ’Adivasi are uncivilised’ or Adivasi understood with nature’.Because cliging on the statement gives person great pleasure for their own minds.therefore they are not open to other sides of culture.Thank you sharing this Mari aunty.

  13. #13 TT 20 Jul 13

    nice article! really insightful!

  14. #14 Ritwik 20 Jul 13

    Happy to hear of this initiative. It's time people actually take things seriously. Thank you for the wonderfully written article.

  15. #15 sanni kumar besra 20 Jul 13

    i have proud the adavasi (shedule trible) because iam shedule trible.we are respect our nature and save them before years ago
    our for parents

  16. #16 Lucy Horitz 21 Jul 13

    Thanks for another enlightening blog Mari. We in the 'Western' world have so much to learn from the adivasi people's approach to life - their respect for the land, their love of life for it's own sake rather than for accumulated possessions or riches.

    Even those of us who think ourselves 'anti-capitalist' or 'un-consumerist' (myself included)are still totally obsessed with material possessions, wasting hundreds if not thousands of pounds a year on clothes, expensive meals out and unecessary technology.

    It's time that we (and the Indian middle classes) looked at what we could learn from the adivasis rather than patronising and belittling them.

  17. #17 Sabita Banerji 22 Jul 13

    Excellent article, Mari, thank you. It is incredible that the world has still not learned from the atrocities perpetrated on the original peoples of North and South America and Australia. Denigrating a people's culture, depriving them of their language, turning their children against their heritage, stealing their land and depriving them of their means of survival has been recognised in other contexts as tantamount to genocide... and yet we are still doing it to the Adivasi people of India. I hope that what you and Stan have done to restore self esteem in some of them, and what many Adivasi activists have done for themselves will once again show the 'mainstream' that they don't have all the answers, that their way is not the only way and that they owe the Adivasi a huge apology - if not substantial compensation.

  18. #18 SNL 22 Jul 13

    This is a great article, written by someone who has so much experience of this very important issue. Please get involved – join the movement to change people's perceptions about tribal people in India, and around the world. Please share this article, and information about the Proud Not Primitive campaign, with your friends and networks. The more people are talking and thinking about this the quicker the prejudices will end.

  19. #19 Cavery 22 Jul 13

    Giving a person self belief is the most important thing one can do and you and Stan do that to the Adivasis. Keep up the great work.

  20. #20 Mahantu 24 Jul 13

    Good article, very insightful

  21. #21 Ludwig Pesch 25 Jul 13

    As one commentator rightly pointed out, sharing this rare and insightful post matters. Speaking of spreading the word: some of you may be aware of this website maintained to ’showcase new initiatives in education’ by which we seek to inform education on any level, in and outside India:
    maintained by the Tribal Cultural Heritage in India Foundation (based in the Netherlands).
    The ‘Proud not Primitive’ campaign figures in one of many categories labelled ’Misconceptions’ which seeks to set the record straight on several related issues as those discussed here.
    I believe that briefly commiserating, followed by ’business as usual’ won't help - just think of the many other alarming news grabbing our attention while issues like these require long term involvement and self-introspection. The require sustained attention. Yet, this is the good part, this campaign isn't at all about more bad news but serves as a curtain raiser for a more dignified approach: meeting indigenous people on eye level as Mari and her husband have for decades in their chosen home region (that's so much more than ’positive thinking’ or mere wishful thinking).
    The communities they serve have, for all to see, made a difference whether it's about education, health awareness or cultural self-expression. And the success story they are part of is an ongoing one, inspiring others they are connected to. Just amazing and, as to be expected, requiring constant alertness and assertion of the Adivasis' constitutional rights as citizens in a democratic country. Young and old members alike.
    Here's a living prove that Mari's blog isn't just naively idealistic but closer to ground realities than many an academic's field work would ever capture. Both are needed - critical (self-) evaluation and trusting one's capacity to make a difference in respectful collaboration with the people concerned.

  22. #22 Tony Horitz 29 Jul 13

    Another illuminating and thoughtful blog, Mari. Very important to remind us of the dangers of using language loosely. I was fortunate enough to spend a short time working last year in the school for Adivasi children in the Nilgiris, with which you and Stan have been involved for so long.

    I was so impressed by the ongoing scheme for young trainee teachers, who have come from heir villages to train in Gudalur, prior to returning to their communities. I tried a Freirian approach with them in the Drama sessions I ran - after telling them a traditional English story about a threat to a community by a fictitious giant, I asked them to create their own version of a contemporary threat to their community. I asked them discuss this in their own language, before we all tried to translate it to English for my understanding.

    They all agreed the threat was coming from government shops opening in their villages, selling alcohol. In their scenario, this led to young men giving up their cultural traditions, such a tribal dancing, in favour of fighting and molesting young women. They enacted their story through improvisation (again, in their own language), before we discussed how they could change this negative outcome for the better (through Boal's Forum Theatre). We ended up with a powerful tribal forum, in which the women were as vocal and strong as the men.

    It was a fascinating and moving experience for me - and I hope a useful one for them. Maris' article has made me reflect on it again, nearly a year later. It underlined Mari's points about Adivasi peoples strong sense of cultural values - and of how fragile these are in the modern world.

    May their marvellous, Adivasi led project in the Niligiri Hills continue to endure and thrive, so we all may learn from their wisdom.

  23. #23 Ananda Siddhartha 30 Jul 13

    God Created the Earth
    We Are Children of God
    Pray, Where from Has
    the Government Appeared?

    I read these words recently in an article on the implementation of the forest rights act. The highlight of the act is undoing the historical injustices to the adivasis but the problem is that it seeks to address only their control over material resources. Although I am not faulting this, it will not undo the tag of being primitive that has been given to them.
    I think it is necessary that we revisit Nehru's words. Survival International's campaign would be a good place to start.

  24. #24 Josantony Joseph 30 Jul 13

    It is my understanding that officially India does not accept the term 'indigenous' in international fora when referring to the tribals in India, and I think it is connected with the implications that if that term was accepted then the Hindus would also be seen as foreigners who came into India and overcame the indigenous or original settlers.That 'theory' of course would then seriously weaken one of the main planks of the Hindutva brigade, namely that they are the original inhabitants and Islam and Christianity originated outside India.The point I am making is that there is also a political dimension to the denigration of Adivasi culture and ways of living in harmony with nature.

    On the other hand I am also concerned that we do not unnecessarily accept everything that is there in any one culture (whether Adivasi or that of other communities) as necessarily to be safeguarded at whatever cost - because in all cultures there are aspects that need to be overcome, and there are other aspects that need to be safeguarded and propagated - always ensuring that dignity is safeguarded.

    The troubling question is then what criterion can we use to judge what needs to be safeguarded and what needs to be changed.

  25. #25 Shruti 31 Jul 13

    Thanks for the insightful article Mari Aunty.The campaign sounds like a great initiative to keep the adivasi world view alive.The fact that adivasis themselves are being provided the platform to do so makes it even better.

  26. #26 Soyam Ramesh 25 Aug 13

    I'm thankful to you. It's the most unfortunate thing among Adivasis that most of us don't believe that they are the real Indians or original inhabitants of India. The literates too don't believe they belong to the origin or primitive groups, because of Hindu dominant society around. I'm proud to be primitive,and love to follow my tradition.

  27. #27 Dhanwanti bishnoi 28 Aug 13

    excellent artical................i m working on traditional costumes of tribes in rajasthan,if u hv related knowledge please mail me...thanks

  28. #29 Nakul Jana 30 Jan 15

    We all are adivasis as we are downstream of the human race of hunters, next hunters and gatherers. The section of people who shifted for agriculture and later developed industry is no way superior to the other section who stayed as hunters and gatherers. The recent industrialization of last two and half century has done unrecoverable damage to the environment with predicted end of human race in few centuries only. If we want to survive the expected 60,000 years as human race on earth we have to adopt and go back to the sustainable adivasi way of life and develop the forest, reduce energy consumption etc etc which appears now next to impossible 09836477465

  29. #30 Japhet Eyeang 10 Dec 15

    Je suis du Gabon, en Afrique Centrale. J'suis très consterné de savoir que ce type de maltraitance existe encore en Inde, pays de Gandhi, soit dit grande démocratie. Un pays de caste, c'est bouleversant car les peuples autochtones méritent plus de respect.. my excuses if I speak French, I am from a french country (Gabon). by.

  30. #31 Ayushmaan 26 Mar 16


    Its an issue for Adivasi tribes who get lacked behind apart from being gifted with craft making and artistic minds.... if they would get a platform to sell their works and earn money, it would have been a very much a great thing for them,

    for that cause I've been working on a start up...where I hope to bring a way or a channel for them to sell their handicrafts and other products directly to customers....

    it will benefit them a lot...

    people can visit this website I have made for Adivasi people....

    and hope they will help us reach to Adivasi people who deserve the attention and to those who wants to help by buying these, or to anyone who wishes to collect these handicrafts and artifacts...

    my email: [email protected]

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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