Picture: Indra kills Vritra—who is identified as an asura in the Vedas (story from Rik Veda, featured in Bhagavatha); courtesy – Wikipedia.
“Agar jangal ko dil mane to Adivasi uski dhadkan hai”—if the forest is a heart then Adivasis are its heartbeat—said Adivasi leader Chhotu Bhai Vasava in an event in 1985. What Vasava was referring to is that tribal life is unimaginable without land, water, forests, and other natural resources on which their life is co-dependent. Forests are the lifeline of tribal society and historically, its protection has been the key issue for many of their resistance movements against dominant regimes that tried to destroy them. Adivasis have long resisted injustice with their resilience inspired from their deep relationship with their environment. Due to their resilient history, Adivasis have been portrayed as demons, criminals, and anti-nationals by the dominant or ruling regime. As a result these portrayals dehumanize them, which then makes way for debarring their rights to their environment and put up resistance.
The demonisation of Adivasis primarily began through ancient Hindu scriptures. The Rigveda or other Hindu religious texts have used the word “asura” to describe Adivasis or Indigenous people. The word “asura” is equivalent to “ahura” which is derived from the term “ahu,” meaning lord. The early Vedas claim that the Asuras and Devas are said to be born from common parents (Larsen & Kostlen, 2014). According to Iranian sources, the devas were demonic and the ahura/asura were like gods.
In Vedic sources, both are described as the progeny of Prajapati and the asura, are in some cases treated with respect but eventually come to represent evil, hostile forces (Thapar, 1984). The Rigveda, starts describing the precise roles and responsibilities of the ‘sura’ and ‘asura’ (Larsen & Kostlen, 2014). Then in the Upanishads, the demonic character of the Asuras is further crystallized by drawing a comparison between the ‘sura’ and ‘asura’, where the sura is defined as god and the asura as non-god or the antithesis of god. By the time of the Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and Itihasas, the transformation of Asuras from a pantheon of gods into a group of demons was complete (Larsen & Kostlen, 2014).
Such demonisation was not because of sins or for being anti-gods but because of the power, virtue, and knowledge held by the Asurs, which threatened the gods of the Aryans. Historians insist that the stories of demons refer to the struggle between Aryans and non-Aryans, which continued for several centuries. As the Aryan invaders started establishing their dominion over tribal rulers and their territories, they started pushing tribes deeper into the forest. With their sense of superiority, they treated tribes as sub-humans or like animals (Kumar, 2014).
The Aryans tried to prove that tribes were inferior to them. Manu, in his writings, describes forest dwellers and tribes as barbarous and sub-humans. For instance, he discusses Asur-vivah or the marriages of demons and discommends them. By establishing a hierarchical form of society, Brahmins designated tribal society as being inferior. Indigenous people did not accept this domination, and in fact, constantly put up resistance. These acts of resistance were written down as displays of unruliness and ‘barbarism’. The tribes were thus portrayed as demons, rakshasas, pariahs and so on.
Aryans also described tribals as having dark-complexions, peoples who spoke strange languages with no grammar, ate meat and drank alcohol, and did not perform any vedic rituals (Kumar, 2014).
Similarly, in the Rigveda, the earliest among the Vedic texts, there are references to Disa or Dasyu, the local tribes who were subordinated by the Aryans and were then regarded as alien and barbaric. The historian Romila Thapar also mentions how tribes were compared with demons, being black-skinned and snub-nosed, speaking a strange language, practicing black-magic and not performing the requisite sacrifices; ‘they are treacherous, and they live in fortified habitations’ (Thapar, 1978). These characteristics were continually projected as abnormal and demonic. They contributed to narratives about the domination of tribes and tribal rulers as victory over evil.
In present times, the Adivasis of peninsular India who live in forests are also largely dark-skinned and speak their own Indigenous languages, which are not understood by non-Adivasis. They have their own rituals, customs and traditions which are different from Hindus.
Sushma Asur, an Adivasi poetess, has argued that Mahishasura and Ravana, who are described as demon kings in Hindu epics, are not only Asuras but also heroes of tribal communities (Kumar, 2014). Recently, when I visited some Adivasi communities like Kanwar, Gond, and Madiya—Gond and Madiya are interchangeably called Koitur—in Gadchiroli, I came to know that they worship Mahishasura as their local god. A friend of mine also informed me about tribal communities in Nagpur who worship Ravan as their god.
In a 2019 lecture delivered at TISS Tuljapur, Hariram Meena, a retired IPS officer and writer from the Meena tribe, asked that if we (Adivasis) have been referred to as rakshasas in ancient history, “why have archeologists not found even a single skeleton of a rakshas to date?”
The Criminalisation of Tribes
The stereotypes about ”Criminal Tribes” have a long history in South Asia. Contrary to popular belief, they are not merely a colonial stereotype created by the British. Maurice Bloomfield, an American scholar of Philology and Sanskrit, has argued that most of South Asian literature represented thieving as a communal trade. The Brahmanical narrative has never portrayed robbery as a solitary operation, but one that was invariably carried out by “banded, cartelized and organized groups that live together” (Piliavsky, 2015). Many of these communities were identified and recorded as “Criminal Tribes” and brought under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, many more were included later on. In 1947, India was home to some 128 communities, and 3.5 million people were classified as innately criminal by law (Ibid.).
Manu wrote that the forest tribes or “Dasyus” are brutal, heretical, low-living servants and were naturally drawn to “forbidden occupations” such as theft (Ibid). He also mentioned that they had their systematic way of thieving and worshipped their god “Rudra-the lord of thieves” (Ibid). Piliavsky argues that Vedic accounts like the kathas repeatedly described robber tribes as “riteless, void of sense, inhuman,” “frightful and terrible,” “flesh-eating,” “wine drinking,” “bird hunting” and “human sacrificing” predatory brutes. These references and descriptions stereotyped the tribe as born felons, most of them describing banditry as a family occupation. Piliavsky emphasises that these are some very old and pervasive stereotypes of a “robber tribe.”
It is clear that the stereotype of “Criminal Tribes” has a deep history in the subcontinent. But many writers who have written about criminal tribes have only blamed Britishers and considered their origin to be a colonial stereotype. There is very little discussion or written accounts about the ancient history of so-called “criminal tribes.” In this manner, Brahmins—who have had historical monopoly over education and knowledge production—created knowledge against the tribes, which further gave them justification for unleashing atrocities and physical violence. However, Piliavsky argues that these stereotypes are not only limited to Hindu Vedic writings, but several other texts such as the Jains’ “Upadesamala,” and Buddhists’ “Jataka tales” which also refer to “settlements of thieves.”
There was a continuation of this criminal stereotype even during the medieval period. In 1672, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb described all Garasia tribes as “habituated robbers.” Similarly the seventeenth-century text from a court in south Rajasthan described Bhils and Mina hillmen as inherently violent and deserving of especially severe punishment (Kothari, 1985). Such stereotypes also have roots in the resistances and revolts led by tribal communities against exploitations by the dominant rulers or communities. For instance, Rajput history is full of ghastly incidents of bloodshed and massacre brought about by resistance offered by the Minas. The Arthashastra provides evidence of the hegemonic knowledge and power relations between the rulers and general offenders. According to Poulami Sarkar, a PhD scholar at the University of Mumbai, Kautilya instructed that those who instigated wild tribes and enemies against the state army and fort should be put to death even if the guilty person were a brahmin.
While ancient history called and identified Indigenous communities specific derogatory terms, the British colonists, a self-claimed so-called “civilised society,” followed the same path. They tried to portray tribal communities as hereditary criminals. According to the legal scholar Mark Brown Hutchinson—an Inspector General of the Police of Punjab—argued that in India there exist whole tribes, whole races, who are from generation to generation notoriously addicted to certain types of crime that are generally carried on from father to son until death.
In the early 1870s, legal members of the Viceroy’s Council, J. F. Stephan, described criminal tribes as:
The caste system is India’s distinguishing trait. By virtue of this system, merchants are constituted in a caste, a family of carpenters will remain a family of carpenters for a whole century from now if it survives that long. Let us bear that in mind and grasp quickly what we mean here by professional criminals. We are dealing here with a tribe whose ancestors have been criminals since the very dawn of time, whose members are sworn by the laws of their caste to commit crime…for it is his vocation, his caste, I would go to the extent of saying his faith, to commit crimes.
In a 1990 paper titled Disciplining and Policing the Criminals by Birth, Part I: The Making of a Colonial Stereotype – The Criminal Tribe and Castes of North India, Sanjay Nigam argues that in India, the stereotype was based on the notion of genetically transmitted crime—as a profession practiced by a hereditary criminal caste: similarly, like a carpenter would pass on his trade to his next generation, thus, hereditary criminal caste members would pass on his profession to their offspring.
The “Criminal Tribes” have had a long history of being stereotyped as robber tribes, etc. but they were not legally demarcated as criminals until British colonial rule. Britishers brought these communities under the Criminal Tribe Act, 1871. Still, some scholars argue that humiliation of the subalterns by the imperial rulers in the British period was not a strategy of the colonisers, but a formalisation of historical Indian legacy. According to David Arnold, the Criminal Tribes Act was used against “wandering groups, nomadic pretty traders and pastoralists, gypsy types, hill, and forest-dwelling tribes, in short against a wide variety of marginals who did not conform to the colonial pattern of settled agriculture and wage labor.”According to Ronald Carlton Vivian Piadade Noronha, an Indian civil service officer, writer and the chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh, in 1912, one million Minas were categorised as criminals under the act, even though only a small number of these had ever been involved in criminal activities. In 2004, Mark Brown argued that the Minas of Shahjahanpur in the district of Gurgaon, south of Delhi, were represented as a hereditary band of robbers.
However, this was not only an issue of settlement, agricultural rights and wage labor, but it was also about the tribes’ culture and autonomy. In the colonial period, tribal communities revolted against Britishers to protect their sovereignty, forests and distinct culture. Colonists not only controlled them but their resources and restricted their cultural practices. Most tribal communities have either been hunting and gathering societies or sustaining societies and did not have the concept of accumulation. Since Britishers were also not able to control these communities and considered them as a threat to their rule, they also tried to characterise them as criminals. The British colonial government considered these communities as barbarous, and their policy was to “civilize” them.
Even after independence, the central and state governments attempted to control and dominate the Adivasis, who have continuously resisted by demanding autonomy and separate states such as Bhil Pradesh and Gondwana. After independence, the Indian government denotified the so-called “criminal Tribes” but still put many such communities under the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952. According to this act, a habitual offender is one who has been a victim of subjective and objective influences and has manifested a set practice in crime and also presents a danger to the society in which they live. The recent incident of the lynching of an Adivasi man, Madhu, from Kerala also reflects how non-tribal society still perceives Adivasis as thieves. In fact, it is not just non-tribal society but also the state which perceives tribal communities as criminals. For instance, this years’ question paper from the Madhya Pradesh Public Service Commission’s exam described the Bhil community as “apradhik pravriti”—criminal minded—,indulging in “alcoholism” and so on.
In the contemporary era, Indigenous communities are represented as “anti-development.” Adivasi or tribal people, although only representing 8 percent of the total population of the country, make up 40 to 50 percent of the displaced persons due to the numerous developmental projects being carried out in their land by the state and companies. Hence, there has been a long history of protest against developmental projects like Narmada Bachao Andolan, Niyamgiri movement, etc.
Almost after five decades of land alienation and displacement, the Indian government realised and introduced the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006—also known as Forest Rights Act. The introduction of such laws was the product of a long history of resistance by the tribal communities. However, despite these constitutional safeguards, Indigenous communities are continuously exploited by the state and industrialists in the name of development. When tribal communities resist such exploitative and destructive projects which endanger their life, they are portrayed as being anti-development and anti-national. They are now even being detained and penalised under sedition charges.
A well known example of it is how the state termed tribals as ‘anti-national’ during the Pathalgadi Movement in Jharkhand and imposed sedition charges on them. The Jharkhand government under Raghuvir Das had filed approximately 10,000 cases of sedition in the Khunti district against tribal people; which was withdrawn later after the change of government by incumbent Adivasi chief minister Hemant Soren. The term Pathalgadi has been drawn from the tribal custom of placing a stone at the tomb of a dead person, especially among tribes belonging to the Austro–Asiatic linguistic family such as the Mundas, Khasis, etc. According to Virginius Xaxa, “Sasandiri” was the original term the Mundas used to describe this practice. When the government fails to implement the rights given to the people, it is only imperative that people engage in democratic assertion for the realisation of their rights. While this assertion was to claim the constitutionally granted provisions for autonomy and other rights, people involved in the Pathalgadi Movement have been termed as anti-national.
The underlying discourse on the demonisation and criminalisation of Adivasis, therefore, primarily has to do with how the knowledge production by the dominant communities has shaped the lives of Adivasis. Sometime ago, in a conversation, Priyanka Sandilya, a PhD scholar at McMaster University, told me, “we Adivasis resist the way they (dominant groups) impose their realities on us and access power on us through our misinterpretation as well as misrepresentation in the knowledge production.” Despite a plethora of Indigenous knowledge systems across the world, Adivasi knowledge and culture has never been considered intelligible by the so-called civilised and mainstream society. Do Adivasis have all to learn but nothing to teach?
– Brown, M. (2004). Crime, Liberalism, And Empire: Governing The Mina Tribe Of Northern India. Social & Legal Studies, 13(2), 191–218.
– Kumar, V. (2014, October). Tribal Rejecting Demonic Tales. Forward Press, VI(10).
– Larsen, P. E., & Kostlen, I. (2014, October). When The Asuras Were Gods; Devas Demons A Global Perspective. Forward Press, VI(10).
– Nigam, Sanjay (1990): ‘Disciplining and Policing the Criminals by Birth, Part I: The Making of a Colonial Stereotype – The Criminal Tribe and Castes of North India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, vol XXVII,
– Piliavsky, A. (2015). The "Criminal Tribe" In India Before the British. Society For The Comparative Study Of Society And History, 57(2), 323–354.
– Radhakrishna, M. (2000). Colonial Construction of a 'Criminal' Tribe: Yerukulas of Madras Presidency. Economic and Political Weekly, 35(28/29), 2553–2563.
– Sarkar, P. (2019). “Criminal Tribes” and the Mechanism of Power Probing into Historical Perspectives. Economic and Political Weekly, 16.
– Sharma, S. (2019, November 19). 10,000 people charged with sedition in one Jharkhand district. What does democracy mean here?
– Singh, B. (2008). Ex-Criminal Tribes of Punjab. Economic and Political Weekly, 43(51), 58-65.
– Thapar, R. (1978). Ancient Indian Social History Some Interpretation. New Delhi, Delhi: Orient Longman private Limited.
– Thapar, R. (1984). From Lineage to State. New Delhi, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
– Xaxa, V. (2019). Is the Pathalgadi movement In Tribal Areas Anti-constitutional. Economic and Political Weekly, 1.