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Adivasi people: proud not primitive

Indigenous Peoples
Human Rights
Two Paniya women

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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