9 AUGUST: INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE WORLD’S INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
On 11 December 1946, Jaipal Singh Munda addressed the Constituent Assembly: “I thank you, Sir, for giving me an opportunity to speak as [a] representative of the aboriginal tribes of Nagpur … So far as I have been able to count, we are here only five. But we are millions and millions and we are the real owners of India. It has recently become the fashion to talk of ‘Quit India’. I do hope that this is only a stage for the real rehabilitation and resettlement of the original people of India. Let the British quit. Then after that, all the later-comers quit. Then there would be left behind the original people of India” (GoI, 2014:46-47).
The context needs a mention here. On 9 December 1946, at 11 am, the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly took place in the Constitution Hall (now Central Hall) of the Parliament House in New Delhi. The proceedings began with Sachchidananda Sinha being nominated as the temporary chairman as was agreed earlier. After the first two days of working out a method for the proceedings, on 11 December, Rajendra Prasad was elected as the permanent chairman of the Constituent Assembly. As members were asked to speak one after another about the newly elected permanent chairman, Sinha announced: “I shall therefore now call on Mr Jaipal Singh to address you for a few minutes. He represents the aboriginal tribes of Chhota Nagpur.”
In the Constituent Assembly, Jaipal Singh Munda not only represented Jharkhandi Adivasis but also echoed the centuries-long Adivasi resistance across India.
Theoretical and ideological insult of ‘primitivism’
All indigenous resistance in India, and perhaps across the world, has a long history of enduring intrusion and insults – most of which has gone unnoticed or has not been considered important to be recorded. On the other hand, it is also true that whenever outsiders have come to their land, Indian Adivasis have welcomed and accommodated them. Yet, brahmanical forces defamed the “First Nations” through derogatory nomenclature and referring to them as uncivilized and uncultured, and British anthropologists were no less condescending.
For example, British anthropologist Edgar Thurston failed to acknowledge that Adivasis have a different way of life in comparison to the rest of India. In his introductory note of his much-celebrated volumes titled Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Thurston (1909: xiv-xv) refers to some of the Adivasi as “living in a wild state, clad in a cool and simple garb of forest leaves, buried away in the depths of the jungle, and living, like pigs and bears, on roots, honey, and other forest produce.” Interestingly, Thurston’s observations were not his own. K. Rangachari, a Tamil Brahmin, assisted him in researching the tribes and it was through his eyes at the head of the caste system that Thurston looked at the tribes. Upper-caste Hindus like the much-celebrated Indian sociologist M.N. Srinivas (1952) defined tribal or other lower-to-middle caste groups as sanskritized Hindus – those who have adopted or changed their customs, ritual ideology, and way of life to align with those of the high, “twice-born” castes. Ghurye (1963:48-53) described the Adivasis as “so-called aborigines” or “backward Hindus”. No wonder derogation of Adivasis and disturbing terminologies became the norm.
The advent of the British rule marked the beginning of a new phase in Adivasi history, where the tribes were incorporated into the colonial state and structure through a series of wars and other methods of subjugation and annexation. The introduction of new uniform civil and criminal laws as well as the setting up of an administrative structure alien to their indigenous tradition and ethos further irked the Indian Adivasis. In many parts of India, the British also imposed upon them the idea of private property and landlordism in place of lineage- or community-based ownership.
An interesting feature of Adivasi society was the distinct social formation that granted each tribe autonomy to govern their limited territory and ensured self-sufficiency, unlike in a caste society whose hallmark was parasitism. They enjoyed control over land, forests, water and other resources in the surrounding areas and governed themselves in terms of their own laws, traditions and customs. Xaxa (2019:2) theorized this way of life as a “geographical and social isolation” from the larger Indian society.
The development process that the British envisaged for the “primitive” natives and their areas was based on ideological and theoretical constructs of controlling life of the indigenous people. These consisted of a clear trajectory and pattern of defining “primitiveness”, which in effect meant the rejection of the indigenous people’s socio-economical, political and cultural ties with their land and forest. This was based on a theory and ideology of “primitivism” constructed by the ruling class to govern the indigenous areas. One the one hand, this paradox of indigenous life and existence and State’s notion of indigenous people led to tensions and sustained resistance while on the other hand, the continued conversion of these theories and principles into laws widened the gap between the constitutional principle of “free citizens” and disturbing reality of indigenous subjecthood.
The history of India’s indigenous people is intertwined with stories of splendor, myths, exploitation, repression and resistance. The resistance of the indigenous people was not merely against injustice, but it was a clear rejection of enforcement of alien principles, ideologies and concepts – which included exploitation, discrimination, suppression – and their uprooting from the ancestral base. This ancestral base has been part of their life for generations.
‘I’m proud to be a jungli’
Munda delivered his first major speech on the Adivasi question on 19 December 1946, which was a masterly summation of his people’s stand. Munda announced that he was speaking on behalf of more than 30 million Adivasis. He said, “I rise to speak on behalf of millions of unknown hordes – yet very important – of unrecognised warriors of freedom, the original people of India who have variously been known as backward tribes, primitive tribes, criminal tribes and everything else. I am proud to be a Jungli, that is the name by which we are known in my part of the country” (GoI, 2014:143).
Jaipal Singh Munda, who had attended University of Oxford, England, was aware of these historical constructs. Back home, he was also known as Pramod Pahan. He was born in a Munda Adivasi family, on 3 January 1903 in Takra, Pahan Toli village, of what was then Khunti sub-division (now a district) of the then district of Ranchi in the Bihar Province of British India (present-day Jharkhand). He had captained the Indian field hockey team that clinched the gold in the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. In the Constituent Assembly, though he affirmed that he was a man from the jungle, from among those who had resisted brahmanical intrusion, plunder and domination over several millennia.
“As a jungli, as an Adibasi, I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. But my common sense tells me, the common sense of my people tells me that every one of us should march in that road of freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated, it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of the Indus Valley civilization, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the newcomers – most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned – it is the newcomers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastnesses” (GoI, 2014:143).
Jawaharlal Nehru had a resolution passed in the Assembly for providing safeguards to Adivasis. Munda dismissed the resolution saying “this resolution is not going to teach Adibasis democracy. You cannot teach democracy to the tribal people; you have to learn democratic ways from them. They are the most democratic people on earth …We do not ask for any special protection. We want to be treated like every other Indian” (GoI, 2014:143).
Spirited champion for Adivasi rights
Munda was selected for the Indian Civil Service, from which he later resigned. In 1934, he became a teacher at the Prince of Wales College in Achimota, Gold Coast, Ghana. In 1937, he returned to India and became the principal of Rajkumar College, Raipur. The following year, he joined the government of the princely state of Bikaner as foreign secretary. In December 1938, when Munda visited Patna and Ranchi, he saw the plight of the Adivasis and decided to enter politics to be their voice. He became the president of Adivasi Mahasabha in 1939. Popularly known as “Marang Gomke” (Great Leader) by the Adivasis of Chhotanagpur he consistently demanded the rights of Adivasis. He was the first person to demand a separate state for Adivasis, namely Jharkhand.
In the Constituent Assembly, he spoke of the need for a united India while focusing on the political challenge that faced the nation in bringing to an end the exploitation and dispossession of the Adivasis at the hands of Brahmin-ruled mainstream Indian society. “There is the problem of Hindustan. There is, position of Pakistan. There is the problem of Adibasis. If we all shout in different militant directions, feel in different ways, we shall end up in Kabarasthan [graveyard]. The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of Independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected. There is no question of caste in my society. We are all equal” (GoI, 2014:144).
Munda was a gifted orator and his inspirational speech dwelt on the multidimensional problems of Adivasis right from the beginning of history. He talked about under-representation: “Have we not been casually treated by the Cabinet Mission, more than 30 million people completely ignored? It is only a matter of political window-dressing that today we find [only] six tribal members in this Constituent Assembly. How is it? What has the Indian National Congress done for our fair representation? Is there going to be any provision in the rules whereby it may be possible to bring in more Adibasis and by Adibasis I mean, Sir, not only men but women also? There are too many men in the Constituent Assembly. We want more women…. My people have been suffering for 6,000 years because of your racialism, racialism of the Hindus and everybody else. Sir, there is the Advisory Committee. My people, the Adibasis – they are also Indians – are deeply concerned about what is going to happen about the selection to the Advisory Committee (GoI, 2014:144).
Munda warned of the deceptive character of the ruling class. He also spoke of unity among Dalits, Adivasis and Backward Classes. “I think there has been [a] juggling of words going on to deceive us. I have heard of resolutions and speeches galore assuring Adibasis of a fair deal. If history had to teach me anything at all, I should distrust this Resolution, but I do not. Now we are on a new road. Now we have simply got to learn to trust each other … We must create a new atmosphere of confidence among ourselves. I regret there has been too much talk in this House in terms of parties and minorities. Sir, I do not consider my people a minority. We have already heard on the floor of the House this morning that the Depressed Classes also consider themselves as Adibasis, the original inhabitants of this country. If you go on adding people like the exterior castes and others who are socially in no man’s land, we are not a minority. In any case we have prescriptive rights that no one dare deny (GoI, 2014:144).
While further demanding justice and freedom for the indigenous people, Munda said, “it is only by dealing justly, and not by a proclamation of empty words, that we will be able to shape a constitution which will mean real freedom … The solutions to the various problems of the Adibasis are obvious to my mind and these solutions will have to be thrashed out at some later date. Here I can only adumbrate what is my faith in what seems to be the just solution and it is by a realignment, by a daring redistribution of provinces … I say you cannot teach my people democracy. May I repeat that it is the advent of Indo-Aryan hordes that has been destroying the vestiges of democracy. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in his latest book puts the case very nicely and I think I may quote it. In his ‘Discovery of India’ he says, talking of the Indus Valley Civilisation, and later centuries – ‘There were many tribal republics, some of them covering large areas.’ There will again be many tribal republics, republics which will be in the vanguard of the battle for Indian freedom … Let us fight for freedom together, sitting together and working together. Then alone, we shall have real freedom” (GoI, 2014:145).
Nnimmo Bassey: I will not dance to your beat
A poem by Nnimmo Bassey – a Nigerian architect and environmental activist, who chaired the Friends of the Earth International from 2008 through 2012 – comes to mind. Like Munda’s speech, Bassey’s poem also reflects the stand of the indigenous people across the world. Bassey represented the Friends of the Earth and Africa at the World People’s Climate Conference and the Rights of Mother Earth. The conference was a gathering of civil society and government representatives and was hosted by the Bolivian government in Tiquipaya, just outside the city of Cochabamba on 19-22 April 2010. After his opening remarks, he recited this poem:
I will not dance to your beat
If you call plantations forests
I will not sing with you
If you privatise my water
I will confront you with my fists
If climate change means death to me but business to you
I will expose your evil greed
If you don’t leave crude oil in the soil
Coal in the hole and tar sands in the land
I will confront and denounce you
If you insist on carbon offsetting and other do-nothing false solutions
I will make you see red
If you keep talking of REDD[i] and push forest communities away from their land
I will drag you to the Climate Tribunal
If you pile up ecological debt
and refuse to pay your climate debt
I will make you drink your own medicine
If you endorse genetically modified crops
And throw dust into the skies to mask the sun
I will not dance to your beat
Unless we walk the sustainable path
And accept real solutions and respect Mother Earth
Unless you do
I will not and
We will not dance to your beat
The words of Jaipal Singh Munda, spoken 74 years ago, still reverberates from every nook and corner of Indian polity as Adivasis still struggle to regain their rightful share, the right to be an equal citizen of this independent nation. Nnimmo Bassey’s poem reflects on how the world has turned the indigenous land into an object of profit-generating economics. The disregard of development projects, industrialization and mining for the lives and livelihood of traditional forest-based communities, is yet to be recognized by the Indian state. Every single Adivasi struggle for the rights to land and forest eventually boils down to their being the “First Nations” of this land. Their ancestral lands and life still face the fate of “primitivism” where a different civilization is being superimposed over them. One must not forget that even when they were outside the ambit of the State and so-called brahmanical civilization, they had values of egalitarian liberalism as members of their specific tribe. Both in colonial and postcolonial contexts, the liberal theorists and lawmakers have struggled to defend the rights and freedoms of political subjects whom they regard as “primitive”, “backward”, or even “indigenous”. Liberalism thus recurrently encounters its primitive other, a face-off that gives rise to a peculiar set of dilemmas and contradictions for political theory and law.
Indigenous peoples across the world today need a thorough recovery, revalidation and strengthening of their civilizations, identities, cultures and cosmic visions based on knowledge and wisdom they have inherited from their ancestors if we are to find an alternative to the present development model. Like Jaipal Singh Munda, it is high time we stopped dancing to others’ beats.
- Chandra, Uday (2013). Liberalism and its Other: The Politics of Primitivism in Colonial and Postcolonial Indian Law. Law & Society Review, Vol. 47, No. 1, March, 135-68.
- Ghurye, G.S. (1963). The Scheduled Tribes. Bombay: Popular Prakashan Pvt Ltd
- Government of India [GoI]. (2014). Constituent Assembly Debates Book-I. New Delhi: Lok Sabha Secretariat.
- Srinivas, M.N. (1952). Religion and Society Amongst the Coorgs of South India. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
- Thurston, E.V. and K. Rangachari (1909). Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909: xiv-xv)
- Xaxa, Virginius. (2019). Tribes and Indian National Identity: Location of Exclusion and Marginality. In Bodhi S.R and Bipin Jojo (Eds.) The Problematics of Tribal Integration: Voices from India’s Alternative Centers. Hyderabad: The Shared Mirror Publishing House.
[i] REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (or UN-REDD Programme). This is a collaborative effort of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), launched in 2008.
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