Women from Madhya Pradesh’s Baiga tribe. Photo: Wikimedia Commons: Simon Williams/Ekta Parishad
On 9th August every year, the indigenous people in many countries celebrate the ‘Day of the Indigenous’. It is a day of hope for the communities that have remained marginal on all continents. Ever since Columbus set his foot on the American continent, these communities have faced threat from dominant powers; many had to face extinction and genocide. Full justice is still not in sight for them.
When we think of the indigenous, it is necessary to know that their present plight is a direct result of the colonial rules in different continents. I have often asked my friends in European countries if they have any communities comparable to the indigenous. The answer is ‘None’. This is not to deny that some of the European communities are relatively more of the ‘first dwellers’ than others who settled there later. However, wherever the Europeans spread during the colonial era, some of the local communities came to be labelled as ‘indigenous.’
In Australia, they came to be known as the ‘Aborigines’, in Canada as ‘Indians’, in New Zealand as ‘Maori’ and in Africa as ‘tribes'. In India, from the second half of the 19th century, they came to be known as ‘adivasi’. Of course, in relation to the colonial British, all of the Indian communities should have appeared ‘adivasi’ - those who belong to the land. But history was not so simple. Many Indian communities collaborated with the colonial rulers. Others opposed them, but did not entirely reject the values that they brought to us. There were some communities that accepted neither the rulers not the values they cherished. These were the adivasis.
When Indian princes surrendered to the colonial power, numerous pacts and treaties were drawn up between the Company government and the native rulers. Territory and land-related revenue were handed over to the Company. The communities inhabiting those territories naturally became the ‘subjects’ of the colonial regime. Yet, there were communities that had not developed any rigid form of state and especially no designated ‘princes’. For the British imagination that had reduced the term ‘nation’ to mean territory, and ‘people’ to mean land-dependent society, this situation was beyond comprehension. Throughout the era of transition of power from Indian princes to the Company and later to the Sovereign, the communities that were to be later called ‘tribes’ continued to put up a fierce resistance.
A simple law made the areas where these communities dwelt ‘sovereign domain’. A law that had not the slightest thought for the well-being of the inhabitants deprived them of the territorial control they had enjoyed for centuries
Hence, in 1860s, the colonial government decided to overpower the tribes through a legal path. A simple law made the areas where these communities dwelt ‘sovereign domain’. A law that had not the slightest thought for the well-being of the inhabitants deprived them of the territorial control they had enjoyed for centuries. The inhabitants of those areas were described by the British administrators and ethnographers as ‘tribes’. A list of such communities was created. After independence, this very list became the basis of preparing a Schedule of Tribes. The two simple letters of the English alphabet – S and T – that we use without thinking much about history have behind them the legacy of gross injustice, dispossession and cultural annihilation.
As the indigenous in India celebrated the day this year, millions of Marathas were in the streets of Maharashtra asking for reservations. Earlier, the Patels in Gujarat, the Jats in Rajasthan and Haryana and sections of Lingayats in Karnataka have done this. These communities too have some sections that deserve preferential treatment. Yet, in all arguments contesting reservations for the STs, there is a hidden resentment against them. They are often seen as ‘un-deservingly rewarded’ people. Those who resent the special treatment of STs that the Constitution envisaged, often have difficulty in understand the justification.
In India, caste is more easily understood by the majority of us. Quite ironically, tribe is rarely understood by an equally large majority. The simplistic mix of the acronyms SC and ST has kept the non-tribal Indian society far from understanding the full meaning of ‘indigenous’. If they speak in their idiom, foregrounding their history and their marginalisation, their expression is seen as anti-national. India, in a way, likes its indigenous only if they remain silent. This silence too is a question one must raise.
(GN Devy is a literary critic and a cultural activist)