Thursday, July 18, 2024
HomeOpinionsPromotion of Tribal Cultural Heritage and its importance to decolonisation and nation building: How...

Promotion of Tribal Cultural Heritage and its importance to decolonisation and nation building: How the Modi govt has taken strides in this direction

The story of Bharat is a story of its indigenous identity and heritage, and by reclaiming the narrative on Bharatiyata with an autochthonous renascence of its tribal components, we can build a truly decolonized discourse for a civilizational resurgence, in our bid to become a Vishwa Guru again.

India is home to a diverse array of tribal communities, each with its distinct languages, customs, and traditions, contributing to the rich cultural tapestry of the nation. These indigenous tribes have inhabited India’s forests, hills, and plains for centuries, maintaining a harmonious relationship with nature and embodying a unique way of life. With a deep-rooted connection to their ancestral lands, tribal societies often exhibit close-knit communal structures and practices that have evolved over generations. The tribes of India possess an invaluable repository of traditional knowledge, encompassing everything from herbal medicine and sustainable farming practices to intricate craftsmanship and artistry. Despite modern advancements, preserving the traditions and well-being of India’s tribes remains crucial for maintaining cultural diversity and ensuring the equitable development of the nation. As Padma Vibhushan Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the main architect of India’s Green Revolution, once said

“One of India’s major blessings is the rich store of experience and knowledge available in the rural and tribal areas.”

There are some unique indigenous tribal cultural dimensions in India that are not found anywhere else in the world. The Kattunayakan tribe in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India has a unique tradition of honey hunting. They follow ancient rock paintings that depict honey collection methods, utilizing a remarkable symbiotic relationship with local bees to gather honey. The Tangkhul Naga tribe in Manipur celebrates a distinctive festival called Lui-Ngai-Ni, where men demonstrate their strength by pulling huge stone slabs across the village.

This ritual reflects their cultural heritage and emphasizes community bonding. The Mishing tribe of Assam practices a unique form of pottery known as Ali Aye Ligang. During this traditional festival, women create intricate clay pots using distinct patterns, symbolizing fertility, prosperity, and the tribe’s cultural identity. The Warli tribe, residing in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra, is renowned for its tribal art characterized by simplistic geometric shapes and patterns. This traditional art form, often used to depict daily life and rituals, has gained global recognition for its distinctive style. As an environmental activist and ecofeminist, Dr. Vandana Shiva once said,

“The heartbeat of our land is echoed in the rhythms of Adivasi cultures, enriching our diversity and teaching us the value of unity.”

Since coming into power in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has emphasized the preservation and revitalization of India’s diverse cultural heritage, including the rich traditions of its tribal communities. Through various initiatives and policies, the government has aimed to foster a cultural resurgence that recognizes the importance of tribal identity, traditions, and customs. One of the premier initiatives to celebrate and showcase India’s tribal heritage is the Aadi Mahotsav, started in 2017 by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India (TRIFED).  

It gives indigenous communities the opportunity to showcase tribal products and help artisans connect with the mainstream population at the National Tribal Crafts Expo. In 2023, more than one thousand tribal artisans and artists from 28 states and union territories participated in the festival. The Modi government introduced the Van Dhan Yojana, which focuses on enhancing tribal livelihoods through value addition to forest produce. This policy empowers tribal communities by providing them with training, technology, and market access to develop and market their traditional products, thereby preserving their cultural practices.

The government established the Eklavya Model Residential Schools to provide quality education to tribal children while respecting their cultural sensitivities. These schools offer a curriculum that combines mainstream education with the preservation of tribal languages, traditions, and knowledge. The government has actively implemented the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), allowing tribal communities greater control over local governance and natural resources. This policy safeguards their cultural heritage by recognizing their authority over land, resources, and decision-making processes. This government also elected to the seat of the President of India Shrimati Draupadi Murmu, who belongs to the Adivasi Santal community, in a move that truly showed that we are on the path towards decolonization and embracing our indigenous heritage and roots with sincerity and integrity. She once famously said,

“It is a tribute to the power of our democracy that a daughter born in a poor house in a remote tribal area can reach the highest constitutional position in India. And it is a matter of great satisfaction for me that those who have been deprived for centuries and those who have been denied the benefits of development, those poor, downtrodden, backwards and tribals are seeing their reflection in me. From Santhal revolution, Paika revolution to Kol revolution and Bhil revolution, all these revolutions had strengthened the tribal contribution in the freedom struggle. I am happy that many museums are being built across the country dedicated to the role of the tribal communities in our freedom struggle. I was born in that tribal tradition which has lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years.”

With 2023 being observed as the International Year of Millets, the Union government has laid emphasis on the importance of millets in the tribal areas of the country. Millets are often called `Shree Anna’ which means `the honoured grain’ or `the mother of all grains’. Mahatma Gandhi once said: “In the richness of millets, we rediscover ancient wisdom and modern sustenance, a testament to the resilience of traditional crops.” An interesting case of how governmental intervention has helped with the resurgence of consumption of Shree Anna in rural India is the Korku tribe of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, which had a nutritional downslide in the 1970s when they rapidly moved away from millets to soybean and wheat, leading to malnutrition and worsening health conditions. With interventions such as the formation of Farmer Producer Organizations, the establishment of Centers of Excellence and seed hubs for Shree Anna (supported under the National Food Security Mission), tribes like the Korku have slowly started to move back towards their traditional food practices.

Tribal millets like Kodo (Paspalum Scrobiculatum), Kutki (little millet) and Sawa (Indian barnyard millet) are seeing the light of day in a big way again. You may ask how food can be a part of the cultural heritage of a people. Well, food habits are a basic part of a culture that also serves as a point of emotional association, a channel of bonding or discrimination, while having symbolic references. Millets have been identified as foxtail millet (Priyangava – प्रियंगव), Barnyard millet (Anaava – अनाव), and black finger millet (Shyaamaka – श्यामक) in some of the oldest Yajurveda writings from India. The Yimchunger Nagas of Nagaland celebrate the Metumniu festival in August after harvesting millet crops. People in Vishakhapatnam’s tribal communities celebrate the Mandukiya festival in June-July each year, where bullocks are fed ragi-based food items. After observing Deepotsav (Diwali) or on the sacred day of Nagula Chavithi, it is customary to have ragi pancakes or other recipes. Madiah (ragi), along with turmeric, is still smeared on the bride and groom’s body during wedding rites in Madhya Pradesh. In tribal societies, millet seeds are believed to provide protection against evil spirits. To ensure successful hunting and a plentiful harvest, the Pahadi Korwa tribe of Chhattisgarh hang millet stalks in their courtyards.

Post-Independence, the documentation of tribal practices in India faced challenges stemming from a lack of dedicated efforts, resulting in the loss of invaluable cultural knowledge as traditional practices faded away undocumented. Historical biases and a focus on mainstream narratives often marginalized tribal communities, leading to inadequate representation and documentation of their unique cultural practices, languages, and rituals. The absence of standardized methodologies and insufficient collaboration between academic researchers and tribal communities hindered comprehensive documentation, limiting the preservation and understanding of India’s diverse tribal heritage. What we often forget when observing and documenting tribal cultural practices is that more often than not it is us who have to learn a lot from them, as put forth by Jaipal Singh Munda, a member of the Constituent Assembly, in the context of democracy as a socio-cultural and political thought,

“You can’t teach democracy to tribals. You need to learn democratic values from them. They are the most democratic community on earth.”

The Modi government initiated a comprehensive documentation effort to record endangered tribal cultural practices, languages, and rituals. This policy aims to create a repository of knowledge that can be preserved, studied, and shared to prevent the loss of valuable traditions. The comprehensive documentation effort initiated by the Modi government involves ethnographic research teams collaborating with tribal communities to meticulously record and document endangered cultural practices, encompassing rituals, ceremonies, linguistic nuances, and traditional ecological knowledge. This initiative employs modern technologies such as audiovisual recording, digital archiving, and geospatial mapping to create an accessible and comprehensive repository, ensuring the preservation of endangered tribal cultural practices for academic study, community reference, and future revival efforts. There is still ongoing debate and discussion on whether utilizing remote sensing technologies such as drones and satellite imagery for non-intrusive documentation of tribal culture in India is a possible approach, given international examples such as from Guyana, where members of the Wapichan tribe use Parrot Bebop quadcopters for documenting preservation of important cultural and sacred sites to monitoring land-use patterns. T

he documentation effort by the Modi government also encompasses partnerships with anthropologists, linguists, and cultural experts, who work alongside tribal members to ensure accurate representation and culturally sensitive portrayal, safeguarding the integrity of the recorded practices while fostering a deeper understanding of tribal heritage. This work has also been facilitated by the `double engine model’ with state governments in BJP-run states such as in Goa, where the Tribal Research Institute was registered under the Societies Registration Act 1860 in January 2023 for better documentation and showcasing of tribal culture in Goa.

Under the aegis of the BJP government’s Tribal Cultural Heritage Revival Program, a targeted funding framework was established, channelling resources directly to tribal communities for the documentation, preservation, and revitalization of their endangered cultural traditions. Through this mechanism, tribal groups are invited to submit comprehensive project proposals, outlining specific cultural practices targeted for revival, proposed methodologies, and anticipated outcomes, thus ensuring a focused and strategic approach. The funding allocation process involves an interdisciplinary review panel comprising cultural experts, anthropologists, linguists, and tribal representatives, who evaluate proposals based on criteria such as cultural significance, potential impact, community engagement, and sustainability. Upon approval, the granted funds are disbursed in phases, contingent on achieving predefined milestones, as outlined in the project proposal.

This phased disbursement structure promotes accountability, effective resource utilization, and progress tracking. Even the Tribal Sub-Plan, which came into existence in the 1970s for developing areas with tribal concentration, was functional mainly as an accounting exercise without adequate emphasis on the planning and execution of schemes to ensure demonstrable benefits for the scheduled tribes, for decades! The Tribal Cultural Heritage Revival Program allocated a budget of ₹500 crores during its first phase to support various projects aimed at documenting, preserving, and reviving endangered tribal cultural practices. Under this program, over 2,000 traditional tribal festivals and cultural events have been financially supported and promoted, facilitating the preservation and celebration of indigenous rituals and traditions across different tribal communities.

The Tribal Cultural Heritage Revival Program has facilitated the establishment of more than 300 Tribal Heritage Conservation Centers across the country, providing resources, technical expertise, and training to tribal communities for the documentation, archiving, and promotion of their cultural practices, languages, and traditions. In addition to financial support, the BJP government has organized capacity-building workshops, technical training, and access to modern tools such as digitization equipment and archival software, empowering tribal communities to execute their revival initiatives efficiently while integrating modern documentation techniques. On the occasion of the Tiranga Utsav on 2 August 2022, Union Minister of Home Affairs Shri Amit Shah released a pictorial book in memory of revolutionary tribal fighters of the Indian freedom struggle in partnership with Amar Chitra Katha.

The Modi government has facilitated cultural exchange programs and workshops that bring together different tribal communities to share and learn from each other’s endangered cultural practices. These interactions contribute to the revitalization and cross-pollination of tribal customs. The Union government facilitated a series of cultural exchange workshops, engaging tribal artists and artisans from various regions, allowing them to share and exchange their unique cultural practices, craftsmanship, and traditional knowledge. This was beautifully encapsulated in the words of Indian playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar

“Adivasi heritage is a tapestry woven with threads of resilience, wisdom, and cultural diversity that enrich the fabric of our nation.”

It has also promoted the work of the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan and organised the Tribal Youth Exchange Programme for the development of tribal youth with the support of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. The aim of this programme is to provide an opportunity to the tribal youth of 30 selected districts of seven states to visit various places within the country to understand the cultural ethos, language and lifestyles of the people. One key aim of the initiative is to sensitize the tribal youth about their rich traditional & cultural heritage and enable them to preserve it for future generations. This is in conjunction with other existing initiatives such as the Ice Stupa Project Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (Government of India), because of which villagers were able to conserve around 75 lakh litres of water in Ice-Stupas during winters and undertake eco-tourism activities like first Ladakh Ice Climbing Festival that gave the local youth an opportunity to be part of eco-entrepreneurial ventures.

The Going Online as Leaders (GOAL) Program, a collaborative effort between Facebook and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), was inaugurated on May 15, 2020, with the ambitious goal of digitally empowering 5,000 youth from tribal communities in India. By enlisting the expertise of 2500 industry leaders and influencers across diverse fields, the initiative aims to provide personalized mentorship to tribal youth, focusing on digital literacy, life skills, leadership, entrepreneurship, and sector-specific expertise. The comprehensive nine-month program encompasses mentorship, skill-building, and practical experience through a two-month internship, fostering holistic development among tribal mentees. There is also governmental emphasis on intergenerational knowledge transfer within tribal communities, with encouragement given to elders to actively teach younger members about endangered practices, ensuring their continuity and relevance.

The Modi government has displayed a strong commitment to the conservation and promotion of tribal languages through a series of targeted initiatives. As part of the ‘Eklavya Model Residential Schools‘ program, launched in 2018, over 460 tribal languages are being preserved and taught, ensuring that indigenous linguistic diversity thrives within the formal education system. Furthermore, the ‘Tribal Language Development Program‘, introduced in 2016, focuses on documenting and revitalizing endangered tribal languages. Through this program, a substantial corpus of tribal language resources, including grammatical structures, dictionaries, and literature, has been compiled. Notably, the government’s ‘Bhasha Sangam’ initiative has celebrated linguistic diversity by featuring over 100 tribal languages on digital platforms, fostering greater recognition and appreciation of tribal linguistic heritage. By embracing digital technology, the Modi government has also launched the ‘Tribes India E-Marketplace,’ facilitating the online promotion and sale of tribal literature, art, and crafts, including works reflecting the linguistic nuances of tribal communities. These comprehensive efforts underscore the government’s dedication to preserving and nurturing the linguistic identities of India’s tribal populations. According to the NEP 2020 report, approximately 220 languages have been lost over the previous 50 years. In addition, 197 Indian languages have been listed as endangered by UNESCO. Even certain official languages included in the Indian Constitution’s Eighth Schedule face significant challenges.

A facile bureaucratic procedure sometimes serves as a vehicle for the extermination of a language or dialect. The Criminal Tribes Act was enacted by the British Indian government in 1871 and only repealed in 1952. The Act stigmatised and forced some populations, usually nomadic, to hide their cultural heritage and suppress their languages. Following the 1971 Census, the Indian government declared that any indigenous language spoken by less than 10,000 people would be removed from the list of the country’s official tongues. The dialects which have been considered endangered, include seven from Manipur (Langrong, Aka, Koiren, Aimol, Lamgang, Tarao and Purum), three from Odisha (Manda, Parji and Pengo), two from Assam (Tai Nora and Tai Rong), two from Karnataka (Koraga and Kuruba), two from Arunachal Pradesh (Mra and Na), two from Andhra Pradesh (Gadaba and Naiki), one from Uttarakhand (Bangani), one from Maharashtra (Nihali), one from Jharkhand (Birhor), one from Meghalaya (Ruga), one from West Bengal (Toto), two from Tamil Nadu (Kota and Toda) and four from Himachal Pradesh (BaghatiHanduriPangvali and Sirmaudi). Languages such as GhalluHelgoAdhuniDichi and Katagi have gone extinct. The Union government under the leadership of Minister of Education Dharmendra Pradhan has initiated a Scheme for the Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages of India in December 2021 and been working with the Mysuru-based Central Institute of India Languages on the protection, preservation and documentation of all Indian language.

The Union government has sanctioned over ₹864 lakh to various universities, institutes and academies for research on tribal medicinal practices and healing traditions nationwide, with the government data revealing that over ₹312 lakh has been allotted to the Patanjali Research Institute in Haridwar. The Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences, operating under the AYUSH ministry, has undertaken a commendable Tribal Health Care Research Programme aimed at documenting and preserving the wealth of folk medicines and traditional practices present across diverse regions of India. Implemented through 16 peripheral institutes across the country, Tribal Health Care Research Programme not only collects valuable information but also extends healthcare services to tribal populations. Collaborative efforts with institutes like Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh and Bangalore in Karnataka involve comprehensive medico-ethno botanical surveys, meticulously cataloguing medicinal flora and indigenous practices. The National Medicinal Plants Board, under its scheme, has similarly sponsored ethnobotanical research projects in states like Assam, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh, delving into the medicinal usage of local flora by tribal communities. The National Medicinal Plants Board’s creation of an accessible database, detailing the therapeutic attributes and habitats of over 7,000 medicinal plant species, stands as a significant resource for preserving and sharing traditional knowledge.

Collaborating with CSIR, the Ministry of AYUSH established the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, a comprehensive repository of codified texts translated into multiple languages, serving as a preventive measure against the misappropriation of India’s traditional medicinal wisdom. Furthering these efforts, the establishment of the North Eastern Institute of Folk Medicine in Arunachal Pradesh aims to safeguard and promote the rich tapestry of folk medicine practices unique to the North Eastern Region. These endeavours collectively reflect a profound commitment by the Indian government to uphold and propagate traditional healing practices while ensuring their rightful recognition and protection. The Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi today approved the establishment of the National Institute for Sowa-Rigpa in Leh as an autonomous organization under the Ministry of AYUSH in November 2019. Sowa-Rigpa, a traditional medical system indigenous to the Himalayan region, has found widespread popularity and practice in various Indian locales, including Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Darjeeling (West Bengal), Himachal Pradesh, and the Union Territory of Ladakh, now extending its influence throughout the entire country.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP government has made significant strides in promoting tribal cultural resurgence in India. Through various policies and initiatives, the government has recognized and empowered tribal communities, encouraged the revival of traditional arts and crafts, preserved tribal languages, promoted festivals, improved educational facilities, and safeguarded tribal medicinal knowledge. The efforts made by the government have not only preserved the cultural diversity of India but also empowered tribal communities to actively participate in the nation’s growth and development. However, there is still much to be done to ensure that the tribal cultural heritage remains vibrant and thriving for future generations. It is imperative for the government and society as a whole to continue supporting and preserving the unique cultural identity of India’s tribal communities.

The resurgence and safeguarding of tribal culture enable the restoration of traditional knowledge systems, such as Ayurveda and Sowa-Rigpa, which challenge the dominance of Western medicine and contribute to the decolonization of India’s healthcare practices. The revival of tribal cultural practices, such as the Dokra metal craft and Warli painting, helps counter the erasure of indigenous art forms caused by colonial influences, fostering cultural diversity and decolonizing artistic expressions. The resurgence of tribal culture also aids in decolonization by reinforcing land rights, as exemplified by the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which recognizes and restores tribal communities’ historic rights over forest lands, challenging colonial-era dispossession. The revival of tribal cultural practices fosters eco-friendly cultural tourism, as seen in the case of the Konkan Railways’ “Tribal Village Tourism” initiative, promoting economic growth, community well-being, and decolonization of tourism narratives.

The story of Bharat is a story of its indigenous identity and heritage, and by reclaiming the narrative on Bharatiyata with an autochthonous renascence of its tribal components, we can build a truly decolonized discourse for a civilizational resurgence, in our bid to become a Vishwa Guru again.

Join OpIndia's official WhatsApp channel

  Support Us  

Whether NDTV or 'The Wire', they never have to worry about funds. In name of saving democracy, they get money from various sources. We need your support to fight them. Please contribute whatever you can afford

Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Mrittunjoy is a physicist, activist, writer, social worker and philosopher.

Related Articles

Trending now

Recently Popular

- Advertisement -