Tasvir, a young poet-author at Muskaan, a learning centre in Bhopal, tells us how writing can be used to empower his historically stigmatised community: “Pardhis have a rich history. But the way others label us today is wrong. I believe we should start writing and publish our stories. Our lives need to be heard. Our community is losing its identity, our culture is being erased, our connection with the forest forgotten.”
Pardhis were classified as a ‘criminal tribe’ by the British, and were re-labelled as a ‘denotified tribe’ after Independence. But the literacy Tasvir talks about comes from a pedagogy where Adivasi children are encouraged to teach their languages to their teachers and where education is rooted in the child’s social and cultural milieu. To understand what a departure this is from colonial-era hierarchies, which still overshadow most Adivasi schooling, we need to untangle several neglected strands of history.
In 1960, the Elwin Committee report (among the earliest tribal policy statements of independent India) recognised that tribal people have their own institutions of learning, and that a policy of ‘integration’, as opposed to ‘assimilation’, should treat these as allies, not rivals, of schools.
The best known of these indigenous institutions is the Ghotul in Bastar, where older Muria Gond children educate youngsters through a work-play continuum and a sophisticated etiquette of passing on knowledge orally. Children learn countless skills, while sharing myths, riddles, songs, dances, and an ethics based on values of sharing rather than competition. Similar institutions such as Dhumkuria and Dangribasa exist in Jharkhand and Odisha.
Literacy has prime value today. The question is: how to impart it without erasing Adivasi knowledge and value systems?
Most early schools for Adivasis were set up by Christian missions. During the 1920-50s, a reaction set in. Gandhi’s Nai Talim was one, decolonising education to bring unity of hand, mind and heart, and emphasising local practical knowledge and mother tongues. Another was Hindutva, consolidated in the 50s, when R.K. Deshpande set up Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), which soon established a vast network of schools.
The VKA’s perception of Adivasis was coloured by the idea of them as ‘backward Hindus,’ promoted by G.S. Ghurye, a founding father of Indian sociology, trained in anthropology at Cambridge in the 1920s. Ghurye advocated ‘assimilation’ of tribal people, as did A.V. Thakkar (Thakkar Bapa), who set up the influential ashramshala model. In recent years, the absorption of ‘Hindu’ practices in RSS schools has drawn many Adivasis into violent communal politics.
Although Thakkar was a follower of Gandhi, there is little that is Gandhian about the ashramshala pedagogy. The most recent government committee on tribal affairs, headed by Virginius Xaxa, refers to an ‘ashramisation’ of tribal education. Many ashram schools covertly became Hindu nationalist, yet followed patterns set by Christian mission schools, with uniforms, strict (often brutal) discipline, a deeply hierarchical structure, alien ‘knowledge’ learnt by rote, short haircuts, and Adivasi names replaced with Hindu ones. A 1941 lecture by Thakkar in Pune highlighted negative stereotypes about tribal ‘laziness’, ‘promiscuity’, ‘illiteracy’, and ‘addiction to shifting cultivation’. The cultural racism in such stereotypes forms the backdrop to the continuing discrimination and humiliation of Adivasis.
In the U.S, the forced assimilation of indigenous people was the official policy from the 19th to the mid-20th centuries. By the 1970s this changed, and the ‘detribalising’ residential schools were closed. Twenty years later, the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia apologised for the cultural genocide embedded in this policy. In India, the Xaxa report (2014) indicates that the official policy of ‘integration’ conceals a policy of assimilation.
Two key aspects of assimilation are residential schools that are removed from community life, and the imposition of dominant regional languages. Each Adivasi language encompasses a world of knowledge, cosmology, and values. This is partly why, although violated routinely, Article 350A of the Constitution, which gives every child the right to education in their own mother tongue, is so significant. Studies show that multilingual education aids cognitive development and stimulates intellectual confidence much more effectively.
In the words of Lado Sikaka, Dongria Kondh leader of the campaign to save Niyamgiri from bauxite mining, “If our language is alive, only then will our culture thrive. Losing our language, we will lose our identity, our forests, rivers and mountains.”
Thakkar’s 1941 lecture advocated using tribal tongues as a ‘bridge’, but in practice, even this did not happen. Jaipal Singh Munda confronted Thakkar Bapa in the Constituent Assembly debates in 1949 about failing to use tribal languages in his schools.
From the 1960s there was a rapid increase in residential schools for Adivasi children, which focused on training tribal citizens for jobs in industrial projects — a trend clearly aimed at producing a compliant workforce for the industries expanding in Adivasi areas. This grew stronger in the 1990s, when several new tribal residential schools started, such as the state-run Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV), the Eklavya Model Residential Schools, and private ones like the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) in Bhubaneswar.
From 2005, with the Maoist conflict escalating and mining companies vying to take over forest lands, hundreds of day schools have been shut down in Adivasi villages. Replacing them, ‘portacabin’ schools were set up in south Chhattisgarh, removing Adivasi children en masse from ‘Maoist affected’ villages. Around this time, companies also started funding their own tribal schools. The National Mineral Development Corporation set up ‘education cities’ in Chhattisgarh; Adani opened a joint school with KISS in Mayurbhanj last year. Like these companies, Vedanta and Nalco too have deals with KISS, funding admissions from areas where they have mining interests. .
KISS, which claims to be the world’s largest residential school, has 27,000 students, all from Scheduled Tribe communities. Describing itself as ‘the world’s largest anthropological laboratory,’ it was due to host the next World Congress of Anthropology in January 2023. This was cancelled following opposition by Adivasi activists and anthropologists. KISS seems to share key features of U.S. residential schools, and its stated goal of ‘converting tax consumers into taxpayers’ implies a view of tribal cultures as ‘primitive’. This insensitivity to the complexity of Adivasi society and economy, the sheer scale of KISS, and its distance from villages, alienate children from their roots. The free education is hyped as a ‘gift’ for Adivasi children — yet why do police play such a big role in bringing the children to school?
KISS promotes Hindu festivals and Sanskrit prayers rather than Adivasi languages, prayers or festivals. Says one ex-student of KISS: “The gods only understand Sanskrit at KISS. Our Kondh children forget how to pray in Kui.”
Achyut Samanta, charismatic founder of KISS, has spoken of non-literate Adivasi parents as people who “don’t understand anything”. The cultural racism rampant in such schools goes back to colonial stereotypes. At a KGBV in Jharkhand, teachers described their students to us through widely prevalent negative stereotypes. One non-Adivasi teacher said, “These girls are unteachable. All they are interested in is sajna-savarna (dressing up) and they follow very bad [sexual] practices in their villages.” At the end of an extended conversation, however, the teacher reflectively said, “In a way, I feel these girls have more freedom and agency than us. We are not even allowed to choose our marriage partner.”
Key national and international guidelines on indigenous education have not been followed. The 1961 Dhebar Commission had recommended integration of tribal knowledge and languages into the curriculum, and ensuring that school times didn’t clash with tribal festivals and agricultural work, which are vital learning spaces. Similar recommendations from the National Curriculum Framework of 2005 have not been followed. The 2006 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples underscores their right to establish and control their own educational institutions.
Signs of hope
This abysmal situation stands in stark contrast to a growing network of alternative schools that offer a different kind of hope. On a very small scale compared to the widely promoted homogenising mega-schools, they respect diversity and are sensitive to the socio-cultural and political context of the children.
Muskaan in Bhopal, working with the children of ST waste-collectors, draws on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed . Teachers use Pardhi, Gondi and other Adivasi languages along with Hindi and English. This makes classroom interaction meaningful and engaging and builds children’s self-confidence. Community members participate as teachers, storytellers, artists and textbook writers.
In Badwani district, Madhya Pradesh, the village-based Adharshila Learning Centre runs on similar principles, incorporating Adivasi knowledge systems and the local language, Bareli. Besides studies, children have built much of the school and planted agricultural fields and vegetable gardens around it. Adharshila started over 20 years ago after its founders met Adivasi children in government-run ashram schools and were shocked by the children’s fear of school and the inferiority complex it had instilled about their background, skills, and language.
In Rayagada in Odisha, Kondh parents distinguish between dangar patha (mountain learning) and kagaj patha (paper learning). Asked which they prefer, many parents answer ‘both’. This expresses a need deeply felt by Adivasis: literacy, with fluency in the regional language or English, is important; but so is respect for native languages and knowledge systems linked to the land and forest.
The National Education Policy of 2020 is silent on the crucial question of integrating Adivasi knowledge. It appears to encourage multilingual education but calls for ‘philanthropic’ (read: corporate) investment, focused on producing workers for the market rather than implementing the Right to Education Act (2009).
In too many classrooms, Adivasi children have sat silent for too long. Baali, a Gond teacher at Muskaan, who suffered years of humiliation in mainstream schools, describes how they were often beaten and forbidden to speak Gondi, causing many to drop out. “Many more of us would have stayed on,” she says, “if our languages weren’t frowned upon. Many more of us would have acquired higher education. We could have expressed concepts of unemployment or inflation or forestry from our perspective and in our language.”
In her classroom, children move freely between languages. “Pardhi children greet me in Gondi and Kanjar children speak Pardhi. I have my charts with words from all the languages we use.” Such methods stimulate learning and give them pride in their own culture while learning about others.
The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.
Malvika Gupta is a D.Phil candidate at the Department of International Development at Oxford University. Felix Padel is a social scientist trained at Oxford and Delhi Universities, currently a Research Associate at Sussex University