Sunday, Nov 27, 2022

Adivasi and Vanvasi: Why BJP uses the latter term for tribes, and the row around it

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi recently criticised the BJP for referring to tribal communities as 'Vanvasi', instead of Adivasi. What is the difference between the terms, and what is the history of their usage?

Many tribal people choose to refer to themselves as ‘Adivasi’, which means ‘first inhabitants’. (Express photo by Bhupendra Rana)

Campaigning for the Gujarat Assembly elections, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi Monday questioned the term ‘Vanvasi’, used by the BJP and its ideologue RSS for the tribal community, contrasting it with ‘Adivasi’, which the Congress uses for them.

“The people of BJP don’t call you Adivasi. What do they call you? Vanvasi. They don’t tell you that you are the first owners of Hindustan. They tell you that you live in the jungles, meaning they don’t wish that you live in cities, that your children become engineers, doctors, fly planes, speak in English…,” Gandhi said at a rally in the tribal-dominated reserved constituency of Mahuva.

Adivasi or Vanvasi?

The Constitution of India uses the term Scheduled Tribes or “Anusuchit Janjati” to describe tribes. Many tribal people choose to refer to themselves as ‘Adivasi’, which means ‘first inhabitants’. It is used in public discourse, in documents, text books and in media.

‘Vanvasi’, which means forest dwellers, is a term used by the Sangh Parivar, which works extensively in tribal areas “to protect them from the clutches of Christian Missionaries”. With the marginalised tribal community traditionally treated as a unit outside the main caste structure, the term ‘Vanvasi’ was used to convey their distinct identity.

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Alarmed by the changing culture of the tribal communities and their distancing from the Hindu religion, Ramakant Keshav Deshpande, in consultation with M S Golwalkar, the second Sarsanghchalak, had set up the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (ABVKA) on December 26, 1952 in Jashpur, Chhattisgarh. Although the primary focus was on ‘Hinduisation’ of the tribals – which the Sangh said was necessary for national integration – and protecting their identity and culture, the Sangh’s activities among the community have always helped the BJP secure electoral gains.

“We call them Vanvasis. We do not call them Adivasis because Adivasi means original inhabitants or aboriginals, which implies all others are from outside. But the Sangh believes that we all are original inhabitants of this continent,” RSS leader Ram Madhav told The Indian Express.

Madhav said the Aryan invasion theory — that the Aryans were from somewhere in Central Asia and migrated to an already settled Indian subcontinent — had always been rejected by the RSS. “We are fine with the constitutional term Anusuchit Janajati, or Scheduled Tribes, for the tribals,” he added.


Harsh Chouhan, Chairman of National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, a Sangh leader who has worked among tribes for years, explained that the term Vanvasi was established in 1952.

“Those who lived in the forests were traditionally referred to as Vanvasis. Even in Ramayana, this reference is there, to identify communities living in the forests. Vanvasi conveys the right concept about the forest dwellers and is a term of pride,” Chouhan told The Indian Express.

Chouhan said the term Adivasi or ‘aboriginals’ was more suited to the American context.


“The term ‘Adivasi’ was brought in by the British in the 1930s. There is no harm in using the word Adivasi. But in the context of India, it is wrong. In the US, the word aboriginals is used for the tribals to get their identity, because they were marginalised. But the word Vanvasi simple conveys that they are forest dwellers,” he explained.

About Rahul Gandhi’s claim that the term signified they should “live in the jungles”, Chouhan said, “If you are called Bharatvasi, it does not mean that you should live in India only. Its just a political narrative Gandhi is trying to pitch.”

He said the concept that people living in forests cannot be cultured was “western”.

“It is a Western narrative that those who are living in jungles or forests cannot have culture. In India, it was never like that. We believe that our culture stems from forest dwellers. In earlier times, those who lived in villages were called ‘gramvasi’, those living in cities were ‘nagarvasi’, and those in forests were called ‘vanvasi’.”

Chouhan also argued that the Sangh had set up the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram to “protect and preserve the culture of the forest dwellers to make them contribute to the nation’s growth”, and not just to “stop the conversion process.”


Is the dispute new?

Many have pointed out that tribal communities don’t necessarily live in forests.

During the constituent assembly debates, Jaipal Singh Munda, hockey player who later became the tribal representative in the Constituent Assembly, had insisted on using the word “Adibasi” and questioned why the word ‘tribals’ became “Banjati” when translated into Hindi.


“The word ‘Adibasi’ has not been used in any of the translations made by the several Committees. How is it? I ask you why, it has not been done. Why has the word ‘Adibasi’ not been used and the word ‘Banjati’ has been used? Most of the members of our tribes do not live in jungles…. I wish that you should issue instructions to your translation Committee that the translation of Scheduled tribes should be ‘Adibasi’. The word Adibasi has grace. I do not understand why this old abusive epithet of Banjati is being used, for till recently it meant an uncivilised barbarian,” he said.

Even in the RSS, there seems to be a section which considers the word “Vanvasi” obsolete.


“In fact, many volunteers have stopped using the term Vanvasi and our ashrams are now known simply as Kalyan Ashrams. Mainly because our work also covers coastal tribes. Among the tribals, some do not want to be known as Vanvasi, claiming that the term sounds like “junglees”,” an RSS volunteer who works among the tribals in central India said.

Madhav, however, said there is no review planned of the Vanvasi, but the RSS accepts the word Janajati as used in the Constitution.

First published on: 22-11-2022 at 07:10:23 pm
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