through independence — over two centuries.
More or less independent to begin with, Adivasis became increasingly subordinated to the British. Yet they engaged in continuous resistance, from the famous rebellion of Bheema Naik in the 1850s through the Jharkhand movement to participation in Maoist insurgency and involvement in mass movements in the latter part of the 20th century. A Rogue and Peasant Slave focuses on the Bhil Adivasi areas of Madhya Pradesh (in particular the Nimar area), though it expands to include developments in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh in the 20th century.
Adivasi societies were largely autonomous (though often subordinated to larger states); located primarily but not entirely in hilly areas; economically dependant on shifting cultivation and hunting-gathering, and involved in occasional raids. With colonialism, this began to change. The British viewed them as marauders and bandits, and threw their weight behind local elites. Adivasi fighters found the regularly paid and garrisoned British-led soldiers difficult to deal with and were usually subdued. Gradually taxes began to be levied: plough taxes as well as those on every conceivable kind of forest produce. These had to be paid in cash, and Adivasi peasants soon fell into the clutches of moneylenders. They began losing control over land. Forced labour or corvee continued to be levied against Adivasi communities. A subordinate, land-poor peasantry emerged, subjected to a centralised State authority which replaced the fragmented feudal-like regimes.
These developments were marked by resistance. In the early stages, British control was fought by dissident chieftains or naiks such as Bheema Naik, Khajia Naik and many others. These struggles survived in the oral tradition, which frequently emphasised the fight as being against moneylenders and merchants who were becoming the enemy by the latter half of the 19th century. Sporadic revolts continued to occur even after domination was established. A major struggle took place in the Alirajpur area of Madhya Pradesh in 1883, marked also by raiding and brigandage. The Adivasis fought as they could. Continuing raids and the constant tendency of the British to see Bhil Adivasis simply as bandits led them to be classified as “criminal tribes”.
Some cultural and religious reform movements came about, including neo-Hindu movements that gave up or reinterpreted older customs with bhagats and devis. Thus Adivasis in the Vindhyas “became largely indistinguishable from Hindus though bride price, widow remarriage and a degree of premarital sexual freedom persisted”, Kela writes. By the late 1940s, Bhil society in parts of Jhabua was divided into “impure” and “pure” communities, the latter having given up meat. Folklore developed depicting caste differences: a Badwani story had God permitting representatives of different castes to choose objects: the Rajput chose the horse, the Bhilala the axe and the Nahal (a hunting group) the fishtrap.
By the mid-20 century, a small middle-class was emerging in some areas. This provided the basis for more “modern” movements such as the Adivasi Sabha, which held its first conference in 1939 and later evolved into the Jharkhand Party, voicing the demand for a separate state. (Jharkhand, though, was changing, with out-migration of Adivasis to tea plantations and in-migration of non-Adivasis to capture the more lucrative jobs in mines and industry). The Jharkhand Party leader Jaipal Singh, a colourful figure, had studied at Oxford and captained the Indian hockey team in the 1928 Olympics. The later Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, with leaders like Shibu Soren, was a more radical mass movement with policies of aligning with mine workers led by the independent Marxist AK Roy.
After this, Adivasis became involved with Maoist movements, providing a core of followers in tribal areas. As new social movements emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, Adivasis assumed a central role in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. Spontaneous movements against the Koel-Karo dam, or against a field firing range at Netarhat in Jharkhand, became visible. These spontaneous movements primarily emerged as struggles against immediate threats such as displacement. Contemporary rapacious capitalism, with its increased pressures on lands and livelihoods, has continued to produce resistance.
Thus, the two centuries since the emergence of colonialism have seen a history of subordination and rebellion. A Rogue and Peasant Slave documents this resistance and its underlying causes, providing an inspiring basis for further action. However, it also shows the fragmentation, the dispersal and occasional lack of leadership — Jharkhand Party leaders collaborated in the end with the Congress, the Maoists ignored Adivasi needs and attitudes, the middle-class leaders of mass movements often lacked staying power and when they left the movements faded away. Will a new generation of movements find such leadership? Only time will tell.
Gail Omvedt is a sociologist and human rights activist