‘Adivasis live in the forest. The government has declared all of them as terrorists. You have committed a blunder mistake by coming to the Adivasis’ territory. They are neither human beings nor animals. They are devils, devils!” “I have come here to transform these devils into human beings. I have devoted my entire life for the cause.”
These striking comments from the Hindi feature film MSG-2, starred and directed by Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh of Dera Saccha Sauda (DSS), sparked outrage among the Adivasis of India, with many demanding a ban on the film and legal action against its producer and director and members of the Central Board for Film Certification (Censor Board). Worried about their Adivasi vote bank, the BJP governments of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh banned the film. However, the central government did not take any action and a subsequent Delhi High Court judgment on the case has brought a troubling question to the fore: Are Adivasis ‘devils’?
Prem Mardi, a resident of Ghatshila, Jharkhand, filed a writ petition seeking cancellation of the film’s certification and legal action against its producer and director. The Delhi High Court’s response to the request was genuinely shocking. Delhi High Court Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw rejected the petition, arguing in his judgement that the word ‘Adivasi’ in the film does not refer to “Adivasis” in real life. It was a move straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.
The petitioner used the word ‘Adivasi’ to refer to members of Scheduled Tribes (STs)– an official designation that refers to Adivasis or Indigenous Peoples whose status is acknowledged by national legislation. Comparable to the Federal tribal recognition scheme in the United States, there are a total of 645 district tribes in India.
Based on that understanding, the petitioner argued that the film promoted hatred and ethnic discord against the STs. “However that is not my understanding of the word ‘adivasi,’” asserted Justice Endlaw. “As per my understanding, ‘adivasi’ connotes aboriginal people and not people falling in the definition of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution of India,” the judge emphasized.
He further commented, “To verify which of the aforesaid understandings is correct, I have checked the meaning of ‘adivasis’ and find the same described as people living in India before the arrival of the Aryans in the second millennium BC and descendents thereof. Adivasi, translated in English means the earliest inhabitants of the earth. Per contra, Tribes is understood as a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader. Just like Article 341 of the Constitution of India defines scheduled castes as the castes, races or tribes or parts of or groups within castes, races or tribes which shall for the purposes of this Constitution be deemed to be scheduled castes in relation to that State or Union, Article 342 defines Scheduled Tribes as tribe or tribal community or part of or groups within tribe or tribal communities which shall for the purposes of the Constitution be deemed to be scheduled tribes in relation to that State or Union Territory” .
“To be sure, I have also seen the Constitution of India in Hindi and do not find the word ‘adivasi’ being used in Articles 341, 342 and 366 in place of the word ‘tribe’. The word used for the word tribe therein is ‘janjati’. It, even otherwise, as per the dictionary is the Hindi equivalent of tribe. I may thus reinforce that the term ‘adivasi’ is not indicative of tribes or scheduled tribes but is indicative of the earliest inhabitants of any land whether it be in India or anywhere else in the world. I find the term ‘adivasi’ being used for the earliest settlers of the land that is now known as Bangladesh, Nepal, Srilanka as well. On the same parity of reasoning, the aborigines of America would also qualify as adivasis. The reference in the film to Adivasis is not found to be relatable in any manner to Scheduled Tribes. There is thus no merit in the petition. Dismissed,” the judge wrote.
No end to the bizarreness
The Delhi High Court’s judgment raises many questions. Since the judgement acknowledges that Adivasis lived in India before the arrival of the Aryans; the question is where have they gone now? Are they living in Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka? Furthermore, if we are to go by the judge’s reasoning, the Adivasis of Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, America and Africa are ‘devils’. What kind of mentality is this? Is the judge biased or simply uneducated? In the very least he was uninformed. Before delivering his verdict, he did not care to read an important judgment of the Supreme Court delivered by Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra in CA No 11/2011, SLP (C) No 10367/20 Kailash & others versus State of Maharashtra in which they used the terms ‘Tribal’, ‘Scheduled Tribe’ and ‘Adivasi’ interchangeably.
In the debates of the Constituent Assembly, Jaipal Singh Munda, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Dr B.R. Ambedkar and many others have repeatedly used the words Adivasis, Aboriginals, Tribals and Scheduled Tribes. Similarly, in the draft Constitution of India, the word ‘Adivasi’ was initially used in Article 13(5) and then removed at Ambedkar’s insistence because it would legitimize Adivasis as Indigenous People of India and the rest as outsiders . In addition, these words were also used in anthropological studies, history books and in documents prepared by the Planning Commission and state governments. Interestingly, the Jharkhand government officially celebrates International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples each year on 9th August. It also organizes a series of programmes for the Scheduled Tribes in the Constitution.
Despite the availability of several references and established fact that the Adivasis are the Aborigines or Indigenous Peoples of India, who are called Scheduled Tribes constitutionally, the judge dismissed the petition arguing that ‘STs’ and ‘Adivasis’ have different meanings. This is the understanding of Adivasis that so-called educated people have in India.
What is even more interesting is that the film MSG-2 brands Advasis as ‘devils’ and portrays Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh as a ‘human being’ and claims that he has devoted his entire life to their transformation. However, there is nothing new in this assault on the identity and existence of Adivasis. It has been happening for thousands of years.
Historically, in ancient times, the Adivasis had ownership rights on the natural resources and they judiciously used these resources for their survival. Consequently, they were living with autonomy, peace and prosperity. They were freely practicing their identity, tradition, culture, religion and language . The situation changed after the Aryan invasion which destroyed the Adivasi Civilization, denied their indigenous identity and rejected their existence as fellow human beings. The Aryan invaders raided the Adivasis’ territories and destroyed their civilization. They declared themselves as “Devas” and “Surs”, and that they were superior, pure and civilized, while branding the Adivasis as “Asurs”, devils, demons, barbarians, uncivilized, etc. Then, when Mughals came, they too considered the Adivasis as demons, barbarians and uncivilized peoples.
Language of development
Later on down the road, the British introduced the spectre of development and, after depriving the Adivasis from their livelihood resources, branded them as hungry, semi-clad, poor, helpless, uncivilized, criminals and marginalized. During the freedom movement, Gandhi referred to them as “Girijan” (hill dwellers) and Ambedkar called them uncivilized. Further, the right wing Hindutava ‘Sangh Parivar’ coined them as “Vanvasis” (forest dwellers/uncivilized) and launched an organized campaign against them. Thus began the use of the word “Vanvasi” for Adivasi, because the Aryans wanted to establish themselves as the original inhabitants of this country. The Total Revolution of 1974 brought with it a flood of NGOs and outsiders to the Adivasis’ territory. They began claiming that they were devoting their lives to the welfare of the Adivasis. Despite these messiahs coming to the rescue, the Adivasis remained where they were. Governments, NGOs and non-Adivasis branded Adivasis as hungry, poor, helpless, backward, uncivilized—earning for themselves fame and money for bringing about their “development”, making them part of the “mainstream” and giving them a “better” life. MSG-2 is a by-product of this stratagem.
Fearful of losing votes, the BJP government of Jharkhand was the first to ban the film. What Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das wrote on his Facebook page after ordering the ban, however, is just as shameful as the recent High Court ruling. Reminding us that the Sangh Parivar wants to usurp Adivasi existence, he wrote, “No one in the state will be allowed to play with the sentiments of Adivasi, Vanvasi brothers and sisters…the film MSG-2, which uses unconstitutional and objectionable language about the Adivasi brothers and sisters, will not be allowed to be screened in the state.” Great words at first glance. However, the use of the ideologically charged word ‘Vanvasi’ is no better than MSG-‘s cruel use of ‘devil’– or, for that matter, the Aryan and Mughal use of ‘junglee’, which means backward, barbaric and uncivilized.
By branding Adivasis as ‘devils’ in the film, MSG-2 is nothing short of an attack on the identity and existence of the Adivasis. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is confident that he can get away with it’ because Prime Minister Narendra Modi has himself made words like ‘vanbandhu’ (friends of forest) a part of the official terms for the Adivasis. Modi uses the word ‘Dalit’ for Scheduled Castes but he carefully refrains from using the word ‘Adivasi’ for Scheduled Tribes. That is because his masters – the controllers of the saffron brotherhood – have been running a campaign on a war footing for several decades to destroy the identity and existence of the Adivasis by addressing them as “vanvasi”. And that is because, once the word “Adivasi” (literally original inhabitants) is accepted, the non-Adivasis, who are in a majority, would automatically become outsiders. But will this verbal jugglery change the important judgment of the Supreme Court, delivered on January 5, 2011, in which it was stated that the Adivasis are the ‘decedents of the original inhabitants of India known as the ‘aborigines’ or Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis), who presently comprise of only about 8% of the population of India? The rest 92 % of the population of India consists of descendants of immigrants’ . How can these facts be suppressed and under covered?
The apex court also observed that,
“The injustice done to the tribal people of India is a shameful chapter in our country’s history. The tribals were called ‘rakshas’ (demons), ‘asuras’, and what not. They were slaughtered in large numbers, and the survivors and their descendants were degraded, humiliated, and all kinds of atrocities inflicted on them for centuries. Despite this horrible oppression on them, the tribals of India have generally (though not invariably) retained a higher level of ethics than the non-tribals in our country. They normally do not cheat, tell lies, and do other misdeeds which many non-tribals do. They are generally superior in character to the non-tribals. It is time now to undo the historical injustice to them” .
However, the Indian State is hardly concerned about the Adivasis. That is why so many are so quick to dehumanize, discriminate and exploit them without fear of being arrested and charged for their abuse.
Following the upsurge against MSG-2, the DSS claimed in the ‘spotlight page’ of Hindi magazine The Outlook that the MSG-2 is based on the true story of Rajasthan. It further states that in the year 2000, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh travelled to Jhadol Tahsil of Udaipur district in Rajasthan for meditation programmes, where the local residents prohibited him from roaming in Adivasi areas. They told him that anyone going there is simply looted, beaten and killed. Despite that, he went there and the Adivasis attacked him with poisoned arrows, still he talked to them and ‘civilized’ them. The DSS strongly claims that prior to this ‘civilization’, the Adivasis life was totally barbaric. They were naked and addicted to liquor. Boys and girls used to elope and bearing children before marriage, and children were dancing in their parents’ marriage. They used to hang living cattle in trees, cut into them with their nails, sucking their blood and eating the raw flesh. But he made all of them civilized–many of them becoming teachers . The claim of DSS is strange and shocking; but the government has not even bothered to question it.
Will the courts not deliver justice to the Adivasis?
MSG-2 reminds us that non-Adivasi Indians still nurture a deep hatred of the Adivasis. They aren’t interested in freeing themselves from their negative notions. Nevertheless, it is high time that Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, RSS and the non-Adivasis reflect on who is actually uncivilized, characterless, asur, barbaric and a ‘devil’? One thing is certain, though: If Adivasis are ‘devils’, then no one in the world can be a ‘human being’ because the best human values – communism, liberty, equality, fraternity and Justice can be found only in the Adivasi philosophy. Those who boast of being superior, civilized, cultured, educated and developed still have much to learn from the Adivasis.
Gladson Dungdung is a human rights activist, writer and thinker
Indigenous Peoples are putting their bodies on the line and it's our responsibility to make sure you know why. That takes time, expertise and resources - and we're up against a constant tide of misinformation and distorted coverage. By supporting IC you're empowering the kind of journalism we need, at the moment we need it most.