The Adivasi - India's indigenous people

(► “Santhal Para”)
Adivasi Dorfbewohner

Villagers of Santhal Para

They call themselves “Adivasi” (adi: original, vasi: inhabitants – “original inhabitants“), in the Indian constitution they are summarized as “Scheduled Tribes” (“registered tribes”) of which there are several hundreds of very different sizes (a few hundred to several million tribesmen). The Adivasi are the descendants of those people who lived in the dense forests of the Indian subcontinent as hunters, gatherers, fishermen, nomadic shepherds or shifting cultivators, when, from about 2500 BC onwards, warlike pastoral peoples conquered the land from the west, enslaved or expelled the inhabitants, and cleared the forests for their own purposes. This wave of conquest lasted about 1000 years during which the indigenous people were forced to retreat to partly impassable mountainous areas and forests where they could find a livelihood for themselves and lived largely isolated according to their traditions.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, British conquerors began to ruthlessly clear Indian forests on a large scale and to lay railroad lines in mainly undeveloped areas in order to extract mineral resources. Many Adivasi were driven out of their villages and settlement areas. And this displacement continues to this day. Through the construction of large dams, industrial parks, military installations, etc., and the creation of national and recreational parks, the Adivasi are deprived of their livelihood. Many are forced to live in cities as cheap labourers or beggars.

90% of the Adivasi live below the poverty line, most of them are illiterate, and many are in poor health. Although the Indian government has provided quotas for the Adivasi in the civil service and parliament, as well as in education, and has created support programs for better economic development, they are marginalised and their living conditions continue to deteriorate.

Alter Mann und Knabe_Santhal Para_2013_10

But there is also resistance. The Adivasi are fighting to preserve their cultures and their traditional ways of life which are threatened with extinction by the demands of India's expansively growing economy. They have also received prominent support from the author Arundathi Roy who has become known worldwide for her novel “The God of Small Things” and who has taken part in many protest events and is campaigning for the rights of the Adivasi.

Knowledge in reading, writing, and arithmetic helps the Adivasi to understand, exercise, and fight for their rights. In this sense, ‘we care’ is committed to the children of the Adivasi villages Santhal Para and Keotkhalisa in West Bengal.

The Adivasi of those villages belong to the Santhal tribe, the largest Adivasi tribe. It includes several million people who live mainly in states in northeastern India and partly in Bangladesh and Nepal.

The Santhal live mostly in village communities which have a clearly articulated social structure. There is no hierarchy based on power or status, and compared to women in Hindu society, Santhal women enjoy far more rights. The village community is ruled by a chief who is elected for life and also the contact person for people seeking advice and the mediator in case of disagreements.

Zwei Adivasi Mütter mit ihren Kindern

Santhal women with their children

The Santhal speak Santali, one of the oldest languages in India. At the numerous traditional and religious events – the Santhal believe in good and evil spirits in nature that permeate their daily lives – their rich cultural life is evident. Music and dance play a major role. The Santhal are also skilled and talented in handicrafts and art.

Traditionally, the Santhal are field workers, however, very few possess their own land but work the fields of others as day laborers. But Santhal are also exploited as cheap labourers on construction sites, in factories, and in brickworks. The Santhal from the village of Santhal Para work in the rice fields of Indian farmers.

More information about:

In the article “Landraub auf Kosten der Ärmsten” (translated: “Land robbery at the expense of the poorest”) – published in the magazine “Doppelpunkt” (No. 19/2014) – Kamal A. Garg impressively describes the arbitrary expropriation of millions of people – among them also the Adivasi – by the Indian state. (PDF)

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