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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - Supp. N° 93,  December 2003, pp.281-288


Adi-Vasi   Bhalai   Movement
Indigenous Approach for the Welfare of Indian Nomads

Rev. Fr. Mathias Bhuriya *
Centre for Tribal Art and Culture


If we do not underestimate the demographic increase of tribal populations and of semi tribal nomadic and tribal nomadic people, it is 20% or more of Indian population belonging to 700 or more groups and sub-groups in India. Many Tribal groups have already been absorbed consciously or unconsciously and are still being absorbed in the national mainstream of Indian society in the process of Scheduled Tribe group-formation and are losing their territorial belonging, culture, ethnicity and historical identity. Not much serious thought has been given for total Adi-Vasi (=Aboriginal) welfare or Purn Adi-Vasi Bhalai schemes, which will help them as homogeneous and historical ethnic groups maintaining their traditional identities. As a result several tribal groups like Bhils, Gonds, Santhals, Oraons, Khadia, Mundas and others considered to be settled are becoming   pastoral nomads (Ghumanta/Khandabadosh/Ghumakkad).

If one looks at the Adi-Vasi development programs from social, political, economical, cultural and religious perspectives, one can see that it has been basically misconceived by the planners, who have no genuine concern for total and lasting Adi-Vasi Bhalai or welfare. There is mutilation of all spheres of Adi-Vasi life, lore and culture, leaving no chance for cultural, social and religious revival. I am afraid that in the near future a vast majority of Adi-Vasi nomadic and semi-nomadic population is going to move towards possible extinction.  Hence it is a clarion call to all Adi-Vasi elites, leaders, activists and volunteers, both in the Central and State administration to think seriously in a humanitarian perspective, to provide the rightful and respectful place to Adi-Vasis in India, to enable them to play the role of nation building. Otherwise, as equal partners the tribal nomads of India will have the sad fate of those in Australia and in America of losing their land, wealth, culture and traditional identities in the course of time.

Much has been written and is being written about tribal nomads by non Adi-Vasi scholars.  In these writings there is much misinformation based on partial knowledge of Adi-Vasi societies. No insider's view of the Adi-Vasi art and culture has been represented, because most of the upper caste writers had only an academic curiosity. They were uninformed of many tribal ways of life, beliefs, practices, tribal history, and folklore and much less about their worldviews and cosmology. Hence it is time for us to correct these errors, wrong views and bring out promptly the insidersÂ’ view of the Adi-Vasis nomadic culture. After discussing with many Adi-Vasi scholars from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Orissa, Meghalaya, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgargh and other places, I propose the following points in this paper for serious reflection on the basic issues of tribal identity, integrity, development and Adi-Vasi self-rule (Adi-Vasi panchayat Raj).  In fact, the Adi-

Vasi culture needs to be innovated and protected from outside onslaught and cultural invasions.  It is the most Aadi (=ancient) or one of the most Aadi cultures of India. Adi Kavi Valmiki himself was a Bhil Adi-Vasi who contributed the adi-Ramayana. Besides many ancient characters like Eklavya, Shabari and others were tribals whose culture at one time had reached a certain peak in the cultural development.

The vision

Our vision is inspired by the historical and cultural values of Adi-Vasi traditions.  We visualize an Indian tribal society, in which peace, justice, cultural representation and equality among all ethnic groups of India will prevail and wherein all tribals will live in peace with dignity enabling the Adi-Vasi community of India to realize their indigenous skills and knowledge, irrespective of their region, origin, language and religion.  We also envisage a tribal society where every Adi-Vasi will have equal opportunity to achieve his/her full potential and to participate in value based sustainable developmental process, enhancing his cultural heritage of Adi-Vasi India to shine as a jewel in the crown of Bharat Mata (=Mother India).

In this process the following points are being proposed towards Total Tribal Bhalai Movement, where Adi-Vasi way of life is fully respected and preserved as part of Indian heritage.

1. Indigenous Names: The Adi-Vasis should maintain their original and traditional names, surnames, groups, sub-groups and clan (gotras) names etc., for retaining their original and authentic tribal identity and tribal unity.  Even though one is educated and is living in urban areas, he should retain his Adi-Vasi Jat (ethnicity) at any cost, just like the ethnic groups of Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Rajputs and others do without any cultural inhibitions, willingly retaining their original names even after migration to other regions and even to foreign countries and do not lose their names even after centuries of living in a foreign land.

2. Historical Territories of Adi-Vasis: We should hold fast to the geographical and historical territories. Adi-Vasi Desh (=Territory) should be protected from being uprooted from your own ancestral land and cultural heritage. Without Adi-Vasi land, art and culture, the Indian culture is incomplete. The boundaries of the original Adi-Vasi Desh as found in our folk histories should be demarcated.  Every major caste is identifying and protecting its Desh or geographical territory in the Indian federation. We should identify the boundaries of our original Adi-Vasi Desh within the framework of Indian Constitution. It should be admitted that some State governments in India are doing much to promote Adi-Vasiness in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India.

3. Adi-Vasi Feasts and Festivals: The Adi-Vasis should celebrate all Adi-Vasi feasts and festivals (Tij- Tehvars) of Adi-Vasi India, officiating by themselves, with full enthusiasm, which should enkindle their dissipated psychic energy, and be ready to face the hazards of their day to day problems, and work for social and cultural solidarity. Annual Festivals (Tehvars) should be introduced for major Adi-Vasi heroes, leaders, literary figures artists, poets like Aadi kavi Valmiki, others like Eklavya, Shabri Bhilni, Rani Durgavati, Birsa Munda (munda saint), Tantya Mama (Bhil saint), King Guha, Bhima Naik, Khaja Bhil, Kotia Bhil, Kota Bhil Tirot Singh (Khasi), Kiang Nanghah (Jaintia). Pa Togan Songma (Garo), Sagar Nangli (Jaintia), Mon Bhut (Khasi), Soso Tham (Khasi), Joh Ymbon (Jaintia), and other local kings of ancient Adi-Vasi India and present day persons of importance like Anand Kumar Shyam and Jangadh Singh Shyam both Gond tolk Artists from Mandala, Madhya Pradesh, Burial, Bhuri Bai of Bhils tribe of Jhabua etc. should also be brought to limelight.

4. Adi-Vasi Pahnawas (=Costumes): We should preserve and perpetuate the traditional costumes of Adi-Vasi India and wear them on social occasions with pride, self respect and as a sign of self-identity. All the customs of mutual respect and greetings of guests have to be practiced scrupulously. Adi-Vasi dress, tattoos, etc. will make a colourful and lively scene in India.

5. Literacy: Our capacity to read and write local languages including Hindi, Sanskrit, Gujrati, Marathi, Malvi has to be enhanced. Practical knowledge of English for higher studies and jobs is necessary to face competitions but we should not give up our mother tongue, which strengthens the solidarity with one another by communicating and helping to attain the Adi-Vasi Desh. All the major castes of India are learning English for their self-development, imposing on us only vernaculars.

6. Literary Traditions: It is necessary to put to writings all forms of Adi-Vasi literatures and oral traditions (Vachik Parampara) such as myths, folktales, legends, proverbs, riddles, other forms of sayings and oval cultural traditions.  Traditional occupations such as singing, dancing, acting, agriculture, fishing, hunting, weaving, painting, carving, healing, tattooing, sooth saying, praying, sowing, administrating, etc. have to be recorded in Devnagari script or any other form of regional scripts available in the region.  We should print and publish them in Souvenir (smarika) forms on various social occasions, every year, by the elite tribal and committed tribal leaders. We should also publish them in anchlik (Regional) papers and local magazines for better awareness (Chetana).

7. Folk Singing and Dancing: We should recite the folk songs as often as possible on social occasions, folk- gathering and perform folk-dances as part of social gatherings.  With modern themes and issues Adi-Vasis should compose many new folk-songs to create a new awareness  (Chetania) and innovations among them.  Audio-visual cassettes of various cultural themes have to be produced, published and distributed as part their proud heritage.

8. Preservation of Folk-Memory: We should retain the folk memory of cultural heroes, Adi-Vasi ancestors and leaders to perpetuate their memory through music, games, dances, debates, paintings and other competitions, which are of Adi-Vasi origin.  Local tribal leaders should come forward in this sacred task of recreating their traditional culture at Panchayats tehsils and at district levels. We have suffered discrimination for the last three millenniums or more. This new millennium should see tribal innovations. Heroes like Birsa Munda (a tribal saint) and Tantia Mama (a Bhil saint) are tribal saints in true sense of the word according to Adi-Vasi thinking. Their statues, Shrines, memories and memorials in many other forms are strongly retained. Also Valia Bhil who was the original composer of Adi-Ramayana, Valmiki by name is to be remembered.

9. Use of Adi-Vasi Mother Tongues (Bolis): For maintaining Adi-Vasi solidarity with the illiterate Adi- vasi community, the literate Adi-Vasis should communicate in their folk languages or Adi-Vasi Bhasha with pride and honour so that the illiterate section of the people do not loose their social and cultural base.  The tribal functions should be carried out mostly or exclusively in tribal languages (Bolis).  Our tribal languages (Bolis) and folklores (parmparas) are most ancient elements of Indian culture. Tribal languages in public places of tribal India are the most suitable for   public occasions and interests.

10.  Revive the Glorious Past: Folk memory, oral and written history of tribes should be retained, collected, printed, published and perpetuated through media such as printed books, audio and video-cassettes, souvenirs (smarikas) and annual magazine (smarikas) in every tribal district of Adi-Vasi India.  This will give them link with the past, pride in their history and hope for future in collective and written forms. Youth and educated Adi-Vasis should be enlightened to revive their holy and glorious past and save it from degradation, degeneration and perversion. All the NGOs  (Non-Governmental Agencies) should do this on priority bases to create visible memories of tribal past and shrines for tribal saints (Bhale log).

11. Social Harmony: All forms of tribal internal fights and litigations by various clans (Gotras), groups and sub-groups have to be stopped.  Instead fraternity feelings (Apanapan) with every member of the Adi-Vasi India should be encouraged.  One should be watchful not to be manipulated by outsiders who come with the intention to divide and rule. Unfortunately, Adi-Vasis are often victims of liquor, distorted ideology and division.

12. Be Positive:  We should encourage, appreciate and support every good initiative taken by the Adi-Vasi youth leaders, Adi-Vasi businessmen, Adi-Vasi entrepreneurs and Adi-Vasi students and their excellent talents have to be helped and promoted to the maximum.   We should never speak ill of our Adi-Vasi brethren any time and anywhere in the country.  They have already suffered in many ways in the hands of the upper castes and classes for a very long period in the Indian history. We should also encourage personal studies and reading habits in our homes through good books of creative writers.  We should avoid harmful drugs, narcotics, tobacco, bride-money  (Dahej) and other social evils and increase personal qualities (good habits) in life.  Tribals are less corrupt, more honest, holy and blessed with many folk values, with lesser vices than many other castes in the country. 

13.  Abandon Liquor (Daru): We should give up excessive use of liquor in private and public life.  This habit takes away lots of energy; money and resources making ourselves surrender to other castes leaving us miserable. We should beware of politicians, cunning and resourceful people and NGOs with vested interests working in tribal areas.  Instead let us take initiatives and depute Adi-Vasi leaders and spoke-persons (Pravaktas) from among the tribals themselves who will be the voice of the voiceless Adi-Vasis.  Let us serve our brethren in truth, sincerely and honestly showing genuine and lasting concern to the suffering folks at the hour of tribal deprivation and exploitation.

14. Leadership: Persons with character, quality of leadership and sound Adi-Vasi knowledge should lead the community. The Adi-Vasi leadership should remain in the hands of Adi-Vasi leaders.  They (leaders) should be indigenous and born from the Adi-Vasi soil and should not be manipulated by the outsiders who instigate us.

15. Cultural Affirmation: Accept and affirm the Adi-Vasi culture, language, personality and identity with dignity through positive affirmations of our own Adi-Vasi groups.  This will empower the tribal personality; cultural identity and self-consciousness and they will take several good initiatives.

16. Ethnic Assertions:  We should firmly assert our views and opinions through groups, individuals, local media, memorandums, national political parties, Adi-Vasi political parties, rallies, clan, Adi-Vasi panch, Adi-Vasi associations and Adi-Vasi panchayats, for legal and constitutional rights allotted to us by the Central and State governments. Vast amount of funds do not reach the tribals due to misappropriation by others.  If all the funds had directly come to us without the intermediary agencies most of the problems would have been solved and each Adi-Vasi family would have been rich and better off today.  Central and state governments have many Bhalai (welfare) schemes for Adi-Vasi India.  The resources have to be identified and made use of.

17. Creation of Infra-structures: To achieve the goals of Adi-Vasi political awakening, formation of animation groups, committees, etc has to be created at grass-root Panchayat level for people's participation (sahbhagita), self preservation, emancipation, empowerment and transparency (pardarshita).

18. Channelling of Local Resources: Adi-Vasi's rights over forest, opportunities for jobs and over natural resources, their role in Panchayats and Janpads, have to be earnestly pursued to assert their role in local bodies. They should venture into occupational trades and marketing of local commodities and products. They should have full control over the means of production, use of local resources, market forces and fiscal systems. At present all human and material resources in all fields are at the service of Non-Adi-Vasis.

19.  Injustice: We should stand against exploitation, abuse and insult of tribals in front of any one. Their society, culture, music, dance, art, knowledge, folklore, folk-values, folk-philosophy and folk medicines are part and parcel of our ancestral heritage. We should protect and perpetuate them with pride.

20. Adi-Vasikaran: We should enable the Adi-Vasis to continue the practice of traditional trade of painting, weaving, carving, embroidery, miniatures, dance, music etc. and promote it for the greater good of the Adi-Vasi community. We should create a process of ADI-VASIKARAN (Tribalisation) at various levels with pride. Sanskritisation has ruined tribals their traditional culture. Bring all good elements of Adi-Vasi Paramparas (Tribal Traditions) in every Adi-Vasi field of common life.

21. Memorials and Shrines of Great Adi-Vasis: Revive the memories of ancient Adi-Vasi heroes, deified heroes, great ancestors, clan heroes, tribal saints and mystics, tribal artists, sportsmen and athletes who led and represented our Adi-Vasi Community, by creating memorials and shrines and other things to them in public and social life. Naming schools, public buildings, bus stops, newly made lakes, local trade markets, mandis (agricultural markets) and local railway stations, scholarships, news papers, even air ports, cinema theatres, auditoriums, school buildings, college buildings etc. will perpetuate the memory and will honour the life of the departed heroes who have been ignored by masses and our flocks. Each tribe and each NGO should do this on priority basis. If others are serious about our past heritage many such items of interest should be named after our Adi-Vasi heroes and saints like Birsa munda, Tantiya mama (Bhil) Shahari, Valia and other tribal saints.

22. Mutual Support: We Adi-Vasis should remember that these things are very important for our community interest and spread the Adi-Vasi message for wider acceptance of our own self and our own society.  No other agents or NGOs are going to do any good to Adi-Vasis except using us to enrich themselves.  We should help the neighbour to protect the remaining resources and wealth.. In tribal areas the non-Adi-Vasis are holding prominent posts whereas Adi-Vasis are used to hew wood, draw water, collect cow-dung cakes (Kandas) and many such things.  Governments have much protective legislation.  But others have asserted their positions and places among us based on nationality and equality. In some places our tribal labourers are getting less than half or one third as daily wages fixed by State governments.

23. Adi-Vasi Oral History: We should re-write the history of Adi-Vasis, based on the oral (Vachik) and if possible based on available written literary traditions. We should write treatises on the animal symbolism, tribal art and figurines. Document on the cultural symbolisms, Adi-Vasi ethnography, religion, tribal rites and rituals, etc. should be prepared.  Developing Adi-Vasi language, grammar, Adi-Vasi sociology dictionaries Adi-Vasi encyclopedia (Adi-Vasi Gyan Koshas) will help to know the roots and phonetics of Adi-Vasi languages. Compilation and collection of their specimen of myths, legends, folk-tales, proverbs, riddles, mimicries and other forms of sayings have to be initiated before the oral tradition vanishes in oblivion.  There is an innate Adi-Vasi wisdom in the noble teachings and thoughts of Adi-Vasi saints, Adi-Vasi leaders, Adi-Vasi mystics and Adi-Vasi saints. This Adi-Vasi ancestral wealth of teachings, spirituality and folk - wisdom of the past should be unearthed prior to their extinction. Such wisdom and values are rarely found even in literate and advanced societies of India and of the world.

24. Hospitality: Adi-Vasis are known for their traditional hospitality.  They want social harmony, cultural unity, and linguistic identity with non-Adi-Vasi brethren, leading to national integration for a united and strong India.  To achieve these noble and sacred goals everyone should be free to follow the religion of his birth, be it Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity or even Adi-Vasi Dharam. This basic freedom of religion only God can give or take away. There is a lot of encroachment on the Adi-Vasi's freedom of religion today.

25. Law and Order: There is need to follow the Adi-Vasi traditional laws, ethical and moral codes of life, based on the wisdom and justice of our Adi-Vasi saints, mystics, forefathers and Adi-Vasi holy men. The court, police and litigations have resulted in lots of corruption and drainage of Adi-Vasi money, time, and energy of Adi-Vasi societies benefiting only other people.  Adi-Vasi Panchayat should give free legal assistance. The new Panchayt Raj and local adjudication have to be fully made available to Adi-Vasi India. Wherever the Adi-Vasi self-rule (Adi-Vasi Panchayat Raj) has been realised, the tribal dignity, traditions, solidarity, justice and culture are being restored. 

26. Lovers of Nature: Adi-Vasis are eco-friendly; they love pure air and environment, nature and forests. Adi-Vasis have loved forests, preserved and protected them for the survival of both. Non-Adi-Vasis destroyed the huge and valuable forest massively and ruined the environment in Adi-Vasi regions. They (Tribals) must be proud of their background.

27. Care for Women: The tribal women have strong character but these days it is being  corrupted by non-tribals. Indian Government has come down with very strong legal support for protection of tribal women. Media is very much pro-tribal in these connections. Tribal women have much more efficiencies than men of their society. They strongly support their family and society.

28. Do Away Non-Tribal Domination of Any Type: In the inner core of administration and policy making of NGOs and other organizations for tribal participation, competent leadership is being side lined, discouraged and suppressed. This should be done away for future survival of the tribal.


There is an urgent need for re-creation, innovation, perpetuation and maintenance of Adi-Vasi ethnicity. Otherwise nearly 200 million tribals will be wiped out from the face of India. Not all the tribals are aware of this. NGOs are working for the genuine bhalai in some places. They (Tribals) have to be protected and preserved and be made an integral part of Indian society and they have to be sustained and supported.  The logical conclusion of the realization of the dream of an Adi-Vasi Samaj, where they can live in dignity, honour, self-respect and under self-rule system in all perspectives as also envisaged by our National leaders.

* M. Bhuriya is an Adi-Vasi himself.