We were here before the founders of that Meluhha known to far-off Mesopotamia built their cities on the plains of the Indus. Before Mohenjo-daro and Harappa and Lothal, before drains were laid out, before seals began to be stamped and goods traded and granaries made, we lived off the forests, gathering the abundant food we found, sometimes burning down the trees for planting but always moving on to let the forest regenerate. We traded occasionally with the Indus cities, but we remained free; they never conquered us or tried to conquer us.
We were here before the Aryans came thundering in their chariots through the mountain passes; they could break the dams, flooding the plains and destroying the remnants of the Indus cities but they could not destroy us. They knew us as Nishada and Naga; they called us Rakshasa, they burned the forests to destroy us and free the land to fashion their agrarian society stamped with the hierarchy of caste. They were the ones who remembered us as their enemies. Ekalavya was one of our great archers, so skillful that the hero of the Aryans, Arjun, could not stand before him. But they assaulted him, cutting his thumb, destroying his ability to fight - and then fashioned a story in which he accepted Drona as his Guru and agreed to surrender his thumb! Ram was one of their heroes, given the task not only of destroying the Dravidians but also of slaughtering the rakshasas in the forests.
While the Indus civilisation was destroyed, its remnants absorbed into and providing the foundation for the developing Indian civilisation, our culture did not die. It is true that some of us were conquered and turned into village-bound peasants, or, enticed by religious cunning and the flourishing village society to become the Bahujans and Dalits of that society, farmers, craftsmen, labourers. All of these sections bear even today the marks of our democratic forms of government - panchayats, collective traditions, clan solidarity. But in accepting Brahmanism they accepted a tyranny of the mind, a poison of superiority and inferiority, purity and pollution.
We who refused this, who were not conquered, who were not enticed, who remained outside, who remained free - we are the Adivasis of today. Not all of our cultures are the same. We speak different languages, some Dravidian, some Mundari, some like those of the Nagas similar to the languages of China and Tibet, some related to the languages of our more caste-bound Indo-European speaking neighbors. Our religions are also different. Some follow the sarna religion with traditions linked to sacred grove, some know only the general sacredness of all nature and its beings. However, whatever their variations, our religions are of this world; we know nothing of karmakanda and moksha; our gods are not divine beings of mystery beyond our ken, but people like ourselves, our ancestors, even our friends.
We fought the British colonisers when they came. Our heroes like Birsa Munda, Khazya Naik, Tantya Bhil are remembered in our songs and legends but forgotten in your textbooks. Why is this, you who are so concerned about the history of national independence in your textbooks? In many ways, though, the British conquered us more thoroughly even than the earlier Aryans, taking away our autonomy as they extended control over the forests, making us "encroachers" on land that had been ours for ages. And they were the first to call us "tribals," for thinking of us primitive was the only way they could explain the difference between our equalitarian, community-oriented cultures and the hierarchical lives of peasant caste societies. With this, they romanticised us on the one hand, but also characterised us as children and arrogated to themselves the authority to control our lives and grab the wealth of the forests.
After Independence, with State control of the forests continuing, with cultivators moving in to capture our lands, and companies moving in to grab our timber, we became more "marginalised" than ever. Our rebellions had forced the British to pass some laws to protect us - but after Independence, those who held the land rights were called "landlords" and the people who had been encroaching on our lands got control over them as "tenants". The post-independent elites have continued the policy of the British they claimed to fight, calling us "tribals," treating us like conquered people, with few schools, no industry, no development, and above all maintaining in their own hands the control over our forest wealth.
Now as a result we have become landless labourers and poor farmers and day labourers, and some, forced to migrate from lands we have known for generations, the poorest of the refugees crowding the cities. You call us " girijan" and "vanvasi" as if we only knew hills and forests. We have the least education of all the Indian people and we are among the poorest; it is only those Adivasi communities in the North east who have States of their own who seem to have any prosperity, so not surprisingly many of us fight for States like Jharkhand. Now you are trying to weaken us with religious divisions, claiming some of us "Hindus" and others "Christians," and inciting vicious attacks by your thugs under the name of protecting Hinduism.
You constantly tell us to "join the mainstream" of independent India. But what is this "mainstream" you speak of? Is it the mainstream of cultures which force widows on to funeral pyres, of harassing young brides for dowry, of mumbling chants and pujas in a language that not even the priests really understand? Women in our societies may not quite have full equal rights, and we should change that part of our traditions that tries to keep them subordinate, that attacks them as "witches" if they try to claim land rights. But they are still more independent than women in the caste societies. Our young people chose their own partners, and our weddings are more democratic - where one Brahman or Christian priest controls the marriage ceremony among the so-called great religions, in our traditions the whole community sits together and announces its "agreement" to the marriage.
Finally, many of you romanticise us, and talk as if "development" is something for others, as if we should be "tribals" forever and live in a timeless world apart. We don't want to live apart, we want to be part of a true mainstream of equality and liberty, one we will fight for along with all others. We want schools, hospitals, education, computers, but we don't want them as gifts, with you pretending to be patrons. Give us back the lands and forests you have snatched away, let us develop our own wealth, let us have the profits gained out of sharing with the world our knowledge of medicines and herbs, and we can have all the development we need, under our own control. We are not against trade and exchange, but we want to be able to control the terms and conditions on which we trade. We want a development that will preserve the best parts of our culture, our sense of community and collectivity, our equalitarian life, our freedom. We do not believe that should be so difficult in the world today, but you seem to be following a different path. And finally, why not drop such senseless terms such as "Scheduled Tribe" and " anusuchit jamati" in the Constitution also and call us by our proper name, "Adivasis"?
The author is a consulting sociologist, based in Kasegaon