issue 260 - October 1994
SEAN SPRAGUE / PANOS PICTURES
Turning the tide
Aboriginal – or Adivasi – people face deep and universal prejudice. ‘Backward’,
‘uncivilized’, ‘savage’ are the words most commonly used to describe them.
But Adivasi groups in South India are now fighting back.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara reports.
March 1984: Our first trip to the Nilgiri hills. Stan and I stood in a crowded lurching bus. A Paniya woman sat in a seat for three. The two places next to her were empty. Puzzled, I sat next to her. Immediately another woman occupied the third place next to me. ‘Cheek of these people,’ she muttered. ‘They dare to sit when we are standing. What will they do next, I wonder?’ I realized that she had stood braving the hairpin bends on a mountain road rather than sit next to the Paniya woman. It was my first experience of racism against aboriginal or Adivasi people in the Nilgiris.
June 1994: Stan and I were talking about our work in the Nilgiris at a meeting held in a Birmingham college. On our way to lunch an elderly British woman remarked to Stan, ‘God wasn’t very kind to these aboriginal people when He handed out looks was He?’
I was appalled. Yet, on reflection I realized that hers was possibly a view held by my grandmother, my mother and the majority of people in my own country. This woman didn’t know much about political correctness but she probably wasn’t really racist either and might go out of her way to give money to aboriginal causes. She was just insular in a way that the majority of people who never move out of the narrow confines of local communities are.
I’m also fairly certain that the aboriginal people she felt so sorry for would return the compliment with interest. When a group of Adivasi women encountered their first white person they were equally appalled. ‘Is she ill? Why has she never been let out of her house to sit in the sun?’ were the questions they asked. And if a young Adivasi man or woman were handed Madonna or Robert Redford on a platter they’d probably say a polite ‘no thank you’ – unless they’ve got hooked up to cable TV since I wrote this.
But whether it comes through ignorance, a patronizing attitude or blatant racism, aboriginal peoples have faced discrimination from time immemorial. This is probably because their outlook on life is a rejection of what the rest of the world perceives as progress. Historically ‘progress and civilization’ have always been equated with material wealth and its accumulation.
The great civilizations of the world – even going back thousands of years to the Egyptian, Chinese, Indus Valley, Greek or Roman cultures – were founded on the presumption that progress means economic power and strength at any cost. They were built upon the exploitation of subjugated human beings, either through direct slavery and bondage, or inequitable taxation. The exceptions are very few. Slaves and feudal serfs were considered an acceptable part of civilized society and equality was a bizarre concept.
Aboriginal people generally limited their acquisitions in proportion to their needs. They collected and hunted only enough for the day. Surplus food was dried and stored for leaner times or shared immediately. When they practised agriculture they grew about enough grain for their needs.
Equality and the absence of caste or class is a hallmark of aboriginal societies. Obviously this is a philosophy that has always been the antithesis of what the rest of the world was trying to achieve and so the rest of the world dealt with it by deriding, belittling and sometimes massacring aboriginal groups. Centuries ago, in ancient manuscripts by the Hindu lawgiver Manu, Adivasis in India were described as savage, fierce, black races who inhabited the forests. These uncivilized people actually treated women as equals! It was permissible to hunt, capture and enslave them as they were considered only a little above wild beasts. These are probably the earliest written records of racism. Everywhere, Adivasis retreated to escape the onslaught of marauding armies and invaders and hid themselves deep within inaccessible jungles or high up in remote mountain areas.
Exotic, erotic and ridiculous
Over the centuries attitudes haven’t changed all that much. A few years ago I was invited to my old school in Calcutta to talk to students about our work with tribal people. I asked the girls what the word ‘Adivasi’ meant to them. Back came the response: ‘Wild, uncivilized, black, ignorant, illiterate, backward, uncouth. They dance a lot, they wear no clothes.’ These were kids from a progressive school which encouraged social awareness and responsibility.
They reacted in this manner because of the appalling way Adivasis are portrayed by the media. There are very few films or news reports which deal with tribal issues with any degree of sympathy or sensitivity. Mostly the stories are sensationalized accounts of exotic people who dance, sing and have strange sexual norms. Meanwhile, the thrust of development has been to bring marginalized people into the mainstream. But this is based on inherently racist presumptions – that the majority or dominant culture is superior, and that it is desirable for everyone else to fit into the majority mould. It leaves little room for ethnicity or individualism. It is an acceptance of the melting-pot principle. In the Nilgiris, as in the rest of India, a school-going tribal child is confronted with a non-tribal teacher who despises tribal culture. The teacher dismisses the child’s tribal name as ridiculous and changes it to a conventional Hindu Tamil one. The books the child looks at are foreign. In one an urban middle-class mother dressed in an alien sari cooks an unfamiliar breakfast and sends her son away to school. The ‘good boy’, called Ram, brushes his teeth with toothpaste (a tribal child would use neem twigs or charcoal) and his father goes to the office. The tribal child’s father would work in the forest or a field. Ram is everything that the tribal boy is not. When a girl enters school she is taught that in order to look ‘civilized’ she must dress like her non-tribal teacher. Her mother’s tribal clothes are ridiculed as backward, primitive and even indecent. And so begins a process of de-tribalization.
This process is reinforced by government officials, social workers and missionaries. Pushed by people in power, it begins to be believed and internalized.
When governments entered tribal lands they subjugated them. This was done in India, Australia, the US and everywhere in the world where aboriginal people were forced to accept the sovereignty of an aggressive, authoritarian regime. Their laws, systems and culture were totally overruled. They were catapulted into an alien world which placed them at a tremendous disadvantage and which forced them to deal with a legal, administrative and political system they did not understand. When they fumbled they were ridiculed and stereotyped as ignorant and inferior. And this left them vulnerable to exploitation by vested interests – both political and economic.
But it is not just a question of economic exploitation. Tribals face racial discrimination and economic exploitation because of their culture and ethos. Their culture does not prepare them for the aggressive, acquisitive world which moves in, exploits and demolishes their environment. It does not equip them to fight back.
In the development game are well-meaning social workers who want to help but are ultimately patronizing. They would be horrified at the suggestion that they are being racist, albeit unintentionally. But what is it, if not racist, to blunder in with the intention of ‘uplifting’, ‘improving’ and ‘civilizing’? I’ve come across missionaries, – both Christian and Hindu – Gandhians and activists who’ve felt that for tribals to progress they must leave behind their ‘quaint’ ethnic customs.
When we began ACCORD (Action for Community Organization, Rehabilitation and Development) in 1986, we realized that mainstream India had entered the Adivasi world with a vengeance and that the people had to equip themselves with new skills in order to survive and regain some measure of dignity and pride. They needed to realize their own strength and potential.
In 1987, for the first time, the tide began to turn. Chorian, a Paniya tribal, was humiliated by a landlord who ran a tractor through Chorian’s land, destroying precious coffee bushes and pepper vines. For years the feudal landlords of the area had trampled upon tribal rights. But this time 200 tribals rallied together within hours. The police arrived and ACCORD’s lawyer filed a suit on Chorian’s behalf for damages. Word spread like wildfire. A tribal had actually resisted a powerful landlord. And, more importantly, tribals were banding together to resist exploitation and abuse.
In the seven years since that incident the tribals of Gudalur have come a long way. They no longer accept exploitation as their grandparents did. A strong Adivasi organization, the AMS (Adivasi Munnetra Sangam), has been formed to fight for tribal rights.
We all have a long way to go yet. There has to be a sustained effort to stop the onslaught which constantly tells Adivasis that they are inferior, backward and ignorant. And we have to drive home the message to Adivasi kids that their culture is something to be proud of and to convey the same message to the perpetrators of racism. Because unless both sides are convinced of this the fight will be a futile one.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara has for the past nine years worked with ACCORD, the organization she and her husband Stan set up with local Adivasis in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.