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Voices of Adivasis

Adivasi Life Stories, Context, Constraint, Choices by Indra Munshi;


Voices of Adivasis

Maithreyi Krishnaraj

his book belongs to the genre of testimony of voices of people who are not heard. Usually testimony relates to people who were part of a movement like, for example, We Were Making History, that Stree Shakti Sanghathana of Hyderabad brought out on the narratives of women who were part of the Telangana struggle. There are many ways in which oral history as a technique or method is employed. It can be on any particular theme; it may be on individual groups. There are case histories where although oral method is employed, the subject chosen is to illustrate a specific problem as, for instance, impact of an event, or, as an example of how a particular project, or, organisation grew and functioned. These are used a great deal in industry and business and media.

Real Life Stories

In life stories on the other hand of a particular group, one traces the impact of major social changes by trying to capture

Economic & Political Weekly

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Adivasi Life Stories, Context, Constraint, Choices by Indra Munshi; Rawat Publishers, Jaipur/New Delhi, 2007.

how it affected individuals. Group discussion can also be employed. The selection of individuals to narrate their experiences is to give greater credence to the story of how things happened and how it affected different persons. Actually a real life story is a complete autobiography, a narration in full length of a person’s life unprompted by any outsider. Even then there are always gaps in the telling, of things remembered, not remembered of experiences recast.

Regina Holloman1(unpublished) made some interesting observations about the paradigmatic shift in social sciences based on two assumptions: (1) that the major problems with social science theory has been its failure to accept the criterion of cross level completeness as a measure of theoretical adequacy; and (2) the nature of human interactive and cultural processes is such that strict “objectivity” in research design and analysis is not possible on theoretical grounds, and that failure to meet the issue in research

design itself is both a political and an historical product. The second point is well accepted. But with regard to the first, we must recognise that there are levels in theory. Giving an example from biology, she argues that nature does not go by levels and that this conceptualisation arises from our human need to simplify in order to grasp complex systems. For example, we may have advances in biochemistry and advances in understanding mental illness. There then emerges an attempt to cross theories across disciplines. Now, the influence of biochemistry in mental illness has come to be recognised so we have studies of the biochemistry of mental illness. The brain chemical serotonin is now implicated in cases of clinical depression as I recently learnt. It is the paradigmatic shift that has given life and oral history in general a new legitimacy. When the actors are individuals and small groups, there is an increasing pressure for mapping over of the language of structure and macro


processes at the level of daily life and which make sense phenomenologically.

There is a mix of biography and autobiography where the respondent is illiterate. Radkibai is a case in point. Besides her involvement with an organisation has already conscientised her to the problems facing adivasis and to that extent it is from an awakened sensibility and not a raw experience. Bahubhau’s history is in response to the questions posed by the author and not a free flowing narration by the respondent. Likewise Ramabai’s and Dasma’s, Subhash’s narrations are triggered by the author’s appropriate questions.

Individual Victims

In one sense, what Munshi has brought together here is a testimony narrated as a life story. Social changes are experienced always at individual level; each private person goes through the change to which he or she has to cope with, fight against or buckle under. It is in the little every day disturbances of individual human beings we find the great locations of the history of human kind. It is through the telling of individual victims of the holocaust, or, the second world war, or, Partition in India that we gain an inkling of the horrors of those days, the agony of people and their immense suffering. The desire for power of some group or the other triggers such mass misery – though examples like the Pol Pot regime’s excesses in Cambodia are different from the onward march of “development” and commercialisation. The latter’s fallout of gains for some and cost for others is a slower, less visible process. When we dish out cold statistics of war and the casualty, it moves us less than for instance a film like the Pianist in Poland during the Jewish extermination under the Nazis; it is in reading of Urvashi Bhutalia’s personal narrations of women caught between worlds that we truly grasp the immensity of the catastrophe of Partition of our country.

Munshi’s book gives an excellent introduction to the contents of the book. It


gives a brief narration of the changes among tribal groups ushered in right from colonial times, a tale of uprooting and dispossession of lives that had been preserved for centuries. She goes on to discuss the special merits of oral method she calls “life history”, for I have a semantic difference here on what one can legitimately be termed a life history. Here the life experience narrated here is with respect to a particular episode, namely, the process of modernisation and development after independence in response to the investigators queries. Any way, leaving that aside, it is worth quoting her here:

Individual life stories make the larger processes more vivid, comprehensible – the individual lives are the stage in which social changes are played out – individual experiences reflect the structural fact that impinge upon them, shape and constrain their actions – there is the cumulative effect of individual decisions, the changing pattern of millions of conscious decisions, individual trajectories of the collective, shaped by structural changes but individually and collectively people also intervene, they

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respond, resist, challenge, undermine, manipulate and of every thing to work the system to their advantage.

Oral Communication

We see this very much in women’s lives – the constant struggle to resist and accommodate and to find a balance between them. We see this in the lives of dalits till they launched a collective struggle against their oppression and discrimination.

Here I would like to dwell a little on oral methods while not gainsaying their obvious merits one must be aware of their hazards to avoid possible pitfalls. Oral history is only a method. A case study and a case history may be used partly to derive data. Face to face, verbal, oral communication with a subject gives more cues than a questionnaire. I draw from some observations which C S Lakshmi made some years ago in one of our workshops.2

Whatever is put into language has to be constantly understood in terms of the absence of languages – in oral history often there are a lot of unsaid things. To understand oral history one has to remember that concepts like pain, suffering and power are not fixed concepts. They change according to the process of life and according to history. The nature of the material will also vary according to time, place and period one has chosen to intervene into a person’s life. What seemed unbearable and oppressive can change its nature in a later interview. What constituted happiness can also change. Often suffering is woven into one’s life and creeps into it without any calamitous beginning, and one does not then remember the causes of that suffering.

Truth is not something immutable – that stops at a particular point and remains unaltered for all time. Therefore, one cannot be definite about the meaning of a particular construction. In order to understand general concepts like pain, suffering, oppression and so forth, one has to leave the door open for unsaid things. To quote Lakshmi:

There is a tendency in the subject to present one self from a point of view elicited by the interviewer. What is important to the researcher may not be important to the subject. These raise the question of whether we can draw boundaries of the self identity and social identity. If one can perceive one self as related to others and perceive the construction of self, such a perception can

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help transform the way we can relate to the world and gain the power to lead nondebased lives.

In the individual narrations, like the Kashtakari Sanghathana member Radkibai she talks about how she joined the forest protection movement, how the ‘sowkars’ deprived them of their land and demanded sexual favours. “In those days, you took something to eat and you gave away your land”. To the question, how do you feel at present, another person, a man, Bahubhau answers: “Different people have different problems. Illness and fever is a major problem…There is no starvation but hunger is still there. Earlier there was oppression of the sowkar but now there are internal fights among the people. The close association of adivasis to the forests came about as they lost land and got pushed to rely on the forests. To live, they lived off the forest”, says Bahubhau. As a result forest protection has to be now organised. The women interviewees in the book talk about their work, their marriage and their oppression within marriage.

Tribals’ Rights

We have the forest bill giving rights to the adivasis for use rights of the forests but it is still being debated as to how one balances the needs of such people for livelihood with the environmental consi derations that are equally important. At the turn of the 18th century India had 45 per cent land under forests. At the time of independence this got reduced to 25 per cent and now it is barely 12 per cent most of which is degraded land. The current adoption of joint forest management, many point out, does not really give decisionmaking power to the users as it rests a lot of discretion with the government’s forest department. What belonged to the people earlier became the property of the government during the British raj. This legacy continues. A successful experiment I saw was in Nagarhole, a wild life park in Karnataka, where the adivasis have been accommodated at the periphery of the forest and given the responsibility of maintaining the health of the forests.

As we talk about this book, the press report of October 17, 2007 talks about 25,000 farmers on a non-violent march from Gwalior to Delhi. They are tribals who have been displaced as a result of mining, industries or wild life parks. There are some who have been driven out of their lands they tilled for generations. Their main demand is for setting up a National Land Reforms Commission and a new land reforms policy. Development projects have displaced over 20 million people of whom 40 per cent are adivasis. The objective after all is not just to record something but to induce empathy and move to remedial actions.

These published accounts were shared with the narrators by the author. Whatever resistance and coping or adaptations the tribals had made, an era has gone by, some thing that cannot be rewritten. However, it makes us ask some fundamental questions about our notion of progress and development, what values in human life are more critical than others. The plundering of our natural resources for profit and human greed has to stop somewhere and sufficiency as a philosophy has to prevail. I came across a beautiful verse in one of the Upanishads ‘Mother earth, may I tread softly on you so you may not get hurt”.3 Today with the onset of rapid erosion of our natural resources these questions face us more starkly regarding the fate of our blue planet and the fate of us as a rapacious species. That has wiped out in a hundred years what took a million years for extinction through natural processes according to Edward Wilson, the famous evolutionary biologist in his book, Biodiversity (1988). In his more recent book, Wilson (2003), he says “Should we go ahead and for short-term gain allow the original species and ecosystems to slip away? …. The issue like all great decisions is moral. Science and technology are what we can do; morality is what we agree we should or should not do.”


If we too are nature’s products, the pinnacle of evolution as we like to believe, as Jared Diamond, another evolutionary biologist in his recent book Chaos argues, we have the propensity to employ our capacity to use feed back and correct our steps and there in lies our hope. We


should hope, I feel, not just for our planet but for eradicating such gross inequality among the people, so that some should not bear the cost of others’ prosperity. My maid one day asked me, “There are rich and there are poor so the poor like us get jobs. What will happen if none of us were poor?”. The answer is that within inequality which cannot be done away with, the minimum available to the poor of social resources like health, education, etc, guarantees a life that promises opportunity to move up, to build their capabilities. Gandhi had very radical ideas – he felt the division of intellectual labour and manual labour can be lessened, if we had what he called bread labour of a few hours for every one.

This review is less about the book itself but the many ideas it has provoked and the awareness it has generated about the life of the adivasis. In the concluding chapter, Munshi warns us against romanticising the adivasis’ relationship to nature. Ecological sensibility is not necessarily an innate consciousness of these forest dwellers. Even if there is, the attitude changes over time. After all their primary concern is having a stable livelihood. A few do speak of how migration and exposure to urban areas is not their idea of the good life for they do miss their ‘pada’. Most of them would prefer not to go out of their village if work was available there. Getting enough to eat is the major problem. Literacy has gone up over decades, healthcare is more accessible but poverty still stalks these tribal populations. As late as 1993-94, Munshi points out, 46.5 per cent of scheduled tribes were below poverty line. The proportion of agricultural workers has increased and the condition of landowning are not any better than that of the landless. To conclude in Munshi’s own words:

The stories of adivasis are the stories of suffering and deprived people all over the world who have been excluded and marginalised by the processes of development and modernisation. That economic growth does not necessarily ensure enhanced quality of life for the majority is an accepted fact now.

I enjoyed the book and was impressed by the way the micro and macro were enmeshed.



[Revised version of a presentation made on October 19, 2007 at the department of sociology, Mumbai University on the occasion of the release of the book.]

1 In workshop on ‘Oral History in Women Studies: Concept, Method and Use’ held by the Research Centre of Women Studies in SNDT women’s university in 1990, this paper was circulated by Stree Vani, Pune who co-sponsored the workshop. Hence I do not have the full references for this.

2 ‘Interpretation in Oral History Methods’ in Maithreyi Krishnaraj (ed), Evolving New Methodologies in Research on Women Studies, Mimeo, 1988, RCWS, SNDT University, Mumbai.

3 The quote in the text did not give details of the exact source – which Upanishad, page number, etc, but that such sentiment prevailed in our earlier tradition is worth remembering.


Edward, Wilson (1988): Biodiversity, National Academic Press, UK.

– (2003): The Future of Life Abacus, Times Warner

Book Group, UK, edition. Jared, Diamond (2003): Chaos, Edge Foundation, USA.

march 15, 2008

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