The Mandla Gond believed that when the railway came, “Annadeo, the God of food, ran away from the jungle. He sat in the train and went to Bombay, and there he makes the [city] people fat”. – (Ramchandra Guha, 1996)”.
The very fact that the above quote would make the vast majority of the readers laugh portrays the extreme difference in the world views of a tribal person living in remote rural location of India.
The tribal communities of India have always held a space of mystery in the sight and thought of the other communities. Movies, comics, novels and those means that fuel an individual’s imagination have always been unjust to the tribal communities, portraying them as semi naked, dirty, wild and antisocial, thereby framing a certain stereotype in the mind of the common man. This leads to the primary and the fundamental challenge faced by the tribal communities in the India today; The Question of their Identity.
The very first question on tribal identity is the meaning of the word tribe itself. It lacks clear defining.
I have visited tribal regions across the country; from the communities of North Eastern states of India to the tribals in Western Ghats of Kerala. There is vast amount of diversity found within these communities.
For example, certain sections of the Gond community in Gadchirolli district of Maharashtra still live in the forest and are completely isolated from the mainstream society. On the other hand there are other sections of the Gond community from the District of Gadchirolli itself who have completely mingled with the other communities in the region. In such cases, one would often not be able to identify a tribal from a non tribal.
On my first day at a tribal hamlet in Gadchirolli District, I was taken to the home where I was supposed to spend the next few weeks. When I reached the house of Laxman Kaka, he was at his farm, word was sent to him immediately and in a few minutes he returned home, riding his old traditional Hercules bicycle. The sight of Laxman Kaka on his bicycle with his white shirt, blue dhoti and a small piece of cloth on his shoulder (traditional handkerchief) reminded me of my own grandfather who looked very similar while returning home from the farm. It was ironic for me to see the similarities between a tribal man in Gadichirolli’s interior village and my Grandfather who was educated and belonged to a dominant community from one of the more developed states (Kerala) in the country.
The house was no different from a regular rural Indian house. The house had a front courtyard, three rooms, a 15 inch colour T.V , a small statue of the Hindu God Ganesha, a picture of the Hindu God Shiva and then the picture of the “Salla Gangra” which is the spiritual symbol of the Gond tribe. There is a kitchen as well, which has a few sacks of grain and a gas stove.
Outsiders have always tried to change the ways of their living as it was considered as a ‘savage’ lifestyle. I would not attempt to justify that all tribal communities are the contrary as well.
The major aspects that form such notions are: firstly the tribals live majorly near or in forests and hilly areas; tribes like the Bondos in Koraput district of Odisha live in dense forests and very hilly and inaccessible terrain even to this day.
Secondly, and one of the important reason is that they practice witchcrafts, invoke spirits and have varied dark spiritual belief systems. But the question is; whether it is just the tribal communities that practice witch craft?
Thirdly, they practice hunting wild animals and birds and would consume any wild meat that they could lay their hands upon. Once again the question is; are tribals the only ones keen on hunting wild meat? The rich and the famous from dominant communities have often come to the limelight for similar reasons.
Fourthly, their appearance is different from those in the other societies basically owing to reasons such as the harsh conditions of weather that they have to face with minimum protection, physical injuries caused by the tough conditions and attacks from wild animals, dressing habits which are different from the modern societies mainly due to the lack of resources.
Finally, their language is different. In a country like India where we have so many diverse languages and cultures are theirs the only distinct languages?
It is very rare that the mainstream society tries to understand and analyze their world view. Rather they just look at a way to cloth them in western or so called modern clothes, make them eat food alien to them and teach them a foreign language. That is to change the identity of a savage. Developmental agencies approach tribal communities with a notion that these communities have nothing of value in their culture and tradition. And in an attempt to civilize, end up disrupting the very essence of their life.
During my conversation with Laxman Kaka’s son I asked him what he would prefer to be called, Gond, Adivasi or Tribal? He responded “there are many other names that we are called by, like vanvasi, moolnivasi, etc. But if you consider us as humans just like you, please just call us people or humans and nothing else.
If we accept Tribals as human beings, do we still need to search for an answer to their Identity?
Or can we just accept them as our Brothers and Sisters? Food for thought for all of us!