Browsing through 51 Years of EPW | The Mapping of the Adivasi Social: Colonial Anthropology and Adivasis

During the colonial era, a range of disparate groups that lived for the most part in the more inaccessible hill and forest tracts, and survived largely from hunting and gathering or rudimentary swidden agriculture, were categorised by the British as “aboriginals” or “early tribes”. They were distinguished by their clan-based systems of kinship and their “animistic” religious beliefs. Sometimes, they were defined in terms of their habitat, as “jungle tribes”. In this way, a category was created, and a body of knowledge produced, about the so-called “tribes of India”. In the process, scattered communities were granted a unity that they had not hitherto possessed. During the 20th century, as different fractional interest groups within India asserted their right to selfdetermination, “tribal” groups claimed to be the “original” or “indigenous” people of the subcontinent who had been deposed by later interlopers. They deployed the Hindi term for “indigenous” – that of “adivasi” – to describe themselves.1 In this paper we shall use the same term adivasi just to avoid colonial derogatories.

As has been mentioned above, the construction of textual knowledge about Indian communities was a major genre in the colonial milieu as part of the project of colonial knowledge creation as a means of the extension of colonial power. This resulted in extensive literature on almost all communities that was not only used as a source for legal and general administration but also to establish colonial domination. This has been greatly brought out by recent studies. As Edward Said says, “Knowledge of subject races or orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge”.2 It is this dialect of knowledge and domination that pushed the colonial state to acquire more knowledge on its subject communities. The colonial state interestingly had widened and reoriented its project of colonial knowledge creation as its control expanded and penetrated farther.3 This was very much postulated in Curzon’s speech in the House of Lords on September 27, 1909. He stated: Our familiarity, not merely with the languages of the people of the East but with their customs, their feelings, their traditions, their history and religion, our capacity to understand what may be called the genius of the East, is the sole basis upon which we are likely to be able to maintain in the future the position we have won, and no step that can be taken to strengthen that position can be considered undeserving of the attention of his majesty’s government or of a debate in the House of Lords.4

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