Thursday, June 20, 2024
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How indigenous peoples were viewed in ancient India

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By Bhogtoram Mawroh

In India, indigenous peoples (IPs) are termed Scheduled Tribes, and they have been given special provisions under the Constitution, which include the right to practice their customs and traditions and protection from land alienation. However, in actual practice, outside the Sixth Schedule areas, the situation of IPs is not very reassuring. For example, in 2019, India’s Supreme Court ordered the eviction of more than one million people, many of whom belong to indigenous communities, from their ancestral land, claiming them to be encroachers. This is ironic, considering it is not IPs who are encroachers but the state that is intruding into their territory. This encroachment has a long history in the subcontinent.
Ashoka’s thirteenth rock edict is a momentous occasion in the ancient history of the subcontinent. This particular inscription records the renunciation of violence by Ashoka (the third monarch of the Mauryan Empire) after having witnessed the devastating effects of war in Kalinga and vowing to devote his life instead to the practice of Dhamma (Buddhist teachings). But the edict, according to Upinder Singh in her book ‘Political Violence in Ancient India’ also carried a warning to the forest chieftains (atavi) that they should not provoke him. This warning sheds light on the relationship of the pre-modern states like that of Mauryas and the challenges they faced as they tried to expand their domain, which ultimately brought them into conflict with a different group of people who were already present in the subcontinent.
In the same book, there’s a whole section on Kamandaka’s Nitisara, which is a political treatise written several centuries after the Arthashastra by Kautilya. Nitisara mentions that among those that threaten the power of a king are those that are “only partially integrated into the circle of kings’— sāmantas (bordering rulers) and ātavikas (forest dwellers)”. The latter, as the name suggests, have their abode in the forest, which, in ancient texts, is also the home of demons, demigods such as yaksas, and spirits. The forest was a site of many conflicts with the intrusion of Brahmanical culture in the form of āśramas and agrahāras leading to conflicts with forest dwellers and the fracturing of their livelihoods, habitats, and culture. One group whose name comes up repeatedly in the discussion of the forest dwellers is the Nishada.The term Nishada appears to be a generic one used for all indigenous non-Aryan speakers, and some have identified them with the modern Munda-speaking population (related to the Khasi). Recent evidence has revealed, after the Dravidian, Austro-asiatic people are possibly the second oldest population group in the subcontinent. This group appeared to have arrived from the east around 5000 years ago, first landing in the north-east, where the remnants of that population are the Khasi, and then continuing west, where they intermixed with the local Dravidian population, giving rise to the Munda around 4000 years ago. This is around 1500 years earlier than the migration of the Indo-Aryan-speaking people from Central Asia. Since the latter are the ones who have left written inscriptions, there is a tendency to take their description as the authentic version while leaving out the voices of those from oral tradition without any written word. As Upinder Singh notes, the “perspectives of the forest dwellers toward the state are recorded nowhere.” But can the negative stereotyping tell us anything authentic about these people? Actually, quite a lot.
James C. Scott’s monumental book ‘The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia’ argues that the Chinese and other civilizations discourse about the “barbarian,” the “raw,” and the “primitive,” practically means ungoverned or not yet incorporated. In the Roman Empire as in the Chinese, ethnicity and “tribe” began where taxes and sovereignty ended. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the term barbarian is derived from the Greek bárbaros, which was used by the early Greeks to describe all foreigners, including the Romans. The term soon acquired a negative meaning, being associated with the vices and savage natures that the Greeks attributed to their enemies. Later, the Romans themselves adopted the word for all peoples other than those living under the Greco-Roman influence and dominance. In simple terms, people who have not been subjugated and conquered, or the free people, were known as barbarians.
In the context of Indo-Aryan culture, the equivalent term for barbarians is Mleccha, which is a generic term that includes all tribal groups and foreigners. The term ārya is variously contrasted with mleccha (barbarian), dāsa (slave), and candāla (untouchable), all of whom lie outside the ārya fold, i.e., outside the Varna system (progenitor of the caste system). The Vishnu Dharmasutra claims that the land of the mleccha is the one where the order of the varna is not established. Vishakhadatta, an Indian Sanskrit poet and playwright, in his literary work Mudrarakshasa (which narrates the ascent of the king Chandragupta Maurya to power), expanded the term mleccha to include not only foreigners and tribals but also other military adversaries within the subcontinent. But although both foreigners and forest dwellers were “outsiders,” the crucial difference noted by Upinder Singh is that some of those invaders who came from the west were incorporated into the political elite. In Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa, among Chandragupta’s adversaries is mentioned a confederation of groups that include “Gandharas, Yavana chiefs, Shakas, Chinas, Hunas, and Kaulutas—a multiethnic array of mlecchas, including the Chinese!” The Brahmanical dharma experts attempted to incorporate these mlecchas into the fold of the varna system by describing them as the result of inter-varna unions or as degraded Kshatriyas. Many of these groups were made part of the Rajputs, whose origin is suggested to date to the mid-5th century CE onward, when the northern and northwestern Indian subcontinent came under the impact of the Hephthalites (White Huns) and associated tribes. But the attitude towards the forest dwellers, or the Nishadas, was one of hostility and condescension.
The Shanti Parva is the twelfth of eighteen books of the Indian epic Mahabharata and gives one of the two origins of kingship for the Indo-Aryan culture. According to this story, the sages killed “the bad king Vena by stabbing him with kusha grass sanctified with their mantras. They then churned Vena’s right thigh with mantras, and out of it, there on the ground, was born an ugly little man. He had red eyes and black hair, and he looked like a charred post. “Stay down!” those Brahman-speaking seers said to him. And so there came into being the awful Nisādas, who took to the mountains and forests, and those other barbarians [mlecchas] who dwell in the Vindhya mountains by the hundreds and thousands”. Nishadas are shown as not being kingly material and were therefore kept apart from the varna system. Thus, there is an attempt to incorporate the forest dwellers into Indo-Aryan mythology, but their reluctance to accept the assimilation is also alluded to. That led to them being addressed with derision and contempt by the Brahmans. A recent example will be useful to understand this situation.
Recently, Avner Pariat was expelled from the VPP for anti-party activities. But according to Avner, he actually had intentions of resigning from the party and had even sent a draft letter to some of the party functionaries before the party took the decision to expel him. It is very clear what has transpired. The party knew the contents of the letter, which was very damning, and by expelling Avner Pariat on pretext of anti-party activities, they tried to discredit the charge of religious fanaticism that he had labeled against the party. In a similar way, the Brahmans knew the forest dwellers, i.e., Nishadas, valued their freedom and would not accept a place in the non-egalitarian varna system. Therefore, they decided to discredit the Nishadas by claiming that they are basically outcasts who are not noble enough. Ārya actually means noble or illustrious.
In the ancient texts, forest dwellers, i.e., IPs are shown as being untrustworthy and violent, strongly connected to the practice of killing animals. But recent research has shown that these groups, i.e., the Austroasiatic, were the earliest farmers to introduce rice cultivation, millet and other crops in Southeast Asia and beyond. Two of the most prominent civilization in SE Asia, belong to them, viz., the Khmer (Cambodian) empire and the Đại Việt (Vietnamese) kingdom. Before the time of the Gupta period (300 CE–800 CE), which is considered the golden age of Indian civilization, Khasi (an offshoot of the Austro-asiatic group that migrated west) had already developed the technique of iron smelting, as reported from sites in Nongkrem that date around 353 BCE–295 BCE, which is even earlier than the time of the Mauryan empire. That was also the time when the Khasian languages began diversifying, with Lyngngam coming out of the War-Amwi, followed later by Pnar and the standard Khasi. The emergence of Pnar must be connected with the transformation of Hima Sutnga into Hima Jaintiapur, when the War Amwi conquered the kingdom of Jaintiapur in present day Bangladesh. However, there are still a lot of gaps in our story, some of which can be reconstructed from folklore, but archaeological, linguistics, and genetics will be needed to complete the story.
The history of the IPs has been told from the perspective of others, and therefore indigenous people are viewed with disdain and contempt. It is high time that it be changed. At the same time, as IPs in Meghalaya and elsewhere reclaim their history, it is equally important to acknowledge the contribution and influences of other cultures to their own civilization. This has continued from the time we (the Khasi) first came into contact with the ancient Dravidians (founder of the Indus Valley Civilization), giving rise to the Munda, to the post-colonial period, when different non-indigenous groups like the Bengali, Nepali, Marwari, Sindhi, Punjabi, and others made this land their home, making great contributions towards the people and the place. Just as we need the mainstream to accept and respect our inalienable rights to our homeland, which has been maintained for thousands of years, we also need to acknowledge that our history is one of mixed influences and contributions from groups other than our own. We have in fact prospered because of that, and it will be disrespectful not to acknowledge that debt. We are all the product of our history, and on the subcontinent, history tells us that we were never alone and that we are part of the story that is still continuing. And that story has to be of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organisation or institution)

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