Evolving Adivasi, tribal and indigenous identities in India


These 3 terms are commonly used. ‘Adivasis’ (‘first dwellers’) effectively replaced ‘Aboriginals’ (not used in India since 1940s), and cannot be used in Northeast India for politiocal/historical reasons since the British moved several million Adivasis to work the Assam tea plantations, whose descendents live there, cause of some conflict with local tribal peoples. Increasingly people emphasize an ‘indigenous’ identity in Northeast & central India. Some Nagas (from northeast India) and Mundas came to the UN for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). The Govt of India signed this, but doesn’t recognize its applicability in India. Gladson Dungdung (indigenous activist & writer) contests this in his book Whose country is it anyway? Untold stories of the Indigenous Peoples of India (2013). ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (ST) is the official term, but full of problems. For example the PVTGs (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups) includes some of the more traditional tribes, who many still call ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ (PTGs); and the category of De-Notified Tribes (DNTs) are still treated as ‘Criminal Tribes’ – a category created by the British in the mid-19th century.
One way of understanding the map of India’s tribal peoples is through language families. Dravidian speaking tribes include the Gonds (about 5 million population) and Konds (over 1 million) in central India, north to the Oraon/Kurukh and Paharia – related to the Harappan civilisation? – as well as to the 4 great state languages of South India (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malyalam). Gondi is like the grandfather of Tamil, so one of the most ancient languages indigenous to India. India has several hundred tribal languages, and even Gondi is said to be declining fast, especially because schools aren’t using them (example of a boarding school in Gond area with Sanskrit classes at 5am and speaking Gondi forbidden). The Munda languages are related to Khmer (Cambodian language). The Santal and Munda tribes number several million each. In Odisha there are smaller, very unusual or distinctive Munda-speaking tribes – Bonda, Gadaba, Lanjia Sora, Juang… Some tribes speak local languages of the Indo-Aryan family like Hindi/Sanskrit/Gujarati – especially Bhils in west India (about 5 million), Baiga & Bhuiya in central India. Most of the numerous Northeastern tribes speak Tibeto-Burman languages – the many Naga tribes, Kuki, Karbi, Nishi…. In the Andaman and Nicobar islands – quite different language families, seen as a relic of far more ancient human migrations. The Andaman islands had 2 completely different language families. North Sentinel Island is the only island in the world where a tribal people still defend their territory and identity with bows and arrows against anyone who tries to land, thanks to Indian Government broadmindedness! They are related to the better known Jarawa, who number about 400 and exist in a state of bizarre cultural flux; while the Great Andamanese, relic of 10 tribes, are fewer than 80 now, and only a handful can speak their languages….
Another way of understanding these people is through their movements against various forms of oppression: against the taking away of their forests by the ‘Forest Department’ thanks to British Forest Acts from the 1850s (see Dungdung: Adivasis and their Forests 2019) – the FD remain many Adivasis’ main enemy, constantly demanding bribes and clamping dowen on Adivasis’ traditional agriculture. Many of the great Adivasi movements from the 1820s-1920s were against takeovers of land related to this – e.g. the Santal Hul (1857-8) and the Munda Ulgulan of Birsa Munda (died Ranchi jail 1900). Nehru called big dams the ‘Temples of Modern India’ and mass displacement of at least 25 million tribal people started in the 1950s. Some of the biggest dams were to give hydropower and water to metals factories – steel and aluminium; and mining projects are another major cause of displacement. One of the main causes of the Maoist conflict that has engulfed much of east-central India is the invasion of mining companies, dividing countless tribal communities, and displacing 10,000s more. Even conservationists have colluded in these land takeovers in the sense that tribal/forest lands have been divided between lands ‘sacrificed’ for industry and reserved for wildlife sanctuaries, from which again 10,000s of Adivasis have been forcibly removed (‘voluntary relocated’). As Adivasis say – lots of foreign money comes for saving the tiger, none for saving us!
A good way into understanding tribal identity right now is the March 2022 issue of the Indian journal Seminar, on Extractivism, Indigeneity and Self-Determination (that I edited, below), in which a dozen of the writers are tribal people from different communities, expressing a wide variety of identities and situations.

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