India and its relationship with its tribal people has been rocky and uneven to say the least. Transitioning from the freedom movement, the attitudes of even the most progressive and highly-educated leaders, were often deeply problematic in their quests to “civilise the savage”. Only recently has a more holistic and nuanced understanding of the lifestyles of tribal people, come to the forefront of national discussion but their integration into the identity of India remains lacking.
Perhaps, this is because it’s often easier to ‘other’ tribal groups than to understand them in their differences and similarities. To be fair, to even understand and know one tribe is a task that takes months and years of steeping in its culture – to understand all of them seems to be Herculean task. Moreover, I find that for most people, there is a certain romanticism in the knowledge through which one will never grasp the entirety of India by the very nature of its breadth and scope, but that kind of romanticism dances on the knife-edge of exoticism.
The only way to battle that predilection to discrimination is to expand our knowledge, to make that shallow understanding a less-shallow one.
While I was doing research on ethical mining and movements against extraction, I ran across a video published in 2006, detailing a women-led tribal movement against mining in Odisha. The women of this tribal village, disenchanted and disenfranchised by their governments, were unwilling to remain quiet. Instead, these women began branching out to one another, building connections through shared losses of land and livelihood. They coordinated resistance efforts which ranged from direct confrontations with miners to government protests which led to violence.
Odisha, a large state nestled by the Bay of Bengal on the eastern seaboard, holds the largest number of tribes which contribute upwards of 20 percent of the state’s total population. The 62 tribes who reside along the Eastern Ghats and the coastal plain possess unique economies, traditions, and cultures. These tribes also own ancestral land, ostensibly covered by the Forest Rights Act (FRA), that sits atop vast mineral deposits of iron-ore, coal, bauxite, and chromite.
Like in many other states, FRA protections seem to exist solely to look pretty on paper with the state government and multinational companies moving forward on extraction projects without community consultations, environmental assessments or financial compensations.
The women of Odisha do not let that stop them – they didn’t back in 2006 and they still aren’t today.
In Gunduribadi, a tribal village located six hours south of the women in Kendujhar, women leaders have also been mobilising protests against mining activity.
These women have spent the past 30 years patrolling their tribal lands, protecting their food sources and livelihoods vigilantly from mining companies and encroaching governments. While the women complete their rounds around the forest, usually between 7 am in the morning till noon, the household chores are shared between the men and younger children.
Following these examples, women in neighbouring villages like Sinduria, Kodalapalli, and Darpanarayanpur have also begun fighting for their rights to dignified lives, living off the lands of their ancestors.
Reading stories like this, it becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly that one-dimensional understandings of tribal life do not begin to cover its nuanced realities. Here are striking examples of women mobilising, clearly articulating their deep-rooted relationships with the earth (relationships the vast majority of the world continue to deny or remain ignorant to), and willing to take a public stand for their ways of life. And they’re doing it with the full support of their communities. They’re able to break from typical gender roles without facing backlash from their tribes.
To be prescriptive about our tribal populations – “Free them of subsistence livelihoods! Incorporate them in India’s economic development!” – is to feed into the worst of colonialist, Euro-centric ideas of ‘saving the savage‘. It isn’t to say that the Indian government should hold no responsibilities towards the tribal populations – for one, it’d be great if the FRA was actually implemented and honoured instead of bypassed every time a multi-national company showed interest in a tract of land, but it should give us all food for thought. I, for one, could learn a heck of a lot from the women of Odisha.