The mainstream has always viewed Adivasis as ‘alien people’. In our common sense, they are ‘Noble Savages’ who live away from modern complexities in jungles. But while making such a point, we often forget to explore realities. The terming of Adivasis (who were classified as Scheduled Tribes during colonial times) as Noble Savages has its origin in the views of colonial anthropologists and bureaucrats (like E Dalton and H Risley). They considered Adivasis as primitive people living a simple life who could not cope with modern civilization. In other words, tribes are an antithesis to modern civilization, and the precise modern state is antithetical to their culture and existence.
Subaltern studies scholars (like R Guha and S Sarkar) made similar points. They argued that Adivasis are rebellious and anti-statist communities. Subaltern scholars drove such arguments from reading about the 19th-century tribes who were rebelling against the colonial government, which encroached on their traditional style of governance and control over forest and land. Reading these struggles made subaltern scholars argue that Adivasis exist outside the ambit of the modern state. And this further reinforced their exceptionalism, categorizing them as some kind of hostile people.
Famous anthropologist Alpa Shah argued on a similar line, that Adivasis (Mundas) are participating in the election to get benefits of affirmative provisions and ‘keeping the state away’. Furthermore, she argued that Adivasis consider politics as ‘polluting’ and ‘impure’ and have their own moral ‘sacral politics’. Other scholars made similar points, and I think such arguments are benign readings of Adivasis or a specific group of people among Adivasis to project the view that the modern state is antithetical to the existence of Adivasis.
However, in recent years, we have seen the emergence of new strands of scholars who have started to argue that Adivasis across India are deeply entwined with the modern state power logic. They are well within the ambit of the modern state. These scholars show us the example of Bhils and other tribes across India who had always had interactions with the state — from the Mughal state to the present day post-colonial Indian state.
India’s hill and forest peoples were neither stateless peoples, nor peoples outside history, nor simple, non-hierarchical, egalitarian communities. Indeed, they were fully involved in kingships, land and forest politics, tributary relationships with other groups, particularly occupational specializations and even commerce and war. And in one of his works, Alf G Nilsen argued that Adivasis negotiate every day with the state, from reading laws back to the state or challenging small encroachments in the forests. So to think of Adivasis as noble savages and as very primitive people is misleading and a bogus reading of their history and culture. To just reduce them to such a narrow prejudicial definition is very problematic and somehow responsible for consistent discrimination against these communities.
According to a recent survey report by Oxfam India, 20% of Adivasis faced discrimination. Anjela Taneja, who led the survey team, said, ‘Doctors were reluctant to explain the nature of diseases and treatment to Adivasis believing that they are not likely to understand the information’. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
As we have already seen, the mindset of treating Adivasis as uncivilized or as noble savages has its origin in colonial anthropologists’ work. To trace the theoretical underpinning, we must see this view in the advent of modernity. Where modern represented civilized and other traditions were considered uncivilized and waiting to be civilized. These views were based on a teleological perspective where the world is moving in the same direction, and those left behind need to be civilized.
With time several scholars realized the narrowness of this view and started to reject the binary of modern and civilized or traditional and uncivilized. So to think that Adivasis are ‘noble savages’ is to trap ourselves in that same narrow interpretation. Now it’s time to reject such beliefs and practices.
Chhotelal Kumar has done his Masters in Political Science from the Centre for Political Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has research interests in Adivasi politics and has started to read extensively on the topic.