Adiwasi word was coined in 20th century. Before that the people living in remote and forested areas of Bharat were called tribals or vanvasi : “people of the forest”. Calling them adivasi is problematic as it presupposes that they are the original inhabitants of Bharat and all others came later from outside. This is not the established fact. In fact, DNA evidence proves that there is practically no difference between so called Adivasis and Brahmins of Bharat and a vast majority of Bharatiya population has been residing in the subcontinent since time immemorial.
A new term Mulnivasi is also used now in activist circles. Both these terms are used to create a separate identity of vanvasis, and put them against other people of Bharat and promote separatism amongst the tribal community.We will thus use the term ‘Tribals/Vanvasis’ in our analysis.
Who are the Vanvasis?
Vanvasis are around 7.5% of Bharat’s population and live in areas that are generally inaccessible, i.e. in mountains, deep forests or other remote areas. Contrary to common view, they are not totally outside the fold of society. In fact they have always had a close and mutually beneficial relationship with mainstream society.
Tribals are not a monolithic community. From the isolated tribes of Sentinel island in Andaman to more mainstream Gonds, Meenas, Ahoms, Jaunsaris and Bhotias, tribals are at different levels of material culture. Some are nomadic. Every year certain tribes dominate the results of UPSC civil services, PCS and other government exams, while we never hear of certain other tribes. The mythical equality among tribals is also a simplification. Most tribes are as much classiest and sexist as mainstream society.
In modern times, many tribes have suffered a lot due to colonialism, missionary activities, government land grabbing and later naxalism. We will see how their situation evolved within Bharatiya society and what is the current situation.
Vanvasis in Hindu epics
Bharat has two main epics : Ramayana and Mahabharata. Both have mention of vanvasis. Some people falsely claim that rakshasas were tribals. In fact some JNU activists have manufactured a false narrative of Mahishasur as a tribal King in recent years. The question is, if rakshasas can be called vanvasis, what will they call vanaras of Ramayana, and sabari in Ramayana? If Nisada is cursed in the beginning of Ramayana, does not the tribe regain honor when they help Sri Rama cross the river?
In Ramayana, Sabari is an important character. Clearly her name is not Sabari, she is called so as she is member of Sabar tribe (which is still existent today). Similarly, Nisadaraj becomes a friend of Rama. The vanaras of Karnataka/Kishkindha were allies of Rama and helped him conquer Lanka. Even if we consider Rakshasas as a tribe, clearly the antagonism of Rama was not due to their tribal status.
In Mahabharata, we find numerous tribal Kings participating in the war. The story of Eklavya is quite famous. He was from Bhil tribe. In fact, almost all the tribes of Bharat, from Manipur in East to Gujarat in West, and Kashmir in North to Tamil Nadu in South, are represented in the epic. The heroes, Pandavas, marry into some of these tribes. Thus in Mahabharata, we see that Tribals were respected and sought for alliance. The story of Ekalavya is of course an aberration, but Eklavya becomes one of the most trusted lieutenants of Jarasandh later in the story.
Vanvasis in ancient times
In ancient history, we can see description of tribal states in the republics mentioned in Ashokan inscriptions. Ashoka counsels many other tribes to desist from violent acts. Clearly, some people of these tribes were literate enough to read Ashokan inscriptions. Please note the location of the tribal republics is near the mountain ranges. In fact, both Mahavir and Buddha were born in such republican tribes and still considered Kshtriyas. Another commonly known piece of evidence is Prayag Prashasti of Samudragupta. He claims to have defeated tribal Kings of central Bharat and also tribal republics. Clearly, if there were tribal Kings, the stories of oppression for thousands of years are not true.
Vanvasis in medieval times
In medieval times, we learn of vanvasis from records left by medieval Kings and Sultans. We learn that Bhils of Mewar stood bravely with the Ranas during their tough times. Even today, the royal emblem of Mewar has a Bhil and a Rajput standing together with their arms. Even today, the Rajyabhiseka of Rana is done by a Bhil. The tribal Kingdom of Gondwana is mentioned in the history books as a bastion of resistance against Mughals. They married with the Chandel Rajputs and bravery of Queen Durgawati of Gonds against Akbar is not a secret. The tribal Kingdom of Ahoms defeated Mughals many a times.
Apart from these kingdoms, many tribes were into trade. An example is Banjaras. They are an impoverished community today, but in medieval times they carried goods from one place to another. They were tasked by Alauddin Khilji to carry grains, and by Shah Jehan to carry goods for his army in south. There are stories of many Lakha Banjaras, who had more than 1 lakh bullock carts. Many of the ponds they constructed for drinking water of their animals are still called Lakha Banjara Talab in central Bharat. Tribals were recruited as soldiers in Vijayanagar army too.
Clearly, even during medieval times, Tribals were strong and prosperous. Although politically extinguished by the Mughals, they were not in a pitiable condition. What exactly happened under the British?
The British rule
The British rule brought with it many tragedies for the tribals. In fact, tribals in one area or other, revolted almost every decade against the British. Some big revolts like Santhal Hool of 1855 or Ul Gulan of Mundas in 1890s shook the British badly.
The reasons for these revolts were almost similar everywhere. The tribal way of life was impacted by British Forest Laws (which remained in existence until 2013!), torture and corruption. The role of Christian missionaries, who denigrated the religious practices of Hindus were also at considerable fault.
Interestingly, in almost every major tribal revolt, the leaders claimed guidance of Thakur or God Vishnu. Birsa Munda even had a Vaishnav Guru, although these activists prefer to show him as separate from Hindu Dharma now. In Santhal as well as Munda revolt, the tribals declared coming of Satyug. These activists should tell us which religion talks about Satyug?
British felt difficulty in fighting the tribes, so they thought of a legal solution. They declared entire tribes as criminal tribes under Criminal Tribes Act. So, people were criminalized by birth! Curiously, the Dalit intellectuals for some reason do not stop praising “English sense of Justice” these days.
Such tribes are still stigmatized. They were denotified from the act after independence and in fact, even now they are sometimes called Denotified Tribes(DNT). Thus, many prosperous, independent and large tribes were brought to ruin by British greed.
Unfortunately, today Brahmins are blamed for their condition because according to Dalit intellectuals, everything wrong with this country is due to Brahmins. But this is not an original thought. Now we come to the second part of the story, in which we meet Verrier Elwin.
It is difficult to talk about vanvasis in an academic sense without talking about Verrier Elwin. He was a missionary who came to Bharat in 1927 for spreading Christianty. He lived with tribals for years and wrote numerous books. His influence on Bharatiya understanding of tribals and policy of government regarding tribals cannot be overstated. A favourite of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, he served as director of Anthropological Survey of India and was given Bharatiya citizenship in 1954.
For the first eight years of his stay in Bharat, he wrote books from a Christian perspective. He emphasized that tribals were not Hindus. On the footprints of Christian missionaries, he called them animists. Unfortunately, that view stuck and is quoted by Hinduphobics even today. From 1935 onwards, he corrected his views and emphatically said that tribals are indeed Hindus. But the damage had already been done.
His second blunder was his prescribed policy to approach tribals. He emphasized that they should be undisturbed as long as possible and should be made part of mainstream “at their own pace”. This led to marginalization of tribals as state conveniently forgot about them for a very long time. This led to two things.
Firstly, the Christian missionaries filled the vaccum created by withdrawal of state and harvested souls by lakhs. So a major area of North East, and central Bharat was Christianized. Secondly, the lack of development enabled radical Communists to find roots in these areas. Large parts of tribal belt are under influence of Maoist insurgency today.
Current situation and politics
Today, the foreign funded missionaries are facing resistance from organisations like Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, who focus on bringing tribals to mainstream by education and social work. The naxals work as the armed soldiers of Missionaries in many cases and both have a declared agenda of breaking Bharat.
The front organisation of these powers keep bringing the false narratives about tribal marginalization and exploitation to the fore. In this they are supported by other breaking Bharat forces.
We have seen how tribals were ruined by the British. It suits missionaries to deflect the blame on Brahmins and Hindus. Then ironically, they also claim that tribals were not Hindus ever. Truth is, Hindu Dharma all over Bharat retains practice of worshiping gram devtas(village deities), kul devtas(ancestral deities) and pitri-devtas(ancestors). Reverence to nature is inbuilt in Hindu Dharma. How is it different from animism?
Of course, now many tribals have converted into Islam and Christianty, but the religion of their ancestors was undoubtedly Hindu Dharma. Most tribals will tell you so despite the claim of “Tribal Army”. It is one thing on which Gandhi and Savarkar both agree.
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