The silent erasure of Adivasiyat

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

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

On the first day of the monsoon session of the Vidhan Sabha in Madhya Pradesh, Opposition leaders staged a protest demanding that the State holiday on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9 be restored. At first glance, the demand seems ordinary. Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-ruled Jharkhand and Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh, both of which have considerable Adivasi populations, declared that August 9 would be a public holiday. The Congress-led government in Madhya Pradesh had declared it a public holiday too. When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, it made the holiday optional and did not allocate any money for celebrations despite the fact that over a fifth of the State’s population comprises Adivasis. The roots of this intransigence are located within the ideological imperatives of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its approach to Adivasi identity and its fundamental opposition to the discourse of Adivasiyat (indigeneity) .

Imagined community of Hindus

The RSS’s stated objective is the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra. In this imagined community of Hindus, the community will be the master race by virtue of being the majority. However, nations are not a given entity; they need to be constructed, nurtured and sustained. Each nation is sustained by an ideological edifice erected upon shared historical experience, myths, memories and folklore. These elements combine to create a sense of a shared past which imparts the feeling of oneness and a common destiny. It is this sense of a shared past which forms the fountainhead of any collective identity.


The Hindutva discourse situates the Hindu nation at the intersection of history and mythology, thereby investing it with a divine and timeless quality. V.D. Savarkar used myths and symbols from the Ramayana and Vedas to construct the foundational notions of the geographical sovereignty and cultural identity of the Hindu nation. This quasi-historical narrative performed the twin functions of anchoring the identity of the Indian nation in the framework of Vedic Hinduism and, by implication, establishing the adherents to Vedic Hinduism as the indigenous inhabitants of this land; and ‘othering’ Muslims and Christians within the nation.

However, the discourse of Adivasiyat or non-Vedic cultural survival dislocates this narrative. Moreover, it strips the Hindu nation of its divine quality and re-establishes it within the secular historical framework. This is why the RSS is opposed to the category of Adivasi, for accepting it would entail giving up its claim of being autochthonous.

Competing indigeneities

Hindutva’s approach towards Adivasis is dictated by the need to address the twin anxieties of destabilisation of the imagined ethnic Hindu nation by the discourse of Adivasiyat and the conversion of Adivasis to Christianity. Therefore, the RSS re-articulates the Adivasi identity as Vanvasi or forest dweller, who is just an imperfectly integrated Hindu. It takes upon itself the task of integrating the Adivasis within the Hindu fold by co-opting their rituals. It constructs an undifferentiated Hindu past by retelling the narratives of autonomous Adivasi struggles as fragments of the larger Hindu nation’s story of resistance against Christian and Muslim oppressors. It is in a bid to construct such an alternative tribal past that the RSS-BJP advocate the celebration of Birsa Munda’s anniversary as ‘Tribal Pride Day’ in place of observing World Indigenous Day. In Hindutva’s narrative, the Vanvasis are simple, animistic Hindus who need to be protected primarily against the onslaught of proselytisation by Christian missionaries. Towards this end, the memory of Birsa Munda is also reshaped in order to paint him as an antagonist of the Christian ‘other’, while historical facts point to a much more complicated picture of his resistance movement.


Progressive forces like the Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti construct the Adivasi identity primarily in terms of dispossession and exploitation. Therefore, while they look upon proselytisation by missionaries with scepticism, they consider the exploitative outsider, irrespective of religion, as the primary other. This figure of the non-Christian other, the outsider, is absent within the Hindutva discourse.

The discourse of Adivasiyat enables politics to be framed in terms of ownership of resources, rights and dignity. In this discourse, the Adivasi is the owner of the land rather than an imperfectly integrated cultural fragment. Hence, it links the story of the Adivasi with the global story of oppression and dispossession of indigenous populations at the hands of outsiders. It is in this context that the observance of such a past on World Indigenous Day assumes great ideological significance for the Adivasis. What is playing out in Madhya Pradesh is that very struggle against the silent erasure of Adivasiyat.

Anshul Trivedi is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He tweets @anshultrivedi47

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Printable version | Jul 3, 2022 1:27:37 am |