Making of a New Identity for the Adivasis of Assam

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While incorporating my thoughts to write this article, I was being reminded of a very popular jhumur song from our childhood days: “Chal re Mini Assam jabo / Deshebarodukh re / Assam deshere Mini / Cha baganharial”. One can locate the complex psyche of the migrated labourers to the tea estates of Assam from different parts of East and South India – we find the Adivasi people repining over their lot as they walk up to Assam, at the same time, they also evidently express their willingness to go to Assam because their land is plunged with distress.

As a young representative of the Adivasis of Assam, I always felt that we need to understand the basic meaning and essence of the current struggle and crisis of identities among the Adivasis in the state.  It is my humble attempt to signify the importance and at the same time, differentiate the current political movements from the past movements among the community. It is important to relate this current struggle for the making of a new identity with the much-hyped formation of greater Assamese Identity, as that will help us delineate the complexity and compositeness of the new identity of Adivasis.

At the very onset, I would like to clear a perception in terms of the current situation. I disagree with the naming of my community as “Tea-garden labour community / Ex-tea garden labour community / Tea-tribe”. Is there any community in this world named after a commodity? It is the best example of the colonial domination of British, and later the internal colonialism taken over by the State. What I believe is that we have a duality regarding the nature of Identity. I understand that we are an integral part of greater Adivasi nationality of India and at the same time, we are also actively taking part in the formation of the greater Assamese identity. People who are progressive, liberal in thought, democratic in attitude and put a firm stand against communalism have recognized the Tea Tribes or the Adivasis as one of the most important communities contributing to the formation of the greater Assamese society. It is equally true that the Tea Tribes or the Adivasis of Assam are a branch of the greater Adivasi society of the country.

So, I prefer to be called directly as an Adivasi. I also prefer to put a duality into the identity of “Tea-tribes and Adivasis of Assam” – first, we should be called as (only) “Adivasi” and second, an “Assamese” – rather “Adivasi Assamese”. Further on this article, I would identify all the ethnic groups who were brought to Assam primarily as indentured labourers to work in the tea plantations from various parts of India during the colonial period- as “Adivasi Assamese”.

By writing history of the Adivasis, a good number of prominent and less known Adivasi and mainstream historians have clearly shown that the place of the Adivasis in the history and society of the country has always been in the bottom-line. From the starting of the modern era in Indian history, the Adivasis have been moving through a distinct independent route different from the one taken up by the other communities of the country.

In fact, out of the orbit of the caste dominated society of the caste Hindus, the Adivasis had been guided by their independent cultural sense, where they never felt themselves inferior to others. Rather, there had always been a sort of self-admiration inextricably associated with their high cultural sense.

In my opinion, the history of the Adivasis is a history of ceaseless struggle – a struggle to carry on their own independent cultural identity and their backgrounds against the perpetual contempt of the ‘high caste’ people. Due to this inherent contempt towards the Adivasis, it is not possible for the ‘high caste’ people to realize the total historical backdrop of the Adivasis whether he may be a historian, social scientist, writer, poet, artist, sculptor or an art-critic.

I believe the history of the Adivasis is a history of resistance against colonial exploitation, communalism and casteism. History says, the Adivasis were pioneer in igniting Indians’ minds against British colonialism. They were in forefront in revolting against British rule. Many historians claim the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 as the first Independent Struggle. But it is not remotely correct.. If we look at the revolts of the Chaurs, the Mundas (led by BirsaMunda), Kols (led by BuddhoBhagat in Chota Nagpur region), Santhals (led by Sidhu and Kanhu in Rajmahal Hills in Bihar) etc, it can be undoubtedly said that the Adivasis were the first to revolt and organize mass-movement against British colonialism in India.

Historical documents show the Adivasis fighting against two forces – against colonialism of the West and cultural domination of the caste Hindus.

Although the Adivasis are an important element in the process of formation of the greater Assamese society, but they have an independent history and cultural sense along with a history of refraining from a complete assimilation into the culture of the ‘high caste’ people. In the formation of the greater Assamese society, the Tea-Tribes or the Adivasis will coexist with the mainstream Assamese people rather than assimilating themselves completely, as the latter is not possible for any community bearing a distinct identity. I think, describing the Tea Tribes or the Adivasis as Assamese does not mean that they have become Assamese. Rather, the Assamese will have to recognise and respect their distinct identity.

Besides their own identity, the Tea Tribes or the Adivasis have also been identifying themselves as Assamese after a process of adoption of the Assamese language and culture since the beginning of the 20th century. It is my request for the Assamese people to recognize the two identities of the Adivasis. We, the Tea Tribes or the Adivasis are willing to introduce ourselves with our own identity (as Tea Tribes or Adivasis) before introducing as Assamese. We hope the main-stream Assamese people will shun their disdainful attitude and try to respect the Adivasis and feel that the latter is really an inextricable part of the greater Assamese society.

The Tea Tribes or the Adivasis have come forward willingly for a peaceful coexistence with the mainstream Assamese people. The mainstream Assamese should also come forward to maintain the peaceful coexistence. Willingness for formation of a greater Assamese society both by the mainstream Assamese and the Tea Tribes or Adivasis is the call of the time.

Our forefathers came to Assam from different parts of the country. While coming to Assam they brought with them their own cultural elements like dance forms, songs, festivals, folk tales etc., kept these elements among themselves and passed them down from generation to generation. Their languages were different. In course of time a praiseworthy communication and unity came into being among themselves. And, a uniform blend of those diverse elements gradually developed a rich mass culture in the state which can well be termed as Adivasi mass-culture.

From the sixties-seventies of the last century the rich and variegated culture of the mainstream Assamese people started mingling with the Adivasi culture. The Adivasis started to take education in Assamese medium schools, participate in various cultural programmes, which led brought the two cultures close to each other. There have been instances of setting up matrimonial alliances between the two communities. Literary activities started among the Adivasis in Assamese language. The educated Adivasis started reflecting the suffering of the community and the injustices done on them through short stories, poems, novel etc. Similarly, the mainstream Assamese writers also started reflecting the community through their writings which is indeed a very good sign despite of the fact that such writing is less in number.

Yet, there have not been adequate serious studies in the state on the rich and diverse culture of the Adivasis. Similarly, there have not been enough studies how the two cultures came closer in course of time and the contributed to each other. I think we should find out the elements of mutual contribution of the two cultures. Besides, I believe that the culture of the state can be further enriched by a contribution of the cultural elements of the Adivasis.

Kamal Kumar Tanti

Dr. Kamal Kumar Tanti is a bilingual poet and writer and writes in English and Assamese languages. His first collection of Assamese poetry Marangburu Amar Pita (Our Father Marangburu), published in 2007, won him the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2012, for Assamese language and Munin Barkotoki Literary Award in 2008. Nimnaborgo Somaaj Oitijya (Subaltern Society's Legacy). He is currently working as Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics of University of Technology and Management, Meghalaya.

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