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Hindutva, the lexical way
Delegitimising the Adivasi

A.J. Philip


In the lexicon of Hindutva, the word adivasi has disappeared. The Sangh Parivar prefers to call them vanvasis (dwellers of forests or jungles). It is just a step away from calling them junglis (illiterate, uncouth and uncivilised). Thus the fall in the status of a people who take pride in calling themselves the adi (original) people of the land is at once apparent. This metamorphosis is the fallout of a deliberate policy of the Sangh to deny the tribals the status they deserve.

Certainly much deliberation would have gone into the naming of the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, the largest Sangh-affiliated body working among the tribals, started in 1952. It is all part of a grand project of rewriting history which the parivar and its affiliates have ventured into. It's a different matter that the effort has not so far caught the attention of the public, partly due to the general apathy towards adivasis and partly due to the absence of protest from tribal organisations.

The tribals' response has been quite unlike that of the untouchables, who find the name Harijans (children of God), coined by Mahatma Gandhi, highly patronising and condescending and have, therefore, been resisting it with all their might. Instead, they prefer to call themselves Dalits, a term which can be applied to the socially underprivileged of all communities. The reason why the Sangh denies adivasis the status of the original dwellers is that it runs counter to its own claim that the Aryans, who brought Vedic civilization to the country, are the original inhabitants of the land.

Historians cast in the Hindutva mould have been turning all historical evidence upside down in their bid to prove that the Aryans are not immigrants. Akbar's chronicler exclaimed, "What a series of years, of centuries must necessarily have elapsed before the boundless tract of country, inhabited by wild and vigorous tribes, could have been brought over to Brahminism." The renaming of the adivasis is a continuation of this very process under which they become yet another low caste of Hinduism.

The attempt at substitution has been made easier by certain decisions of the government. In the South, the untouchables or the low castes used to call themselves adidravida or adikannada as the case may be. But over the last few decades, few people refer to them with the adi prefix giving the parivar hopes on its ambitious vanvasi project.

The adivasis, whom the anthropologist calls the Fourth World or the indigenous people, suffered the first lexical assault when they were brought under the official term Scheduled Tribes by the British, who drew up separate legal provisions to look after their interests. The framers of the Constitution found it convenient to follow the British practice and there are separate schedules in the statute to cover the untouchables and the adivasis. It is a different matter that the schedules have not yielded any positive results to the tribals except for the reservations they enjoy in government service. As early as in 1960 the U.N. Dhebar Commission which inquired into the status of the adivasis "discovered that the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which set up special areas all over tribal India in which governors were expected to take special interests, had been an almost complete failure."

Today, 39 years later, the situation has only worsened. A clear case is Bihar where the statutory Tribal Council, which should be consulted on all tribal-related issues, has not met even once since 1972. That is even when a plethora of new tribal districts were created and a Jharkhand autonomous council was constituted and later dissolved. In Gujarat's Dangs district, which was in the news recently, the Governor did not even feel inclined to stir himself despite the special powers vested in him under this schedule.

A group of people who at one time considered the whole land with all its fauna and flora as their own today inhabit only 20 per cent of that land and with a population of a little less than eight per cent. They suffered the first setback when during the British period, individuals, rather than a community, were given ownership of land. Since then land alienation and dispossession have been the major threats facing adivasis. Let there be no mistaking, each mega-project has been at the cost of the adivasis. For instance, it's their land that will be inundated by the latest such project, Narmada. Apart from some menial jobs and petty cash, which ultimately reached the moneylenders, the adivasis have got precious little in return for their ancestral land.

Decades ago Verrier Elwin wrote, "It was a heartbreaking sight to stand by a Saora's threshing floor and watch his creditors and parasites remove in payment of their dues so much of the grain which he had laboured so hard to produce." And what has the state done for him all these years? A telling case is the differing rates at which bamboo was supplied in Madhya Pradesh to the tribal basket weaver and a paper mill. While the former got it at Rs 1,500 a tonne, the latter paid a pittance of Rs 15 for the same quantity. Cases of tribals who have still not got full compensation for the land acquired from them to construct the public sector Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC) in Ranchi, which Nehru called the mother of all companies, are not unheard of.

It is not that the tribals have not protested. From the Mahal Paharia revolt in 1772 to the Naxalbari and Srikakulam uprisings in the sixties which threw up leaders as varied as Birsa Munda and Jaipal Singh, they have been protesting against inequities and injustices. But each time the brute force of the state was used to suppress them. Every measure of homogenisation -- so that they are exactly like everybody else -- has been a direct assault on what the adivasis consider precious. The Chhotanagapur Tenancy Act and the Wilkison rules that sought to respect their identity have given way to laws that do little justice to their own time-tested social and legal institutions, customs and practices. The Panchayat Raj Act is the latest of its kind which will undermine their traditional systems like the Munda Manki system in the Kolhan area of Bihar.

It is this apathy, this disinterestedness that encourages the Sangh to alter their nomenclature. It is not confined to calling adivasis vanvasis.

Anything that distinguishes them and anything that marks their distinct identity becomes anathema to the parivar. It is for this reason that Jharkhand, which fired the imagination of the adivasis of Chhotanagpur and Santhal Pargana areas of Bihar for over a century becomes just Vananchal in the Sangh jargon.

Copyright 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .