India’s indigenous people: Repository of India's traditional knowledge and cultural heritage

The international community needs to appreciate that against all odds and the trauma of partition, India’s culture is composite and represents her civilizational heritage, writes Amb Bhaswati Mukherjee (retd) for South Asia Monitor

India's traditional knowledge and cultural heritage

An ancient and ethnically diverse civilization, India’s pre-recorded history saw waves of invaders, settling into the vast Indo-Gangetic Northern heartland or crossing the Vindhyas to settle in the Southern peninsula. Civilizations and empires came and disappeared, a true testimony to India’s complex history. 

Recent studies identify waves of major migrations to India: from Africa to the Andaman’s 65,000 years ago, the second wave from the Zagros region of Iran 9,000 to 7,000 years ago, the 3rd wave from South-East Asia who waved to the Northeast and the last wave by the Indo-European language speaking pastoralists from the Steppes between 2000 and 1000 BC. 

Who then were India’s original inhabitants, pre-dating recorded history? Were they India’s tribal people? Should they be called India’s indigenous or is this once again a colonial construct, applied to India, ignoring her unique history? How did this confusion arise? 

Scheduled Tribes 

India today has more than 550 ancient tribes and 705 ethnic groups officially recognized constitutionally as ‘Scheduled Tribes’.  They are ethnically and racially diverse, speak different languages and have different cultural heritage. They are the repository of India’s vast traditional knowledge system, contribution to soft power and Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH).   

From the Harappan culture in 2500 BC, to migration of Aryans to India in 1500 BC, to the rise of the great Hindu empires in North and South India, to the Muslim invaders who eventually settled to establish great empires, these developments impacted the people as a whole, including the tribal people. What emerged was a unique composite culture, based on plurality of faith, multi-ethnicity and representing unity in diversity. 

As William Dalrymple had pertinently noted: “India has always had a strange way with her conquerors. In defeat, she beckons them in, then slowly seduces, assimilates and transforms them.” 

This narrative changed under colonialism. The British, with their notion of the ‘White Man’s burden’ fashioned India into a colony. In doing so, India was subjected for the first time to the notion that the West needed to bring civilization to primitive peoples or to destroy it where it existed. Indian self-confidence and self-esteem, their faith in the sanctity of the oral tradition, withered in the face of this challenge. It was countered by the national movement which encompassed all Indians. 

Western worldview 

Carpentier De Gourdon regrets the traditional Western interpretation of ancient societies being “deeply flawed”, to be corrected or replaced by a new order, leading to the Enlightenment of 18th century Europe.  He concludes that progress, when devoid of any reference to eternal or traditional values “cannot be trusted as a guiding principle”. This Western interpretation prevails till today. 

Most Indians at the time were unaware that very different developments were occurring in other parts of the world. The mass migration and settlement of White European people to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand did lead to eviction of the original inhabitants, their slaughter or their total marginalization. The story of the indigenous people came to be written in blood, the children of a lesser God. It amounted to a total erasure of their history. It was a human tragedy of epic proportions. 

In contrast, there was no mass migration of British or Europeans to India. Indians were not displaced as were the indigenous in the Americas. The British were a small minority and ruled India through the British Indian army where sepoys heavily outnumbered European officers. 

India and her people suffered greatly from the onslaught of colonialism, poverty, famine and finally partition, along with independence. When power was transferred to the ‘natives’, it covered the entire Indian population. In order to inclusively develop, post 1947, the many socially and economically backward groups including tribal communities in different States of India, several provisions were made in India’s Constitution. 

Tribal challenges 

Despite such constitutional protection including the Fifth Schedule for Central India and the Sixth List for certain areas of Northeast India, India’s tribals face many challenges. Rapid modernization in an increasingly globalized world threatens to diminish and destroy this culture. 

After decolonization in the 50s, the plight of the indigenous due to European settlement was raised in the UN and specialized agencies.  The West, adept at divide and rule, tried to argue that great injustice had been done to India’s ‘original inhabitants’, the tribal people. This ambivalence and confusion prevail till today. Efforts were made to confuse our tribal communities about their history and to cast doubt on their equal position along with other Indians in post-colonial independent India. 

Indian sociologist Andre Beteille lamented: “Intellectual disciplines are so organized today that concepts and terms that emerge in response to a particular experience in a particular part of the world travel to other parts of it where they lodge themselves and acquire a life of their own”. 

These counter-currents remain despite our clear and unambiguous declared position in the UN.  India voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on the condition that after independence all Indians are ‘Indigenous’.  

India’s explanation of the vote encapsulates her position. “While the Declaration did not define what constitutes indigenous peoples, the issue of indigenous rights pertained to peoples in independent countries who were regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country or a geographical region which the country belonged, at the time of conquest or colonization or establishment of present State boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retained some or all of their socio-economic, cultural and political institutions.” 

India’s indigenous 

Today, this issue has a disturbing connotation for our national and internal security. Multilaterally, we have underlined that the historical context of the issue of indigenous peoples was with respect to protection of “native workers” in overseas colonies, who were alienated from their rights to their ancestral lands, territories, resources, history and culture and does not apply to India. Equally, it cannot apply to an ancient and ethnically diverse culture and civilization like ours. 

More troubling, the principle of “self-identification” can be confused with self-determination to the detriment of India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and a violation of the undermining the UN Charter. 

Our arguments are is often sidestepped or ignored by the West. This is unfortunate but can be combated. What is of greater concern is why the indifference of the vast Indian public to the importance of integrating marginalized communities into the national mainstream!  Many lack a proper understanding of the great contribution of various tribal communities to India’s culture and civilization. 

India’s traditional culture consists of an astounding wealth of living patterns and modes of heritage. Through a history of changing settlements and political power, as well as adaption to colonial rule, India’s living cultural heritage is shaped by centuries of adaptation, re-creation and co-existence. The intangible cultural heritage of India finds expression in the ideas, practices, beliefs and values shared by communities across centuries. It forms part of the collective memory of the nation. 

The international community needs to appreciate that against all odds and the trauma of partition, India’s culture is composite and represents her civilizational heritage. Indians too need to work at all levels to ensure inclusive development. Only then will we be able to silence the voices of dissenters globally and in the United Nations. 

India's philosopher-monk Swami Vivekananda’s depiction of India says it all: “India for thousands of years peacefully existed…. We of all nations have never been a conquering race, and that blessing is on our head, and therefore we live”. 

Poet Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s inspirational message resonates today: 

“India represents the wealth of mind which is for all.  
We acknowledge India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture 
And India’s right to accept from others their best.” 

(The author is a retired ambassador and an expert on heritage issues.  Views are personal) 

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