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‘Palimpsest of Ethnic Fundamentalism’
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by Madhuri Xalxo

[In his letter declining the Gandhi Foundation award, Dr Binayak Sen refers to the protest against the award nomination, and Madhuri Xalxo responds to it- Round Table India]

“The original citation of the Gandhi International Peace Award when it came, was a surprise, as I on my own had never claimed to be a representative of the tribal people of India. However, I had always proudly claimed the heritage of a vernacular and indigenous life-world that was egalitarian and sustainable, and since the awarding body was free to make its own ascription, I humbly accepted the responsibility being put on me. I was fully aware that there could be many views about my fitness to undertake such a task, but it never occurred to me that my ethnic identity, in that I was not ethnically a member of the tribal people of India, would stand in my way.

To my understanding, the ethnic indigenous people of the world have suffered terrible violence in the course of the development of the capitalist state, a violence that has been directed equally against all colonized people, the working class, and other subaltern sections. Efforts to build a new society must be made by all oppressed people together. To claim to take on board the politics of genetic ethnicity as a part of this effort is a form of racism, and racism never smelt sweeter merely because it was articulated from the platform of a subaltern identity. […]

The level of debate is now such that the paramount issues outlined above threaten to be replaced by a palimpsest of ethnic fundamentalism.” Dr Binayak Sen, in his letter to the foundation, declining the award.


Madhuri’s response:

You are scared to call yourself a tribal amidst the educated tribals for you know they will fiercely object and I do not doubt that amidst our brethren in villages you call yourself one for they appreciate in what they see as a gesture of humility and kindness. Humility and kindness, and you!?! I wish I could post this open letter of yours in every village you have visited, translated in the language each one understands to see the real you and actually see why you are here amidst us and the extent of your love and concern for our community.

Correct me if I am wrong, you delight in the fact of having been nominated for the GF award. Finally, that which you had worked for through trial and incarceration has come through, the international community supporting indigenous people and their causes gives you the recognition of an indigenous person long denied to you by the ‘indigenous’ people of the country. Perhaps, you and more like you had not even thought that we would ever be in a position to raise a cry loud enough for the others to hear.

Are you talking of indigenous/tribal people in India being denied their right to dignified existence by state alone? My friend, I beg you, if you wish us well and want to be our ‘voice’, represent us in international arenas, at least get your facts right. Yes, we are oppressed by the state but not in its entirety. The State through its constitutional provisions has enough room for us to foster ourselves, and you know why we got so much space in the constitutional provisions of the country, it was drafted by one of our own people – Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. I am sure you must have heard of him. Left to you guys, I don’t think you would have even given us an equal citizenship in this country to breathe free air. Sixty years ago, we were jointly colonised by British, but you know, the British were at the same time concerned about ‘us’ – they made laws to safeguard our lands from you.

Now, post-independence, we the adivasis of this country are colonised by the people who constitute State. In your discourse, in the international sphere, I wonder, why you have never bothered to mention the violent caste discrimination that we the adivasis face in our day-to-day lives. Is it because you belong to the caste which discriminates us? The upper caste, which would render every government scheme benefitting us infructuous? Be it schemes that provide equal opportunity in educational institutes, or the schemes that provide equal opportunity in jobs and services, or be it schemes that provide access to food, drinking water, daily wages, housing, etc.

You, you are talking of racism being practised by adivasis when they with all due respect raise objection to a non-adivasi being honoured by an award, which is proposed for an adivasi in the given field. Please, I beg you, let’s talk of racism and that too in its worst form that still exists in our country and that still plagues our existence – the caste system. I admire your polite ways, how I wish you would use your politeness to address this evil in the country, around the world and before your own people who perpetuate it to maintain their supremacy over all resources and opportunities.

Wishing you well.    

Madhuri Xalxo 


To my Brothers and Sisters

This debate is not about Dr Sen, it is about the complete dominance of non-adivasis in our discourse. They are trying to tell us what we should do and what not. It’s time we give recognition to our own worldviews, respect our own thoughts/ideas/beliefs/colors/situations, build our own strategies to work around issues that affect us all and unite our community. How long will you depend on the crutches that is provided by the saviours? Now, the situation is that the crutches determine where we go and not our minds, therefore, brother, I say don’t recognize the crutches as a part of the body, it’s not…we appreciate its support but will never allow it to be considered as a body part and give it control over our body, our community. 

Don’t let anyone deceive you that you can’t, that is precisely what these non-adivasi saviours are doing to our people, telling us we can’t, pressing upon us lack of competencies, so that they can have room for themselves in our matters!!! I beg you, don’t let anyone deceive you…these crutches have begun controlling our lives, secretly deepening our injuries such that we never recover, never think of walking by ourselves…It’s about time, dear brother that we throw the crutches away so that we can walk freely on our own…Perhaps due to over-dependence in the past we may fall a couple of times now and more, perhaps we may get injured as well…But we will support one another and not depend on third parties to resolve our issues…Only then will we witness dignified existence, will truly attain and enjoy equal rights…Others will respect us for who we are and most importantly, we will respect ourselves for having achieved the goals of equality and justice for our community by our own strength…ahh, the thought only makes me happy 🙂 

Please read Jharkhand Human Rights Movement’s letter to the Gandhi Foundation here and to Dr.Binayak Sen and Shree Mr.Bulu Imam here as well as Gladson Dungdung’s article explaining his and other Adivasi activists’ objections. 

Madhuri Xalxo is a student pursuing her LLM.

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