Claim Forms of Storytelling: Adivasis Can Talk and Should Talk
Posted by Boniface G Kamei
There is a story among the Rongmei Nagas about a particular aspect of their existence. Once upon a time, their god invited all of his creations to come together in one place so that he could assign them their roles in this world. When his creations, including a man, came together, he forbade them to look up to the sky while he read the roles. After the roles were assigned, all of the creatures sat down to eat. While eating his meal, the man raised his head to chew on a long mustard leaf. Looking up, he saw the house of God. Subsequently, he built a replica on land and so the Rongmei Nagas, currently inhabiting Manipur and Nagaland, began to take shelter.
These bits of knowledge reflect the tribal wisdom and worldview passed down through the centuries via oral storytelling. The Adivasis and the tribes have been speaking for a long time and continue to do so. However, historically when the Adivasis spoke they were attacked. Their stories and wisdom began to be reduced to a “myth” denoting their inferiority. In the discourse on the East by the West or to use Edward Saïd’s term “orientalism”, such a world was perpetually projected as backward and underdeveloped compared to the West always presented as developed and superior. . For most of history, as early as the colonial period, the Adivasis have been spoken for. Not that they couldn’t speak, but rather the entire business and the printing and government network belonged to the West. From what has been written about the Adivasis, they have been stereotyped as primitive people with an insatiable desire for drinking, dancing, sex, and violence. Mary M. Clark A corner in India (1907) provides a narrative framework typical of the Adivasis of Nagaland. The people are portrayed as bloodthirsty, lawless warriors who enjoy waging war and reveling in pagan homes. Such a world, although volatile, is presented as the ideal site to introduce culture and civilization, and the pagan house is transformed into the image of Western architecture. But such knowledge of the East was created for the sake of the Western world. As Spivak says in “Can the subordinate speak?” The Eastern discourse is designed for the political and economic gains of the West. Texts like A corner in India was written as an economic commodity to be consumed by the West and to justify political subjugation under the guise of Eastern civilization. And in such a paradigm, the Adivasis cannot speak.
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Even today, the prism of the developed and the backward is not the only model that stifles the tribe. The development projects of its State or rather the biopolitical power of the State which seeks to optimize life by regulating health care, wealth, resources, irrigation and others, do not take this way of life into account. of the Adivasis. Development projects such as dam construction and mining are in most cases planned in areas inhabited by the Adivasis and tribes of India. Such development projects look at development from the perspective of modernization, not from the perspective of indigenous residents. For example, the mega-dam project on the Kolab River threatened the very survival of many Odisha tribal villages. And there are many cases of eviction from their ancestral homes.
Indigenous peoples in this country and beyond live in balance with the environment. Paradoxically, when conservation projects are announced, they end up alienating the very people who have lived on this land for centuries. But nothing can be more ironic that a tribal university conceptualized to study tribal societies in India is built in the area where the large general community resides and not in an inhabited tribal district or region. This happened in Manipur, where the Indira Gandhi Tribal University was established in Imphal, the state capital inhabited by people mostly belonging to the large general community. Such illustrations do not seek to upset a community, but are rather used to emphasize that development is often not from the point of view of the Adivasis. Such projects only dislocate the Adivasis and keep them away from development.
In the field of academics, too, social hierarchies put Adivasi literature at a disadvantage. The whole printing business strengthens the relationship between center and margin. The publishing industry provides a vivid picture of this relationship. A book written in English has priority over other languages. English and Hindi are the most popular means of instruction in schools and in the media. Such speech not only kills the languages of the Adivasis, but it marks an economic divide in the sense that English and Hindi have more reach and usefulness. And also a question arises, in what language do the children think they will face the lessons taught at school? If they think in a foreign language, they lose one of the identity markers. And over time, history would repeat itself again, and the language of the Adivasis would be limited to folk tales and with few grammatical components for documentation. Languages would go back in time as would books on the shelves.
And so against all odds, can the Adivasis really speak? The answer to this question lies in the quest of the Adivasis communities to find alternative narratives. One example would be the incident that occurred in 2015, when the Manipur state government passed three bills that could potentially render tribals stateless. In the chaos that followed, eight people were killed by state police to stop the protest in the streets against the bills. The state government dismissed the issue as a public order issue and called the dead people crowds. The Paite tribe, in coordination with other tribes in Manipur, condemned the three bills as anti-tribals and countered the state narrative and produced their own narrative enacting the eight deceased as tribal martyrs who had sacrificed their life for their ancestral homeland. A memorial room was set up to display the photos and coffins of the martyrs, songs were composed for singing at the protest sites, and the protesters themselves went through a process of spiritual self-discipline not to indulge to electoral errors, because corrupt leaders were behind the death of anti-tribal laws. These events were not only captured by local media and broadcast on domestic televisions. The communication network established by them passed Manipur and reached Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya; and even in metropolitan cities like Bangalore and Delhi. Thanks to the networking of print and media, people could at least imagine themselves as one and speak for themselves. The resistance against the state was not only revolutionary in scope; the state also accepted the martyrdom of those who died during the protest, and the anti-tribal bills were withdrawn.
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Partha Chatterjee writes that a nation is first imagined in the cultural realm, then in the material realm. In the discourse of resistance to the intervention and influence of the colonial state in the cultural field, the nationalists established a new network of printing presses, publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, corporations. literary and press houses. This rationality seems to operate in the approach adopted by the Adivasis towards mainstream society. It opens up the possibility of developing their own culture which includes language, literature, philosophy, history and others, and of resisting them and preserving them from foreign influences or interpretations. If successful, they would no longer be the subject of investigations likely to interest investigators.
Such discourse is important to shake off the docile and moderate subjectivities in which history has shaped the Adivasis. Resistance is an integral part of society because where there is power, there is resistance since it is not external to power. And such resistance would lead to what Michel Foucault calls “a game of truth or the sum of tactics and strategies used to determine a truth.”
The scale of progress among the Adivasis is not uniform, but recent developments have shown that they are not passive spectators. Adivasis can and must speak. Who else can better articulate and express their thoughts than they?
Boniface G Kamei is from the Rongmei Naga tribe from Manipur, India. He is currently a researcher at the University of Hyderabad.
This article was republished from the Adivasi Lives Matter archives with permission.