Being Adivasis: The History of Broken Promises

 Book review : Being Adivasis: Existence, Entitlements, Exclusion edited by Abhay Flavian Xaxa and G. N. Devy, New Delhi, Penguin, 2021, 208 pp., 699 (Hardcover), ISBN 9780670093007                                        

Scholars on the study of Adivasi bring out new book under the title ‘Being Adivasi: Existence, Entitlements, Exclusion’. The book has been edited by two noted academics, Abhay Flavian Xaxa and G. N. Devy under series of Rethinking India. This book is seventh in the series. Though the book hasn’t given much emphasis on the academic works on the question of Adivasi rather it tries to look at contemporary perspectives on who are the Adivasis or tribe like pastoralists and nomads. Basically, the book covered essays on persistent problems face by Adivasi and de-notified communities from questions of their distinct identity, land alienation, gratefulness and displacement from own native lands. This edited volume differs from the works done in anthropology, ethnography, political, cultural history previously to explain contemporary Adivasi status in India. It is different in content and approach to understand Adivasis and Denotified communities on the process of development and contradiction with group and induvial rights from Adivasis’ standpoint.

Being AdivasiDuring colonial time, British ‘notified’ certain communities as ‘criminal tribes’ under the notorious Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) in 1871. CTA Act registered more than 200 communities as habitual ‘Criminals’. Under that draconical law, it controls social-political movement of Adivasis. The act paved the path to use them as a bonded labour for rail construction and other domestic use. After Indian independent, CTA abolished and de-notified these tribes in 1952. Recently, on 31th August 2021, Adivasi people have celebrated the 100 years of that Act as ‘Vimukta Jatis Day’. Many of those 200 so called criminal tribes are now included in Scheduled Caste (SC), Other Backward Caste (OBCs) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) list under the arrangements made for affirmative policies.

According to United Nation, 20 per cent population belongs to Nomadic community in the world and in India, according to the National Commission on Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT) estimates near about 249 denotified and semi-nomadic Adivasi groups. They are around 8 to 7 per cent of Indian’s population according to Census data. Denotified community have meaningfully contributed to Socio-economic and cultural aspect of India. They work in as domestic workers, factory workers, sanitation, road side performers and develop skilful art work. Historically, social and legal prejudices still reflect in addressing the people of denotified tribes in modern nation-states. Modern notion of capitalist form of development encroaches their space and, in the process, destroy their social-economic cultural life. Similar to Colonial state, post-colonial state still treating these groups as ‘civilising mission’ mood.

Chapter by Virginius Xaxa titled as ‘Tribal Development in Fifth Schedule Areas: Affirmative Action or Unequal Exchange?’ discusses how state policy of integration between tribe and non-Tribe has been devastatingly scattered with exploitation, domination and discrimination, which reflect in deferent development plan for tribal areas. Another important chapter written by Kantilal Bhuria and Vikrant Bhuria titled ‘The Question of Integration’ argues, after independent, relation with state and Adivasi groups are very stress in terms of socio-economic and cultural front. Adivasi continues to raise the question of autonomy of land, cultural, economic rights to protect their unique identity which according to them undermined by the current NDA government. An essay by Marxist distinguished scholar Archana Prasad ‘Class Struggle and the Future of Adivasi Politics’, examines the class-currents within Adivasi communities becomes important as a solution to the ‘othering’ developments. After seven decades of state rule of law and formal political system fail to recognize Adivasis socio-political and cultural rights, it provided space for ideological Moist and Naxalite movement to address Adivasi question in terms of class but it also fails to provide long term socio-political and cultural solution. In current time Hindutva juggernaut and neo-liberal Hindutva government way of development make it more difficult to address Adivasi question.

Ajay Dandekar’s essay on ‘Silent Voices, Distant Dreams: India’s Denotified Tribes’ studies the historical evolution of Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) and how CTA defines certain communities as criminals to treat peoples deferentially from mainstream land peoples. Other essay such as ‘Speak Up a Revolution’ by S. Choudhary talked about Adivasi question in media and communication. He raised question on represtation of adivis in media and argues for more democratized to make it friendly for Adivasi. However, in addition to it, poor literacy rate, poverty, lake of electricity in rural area, language barrier among Adivasi community, make more vulnerable in mainstream communication field. Another paper on ‘Indigenous Republic (Indigenocracy)’ by Ghanshyam, dealt with the question on what ‘republic’ means to Adivasis.

In my observation, the editors of the book may have focused on the current burning issues such as communalism and conversion as case studies. It would have explained how Adivasis and Denotified community are dealing communalization process by Hindutva juggernaut to destroy their own unique identity which are consider more progressive and egalitarian then main land society in some aspect of social life. Communal and conversion issues in some state like Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Paradesh, Rajasthan are prominent which challenge Adivasi rights given under the Indian constitutional. In this context editor Abhay Xaxa rightly observes in the introduction part, ‘apart from development issues, there was also a demand for a stringent anti-conversion law which has been used as a tool to divide the Adivasi communities on the lines of religion. The communal agenda of these organisations has gradually created a fear among people who don’t subscribe to the dominant discourse of assimilating the Adivasis in the Hindu fold. As a result, the harmonious relationship between various Adivasi and forest dependent communities have been broken and communal violence is also increasingly experienced in Adivasi areas.’ With the implementation of Modi government’s future planning of NRC/CAA citizenship law in all over India, Adivasis and denotified tribes (DNT) community will lose their citizenship status, surely because they don’t have any official documents of their historical inhabitancy. In addition to it, Adivasi and Denotified community have lost the idea of state, for example Pathalgari movement (2017-18) in Jharkhand started for protection of native custom and cultural identity. NRC and CAA violate rights of Denotified and Adivasi for peaceful and dignified life. After implementation of this citizenship amendment, it may led to socio-political exclusion which we had seen in the case of Assam. Another important aspect of Adivasi life that editor lacked is the issue of gender among nomadic and Denotified tribes (DNT) community.

Denotified, semi-denotified and other Adivasis groups have been victim of colonialism, post-colonialism and current transnational corporation (TNCs) capitalist model of development. They are forced to losing their land, resources of livelihood and cultural identities with displacements in the name of big development projects in Adivasis area. In this regard Adivasi suffered various forms of exclusion in day to day life. We can closely witness after neo-liberal policy adopted by both UPA and NDA government, inequality in marginalize section increases and the basic constitutional rights under attack. Government policies of social justice only pay lip services to constitutional promise to Adivasis, Denotified and semi-Denotified communities. Constitutional Law intend to protect the fundamental rights of Adivasis and Denotified community is essential for recognize their distinct identity and life.

This volume in the context of studies on Adivasi have contributed significantly and provided substantial understanding about being Adivasi, present and future challenges in socio-political and constitutional rights. Various essays in the book try to analyse how we understand Adivasis, Denotified and semi-nodified community’s questions from historical to contemporary time under different regime. Overall, the book successfully portrayed present relevant question pertaining to empowerments of Adivasis communities of India. The edited volume is a value addition to social science researchers and scholars of tribal studies, social anthropology, exclusion studies, development studies, as well as the interested general reader. In addition to above, this seminal work should also be translate into other Indian language in order to disseminate the persistent realty of tribal communities of India.


Dr. Sanjay Kumar recently completed his ICSSR Post-Doctoral Fellowship from the Centre for African Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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