What is the oldest tribe in India


Rainer Hörig

Rainer Hörig studied journalism, ethnology and theater studies at the Free University of Berlin. The author and photographer has lived in the west Indian city of Pune for 25 years.

Adivasi are increasingly resisting marginalization and exploitation

Almost 700 indigenous peoples are officially registered in India. Many of them call themselves Adivasi to underline their claim to be original inhabitants and descendants of the indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent. Due to the rapid economic development, their living spaces are increasingly threatened. But in many places Adivasi defend themselves against the loss of their homeland - in some cases with success.

Young Adivasi from the Bhil people in the valley of the Narmada River. (& copy Rainer Hörig)

Dull drum beats echo through the valleys and gorges of the Niyamgiri Mountains in Orissa, East India. In the villages on the edge of the forest, people dance around large fires and screams of joy into the cool mountain air. "We won, our homeland is saved," a dancer calls out to his neighbors. In January 2014, the small tribal people of Dongria Kondh celebrated a historic victory: the multinational raw materials group Vedanta Resources wanted to mine the aluminum ore bauxite on a large scale in the Niyamgiri Mountains. But the people voted against the project in a referendum. In this case, India's Supreme Court had ordered the Ministry of the Environment to cancel the building permit for the mine that had been granted to Vedanta before the vote.

Orissa is one of the least developed states in India, but it is rich in natural resources. The value of the bauxite deposit in the Niyamgiri Mountains alone is estimated at 1.5 billion euros. But the mountain range, which is up to 1700 meters high and overgrown by dense, evergreen forests, is also a natural paradise: there are elephants, wild bison, tigers, leopards and many other rare animal species. The people live in harmony with nature, feed on the fruits of the forest and irrigate their fields with the help of the numerous streams and rivers. The 8000 individuals strong Dongria Kondh with their own language and culture live only here. They regard the Niyamgiri Mountains as their very own habitat, which would have been irretrievably destroyed by the mine.

Adivasi - India's original inhabitants

There are 698 ethnic groups in India who are officially recognized as Scheduled Tribes are registered. Many of them refer to themselves as Adivasi to underline their claim to be the original inhabitants of the subcontinent. With a population share of 8.6 percent, according to official figures, they number around 104 million people. (As of 2011 census) The largest peoples such as Bhil, Gond, and Santal are several million people strong. However, predators like the Jarawa and Onge on the Andaman Islands comprise only a few hundred individuals and are threatened with extinction.

Adivasi are the descendants of the indigenous people who settled the subcontinent before the invasion of shepherd peoples from Central Asia. It is believed that the Indo-European nomads who Aryawho called nobles, in the period from 1500 to 1000 BC. BC invaded the north Indian river plain over the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan. Horse-drawn chariots gave them military superiority. Over the course of several centuries they penetrated eastward to the Bay of Bengal, cleared the forest and settled as farmers on the fertile soil.

The priests wrote down the knowledge of the Indo-Europeans in the Sanskrit language, which had so far only been passed on orally: the Vedas, the oldest sacred scriptures of the Hindus, emerged. They report numerous fights of the Arya with dark-skinned forest dwellers. Many of them are believed to have been enslaved and used as labor to clear the forests. They probably had to live in ghettos on the outskirts of the villages and were excluded from the caste society by ritual taboos. Their descendants, the so-called untouchables, call themselves Dalits today - the oppressed or the broken. Other indigenous groups managed to retreat to impassable forests and mountains, where they were able to lead a self-sufficient life until recently. Orthodox Hindus consider both groups, Dalits and Adivasi, to be untouchable, i.e. ritually impure and uncivilized. In India, light skin color, the characteristic of upper castes, is considered the ideal of beauty.

Most of them, on the other hand, have a different cultural, historical and ethnic background Scheduled Tribes in northeast India. Groups like the Naga or Kuki belong to the Mongolian family of peoples. They speak Sino-Tibetan languages ​​and do not define themselves as Adivasi. Place in Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya states Scheduled Tribes around 90 percent of the population, 69 percent in Arunachal Pradesh, 35 and 32 percent in Manipur and Tripura, and around 14 percent in Assam. (Status of the 2011 census)

Spiritual relationship with land and nature

Drummers of the Bhil ethnic group in Madhya Pradesh at the Holi spring festival (& copy Rainer Hörig)
The rapid modernization and "westernization" of India is putting the cultures of the small indigenous peoples under enormous pressure. Schooling, urbanization, television and the Internet supposedly carry "progressive" values ​​right into the Adivasi community. Many Adivasi cling even more to their own values ​​and customs, because they create identity and cohesion. Their spiritual world is inhabited by natural gods who live in old trees and on mountain tops. The ancestors are also venerated with offerings and festivals, because they mediate between man and God.

No matter whether in the south Indian rainforest, on the central Indian highlands, in the Himalayas or in parts of the northeast - members of the Scheduled Tribes maintain a spiritual relationship with their land and operate largely self-sufficient, adapted to the local environment. Their economy is designed to meet the needs of life. Surpluses are shared with the community. In songs and legends they convey their history, religion and cultural values.

Threat to the habitat: "With your back to the wall"

For centuries and millennia, indigenous communities have been able to maintain their own way of life in difficult-to-access forest areas. But during the British colonial rule, their settlement areas came increasingly into the public interest, because they were rich in valuable woods and precious ores. The colonial authorities therefore drove railway lines and roads into previously undeveloped regions. Many Adivasi communities came under the influence of the state and the majority society. Today almost all Adivasi are more or less strongly influenced by the so-called mainstream. Millions of them have been robbed of their land and forests. Poverty and hopelessness drive many Adivasi into the cities, where they find work on construction sites or as housemaids.

Globalization and the rapid growth of the economy are drastically increasing the pressure on India's natural resources. New power plants need coal and fresh water for cooling, new mines are supposed to supply iron ore, bauxite and other ores for metal smelters and for export. The last corners of the country are opened up by traffic. The aggressive encroachment on the last remaining natural reserves mainly affects the settlement areas of the Adivasi in the mountain regions of the subcontinent.

In view of the extensive destruction of the natural foundations of life, the sometimes violent robbery of land, forest and river water, hundreds of thousands of Adivasi today have their backs to the wall. Many have lost faith in the promises made by officials and project managers - participation in the development process through jobs, schools, health stations - because in the past millions of Adivasi plunged into misery after sacrificing their country for "national progress".

India 2013: Adivasi children starved to death

The southern Indian state of Kerala, which is often advertised as a development model for the whole of India because of its progressive social indicators, offers a chilling scenario for the future of Adivasi in other parts of the country. The small peoples in the mountains of the Western Ghats lost a large part of their land to settlers from the lowlands, plantations and industrial companies many years ago. Today they earn a meager income as farm workers and day laborers, and many depend on the state welfare system. Their pride is broken, they are living on the fringes of society. With fatal consequences: In the first half of 2013, at least twelve Adivasi children died of malnutrition in Attapaddy administrative district.

"These are cases of malnutrition," said Kerala Prime Minister Oommen Chandy of the Congress Party on the tragedy. "Something like that can't be stopped in a day, it will take a while. The problem is also that these people don't eat properly." It must have sounded like a mockery to those affected. "If we get our land back, no more Adivasi will starve in Attapaddy," countered Usha Raju, chairman of the local district council and Adivasi himself. She points out that Adivasi have been fighting for their land rights for years, that court judgments have proven them right, but nothing happens.

The vast majority of the Adivasi are illiterate. They hardly feel up to the power of the state and the economy. Clever traders, hand in hand with corrupt officials, find it easy to deprive the smallholders of their land. In most Adivasi regions, the state administration functions only rudimentary, so the land ownership of the villagers is rarely officially recorded. The door and gate are open to fraudsters. After decades of bad experiences, the Adivasi have run out of patience. Whenever possible, they resist any attempts to dispute their land.

Resistance to land grabbing, displacement and oppression

Women of the Kutia-Kondh people in Orissa, relatives of the Dongria-Kondh (& copy Rainer Hörig)
Not only in the Niyamgiri mountains of Orissa, but in many regions of India, Adivasi communities are now defending themselves against land grabbing, displacement and oppression. Some prominent examples:

- In the Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa, the South Korean steel multinational POSCO is planning a steelworks that will be supplied with ore from its own mine and connected to the world markets via its own port. More than 1000 hectares of forest would have to be sacrificed for the steel mill alone. Thousands of villagers, including many Adivasi, would have to give up their land. For years, those affected have made it clear with non-violent resistance actions that they do not want that. The government responds with repression.

- The east Indian state of Jharkhand is also rich in mineral resources and has a high proportion of Adivasi in the population. The Arcelor-Mittal company wants to build a steelworks here, but resistance from the local population has prevented that so far. The popular movement is led by the Adivasi activist Dayamani Barla: "The government claims that everyone who surrenders their land will be compensated. But the question is: Can the government our clean air, clear water, our healthy food, our language and recreate our culture, our holy places, our history and our identity? "

- For more than 25 years, Adivasi and other smallholders have been fighting against a series of large dams in the central Indian Narmada Valley. Most of the dams are now in operation and more than 100,000 people have lost their land. The citizens' initiative "Movement to save the Narmada" is fighting today primarily for fair compensation for those affected.

- In recent years, Maoist guerrilla groups have infiltrated large parts of the Adivasi settlement areas in central India. The insurgents are fighting against the Indian state and promise the impoverished village population protection from exploitation and land grabbing. In return, they demand accommodation, food and assistance. For India's government, the Maoists are "the greatest challenge to the country's internal security".

More rights for the indigenous population

Dozens of prestigious investment projects are on hold because Adivasi resist the acquisition of their land. For this reason, too, Delhi feels compelled to grant the Adivasi more rights. In December 2006, the national parliament passed a law guaranteeing indigenous communities the right to use and own forest land. The British colonial power had declared the forests to be the sole property of the state. For more than a hundred years, adivasi, who cut trees to build a house, planted fields in the forest, or cut bamboo, broke the forest law. This meant that corrupt forest officials were subject to arbitrariness, and they could be punished or arrested.

Woman from the small and threatened Jarawa people, indigenous people of the Andaman Islands (& copy Rainer Hörig)
The so-called Forest Rights Act from 2006, Adivasi opened a way for the first time to officially register their traditional rights of use on woodland. In 2013, the government also reformed a law, also from the colonial era, that allows the state to confiscate land from farmers and Adivasi in the "national interest" - for new mines, industrial plants or traffic routes. In the reformed version, the law now stipulates that those affected must be compensated at market prices for their land and receive state aid to start a new existence.

The Indian constitution does away with that Scheduled Tribes Access to schooling and jobs in state-owned companies and authorities via a quota system. Another law stipulates particularly severe penalties for discrimination or violent assault, including rape, against members of these population groups. In regions with a high proportion of Adivasi, special protection provisions apply to the culture of indigenous groups. Land can only be sold to Adivasi there, and village councils have a say in the approval of development projects that require large amounts of land. Dalits and Adivasi are also declared target groups for social programs such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which has guaranteed poor families in rural areas at least 100 days of wage work per year since 2005.

Social prejudices run deep

But paper is patient and social prejudices run deep. In the authorities and in the business world, many functionaries have got used to trampling the interests of the Adivasi and deriving their own advantages (bribes, etc.) from them. They ignore recent legislative reforms. For example, the forest administration is boycotting the recognition of Adivasi's forest holdings on a large scale. Judges and police officers look the other way when poor villagers are defrauded or injured by "honorable members of society".

Codetermination rights are overlooked. For the majority of the Adivasi, the legal reforms have therefore not brought about any noticeable improvement in their situation. After all, they can now rely on legal bases when they claim their rights. The victory of the Dongria Kondh over the mining company Vedanta Ressources was only possible because the highest court in India saw the Adivasi 's rights to use the forests in the Niyamgiri Mountains had been violated and ultimately forced the government to give in.