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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 32, July 25, 2009

Adivasi: A Contentious Term to denote Tribes as Indigenous Peoples of India

Monday 27 July 2009, by J.J. Roy Burman


In India the term ‘Adivasi’ has gained immense popularity in the last few decades to identify the tribes. This term is more commonly brought to use by the NGO circles and activists of the ‘mainstream’ or ‘mainland’ India. The term has also gained currency amongst the tribes mainly belonging to central India. In Kerala too the tribes of late prefer to be identified as ‘Adivasi’. In Hindi the term ‘Adivasi’ means original settlers.

The term Adivasi is not portrayed just for literary reasons. It has a political underpinning. It has often been used to convey the position of exclusion of the tribes (Kumar: 2001: 4052-4054) and their subaltern status (Ekka: 2000-2001: 4610-4612) The term Adivasi has been even used to focus the tribal rights (Dietrich: 2000), their resistance (Pati: 2001), protests (Viswanath: 1997), assertions (Hardiman: 1988, Rahul: 1998), struggles (Raman: 2002) and movements. (Bijoy and Raman: 2003) The term in a way conveys a sense of ‘empowerment’ of the tribes. This empowerment is being asserted by linking with the global indigenous people’s movement.

Bijoy (2003) writes:

The 67.7 million people belonging to ‘Scheduled Tribe’ in India are generally considered to be ‘Adivasi’, literally meaning ‘Indigenous People’ or original inhabitants, though the term ‘Scheduled Tribe’ (ST) is not coterminous with the term ‘Adivasi’. Scheduled Tribe is an administrative term used for the purpose of ‘administering’ certain specific constitutional privileges, protection and benefits for specific section of peoples historically considered disadvantaged and ‘backward’. However, this administrative term does not exactly match all the peoples called ‘Adivasi’. Out of the 5653 distinct communities in India, 635 are considered to be ‘tribes’ or ‘Adivasis’. In comparison, one finds that estimated number of STs varies from 250 to 593.

It must, however, be stated that the Indian Constitution does not use the term ‘Adivasi’ and instead refers to the STs as ‘Anusuchit Jana Jati’. Traditionally ‘Jana’ was the more popular term to refer to the tribes in the Hindi heartland. (Ray: 1972)

One of the prime factors for claiming aboriginal or indigenous status for the tribes is to enable them to gain territorial, land rights and control over natural resources. There are, however, vicious forces in the country who are overtly active in not conceding these rights. The Hindutva forces term the tribes as ‘Vanvasi’. This term not only conveys a sense of primitiveness but also tries to deny the territorial rights. The Gandhians too were not very far from it and they considered the tribes more from a culturological position and referred to them as ‘Vanyajati’.

It is disconcerting that most of the anthropologists and sociologists have either remained indifferent to such developments or have passively supported the ‘Adivasi’ terminology and thus jeopardised the legitimate rights and interests of the tribes dwelling in the regions beyond the Hindi heartland. At the outset it needs to be realised that a nation-state like India is not a cultural but political entity which was borne due to a quirk of history. Imposing Hindi as a national and official State language over all the regions is not a very civilised act—it smacks of North Indian chauvinism. Secondly, it is also not true that the tribes in all quarters of the country are aboriginals of the regions where they inhabit at present. While the famous historian Kosambi (1956) viewed that the tribes had migrated to the plain areas at a much later date only after the vegetation had thinned out and wild animals became less numerous—making the area less dangerous for human habitation and fit for settled cultivation, Archana Prasad (2003), the young scholar from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, feels that the tribes practising settled cultivation in the plains were pushed to the hills and forests by the profligate Aryan invaders and later Hindu settled cultivators and the outside traders. Either way the tribes are not autochthons of the spaces occupied by them at present. In 1980s Andre Betteille` had similarly expressed about the inapplicability of the concept of aborigine to the tribesmen in India. (Personal communication)

The autochthon status of the tribes in their present habitats in different parts of the country can be easily contested. The Kukis in Manipur or the Luseis of Mizoram have migrated to their present areas of dominance from South China and Chin Hills only a couple of centuries back. The Kukis were settled by the British in the Naga predominant areas so as to create a buffer between the Nagas and the Vaishnavite Meiteis. The Sailo chiefs belonging to the Lusei tribe were encouraged by the British to operate as labour contractors for constructing roads in the remote areas of Mizoram. The aboriginal tribes of the State who were pushed to the western borders along Tripura are now known as Tuikuk. In Tripura the tribal king had as a policy invited many Reangs and Chakmas to settle in the State so as to augment the production of cotton through jhum cultivation and ensure forward linkage to the cotton mills. Even the Bodos, believed to be a secondary formation, had migrated in waves from the Bhutan hills to settle in their present domains in Assam. The Toto tribe of Totopara on the borders of North Bengal and Bhutan is too a secondary formation as it evolved as a constellation out of a number of migrant criminal clans who were pushed out by the Bhutan kingdom. The matrilineal Khasis of Meghalaya who belong to the Mon-Khmer linguistic group are believed to have migrated from the Kampuchea region. The Denzong Bhutias, the royal Sikkimese tribe, too on record have migrated from Tibet, in the historical past. The Santhals of Rajmahal Hills or Santhal Parganas in Jharkhand had similarly migrated from the plains of Birbhum and Midnapur, West Bengal, in historical times.

Thirdly, it is important to note that the tribes in India are not the only group to claim indigenous status. Even many of the Dalit intellectuals have made similar assertions. (Massey: 1994) Next, the Government of India itself refuses to grant indigenous status to the tribes. One of the important reasons for this is that a few Brahmin and Rajput communities like the Jaunsari in Uttarakhand or the Kanaura in Himachal Pradesh have been enlisted as Scheduled Tribe. More importantly, the term ‘Adivasi’ is popularly used in North Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura to refer to the tea plantation labourers—the tribes like Santhal, Munda, Oraon and Ho who had migrated to the region during the British colonial period. The local tribes in these States find it humiliating to identify themselves as ‘Adivasi’. The indigenous Rabha, Mech and Rajbansi tribes/ethnic groups in North Bengal prefer to identify themselves by their own names and not as ‘Adivasi’. The Sikkimese tribesmen too identify the migrant plantation labourers from Chotanagpur as ‘Adivasi’ and not by their specific tribal names. The Santhal, Oraon, Munda and Ho migrant tribes in the Sunderbans of West Bengal, working as agricultural labourers or cultivating small farms, are collectively referred to as ‘Adivasi’ by the local Bengali settlers, a majority of whom are Scheduled Castes. The term ‘Adivasi’ therefore, remains a generic name in East and North-East India for identifying the migrant tribal labourers and small peasants from central India.


In most places in North Bengal and North-East India, the adivasis are considered to be encroachers or intruders. During the Naxalite uprisal at Naxalbari in the late 1960s the Rajbansis en-block resisted the onslaught of the adivasi landgrabbers. Ethnic clashes between the indigenous Bodos and adivasi encroachers in the Bodoland Territorial Council areas are endemic. In one such clash a few years back hundreds of Santhals were killed by the Bodo militants. The Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) is contemplating to move the Supreme Court against the recommendations of the 2006 Tribes and Forest Dwellers Act, which stipulates regularising lands encroached in government forests prior to December 13, 2005. Almost 40 per cent of the forests in the Bodo areas have been encroached upon and majority of the encroachers is outside migrants (many of them are adivasis). The interests of the Bodos and adivasis do not match at all and the former had infact, opposed the formation of autonomus Bodo Territorial Council. They had even led several rallies in Guwahati, the State capital of Assam.

The tribes of Arunachal Pradesh are extremely peeved by the presence of Chakma refugees who claim an indigenous status in the international forums. The tribal students of the state led a protracted movement against the Chakmas. The All Assam Tribal Sangha (AATS) comprising of various tribal organisations, including Bodo, Karbi, Dimasa and Tiwa student organisations are opposing the Adivasi demand for ST status, alleging if granted, it would affect the interests of tribals of Assam. According to AATS, the Adivasis did not fulfill the requisite criteria of their inclusion in the ST list as they are not originally from Assam. (Internet: Indopia)

It needs to be reiterated that it would be a gross mistake to consider the term ‘Adivasi’ to be equivalent to the term ‘Tribe’ in India. This could only reinforce the anti-Indian feelings among many of the tribes inhabiting, North Bengal, Sikkim and other North-Eastern States. The term will be considered pejorative and humiliating to most of them. It must be realised that the term tribe itself is a colonial construct and ‘aboriginal’ ‘autochthon’ percepts are outcome of colonial conquests. The so-called ‘friends of tribes’ in India have been amateurishly trying to romanticise the term in the name of radical empowerment. The tribal situation in India is extremely heterogeneous and a unified approach may not do justice to all the communities. It must also be understood that the definition of ‘Indigenous Peoples’ as projected by the UN Working Group for Indigenous Peoples has an European bias as it states,

Indigenous peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with their pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies, now prevailing in those territories or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generation their ancestral territories and their ethnic identity as the basis of their continuous existence as peoples in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

The tribes residing in territories not externally colonised are not deemed to be indigenous as a consequence. This leaves out the scope of around 120 tribal communities in Europe from being declared as indigenous peoples (Griggs: 1993). Their rights of self-determination too are denied as a result. The Basques of Spain and Portugal, Skanians in Sweden, Cornish, Welsh and Shetlanders in the UK are consequently denied of several rights and privileges enjoyed by indigenous people in other parts of the world. It is similarly feared that the use of the term ‘Adivasi’ in an unqualified manner may fail to ensure legitimate rights of many of the authentic indigenous tribes/ peoples in India. In the name of ‘Adivasi’ pressures are put on the Indian government by the western sources to ensure all types of rights for them. In India some of the tribal NGOs linked to Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Delhi which have intimate links with the European Indigenous People’s Movement groups are mainly responsible for trying to popularise the ‘Adivasi’ concept in the last few decades. They too are trying prop up the ‘Adivasi’ movements in North-East India. In many areas this is leading to serious ethnic conflicts with the indigenous tribes.

Kar and Sharma (1990) have elaborated the imminent dangers of this:

Most local tribes are opposed to the adivasis being included in the list of Scheduled Tribe. They are estimated to be around 20 per cent of the Assam population, that is, more than 40 lakhs, while the Bodos are a little over 27 lakhs. The total number of tribes in the northeast being a little over 80 lakhs, if the adivasis are included in the schedule, the number of tribals in the northeast will rise by 50 per cent and they would be a third of the total. Many tribal groups are afraid that it will lead to competition for the few jobs available and for the depleted natural resources. As a result, most tribal of the region oppose their inclusion. Moreover, the adivasis are considered outsiders since they were brought by the British from Jharkhand as plantation labourers. The British appropriated the land of the local populations through unjust means. Since the adivasis worked on this land as indentured labour, the resentment of the local people at losing their land to the colonialist (partners) is not surprising.

To conclude, the term ‘indigenous peoples’ itself appears to be contentious in the Indian context as there are many claimants to it; these include the Dalits (claiming their Dravidian antecedence), the Vaishnavite Meiteis of Manipur and the caste Hindus of Assam. It will perhaps be always better to avoid using the popular NGO nomenclature ‘Advisai’ in the tenors of serious academic discourse when dealing with the notion of indigenous groups in the Indian context. n


Bijoy, C.R. and Raman, K.R., 2003, “The Real Story: Adivasi Movements to Recover Land” in EPW, Vol. 38, No. 20 (May 17-23).

Bijoy, C.R., 2003, “The Adivasis of India A History of Discrimination, Conflict and Resistance” in PUCL Bulletin, February.

Dietrich, G., 2000, “Dams and People: Adivasi Land Rights” in EPW, Vol. 35 No. 38 (September 16-22).

Ekka, A., 2000-01, “Jharkhand Tribals: Are They Really a Minority?” in EPW, Vol. 35. No. 52/53 (December 30, 2000-January 5, 2001).

Griggs, R.R.A., 1993, Role of World Nations; Washington: Centre for World Indigenous Peoples.

Hardiman, D., 1987, The Coming of the Devi: Adivasi Assertion in Western India; Delhi: OUP.

Kar, R.K. and Sharma, K.L., 1990, “Ethnic Identity of Tea Labour: A Case Study in Assam” in D. Pakem (ed.) Nationality, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity in North-East India; New Delhi: Omsons.

Kosambi, D.D., 1956, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

Kumar, S., 2001, “Adivsias of South Orissa: Enduring Poverty” in EPW, Vol. 36, No. 43 (October 27-November 2).

Massey, J., 1994, “Indigenous People: Dalits: Dalit Issues in Today’s Theological Debate”.

Pati, B., 2001, “Identity, Hegemony, Resistance: Conversions in Orissa” in EPW, Vol. 36, No. 44 (November 3-9).

Prasad, A., 2003, Against Ecological Romanticism: Verier Elwin and The Making of an Anti-Modern Tribal Identity, New Delhi: Three Essays Collective.

Rahul, 1998, “Bhil Women of Nimad: Growing Assertion” in EPW, Vol. 33, No. 9 (February 28-March 6).

Raman, K.R., 2002, “Breaking New Ground: Adivasi Land Struggle in Kerala” in EPW, Vol. 37, No. 10 (March 9-15).

Ray, N., 1972, “Introductory Address” in K.S. Singh (ed.) Tribal Situation in India; Shimla: IIAS.

Viswanath, C.K., 1997, “Adivasis: Protesting Land Alienation” in EPW, Vol. 32, No. 32 (August 9-15).

The author belongs to the Faculty of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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