History enables generations with a special power, the power of example. It helps us to look at people who have worked through some unimaginable scenarios, upbringing, and transformed stones thrown at them into milestones. In this context, India’s contribution to diversity, equity and inclusion cannot be understood without understanding the life and ethos of its tribal communities.
Last year, the government of India decided to mark 15 November as ‘Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas’ (National Tribal Pride Day) to commemorate the birth anniversary of tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. This is certainly a step in the right direction and I hope it remains a continuum.
Studying subaltern history, especially of the Adivasi or tribal citizens, is significant in this context. Largely ignored in mainstream discourse and discussions, tribal citizens have borne the brunt of societies and yet lived in harmony with nature. Their epochal achievements in any field, be it asserting their rights in the first war of independence in 1857 or contributing to India’s culture, arts, crafts, design, education, contemporary armed forces, environment and language, are truly praiseworthy.
India is a country with a civilisational era spanning more than 5,000 years. As per researchers/authors, the presence of tribals is discernible in India’s foremost text, the Rig Veda, which refers to them as ‘dasas’ or aborigines. Some accounts have also stated how they were progressive.
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Tribals in India’s ancient texts
Two prominent epics that have defined India’s historical ethos are the Mahabharat and Ramayan. Several historical characters from the Adivasi community stand out for their role, impact and persona in these ancient texts.
In Ramayan, Valmiki alludes to the presence of Adivasis or tribal citizens. Much has since been written about Ram, Lakshman, Ravan, Sita and others. But not much is mentioned of Adivasi characters such as Sabari and Guhan, and the importance of Hanuman as a tribal deity.
“Gonds have had a tradition of tattooing Hanuman’s image on their forearms, so that they may draw on his great strength,” professor Ramdas Lamb wrote in his book, Rapt in the Name: Ramnamis, Ramnam, and Untouchable Religion in Central India.
Guhan—also known as Guha—was a Nishada king who arranged boats and boatmen to ferry Ram, Lakshman and Sita across the Ganga. “Guha, the Nishadraj, was the chieftain of the tribes who dwelt upon the banks of the Ganges. He was a man of great power and pelf and was the first man to come and welcome Ram. After his warm welcome, Guha offered cooked rice of excellent quality with many other sweet dishes. Guha subsequently prostrated before Ram, who immediately lifted and embraced him,” author A.K. Chaturvedi writes in Tribals in Indian English Novel.
Another popular personality from Ramayan is Sabari, an attendant for sage Matanga. She appears in the Aranya Kanda (the forest episode), which is the third book of Valmiki’s epic. Tamil poet Kambar’s Ramavataram also mentions Sabari’s warm hospitality for Ram and Lakshman.
In Mahabharat, a prominent tribal example is Ekalavya. A self-tutored and self-made archer, the Nishada prince drew inspiration from a statue of Dronacharya—a teacher of the Kauravas and Pandavas. Despite Dronacharya seeking Ekalavya’s right thumb as guru dakshina (teacher’s fee), Ekalavya always held Dronacharya in high regard.
In and through some of these examples, one can see the honesty and tremendous integrity of these tribals. They were well-organised, skilled, courageous and devoted to the causes they believed in.
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Classification of tribals
According to First Citizens: Studies on Adivasis, Tribals and Indigenous Peoples in India, edited by Meena Radhakrishna, the 1881 Census, district handbooks, gazette and other historical records show that classifications and categories of caste and tribe were a new administrative obsession for the British in the late 19th century. As per Article 342 of the Indian Constitution, there are over 700 Scheduled Tribes (STs) in India. The 2011 Census states there are around 104 million Adivasis, comprising 8.6 per cent of the country’s total population.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a tribe as “a racial group united by language, religion and custom, and living as a community under one or more chiefs.”
‘Tribes’, ‘Primitive Tribes’, ‘Wild Tribes’, ‘Wandering Tribes’, ‘Aboriginal Tribes’ and ‘Criminal Tribes’ were creations of the British, while ‘Scheduled Tribes’, ‘Primitive Vulnerable Tribal Groups’, and ‘Denotified Tribes’ were categories that originated in the Indian State post-independence, states First Citizens: Studies on Adivasis, Tribals and Indigenous Peoples in India.
However, in contemporary times, as per author A.K.Chaturvedi, some of the popular names given to them are Vanyajati (castes of forests), Vanvasi (inhabitants of forests), Pahari (hill-dwellers), Adimjati (original communities or primitive people), Adivasi (first settlers), Janjati (folk people) and Anusuchit Janjati (scheduled tribes). Among these names, Adivasi is commonly used and Anusuchit Janjati or Scheduled Tribes is the constitutional name covering all of them.
Movements for political autonomy, agrarian and forest-based movements, as well as cultural agitations based on script and language, have been identified and defined by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as a “means to understanding tribal literature.”
Indian history is filled with examples of tribal heroes who have impacted society and emerged as examples of grit, determination, bravery and knowledge, thereby personifying a beautiful culture. In addition, we must also be aware that it is due to the rich contribution of these unsung heroes that we, as a nation, are celebrating 75 years of Independence.
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Recognising tribal contributions today
Today, India is taking important steps by enabling representation for tribals. For one, India’s current President, Droupadi Murmu, is tribal. In Karnataka, Shantaram Siddi, who hails from the African-origin Siddi community, was appointed as India’s first Siddi legislator.
When I asked Shantaram Siddi about his roadmap for the next five years vis-à-vis empowerment of Adivasis, he spoke of how vital affirmative action is. At the same time, he spoke about sensitisation toward Adivasis, especially in the well-to-do segments of society. The understanding of Adivasis is essential for non-Adivasis.
Similarly, who can forget Nanjiyamma, a popular singer from Kerala’s Irula community, whose song Ayyapanum Koshiyum went viral? So much so that Kerala police used her song to step up efforts to raise awareness during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nanjiyamma won the award for best playback singer at the National Film Awards recently.
In 2013, I attended a wonderfully organised animal husbandry camp in Dahod, Gujarat. I noticed the tribals steering it, though it was an effort of the state government. Closer home in Tamil Nadu, the Narikurava community is also excelling in making education accessible for their brothers and sisters.
Tribal writer and educator Raghunath Murmu’s efforts to empower the Santhals and the endeavours of social worker Rajmohini Devi—who was inspired by M.K. Gandhi—to empower tribal brethren also deserve special mention. Their stories must be included in academic books and mainstream media for the benefit of common minds.
Bringing human stories to fore
As India marks its 75th year of independence in 2022, and in an age when there is growing interest to understand the beauty of India’s indigenous communities, it is essential to identify and assimilate tribals into not just the milieu, but the very idea of India.
By studying the tribal communities and their personalities, we can bring to the fore countless human stories which symbolise moving against the tide, rising above oneself, thinking of community and national development, asserting one’s rights and so much more.
Articulation has to come from both sides—from the tribals as well as non-tribals who must be sensitised to the trials and tribulations of Adivasis.
Setting or building narratives need not be the objective. The idea should be placing facts as they are. Documenting history will rely on this important pillar. The attempt must not be to showcase that no literary work has been done on the tribal community. The attempt should be to consolidate and present a worldwide collection of human stories.
Sudarshan Ramabadran is an author and researcher. He tweets @sudarshanr108. Views expressed are his own.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)