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Let’s not wait till it’s too late: on the assimilation of indigenous communities

The discovery of mass graves in Canada at the sites of old residential schools should alert us to the cultural racism that’s still alive and kicking in our own country

July 09, 2021 03:13 pm | Updated 03:13 pm IST

Illustration: Mihir Balantrapu

Illustration: Mihir Balantrapu

One of the most disturbing news to emerge in recent times is the continuing discovery in Canada of unmarked graves used to bury the bodies of indigenous children. More than 1,000 graves have been unearthed at the sites of residential schools run in the 1800s, mostly by the Canadian government and Christian missions, to forcibly “assimilate” the children of indigenous Canadians — Indians, Inuit and Métis.

What does ‘assimilation’ mean? It means that tens of thousands of children belonging to Canada’s original inhabitants were taken away from their homes and families and locked up in boarding schools, where they were coerced and brainwashed into becoming part of the ‘mainstream’ — this meant making them forget their native language, customs, dress, and religion, and forcing them to adopt the white man’s culture. Survivors narrate heart-breaking stories of systematically being told they were ‘savage’, taught to hate themselves, fed soap if they spoke in their tongue.

Although the Canadian government officially apologised in 2008, the Roman Catholic church, which ran 70% of these schools, is yet to do so. As Canada erupts in sorrow and anger as the murderous extent of this genocidal chapter in its history becomes shamefully apparent, Catholic churches are being defaced and burnt, and statues of monarchs Victoria and Elizabeth II toppled.

The news should alert us to something unfolding quietly in our own country. Last week, a video was uploaded by YouTuber Sambhavna Seth, where she and her husband mock their Adivasi house-help’s language. The employee is from Jharkhand, home to at least 32 tribes, including the Santhal, Munda, Oraon etc. Over the last decade, men and women from the tribal belts of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh have poured into Mumbai and Delhi to seek domestic work, often exposing themselves to city-bred ignorance, ridicule and ill-treatment. The video reveals that Seth hasn’t even heard of Simdega, her employee’s home, nor knows the relationship between tribal people and the forest, yet she brazenly belittles her.

Her confidence stems from the fond belief that majoritarian culture — a Hindi, Hindu, mall-going, Bollywood-watching, sangeet-organising, paneer-eating amalgam — is above all else. It’s a sense of superiority that replicates colonial prejudices and practices, and manifests itself in far more insidious ways, of which this video is only a tiny instance.

In fact, it begins at school.

The Virginius Xaxa Committee, set up in 2013 to study the educational, health and socio-economic conditions of tribal communities in India and recommend schemes and proposals for improving their status, noted in its 2014 Report that “the State is actually pursuing assimilation rather than integration”. It pointed out that classrooms are not free of social prejudice against tribal people. It recommended locally recruited teachers, and classes in tribal tongues that are “in tune with tribal culture”.

Most importantly, the Xaxa Report noted the move to set up large, centrally-located residential tribal schools, a project that began in the 1950s and intensified in the 90s. Children are brought from distant villages to these schools. The Report listed the state-run Ashram School, Eklavya Model School, and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya and alluded to their names coming up in stories of corruption, bad facilities, and sexual exploitation. Mega residential schools, such as Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, recently established by private entities, are also now being questioned.

Uprooting children from their homes and villages and erasing their mother tongues results in dissociating tribal children from their community and culture, an aggression that is reinforced by brutal disciplinary methods, replacing Adivasi names with mainstream ones, enforcing short hair, or mocking tribal dress, ornaments and customs. The cultural racism and violence inherent in such schools echo the harrowing experience that Canada’s indigenous people had with residential schools, which too had the backing of religious and social leaders, and whose fallout continues to haunt us till today.

Several activists and educationists have spoken up against the residential schools in India’s tribal areas that are silently destroying entire cultures, and many small, alternate schools have come up that approach this field with sensitivity and humility. Yet, despite Canada’s experience, despite testimonies from former students in India, and despite a hard-won 21st-century consciousness of social justice, we remain oblivious to the extent of cultural racism being perpetuated in our backyard. Let at least the spectre of future reproach make us mend the present.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark

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