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Thematics- Marginalized Communities>> Tribal

Adivasi and Non-Adivasi Debate-A Need for Re-Examination

Narendra Bastar

The adivasi worldview has never seen itself as disparate from the folk worldview. In India so long as local memory and folklore goes back, though the multi-centered and multi-ethnic adivasis have been living in some kind of divergence with the mainstream Indian society and the world at large; they nevertheless seem to have sought and received a certain ‘exemption’ within which they could conduct their daily life in consonance with their worldview, self-image and cultural rhythms.

The discourse and social system that provided for the play of such disagreement and ‘exemption’ spread throughout the sub-continent. Such ‘exemption’ was never punished with an outright threat to survival: conceptual, cultural or economic. Such dialogue between the folk and adivasi continued, sometimes ruptured at others, repaired. Boundaries of such dialogue remained fluid and un-defined; crossed over and back intermittently. Agricultural practices, animal husbandry, reverence for nature and its bounties, art-craft and many others as such were the commonly shared and strengthened spaces. No adivasi village was ever complete without non-adivasis. This interplay enabled the famous adivasi art-craft, which has never been made by adivasis but by the non-adivasi dalit: the potter, woodworker, ironsmith, carpenter, iron-smelter, maker of musical instruments etc. (interestingly, just as the mainstream Hindu society, the maker of musical instruments was ‘untouchable’ for the adivasis too). They performed the same role in the adivasi village and economy as they did elsewhere. Though diminishing, this is true even today. Just as it is impossible to visualize a non-adivasi village minus these, similarly it is un-imaginable how an adivasi village could live sans them.

With the advent of the 19th Century, this loose arrangement was confronted with the impact of modernity when Indian people and territory began to be metamorphosed into the Indian State and world state at large. With it came the conceptual apparatus whereby ethnicity, and ethnicity alone, became the defining criteria for distinguishing between the adivasi and non-adivasi. At the village level this has left both bewildered, not knowing how to relate to each other, nay even to oneself, identity, common and shared legacy. Though initially limited to only governments, anthropologists and other academics who did extensive studies on ethnicity and unknowingly strengthened the new divide, it was in due course also picked up by NGOs and other people’s organizations.

Wily nily almost everyone has been strengthening the divide. There is a stridency to identity and self-image, so much so that both are quite at loggerheads now; even the notion of identity (as we know today) has sprung from the new divide. Whereas this new identity may have helped the adivasi in his/her newfound stridency it has left him/her further marginalized just as the non-adivasi who shared the common life-spaces with them.

Both the adivasi and non-adivasi would suffer marginalization in increasing measure, as they already are, unless their common past is re-examined and re-affirmed. It is imperative to strengthen the shared adivasi worldview and its cultural confidence. Else, given the operative logic and its compulsions, the adivasi discourse would disappear in its own nativity. It dare be said, there is nothing as a distinctly ethnic adivasi discourse but a shared adivasi discourse resting on common values, self-images, memory, life rhythms and reverences. Here it is also important to add Gandhi’s inescapable relevance to such discourse. In quintessence Gandhi represented the folk view which so effectively shared with the adivasi view.



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South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy