Are Adivasis Hindu - the information portal on South Asia

Due to the frequent direct associations of India and castes, the fact that an estimated 80 million Indians are considered to be Adivasi or "natives" or tribal population and are therefore not to be counted as part of the caste society is occasionally disregarded. Apart from the geographical distribution, the size of the individual tribal groups is also very different. While smaller groups number a few thousand members, the largest of them, such as the Gond or Kondh, comprise several million people.

This population group of India will be briefly characterized in the following, with some examples based on the author's own research increasingly referring to the Central Indian tribal society.

The classification of the tribal people

If one follows the administrative categories of the Indian government, according to the census of 1991 approx. 8% of the population belong to the so-called "Scheduled Tribes". Currently, 622 groups are meant, which are listed in an appendix or "schedule" of the constitution (see the> alphabetical list of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs). They are also known as Adivasi or "indigenous people". In absolute numbers, this corresponded to almost 68 million people in 1991 who fall into this category. Today it should be around 82 million people. Figures from the new 2001 census are not yet available.

The regional distribution of the tribal population is very different. While a good 94% of the tribal population in the union state of Mizoram is counted, according to the census in Uttar Pradesh it is only 0.2% (see map). Even within the Union states, the distribution can be quite heterogeneous. If, for example, the average proportion of scheduled tribes in Orissa is a good 22%, in contrast to coastal Orissa it is sometimes 60% in areas in the north-west of Orissa and is thus significantly higher.

However, the census does not take into account the extent to which groups that are not classified by the government as Scheduled Tribe nevertheless share the values ​​and ideas of neighboring tribal groups. Ethnologists like Sinha (1957: 107) or Pfeffer (1997: 11, 2000: 342ff, 2002: 212ff), who prefer to speak of a symbiotic "tribal society", take this fact into account. Such can also include Scheduled Castes (so-called "Untouchables") or Other Backward Classes ("backward" sub-castes), provided they live in areas dominated by tribal populations, who use the same cultural idioms and share certain common values. In this respect, the Scheduled Tribes of the Census are an artificially separated category. Local or regional categories such as Desia - literally: "the inhabitants of the country" - in the south of the Union state of Orissa subsume and transcend administrative categories such as Scheduled Tribes. At the same time, however, this also means that many tribal groups in India are not completely autonomous and independent units.

Tribe "and" tribal population "as controversial terms

The concepts of "tribes" or "tribal population" have been criticized many times, are very emotionally charged like "caste" and "moved scholars to‘ unscholarly anger '"as the ethnologist F.G. Bailey (1960: 263) once remarked. In the African context in particular, the term "tribe" has been almost completely abandoned in favor of the terms "ethnic groups" or "acephalous societies", which in turn are not without problems. In India there is also a fundamental difficulty in using the term "tribe" or "tribe" due to a double use: on the one hand as an administrative category, i.e. as a "Scheduled Tribe" within a government listing, and on the other hand as an analytical, scientific category. The former is often given politically motivated as a label, without necessarily corresponding to local or regional circumstances.

Often these terms are rejected because of their derogatory connotations, especially in urban India, as here the terms are associated with backwardness, underdevelopment, promiscuity or alcohol consumption. On the other hand, paternalistic ideas prevail, i.e. the tribes are characterized as innocent, naive or more nature-oriented populations. A good example of such a representation can be found, for example, on the homepage of the government of Orissa, where you can read:

"Most tribal people ate [sic] basically working people, working to gather food and fuel or engaged in agriculture, which is often at a primitive level or maybe in some primitive craft: Their work is usually of subsistence type. The Adivasis may not be the so-called gentlemen, for they have to dig and delve, slash and sow or, pin and weave, but their uncomplicated Adamic approach to life and the basic human virtues, which constitute the hallmark of their integrated culture is fit for emulation, if feasible, by our acquisitive society. "
( - 06/07/2003)

In other cases - and occasionally in combination with these stereotypes - a distinction between the tribes is traced back to a different "racial" origin, the difference is seen mainly linguistically defined or by the geographical distance to "civilization" or by a supposedly more egalitarian character Tribes. All of these approaches have rightly been criticized and should not be pursued further here.

"Adivasi" - "tribe" - "tribe". The difficult naming

The terms tribe (tribe) or tribal (member of the tribe), which are currently widespread in India, are derived from the Latin word tribus, which denoted a political-territorial unit in ancient Rome. Similar to the case of caste, this term does not correspond to any indigenous or indigenous Indian category. But how is "tribe" expressed in India? As Roy noted for tribes in Orissa in 1925 - and as it is known from tribes worldwide - the proper name of a tribe mostly simply means "human". This applies, for example, to the Remo in Orissa, also known as Bondo in India. The name Birhor, another tribe in Orissa, translates as "man of the forest", while the Bhuyan see themselves as "earth people". It is also not uncommon for different terms to be used for the same group, depending on the context. For example, Gell (1992: 2) found that a group in Bastar in the Union state of Chhattisgarh is referred to by the government as Gond and by non-members as "Muria" (root), while among themselves they use the term "Koitor" ( Human). Castes who later immigrated to tribal areas are usually clearly differentiated in Central India and are often referred to as "Diku" or invaders.

The second term, which is often viewed as more politically correct, is Adivasi, which means something like "aborigines". He is occasionally used by the Indian government in opposition to Ana-Adivasi (non-Adivasi). It is not uncommon to meet villagers in tribal areas who proudly proclaim to be Adivasi, although not all local tribal groups necessarily have to be "indigenous people" as there was and is a not inconsiderable migration of tribes in India. Apart from that, the term Adivasi is a Sanskrit term and thus a foreign description of the tribes.

In current Indian practice, it is also not uncommon for tribal groups such as the Gond to see themselves as "jati" and thus use an ambiguous term that is mostly translated as caste. In addition, in some cases tribal groups also claim to be Kshatriya. Such status claims seem to illustrate processes of assimilation into the caste hierarchy and for the groups concerned are in no way in contradiction with a classification by the government as a scheduled tribe.

"Aboriginal" or "backward Hindus"?
The Elwin Ghury Debate & the Hindu Nationalist Discourse

The fact that external terms such as "tribe" cannot easily be transferred to the Indian context and that a large number of indigenous terms can also be found may have contributed to the debate as to whether and to what extent one can even speak of tribes as separate ethnic entities in India . This debate dates back to the 1930s. One of the main protagonists was Verrier Elwin - a "philanthropologist" who had changed from missionary to ethnographer and from British to Indian, as he liked to see himself. In his 1939 monograph on the Baiga tribal group, Elwin also dealt with the future of the Baiga in the last chapter. Under the impression of "psychical apathy and physical decline" of the neighbors of the Baiga, Elwin advocated measures to protect the Baiga, which culminated in the demand for a "National Park". This is the only way to restore and secure their free access to the forests - an important factor for the Baiga who practice slash and burn. Such a park should be free from missionaries and movements of all kinds, which, although formally working towards a "social uplift" of the Baiga, would at the same time denigrate tribal traditions. As Elwin later emphasized, he was not concerned with isolating the tribes, but merely with a "planned and controlled contact" (Elwin 1998 [1964]: 291) between culturally different groups.

Elwin's opponent in the debate, the ethnologist G. S. Ghurye, strictly rejected his ideas in his 1943 book "The Aborigines: So-called and Their Future". Ghurye, in contrast to Elwin a Brahmin, scribe, "nationalist anthropologist" (Béteille 1991: 77) and "armchair ethnologist" (Guha 2000: 157) without much ethnographic experience, already pointed out the similarities between Hindus and tribes largely "Hindu" segments of tribes and their supposedly autochthonous character due to migration processes. He wrote:

"Only very small sections, living in the recesses of hills and the depths of forests, have not been more than touched by Hinduism. Under the circumstances, the only proper description of these people is that they are the imperfectly integrated classes of Hindu society. Though for the sake of convenience they may be designated the tribal classes of Hindu society, suggesting thereby the social fact that they have retained much more of the tribal creeds and organization than many of the castes of Hindu society, yet they are in reality Backward Hindus . " (Ghurye 1963: 19)

Even leaving aside the question of whether and how much protection certain groups in Indian society need, the crucial point of conflict remains in the debate - namely the characterization of the "Scheduled Tribes" as "indigenous people", as Elwin points out, or as "backward Hindus "as Ghurye argues.

This question of whether "tribes" in India are to be viewed as separate ethnic entities and thus to be distinguished from the Hindu or caste society is by no means irrelevant, but rather highly political in the current Hindu-nationalist discourse. A major goal of the Hindu nationalist project is to build a Hindu majority. India should accordingly be identified with Hindu. j. Dubashi, a leading ideologue of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said:

"The key to genuine development is self-assertion - as an Indian, and as a Hindu, for India is nothing if not Hindu."
(Dubashi 1992: x)

Similarly, V. Naidu, current BJP president, is reported to have recently remarked at a campaign event:

"Hindutva [Hindutum - US] is the lifeline of this country." (quoted in: The Hindu, March 16, 2003, Online Edition)

Such an attempt to Hindu India (Ludden 1996) would, if successful, leave no room for divergent ideas and values ​​of tribal groups, since from a Hindu nationalist perspective such diversity would endanger the desired unity of all Hindus. In this sense, tribal groups are characterized in the jargon of Hindu nationalist groups as "Vanajati" (box of forests) or as "Vanvasi" (forest dwellers) - terms that, in contrast to Adivasi, emphasize less the cultural difference.

Tribal Society Ideas and Values ​​in India

The concept of the tribe has long been controversial in ethnological research. It has been described as a "problem" (Helm 1968) or an "illusion" (Southall 1970). Ethnologists like Southall rightly referred to the "invention of tribes", especially in the African context, for example in the sense of a misrepresentation of the tribes by name by colonial and post-colonial administrations.

Despite certain distortions of the tribal structures since the colonial period, tribal ideas and values ​​can still be recognized, for which the work of the ethnologist Marshall D. Sahlins (1968) is helpful. Based on his research in Oceania, he characterized a tribe as:

"socially articulated, a tribe is specifically unlike a modern nation in that its several communities are not united under a sovereign governing authority, nor are the boundaries of the whole thus clearly and politically determined. The tribe builds itself up from within, the smaller community segments joined in groups of higher order, yet just where it becomes greatest the structure becomes weakest: the tribe as such is the most tenuous of arrangements, without even a semblance of collective organization. " (Sahlins 1968: vii-viii)

Sahlins thus sees the lack of a central authority and executive body as the decisive criterion of a tribe, which by no means excludes phenomena of the transition from the tribe to the state, but is only seen as a process of progressive intensification of authority. In addition, Sahlins connects a generalized structure of society with the tribe - there is no distinction between political, economic, religious spheres etc. Furthermore, the concept of the tribe implies a latent state of war in the sense of Thomas Hobbes' "warre", i.e. there is no institutionally guaranteed peace. As Sahlins (1968: 5) notes, tribes have no "sovereign political and moral authority; the right to use force and do 'battell', ..., is held by the people in severalty". The study by Nayak (1989) on kinship feuds among the Dongria Kondh in southern Orissa supports this statement. However, Sahlins (1968: 8f) also emphasizes the role of exchange and kinship, which can compensate for a latent state of war and reveal a kind of "wisdom" of tribal society. Exchange campaigns can become symbolic peace treaties.

Sahlin's argument that there are no centralized state institutions in tribal societies has been rejected by Southall (1970: 29) on the grounds that the entire world is already divided into states and that there are consequently no more autonomous territories. Still, Southall had to admit that the state's influence in remote areas is sometimes not only ineffective, but negligible. In many "tribal areas" of India, for example in the Union state of Orissa, this seems to be the case and the effectiveness of the modern, bureaucratic Indian state is very limited.

The question of the values ​​and ideas of tribal society for India and especially Central India has recently been taken up again by G. Pfeffer after it had already been established in debates in the 1950s and 1960s that tribal groups like the Saora did not value purity has the same meaning as in caste society. So the ethnologists Dumont and Pocock recorded when

"... a certain system of ideas and actions [...] defined as Hindu opposition of pure and impure is fundamental to Hinduism, then the Saoras are not Hindus, for their ideas in the matter are very sketchy." And, though "... Saoras do not ignore the importance attached by Hindus to these things ... [notion of ceremonial impurity - US] ... They do not submit directly to the scheme of Hindu values." (Dumont / Pocock 1959: 60-1)

According to Pfeffer, the value of seniority is of particular importance among Central Indian tribes. Different tribal groups as well as segments of individual tribes etc. are integrated into a hierarchical structure in which the older category is assigned a higher status. In this respect, a distinction is not only made between the Gadaba and Bondo tribal groups, but also at the same time between senior Gadaba and junior Gadaba of lower status or older from younger brothers, etc. Such hierarchical relationships also refute an egalitarian ethos that is often assigned to the tribes.

In such a hierarchy not only tribal groups are integrated, but also groups such as the Mali (gardeners), Gauda (cattle herders) or Keunt (fishermen), who are classified by the government as "Other Backward Classes" or groups such as the Pano or Dombo, which are considered "untouchables" by the administration. Since these groups collectively not only value seniority, but also ideas about marriage, religion, etc.sharing with the tribes, one can speak of a tribal society for Central India, for example, which, however, can be configured differently depending on the respective tribal groups, external influences, etc.

If one compares the Central Indian tribal society with the caste order, further differences such as the significant lack of a Varna model, but also commonalities, become apparent. A distinction is made between status and power in both societies, albeit in completely different ways. While in tribal society local kinship lines with sacred functions are distinguished from those with secular, secular functions, with the former having a higher status as older ones, in the caste society there is a dichotomy between the higher status Brahmin as a professional priest and that of secular political power ruling king or the Kshatriya. Complex rules of commensality, i.e. regarding eating together, and marriage are not only limited to the order of the Hindus, but also exist in tribal society, and it is just as possible that the tribes have influenced the neighboring Hindus in this sense and not the other way around. The idea of ​​rebirth and reincarnation is also found among the tribes, but it is not tied to the idea of ​​karma.

Ultimately, in Indian practice and in the political process, the boundaries between castes and tribes are increasingly blurring due to permanent processes of oscillation between these categories. As Parkin (2000) has shown, different groups can pursue different strategies. In order to achieve a higher status, some tribal groups such as the Bhuyan try to integrate themselves into the caste order or, conversely, to reinforce their tribal identity outside this order, as the example of the Santal shows. At the same time, castes like the Kurmi can strive to be recognized as tribes in order to benefit from the material privileges of the government. Processes of the politicization of individual groups, as already described for the castes, can also be observed in a similar form among tribal groups. Thus, questions of ethnicity are decisive factors in political discourse - more recently, for example, in relation to the formation of new Union states - a discourse that can be constructed but also manipulated.


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