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Insights into Editorial: Having an ear to Adivasi ground




In November 2018, the Adivasis of Jhargram, West Bengal, died in large number while preparing for the Bandhna festival.

The cause of deaths could not be medically verified. Some were of the view that tuberculosis was the cause of the death. The opinion State government was – “It was not undernourishment. They died of tuberculosis and excessive drinking”.

Their lifespan is approximately 26 years less than the average Indian’s life expectancy. Their lives are full of uncertainties, and death is considered the most normal of happenings.

Administration failed to detect anything about the catastrophe until a few surviving inhabitants of the village made a plea to rescue them from hunger and diseases.

Failure of Administrative Authorities in that region:

Despite the village’s proximity to several public offices such as the panchayat, block and district headquarters, being surrounded by other ethnic groups with better access to information, and even economically connected with relatively advantaged neighbours, the real reasons that caused the deaths hardly drew any public attention.

Surveillance by the administrative authorities over the population in all other matters of their lives had failed to detect anything about the catastrophe until a few surviving inhabitants of the village made a plea to rescue them from hunger and diseases.

Study finds a knowledge gap resulted in Democratic Denial for the Adivasis:

  • We were part of a study conducted by the Asiatic Society and the Pratichi Institute among 1,000 households across West Bengal (“Living World of the Adivasis of West Bengal: An Ethnographic Exploration”.
  • The study found that there exists, both in the public and academic domains, a wide gap in knowledge about this selectively forgotten and pragmatically remembered population.
  • Who they are, where they live, what they do, what their socio-economic status is, what their cultural and linguistic practices are, are all questions to which the prevailing answers are fragmented and vague.
    • For example, in West Bengal, there are 40 Adivasi groups notified by the government as Scheduled Tribes (STs), but most people use the terms Adivasi and Santal interchangeably.
    • Santal in fact, is but one of the 40 notified tribes forming 47% of the total ST population.
  • This knowledge gap leads to democratic denial for the Adivasis. The imposed superiority of the outside world has resulted in the Adivasis considering themselves as inferior, primitive and even taking a fatalistic view of their subjugated life.
  • This pushes them to the margins, even making them abandon some of their socially unifying customs and cultural practices particularly democratic norms and human values that have evolved through a protracted journey of collective living and struggles for existence.

Negative sides of adopt assimilation policy:

  • One outcome of this is the erosion of their great linguistic heritage (in some sections).
  • Due to contact with other cultures, the tribal culture is undergoing a revolutionary change.
  • Due to influence of Christian missionaries the problem of bilingualism has developed which led to indifference towards tribal language.
  • The tribal people are imitating western culture in different aspects of their social life and leaving their own culture.
  • It has led to degeneration of tribal life and tribal arts such as dance, music and different types of craft.
  • However, Adivasi acceptance of the ‘imposed modern’ does not guarantee their inclusion in the apparent mainstream. Rather, the opposite happens.
  • They are often reminded of their primitive roots and kept alienated.
  • Again, pushed to the side by exploitation and oppression, marginalisation and subjugation, Adivasis, in many cases, cling to oppressive behaviours such as witchcraft which only make the label of them being primitive even more indelible.
  • The vicious cycle of political-economic deprivation and social alienation continues to keep them subjugated to the ruling modern.
  • A situation where they are a source of cheap labour and live lives where they are half-fed with no opportunities to flourish and develop their human capabilities seems unalterable.

Need of the hour: following Tribal Panchsheel policy in Letter and Spirit:

  1. People should develop along the lines of their own genius, and the imposition of alien values should be avoided.
  2. TribaI rights in land and forest should be respected.
  3. Teams of tribals should be trained in the work of administration and development.
  4. TribaI areas should not be over-administered or overwhelmed with a multiplicity of schemes.
  5. Results should be judged not by statistics or the amount of money spent, but by the human character that is evolved.

Way Ahead:

Rather, policy framing requires mandatory recognition of their wide diversity so as to address the different problems faced by different groups by community as well as by region.

It is also important to abide by the general constitutional rules which are often violated by the state.

In other words, the very common instances of violations of the Forest Rights Act, the Right to Education Act, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act which affect them have to be eliminated.

The possibility of fair implementation of public programmes, however, is contingent to an agentic involvement of the communities concerned.


Therefore, it is important to go beyond the administrative convention of bracketing Adivasis into a single category.

Instead of being considered to be mere passive recipients, Adivasis must be respected as active agents of change and involved in all spheres of policy, from planning to implementation.

It is imperative that the entire outlook on the Adivasi question is reversed. Instead of considering Adivasis to be a problem, the entire country can benefit a great deal by considering them as co-citizens and sharing their historically constructed cultural values which often manifest the best forms of democracy and uphold the notions of higher levels of justice, fairness, and equality better than those prevalent in seemingly mainstream societies.

By ensuring their right to live their own lives, the country can in fact guarantee itself a flourishing democracy.