Adivasi people: proud not primitive

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Adivasi people: proud not primitive

by Mari Marcel Thekaekara


Two Paniya women (© Stan Thekaekara)

A German pastor once said that I make the adivasi people of India seem romantic. I had said that adivasis have their own spirituality. He said ‘they have no world view’. Most of India, unfortunately, agree with him.

It is complicated to say what’s special about India’s adivasi (indigenous) people. Many people think that other people, for example anthropologists and human rights defenders, who know adivasis and have worked closely with them, romanticize the tribal peoples. But you can begin to understand what’s special about them if you read India’s first Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru’s poetical descriptions about the tribes of India. In the Panchsheel Treaty, (development guidelines), Nehru told civil servants they must respect adivasis. And he said Tribal Belt development must respect their genius and not make them become like us.

But almost 66 years after Independence, India’s adivasi people are still treated very badly. They are almost always described, in even our best newspapers and magazines, as primitive and backward. Our media is totally ignorant about the meaning of adivasi culture and history. The media shows them at major festivals as ‘noble savages’, dancing in feathers and grass skirts. The public, who do not know better, look at them like animals in a zoo.


Paniya jewelry (Stan Thekaekara)

When we arrived in the Nilgiris in 1984, my husband Stan and I often asked young adivasi people what they thought the word adivasi meant (‘original people’ in Sanskrit). Their replies were predictable. They said ‘ignorant, uncivilized, wild, jungle people, not able to read and write, uneducated and even stupid people’. Teachers changed the adivasi names of children who went to local schools. The teachers were told to civilize the adivasi communities. They taught them to feel ashamed of their people and their culture. Since 1986, we have tried to help these communities fight for their rights, especially for land. Also to join the outside world if they want to, on their own terms, with pride in their culture. We have worked on many problems with pride and self-esteem.

So we think it is wonderful that Survival International has started a campaign called ‘Proud not Primitive’. Adivasis make up nine per cent of the Indian population. In the past, they led lives of quiet dignity. Now they live and die in quiet desperation.

‘Development’ in the areas where adivasi people live means exploitation and deprivation. This is totally against what Nehru wrote in his beautifully worded Panchsheel. The reality of existence for most adivasi people is shameful. For centuries, the outsiders have destroyed them. The mining companies, Vedanta and Posco, have taken their land and the huge dams of the Narmada and Damodar Valley projects, have left thousands of adivasi villages under water and with no money. The forest department has made them criminals, saying they are intruders, even though the recent Forest Rights Act agreed that they suffered historical injustice and declared that their rights to live in the ancient forest would finally be recognized.


(Stan Thekaekara)

Adivasi people have an alternative world view, which not many people talk about. The do not base their existence on consumerism. They live together with nature, taking what they need from nature, but never too much. They never keep too many things. So the non-tribal neighbours think they are as ‘lazy’ and have no ambition. They never needed to control nature. So, unlike their neighbours, they did not cut down lots of forest. They plant vegetables between the trees.

Until recently, our government classified 75 tribal groups ‘primitive’. They have now changed this to ‘vulnerable tribal groups’. For over a century, these names have influenced how the adivasi people think of themselves. Young adivasis see their society as primitive and backward and they want to have the lifestyles and ambition of the dominant society. We are watching the story of Achebe’s novel ‘Things fall apart’ in tribal India.

So we really need the Survival India’s campaign. There is a new generation of adivasis who have learnt to see the world like the dominant group in society. They are now looking back at their own heritage and culture. This cultural revival is very important for the survival of the adivasi world view: this is the only really sustainable lifestyle when the world is looking desperately for solutions to save the earth.

Maybe it’s time for us Indians to look back to the time of Independence, and to the spirit of Nehru’s tribal Panchsheel. We need to apologize to these people who were proud. Their culture has been destroyed for centuries because of development and progress, and we now need to help them. All of us can learn from them. And we need to start now.

Find out more, and join the ‘Proud not Primitive’ campaign here at the website:

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