Friday, August 9, 2019

The Many Colours of Indian Indigenous People

Dr. Shiny Varghese

Indigenous people are those who inherit and practice unique cultures. With 370 million such people living across 90 countries, they represent more than 5000 different cultures, and speak over 7000 languages in the world. Though they form less than 5 percent of the population, they account for 15 percent of the poorest in the world. What is noteworthy is that people have retained their social, cultural, economic and political characteristics which are distinct from the societies of which they are a part of. The closeness to environment, adherence to their own culture, customs and traditional beliefs make the life of indigenous people a distinguished one. Although they remain one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in India, the problems of these people remain more or less the same, across the world. The protection of their rights, the land they live in, limited or no access to essential resources and their identity are some of the major issues that needs to be addressed.

The tribes of India
In India, there are 705 ethnic groups or indigenous people who are notified as Scheduled Tribes (ST’s) spread across the States and Union Territories of India. As per census 2011, their population is 104.3 million and they comprise around 9% of the total population of India with most of them residing in rural areas. Women amount to almost half of the tribal population. The sex ratio is also favourable as compared to other social groups with 990 females for every 1000 males. There are various views surrounding the status of these women in India.  Some say that the status of the women in tribal societies seems to be better than as they are characterised by egalitarian principles while others are of the opinion that it is more or less similar to the women in the general society. One of the most important determinants has been whether the women live in a matriarchal or patriarchal society. The Garo and the Khasi tribes assign the women a higher position due to the matrilineal descent and inheritance of property through female line. Even in a patriarchal society, the husband doesn’t always play a dominant role. For instance the Gond woman enjoys equal status and freedom as men in the social life, whereas on the other hand, even though the Tharu have patrilocal system of residence, wives who are known to have the knowledge of sorcery and witchcraft are dominant in the relationships. In the domestic spheres, Juang women take part in the decision-making process; however she is not consulted during important decisions.

Bodh Tribe of Ladakh
As per a study done by Veena Bhasin (2007), tribal communities too have son preference but they do not discriminate against girls by female infanticide. Though boys and girls do not have similar inheritance laws, girls are not subjected to abuse, hatred or strict social norms. They are free to participate in social events, dancing and other recreational programmes. Among Bhutias of Sikkim and Bodhs of Ladakh, there is no distinction in terms of the work done by men and women, although heavier tasks are done by men. Both men and women run small businesses and women also work as porters. There are many other privileges enjoyed by some of the tribal women of India which include freedom in selection of life partner, contributing to the local economy by participating in agriculture and other sectors, possibility of remarriage after divorce or death of husband, freedom to talk to whom so ever they please, man or woman of any caste or creed, freedom to exercise their voting rights.

However, some of the drawbacks include that a woman’s supremacy is restricted within the family domain and does not extend to social or political spheres. The religious domain has also been primarily a field for male dominance and a strategy to deprive women of public authority.
The present condition of tribal women is not an accidental affair but has evolved due to several factors in the past. By contributing economically, women have acquired social freedom which is quite remarkable in its scope. These women also toil very hard sometimes more than men, however they are not considered backward and no men tell them what to do and what not do. Even the patriarchal society, conveys respect rather than envy between the genders. The women in these areas are far more independent and powerful than modern sub-wives.

It is inspiring to hear stories of Madhumati Debbarma, Sandhya Rani Chakhma and Hatlhing Doungel who have fought against the odds and have been elected as members of the male dominated district councils in the tribal areas of northeast India. They have had to struggle against patriarchal mindsets, to encourage women participation for overall development and welfare of women in their regions.

Katkari tribes of Maharashtra
Similarly, in the areas of Shahapur Thane, there are many tribal communities residing such as the Thakurs, Katkari, Koli Mahadeo, Kokana, however Thakurs and Katkari communities form the majority. Population First through its programme AMCHI has been working with these communities for over a decade and the experiences and insights gained through the regular interaction has been very inspiring. In tribal hamlets like Palichapada, where access to water was an issue for a very long time, women with a little handholding changed the face of the village with their persistent efforts. There have been instances where women groups in these hamlets have led to increased health and education outcomes too. It is interesting to witness that women are decision makers in most of these communities.

August 9th commemorates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It marks the beginning of the sessions on Indigenous Populations at the UN in 1982. It is fascinating to see how lessons and experiences from tribal areas can be taken to inculcate values and morals in terms of gender equity and equality in the modern urban societies. It is essential that we work towards revitalizing, preserving and promoting indigenous cultures and share good practices through various platforms.