Indigeneity and Belonging in Contemporary India

Understanding the various historical circumstances and the different terminologies of indigenous subjectivity and collective reference used in India today

The colonial state in India diligently classified and enumerated communities that it identified as​‘tribes,’ based primarily upon definitions and demarcations produced by colonial officials. Today, the post-colonial Indian nation-state, continuing with more or less the same definitions, counts 705 distinct social groups, together numbering about 104 million people, under its Schedule Tribe list. Only about 10% of this population is urban dwelling, at a time when the national average is steadily approaching the 50% mark. What has remained more or less constant between the colonial past and post-colonial present is the systemic marginalization of communities deemed​‘tribal’ on social and cultural registers, the relentless economic exploitation of their habitats. That being said, the past three decades or so have also seen a new vitality to the discourses and politics surrounding the​‘tribal question,’ leading to an efflorescence of organizations and movements of indigenous peoples’ rights. Social science scholarship, across its constitutive disciplines, has had to recalibrate its discourses accordingly as well. Drawing upon such scholarship, this course will involve students in thinking about questions like: under what circumstances did the different terminologies of indigenous subjectivity and collective reference used in India today — aboriginal, tribal, adivasi, janajati, moolnivasi, etc. — emerge and what are their respective conceptual significations? What has been the role of the social sciences in dealing with the question of indigeneity? What are the implications of the developmental vision and sovereign power of the post-colonial Indian state for the lifeworlds of indigenous peoples? What are the different ways and means — social, cultural, political, and economic— through which indigenous peoples in India respond to, interact with, and make claims on the Indian state and society?