Adivasis and the Indian State: Beyond access, educational institutes must be sensitive towards cultural differences, prevent positioning of tribals as inferiors

Richard Hemraj Toppo

Editor's Note: In this eighteen-part series, we will attempt to address the tropes associated with the communities in question from an Adivasi perspective while also exploring the contemporary relationship of Adivasi citizens with the Indian government. This is the sixteenth article of the series on Adivasi communities in peninsular India. 


That the class positioning of individuals decide whether or not they receive 'quality' education and that this class positioning is intricately linked with the caste hierarchy and tribes, is a foregone conclusion for India.

In many of the Adivasi-dominated areas in India, schools run, if at all they do, with a single teacher, who often has the additional burden of managing the mid-day meal scheme for students besides teaching students from Class 1 to 5. Institutes of higher education are beyond imagination for the inhabitants of such regions, given their financial constraints and the lack of secondary schools.

The problem of access to education, then, is a commonly cited factor for any region's backwardness or under-development, especially in the Adivasi-dominated areas, entailing a proposition for access to quality educational institutes, which is often assumed as a silver bullet solution to all the prevalent problems.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

As a disclaimer note, this article does not propose against the setting up of quality educational institutes. Rather, it calls for a critique of the simplistic understanding that access to educational institutes will automatically translate into the empowerment of the Adivasis.

Educational institutes are intense sites to not only reproduce caste-based hierarchy but to also produce, to borrow Gramsci's term, contradictory consciousness against caste-based dominance. Access to such institutes, whilst important, is only a step towards empowerment that needs to be complemented by socio-economic support for Adivasis at such institutions and a robust deterrent mechanism against any form of discriminatory practices. However, in order to understand the support system required for the Adivasis in educational institutes, it is imperative to understand their positioning within such spaces.

In contemporary times, most Adivasis in schools or colleges are either the first or the second generation, or at best, third-generation learners. Perhaps a decade ago, the cap would be second-generation learners at best. The first generation Adivasi learners, many of who are sent to urban and semi-urban spaces by their labouring parents in hopes of better education, find themselves struggling amidst a culturally different crowd, with a culturally different tutor.

Historically, Adivasis had never been integrated into the caste-hierarchies of Hindu society, hence, the hegemonic influence of the so-called upper castes and (the Adivasis) self-positioning as inferiors were rarely internalised amongst the Adivasi societies. However, lately, educational institutes have become a prominent site of adverse integration of the Adivasis into the caste-fold, where the Adivasi culture is often ridiculed and condescended as 'primitive' and the non-Adivasi culture is projected as the modernist ideal norm.

The social codes of Adivasi students, then, on 'how to dress', 'how to eat', 'how to behave', 'how to appear', gets gradually and coercively re-engineered to suit the social acceptability of theirs with the rest of the classroom.

Whilst people wear different hats on different occasions, many of the Adivasis are unable to reconcile the differences between the traditional home and 'modernist' school, and often the case is that a sense of guilt pervades through the thoughts of the Adivasis about their supposed inferior cultural positioning. The same is reflected in the oft-sighted or oft-heard stories of uneasiness or discomfort amongst the young Adivasi students in meeting their rurally-based parents in an urban setup.

More recently, a growing community of middle-class, mostly government-employed, Adivasis have come up in the urban spaces. Amongst many of these well-to-do Adivasi families, the working family members face the same pressure of acclimating themselves to the caste environment and internalising the metrics of judging others on the basis of income, class and caste. The implications of these cultural-adjustments, however, are largely borne by children in such families, who face immense pressure to meet their parents' expectations whose judgements are not solely on the basis of student's performance but on his/her relative performance to other students.

These to-be Sanskritised children moulded in a caste environment are frequently interrupted through reminders by their tutors and peers of their inferior positioning, leaving them in a quandary over their affiliations to identity; not being able to associate themselves with either the Adivasis or their non-Adivasi peers.

In colleges, where the environment is supposedly more dynamic, Adivasi students are often posed with the question of merit and reservation. Peers and professors, often belonging to so-called upper castes, constantly question the qualifications of the Adivasi students, comprehending them as unequal or undeserving of the shared spaces that they have come to occupy; on many occasions, the disparaging taunts are extended to physical violence and a deliberate low marking on the part of professors.

The most commonly heard taunts would be €" 'You must have gotten here through reservation' or 'you guys don't even have to study, you anyway have reservation'. On the other hand, many of the college-going Adivasis, upon repeated referrals to their inferior status, develop a consciousness against 'reservation'. The connotation, then, attached to reservation is 'non-meritorious', and in a quest to prove themselves merit worthy, few Adivasis try competing for the non-reserved seats and often take pride in qualifying as a general candidate, except that they are only expectedly reacting to the divisionary structures of power while ignoring the social-economic realities behind reservation.

Few others amongst the Adivasi students often internalise their inferior positioning, accepting that their performance would not meet the standards of non-Adivasis. In both cases, the caste-based structure defines the responses of Adivasis, either way to the advantage of so-called upper caste communities.

The above-generalised cases of Adivasi positioning within the spaces of educational institutes are in no certain terms a comprehensive depiction of all Adivasi experiences, rather an attempt to portray the systemic entrapments of Adivasis and their responses within the educational complexes. However, to say that the Adivasis don't have an agency, or to solely credit the structures for every action would be a gross simplification of the complex dialectical engagement between the Adivasis and the world around them. For instance, amongst the college communities, where caste-based hierarchical practices are often to be seen, a counter mobilisation of Adivasis as groups and associations who refuse to comply with the status quo is being frequently observed. The Adivasis in such spaces are not in an exclusive conversation with the caste discourses alone but are also engaged in Adivasi discourses of nationwide struggles against displacement, human rights abuses, and a call for cultural embracement, thereby, developing a consciousness of their own, and not only in response to caste structures.

As argued earlier, the educational spaces are intense sites of reproduction of power structures and power struggles, and any step towards supporting the Adivasis should recognise the same. A comprehensive support system would necessarily engage sensitively towards the cultural differences of the Adivasis, with a more inclusive and diverse staff team, and a robust mechanism to prevent any forms of discriminatory practices. However, the prescription should not appear as pleadings to the people seated at positions of power, but a call to Adivasi families to defy the established cultural norms and take pride in the Adivasi identity.

The author is a PhD researcher in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague

Also See: Adivasis and the Indian State: Forced displacement takes toll on mental health of Kerala tribals; community-led initiatives may hold solution

Adivasis and the Indian State: Tamil Nadu's Irular community battles govt apathy, police hostility in fight for identity

Adivasis and the Indian State: How local self-governance in a Maharashtra gram panchayat is empowering tribal women

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