Mahatma Gandhi and Gandhians took a lot of inspiration from Adivasis, stated Ashok Chaudhari, a Gandhian leader and a tribal activist from Adivasi Ekta Parishad and Dr Jitendra Vasava, president of the Adivasi Sahitya Academy, a forum to promote awareness on Adivasi culture and literature.
They cited the examples of charkha and handspun cloth, which were already there in many Adivasi communities, and the concept of Gram Swaraj, which was already practised in Adivasi communities.
They were speaking at a webinar jointly organised by the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN) and Flinders University, Australia on ‘Gandhi and the Adivasi Question’, Thursday ahead of Mahatma Gandhi’s 151st birth anniversary to discuss Gandhian political philosophy, the history of Gandhian movements post-independence, contemporary struggles for Adivasi rights, Gandhi’s legacy in relation to Adivasis, and how his ideas have impacted the present day Adivasi social movements.
Even before Mahatma Gandhi, there were a number of Adivasi social movements in western India, and the Maharaja of Baroda state extended education facilities to Adivasi areas to create an educated class of Adivasis, they opined.
However, in his talk on ‘Gandhi and the Category of Adivasis: Understanding Extra Parliamentary Vocabulary’, Dr Dhananjay Rai from the Central University of Gujarat discussed Gandhi’s various constructive programmes, the omission of Adivasi issues in the initial constructive programmes and its inclusion in the later ones (after 1945).
He said, “The inclusion of Adivasi issues in the constructive programme brought the question of collective rights and territorial rights into the discourse. The constructive programme gave an ‘extra-parliamentary’ vocabulary to the Adivasi question that has various repercussions for future Adivasi politics in India.”
Dr Bina Sengar from Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad, argued that Gandhi was the first leader in the Indian political system who integrated the rural masses in the Independence struggle.
“Still, Gandhi had very little interaction with the Adivasi communities. It was mainly the Gandhians like Jugatram Dave and Thakkar Bapa who mostly interacted with Adivasis. Gandhians didn’t adequately engage with the history and cultural life of the Adivasi communities. They built the ashrams, leading to Sanskritisation of the ashram system,” she said.
Other Gandhian experts, included Dr Sangeeta Dasgupta from Jawaharlal Nehru University, who discussed how a section of the Oraon tribal community in Jharkhand known as ‘Tana Bhagat’ reveres Gandhi as a deity in the community.
“This was due to the participation of the Tana Bhagat in the nationalist movement. It was believed that Gandhi was a spiritual entity who inspired the Tana Bhagats to sacrifice land to fight the British. In this case, Gandhi takes on the same features as other famous tribal leaders, such as Birsa Munda, as he is interpreted in the local context,” she said.
Arjun Rathva from MC Rathva College, Pavi Jetpur, Gujarat, said, “’Hind Swaraj’ reflected what Adivasis were fighting for a long time. But in modern India, Adivasis are facing an identity crisis and feel displaced from their culture.”
Dr Daniel J Rycroft, chairperson of India Dialogue at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom in his talk titled ‘The Question of Human Dignity in Adivasi Studies’ discussed the idea of ‘Adivasi citizenship’ within the field of human dignity laid out by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. He said that early anthropologists who dealt with Adivasis had identified certain aspects of Adivasi democracy which exists in their village systems and the equal distribution of power.
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