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TRIBAL CULTURE AND IDENTITY

Agapit Tirkey
In India, the tribals can be divided into two categories: (i) frontiertribes, and (ii) non-frontier tribes. The former inhabit the North-East frontier states at the borders of Burma, China and Bangladesh. They occupy a special position in the sphere of national politics. The non-frontier tribes are distributed in most of the mainland states, though they are concentrated in large numbers in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. Both groups are known as tribals, Adivasis (original inhabitants), aboriginals, autochthons, etc. They have their own mother tongues, life-styles, social structures, rites and rituals, values and so on, differing in many ways from those of the non-tribal social groups. Many of them are today settled agriculturists but the forest still forms much of their economic resource base. They have one thing in common, namely, their protest culture against the external forces which try to subjugate them.
    There have been a series of tribal rebellions during the early days of the British rule in the 18th and 19th centuries: Sardar Larai (1858-95) and Birsa Movement (1895-1900) among the Mundas; Ganganarain Hangama (1832) among the Bhumijs; Kol Rebellion (1832), Santal Rebellion (1855-56), Rebellion of the Kacha Nagas (1880s), etc. Following these rebellions, there have been a series of tribal reform movements emulating the cultural pattern of the higher Hindu castes: Bhagat Movement among the Kurukhs (Uraons), Vaishnavite reform movement among the Bhumijs, Kherwar Movement among the Santals, etc. Inter-tribal political associationsand movements for recognition as tribal states within the Indian Union

Fr. Agapit Tirkey SJ, is the Director of the Tribal Research and Documentation
Centre at Jeevan Vikas Maitree (JVM), Pathalgaon P.O., 496118, Jashpur
Dt., C.G. He is a visiting lecturer on Tribal Culture and Religion and Tribal
Movements in St. Albert’s College and Regional Theological Centre, Ranchi.
The Box on p. 23 was added by the Editor.

moreover emerged, for example the Jharkhand Movement among the tribes of the Chhotanagpur plateau, the Hill States Movement in the North-East Hills and the Adisthan Movement among the Bhils. Violent secessionist movements also took place among the tribes located near the international frontier, such as the Nagaland Movement and the Mizo National Front Movement. Pockets of violent political movements in the tribal belt became linked with the general problem of agrarian unrest and the Communist Movement, such as the Naxalbari Movement (1967) and the Birsa Seva Dal Movement (1968-
69).

 
     The opening of new channels of communication increased non- tribal immigration into the tribal regions. Later on, the opening of mines speeded up the phenomenon. Thus, the confrontation between the indigenous tribals and the immigrants greatly increased. In this situation of economic, social and cultural threat, a series of tribal revolts took place during the late 18th and 19th centuries. In response, the British government, after a phase of repression, initiated a series of protective legislations and administrative devices in favour of the ‘tribals’, who were distinct from the Hindu and Muslim peasantry. In the process, while certain areas like Chhotanagpur and Chhattisgarh continued to have interactions with the non-tribal sections of the Indian population, other areas like the districts in the North-East Hills were virtually cut off from contact with the Indian mainland.

The Official Definition of Scheduled Tribes

    The official selection of criteria to define the Scheduled Tribes is seriously mistaken for its lack of correspondence with realityand its ethnocentric bias. The traits listed in the 1952 Report of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Commission indeed include isolation, racial characteristics, use of ‘tribal dialects’, ‘animism’, ‘primitive’ economic activities, non-vegetarian eating habits, naked or semi- naked dress, nomadism, and propensity to drink and dance. Needless to say that most of the notified Scheduled Tribes population do not fit the above criteria at all! In fact, K.S. Mathur has dismissed this classification as “a typical case of fiction-creation by government officers”.1
    The most important and conscious tribal groups in the country today present an altogether different picture. The Christianised Kurukhs, Mundas, Kharias, Santals, Hos, Khasis, Mizos, Nagas, etc. are highly modernised, and they would in fact consider their non- tribal neighbours as primitives! In the Chhotanagpur Adivasi context, the entire Hindu world appears to the Adivasis as the world of the dikus (foreigners), who threaten the socio-economic and cultural security of the Adivasi-in-groups. The image of the dikus in the Adivasi mind is generally that of “looters, trouble-makers, deceivers, exploiters, cheats, unreliable, those who have a sense of superiority
and inspire fear”.2

Adivasis or Indigenous Peoples
    The word Adivasi is often used for Tribal. In Sanskrit, adi means original and vasi inhabitant. In the context of the Jharkhand movement, this word was consciously chosen by and for the tribals to convey and promote a sense of pride and self-respect. Adivasi societies have
often been defined in contrast with non-Adivasi society (usually understood as Hindu society) and set at one end of several variously defined ahistorical continua: (i) the tradition-modernity paradigm, leading to G.S. Ghurye’s 1963 conception of Adivasis as ‘backward
Hindus’; (ii) the tribe-caste continuum like Srinivas’ 1966 sanskritisation model, leading to assimilation; and (iii) the developmentalist traditional-modern continuum for administrative
purposes.3 Such Hindu perspectives of Adivasi societies have to be rejected outright and new perspectives, independent from the Hindu caste model, have to be adopted, for the Adivasis do not belong to Hindu society.
    The major Adivasi groups generally possess certain characteristics. 1) The clan and lineage are important structural units. 2) Land and forest constitute their main means of livelihood. 3) They foster communitarian living and decision-making. 4) Their village communities are relatively homogeneous and unstratified. Though economic inequalities exist in them, these are of a totally different order than the inequalities present in villages with Brahmin, Rajput or Muslim landlords. 5) The Adivasis have been exploited in the past by ‘outside exploiters’ such as moneylenders, revenue farmers and landlords.4 The process is going on even in the post-Independence period. 6) Each Adivasi group speaks its own mother tongue, which is different from the major Indian languages. Some Adivasis have however lost their mother tongues under certain socio-political situations.

Tribal Culture
Culture is the way in which a group of people live, think, feel, organise themselves, celebrate and share life. In every culture, there are underlying systems of values, meanings and views of the world which are visibly expressed in languages, life-styles, gestures, symbols and rituals.5 Culture is what a social group considers the best and the sum-total of its thinking, living and expressing. Over the years tribal culture has attained a clear distinctiveness by fostering a special balance between nature and culture. Economically, natural resources, which are gifts of nature, are shared in common among the tribals.
    Politically, consensus is the tribal way of making decisions. Thisfully manifests itself in the Gaon Sabha (village council). All the heads of families have equal voice in this council. The head of the panchayat (council) is not the Chief, but the ‘first among equals’, a Chairman. He articulates the opinion of the members and allows them to come to an unanimous decision. An Adivasi swears by God and the panches (council elders). The panchayat thus promotes democratic political thinking at the grassroots level. This contrasts with the present-day systems of administration and other institutions which depend on the ruling elite and not on the people. Socio-culturally, there is no place for caste hierarchy among the tribals.There is egalitarianism in their social structure, a secular attitude in their religious outlook, and a people-oriented art expressed in their seasonal and communitarian songs and dances.

    However, the values referred to above do not fully exist in today’s tribal society. This society has indeed been considerably fragmented, resources have been individualised, and social stratification and competition have been sharpened. The present-day phenomena of growing materialism, consumerism, individualism, dishonesty, lust for power and money, use of violence, lack of concern for others, trampling ruthlessly on the rights of the poor, the weak, women and children are some of the devastating ill-effects of industrialization and modernisation which have affected the tribal societies too. But these evils are opposed to tribal core values, such as awareness of the all-pervasive influence of the Transcendent, respect for elders,
gender equality, spirit of sociability and hospitality, solidarity andsharing, community feeling, and democratic style of functioning in decision-making. One may add openness to other religions, basic honesty, hard work, creativity, contentedness and joy in simple living, love of nature and attachment to land and forest. As well as love of freedom with proper parental discipline, celebration of life through feasts and festivities, and hope for the future.

    Modern industrial life brings along a great deal of stress. Its consequences can be seen in an increasing number of cases of drunkenness, family breakdowns, strained relationships, quarrels, violence and crimes. All these are signs of the socio-cultural degradation of tribal communities. Notwithstanding these problems, the tribal communities need to reconstruct the ideal of their core values in today’s world. These values offer a kind of ideal types in terms of which the tribal societies must be evaluated and reconstructed.

Adivasis and the Church
    The Adivasis in different parts of the country have embraced Christianity in sizeable numbers. By her proclamation of the Gospel, the Church drew them to receive and profess the faith. She
incorporated them into Christ so that in love for Him they may growto full maturity. Earlier, the Adivasis’ belief in God, ancestral spirits, survival of souls, etc., formed a complex religious system. Their economy was largely based on consumption and reciprocity. Safeguarded by sanctions, their customary laws and government were safe without the aid of any police or jail.

    All these features were not only deeply interconnected, but also in a perpetual flux of change. When the Adivasis embraced Christianity, there took place a chain of reflection, acceptance and
rejection, adaptation and integration. The Church’s teaching today is that, through her involvement, whatever good is found in the minds and hearts of men and women and in the rites and customs of peoples, these should not only be preserved from destruction, but also be purified, raised up and perfected for the glory of God and the happiness of people (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, No. 17).

Christianity met certain needs of the Adivasis in a meaningful way. These needs were social and religious, temporal and spiritual, never one or the other alone. The movement to enter the Church should thus be understood in the Adivasis’ overall historical situation. Concretely, this meant the liberation of the Adivasis from various forms of injustice. The Church met their deepest felt needs and broughtthem hope for a better social, economic, political, cultural and religious life. It is also important to remember that the Adivasis have suffered various kinds of persecution for their new found faith at different points of their history. They however stood firm and gave
birth to new generations of Adivasi communities.
    Embracing Christianity brought about a significant transformation in Adivasi societies. Their outlook and behavior patterns changed. They became enlightened and stronger in their
 

Preserving, Promoting and Transforming
CulturesEvery culture is dynamic and evolving. This is particularly true in today’s world where cultures so deeply mingle and influence each other. Speaking of her relationships with and attitudes towards diverse cultures, the Church highlights two general principles which may serve as guidelines to all people who want to be meaningfully involved in the preservation, promotion and creation of relevant cultures – be it their own culture or that of others.
    1) The Second Vatican Council declared: It is the Church’s “task to uncover, cherish and ennoble all that is true, good and beautiful in the human community”. It further exhorted Catholics to “acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among… (the followers of other religions), as well as the values in their society and culture”.
    2) According to Pope John Paul II, the Church must lead people to change cultures when necessary, the “criteria of judgement, preferred values, centres of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration, and models of life, which show themselves to be in
conflict with God’s plans”.6
    Should every individual and group adopt these two complementary attitudes?

Adivasi identity and selfhood. Their ‘new’ identity was no more the old one and yet maintained many of its features, such as kinship relationships, rules regarding marriage outside one’s clan and within one’s tribe (there may be exceptions of course), widow remarriage, belief in communion with ancestors, celebration of traditional harvest and cattle feasts, etc. The Christian Adivasis moreover crossed the social boundary of their own community by becoming part of the larger Christian world. Through quality education, this identity has helped them to become adjusted to a modern world confronted with fast social, economic, political and culturo-religious changes.

Adivasi Identity
The Adivasis of India have their own religion which they call Adi-dharam, meaning the basis, roots and beginnings (adi) of their religious beliefs. Such beliefs have been variously known as animism, ‘primitivism’, aboriginal or nature religion, janjati dharam, saran dharam, sari dharam, sansari dharam, jahera dharam, bongaism,etc. Munda rightly points out that, despite similarities with established world religions like Hinduism, Islam and Christianity regarding the main concerns – God, creation, earth, human beings, etc. –, the Adivasis have a distinctive and positive religious identity.7 However, the Census of India asks the Adivasis to register their religious identity under the category of “other”. Consequently, most of the Adivasis who are not Christian, Muslim or Buddhist register themselves as Hindu. This is not right and the much trumputed ghar wapsi (home- coming) programme of the Sangh Parivar is a meaningless exercise which tries to make the world believe that the Adivasis are Hindus!
    
The Adivasis are not Hindus. The latter have Scriptures like the Srutis, Smritis, Puranas, Darshans and Epics. The former on the other hand have only oral traditions in the form of their creation story, Karam story, Asur Kahani, etc. The Hindus believe in Nirgum and Sagun Brahman, whereas the Adivasis believe in the Supreme Being whom they call by different names. The Hindus worship innumerable gods and goddesses but the Adivasis only the Supreme Being. They also engage in the veneration of ancestral as well as guardian spirits.
     Hinduism is based on the varna and caste systems which establish the supremacy of the Brahmins. Thus, it rises or falls with the caste system. The Adivasi society does not however have the caste system.

It is divided into different groups and various clans. Socially, there isno high and low among them. Even constitutionally, the Adivasis are different from the caste Hindus since the Constitution makes provision for the Scheduled Tribes. The Hindu Marriage Act and the Hindu
Succession Act also make it quite clear that the Acts do not apply tothe Adivasis.

Encounter with Caste Societies
With the threat of the Hindutva forces, the Adivasi identity has reached a critical stage. For the Hindutva groups, the Adivasis are no more Adivasis, but merely vanavasis (forest dwellers)! This ethnocentric and malicious game is destroying the very identity of the Adivasis who constitute a specific society with its own values and belief systems. This identity poses a challenge to the caste-ridden Hindutva groups. The Hindu fanatics are thus trying their best to
lure the Adivasis into the Hindu fold, make them untouchables and always keep them at the lowest rungs of their social and economic ladders. They are doing it by deliberately ignoring the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic realities of the country under their dangerous slogan, Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan (one language, one culture and one nation).

    By making the tribals vanavasi Hindus, the Hindutvavadis would succeed in destroying the identity of the Adivasis as original inhabitants of India and would convert them to mere dregs of the casteist Hindu society. In this way, more than 80 million Adivasis would become a cheap labour force for the higher castes to make use of. The Adivasis who fall into the trap of one or another kind of Hinduisation thus completely destroy their identity and become the victims of the culture of silence. It is an absolutely fatal process! The earlier the Adivasis realise this tragedy, the better it is!

Towards an Action Plan
The Second Vatican Council teaches that the followers of Christ share “the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the women and men of our time, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted”. They deeply appreciate the great riches God has distributed
among all nations, cultures and religions, are familiar with the national and religious traditions of their country, partake in the social and cultural life of their people and are involved in the transformation of the world. They put aside conflicts between nations and races, establish and promote relationships of respect and love with all the people of the universe and thus build peace throughout the world.8This is the role of Christian Adivasis in India today!

    In fact, all Adivasis must preserve, develop and promote their beautiful cultures and identity in the midst of the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies in India. First of all, they need to empower themselves economically, for example by (a) introducing Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in their communities, (b) properly educating their women and children, and (c) building up cooperatives and marketing societies. They should moreover make use of self- employment schemes, give up harmful drinking habits and become effective leaders of their communities.
    Secondly, tribal languages and oral literatures together with otherimportant aspects of tribal cultures and religions have to be included in the school syllabus. Several tribals should follow L.L.B. courses to enable themselves to defend the rights of their communities and get justice. The Adivasis also need to use the print media to promote their cultures and counter the deadly campaign of the Sangh Parivar. Such means can also be instrumental in exposing the ill-effects of certain government policies not in keeping with tribal interests and welfare.

    Thirdly, unity among Christian and non-Christian tribals must be built in a systematic manner, for instance by (a) celebrating cultural feasts and festivals in common, (b) organising dance festivals on various occasions, (c) celebrating the International Day of Indigenous Peoples every year, and especially (d) deepening human contacts in all possible ways and working together in various kinds of development projects and daily activities. Finally, political awareness and the art of self-governance have to be fostered by the Adivasis through the strengthening of the Gram Sabha and Panchayati Raj systems, particularly in the context of the recent legislation. In such ways, the Adivasis will not only preserve their identity and ensure the dynamic growth and relevant transformation of their cultures, but will also significantly contribute to the building of a more democratic and humane India.

NOTES
1.      Mathur K.S., “Tribe in India: A Problem of Identification and Integration”,in K.S. Singh (ed.), Tribal Situation in India, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, 1972, p. 460. .
2.      Sinha S., Sen J. and Panchbhai S., “TheConcept of Diku among the Tribals of Chotanagpur”, Man in India, 49(2),April-June 1969, p. 127. !.
3.       
4.      Mathur V.K., “The Traditional-Modern Continuum: An Assumption in Tribal Development”, Journal of Social Research, 10 (2), 1967, pp. 11-25. ".
5.      Beteille A., Essays in Comparative Sociology, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1987 (1974), pp. 67-68. #.
6.      GC 34 SJ, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, Anand, 1995, n. 75, f. n. 1. $.

7.      The three quotations are taken from The Church in the Modern World (No. 76), the Declaration On Non-Christian Religions (No. 2) and Evangelii Nuntiandi (No. 19). %. Munda R.D, 2000, Adi-Dharam, Sarini and BIRSA, Bhubaneswar. &. See The Church in the Modern World (Nos. 1, 42 & 76) and On Non-Christian Religions (No. 11).



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