In this remarkable book, Debasree De breaks the stereotypes that the Adivasi women have gender equality and are largely free from Brahmanical patriarchy in their society. This study has explicitly brought out how the Adivasi women are being subjected to a double burden inside and outside their society. That the Adivasi women are bold and actively participate in agricultural and other means of livelihood, however, does not save them from patriarchal domination. Adivasis, the original inhabitants of India, have now become like foreigners in their own place, struggling for rights to their own land, and against various government policies. De traces the impact of industrialization, modernization, and development on Adivasi women of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal which has resulted in various wrongs like killing of women in the name of witch-hunting, trafficking of girls, decrease of the value of bride price and practice of dowry among Adivasis. One of the chief concerns of the author is to understand the historical process in constituting tribal women as silent, victimized and inconspicuous.
Debashree De has divided the book into six chapters, and each chapter is systematically weaved around the experience of a provincial State in India. It begins by framing a perspective to understand the gender question in Adivasi society. In ‘Demystifying Adivasi Women’, De examines the various reasons for the changing position of women in Adivasi society. It is underlined here that there was less differentiation among the sexes in the early tribal society where women had higher control over the economy. Land rights were with women in most Adivasi societies. This continued in inaccessible hill areas till the advent of British colonial power in India. The British revenue system that insured property rights to males as head of the household came as a blow to the Adivasi women. The subsequent immigration of caste Hindu peasants to hills and forests not only led to the displacement of Adivasis but also Sanskritization of their society, which further resulted in class formation. While trying to fathom how patriarchy evolved in Adivasi society, De also explores how tribal women experienced displacement differently from men.
The case of West Bengal is explored in the chapter on ‘Changing Livelihood Pattern of Adivasi Women’ and its impact in shifting to settled agriculture as their movement in forests was curtailed. There was strong resistance against this process as the Adivasi women consciously began fighting for their rights. Party workers of the village tried to generate awareness among the Santhal and other agriculturist women workers by organizing a strike in 1984 that brought some positive results. De argues that the population growth and acquisition of land for industrialization were the main causes for the migration of Adivasis to cities and the plantation sector. Indeed the plantation sector remained the most important factor of Adivasi women’s migration since its inception, and women workers were increasing in the plantation sector. According to De, it was because the ‘planter prefers to employ women as he thinks that women are more committed workers than men.’ However, she also traces various cases of women suffering: like women trafficking from the plantation sector, and many girls returning pregnant or HIV infected. But one of the important issues that the author has missed is gender politics in the plantation sector. Industrialization and development have affected the cultural traditions of Adivasis. This is shown in the case of the Rabha community of Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal, which was a matrilineal community where women were the ancestral owners of property, but now the community is transformed to a patrilineal one.
De writes in ‘Adivasi Rejas in Bihar’ that government officials and policymakers adopted an apathetic attitude towards Adivasis in the State, arguing that there is no tribal population in Bihar after the creation of Jharkhand. The study also underlines how industrialization and mechanization in agriculture in the State had thrown women out of social production and also resulted in domestic violence against them. Economic constraints led to their embracing the flesh trade. This is, in a way, the result of the abrupt assimilation of the Adivasis into modernization and urbanization. Of course, in the case of Adivasis, modernization meant Hinduization, resulting in stigmatizing the Rejas or the tribal women labourers as unchaste.
‘Adivasi Women and Land Rights in Jharkhand’ is about the experiences of Adivasi women living in Jharkhand, the heartland of Adivasis in India. The State witnessed massive industrialization and mining, which has had a serious impact on Adivasi society. Citing case studies of Adivasi women, De explains how it destabilized the Adivasi economy and social and cultural life. Industrialization brought many changes in Adivasi society as the Adivasi men and women migrated in search of work. There was also migration of non-Adivasis in Adivasi areas in search of agricultural land. Institutionalized religious preachers, both from Hinduism and Christianity, were very active in this area. Adivasis were generally treated as no man’s property, and every religious group tried to convert them. However, there is no adequate reason for the conversion of the Adivasis, particularly to Christianity. De has systematically brought out how the Adivasis are made a scapegoat in development projects, which often go on in the name of national interest whereby the Adivasis lose their land and culture.
The story of ‘Destructive Development in Odisha’ has been told in the fifth chapter. Almost everywhere in these four States—Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal, the condition of Adivasi women is the same. Industrialization and development increasingly diminished Adivasi women’s position and subjected them to much vulnerability, such as domestic violence, trafficking, and sexual exploitation. The author argues that after grabbing forest and land, now modern man’s desire is a tribal woman’s body.
De makes the underlying links between patriarchy and State policies, and suggests that it is these inter-related relations that marginalize Adivasi women mainly. They are subjected to, what she terms, the ‘culture of silence’ which destroys not only one’s personality but also the creative genius of an ethnic group. The age-old brutal custom of witch-hunting has further aggravated in the post-Independence period. In many cases where women asserted their right to land, they were dubbed as practitioners of witchcraft and killed. Earlier, women found guilty of witchcraft were socially boycotted.
While Adivasi women constitute the largest percentage of agricultural labour and tea plantation workers in India, their labour is blatantly invisible. Importantly, Adivasi women are at the forefront of organizing and fighting against the SEZs, mining companies and industries in their areas, but their politics is nowhere recognized. The author describes many Adivasi women political activists from Soni Sori to Bhanmati, but they are not given their due in male-dominated politics. The author argues that the feminization of domestic affairs precludes the process of politicization of Adivasi women to a great extent. One important shortfall of this book is that it does not address the origins of marginalization of Adivasi women, and focuses only on the postcolonial period. But the Adivasi society was exposed to the larger caste-society under the British, and many of their problems today have their roots in colonial rule. Had the author explained this process, the study would have been more interesting. However, it is a must read text to understand the gender question in Adivasi society from an intersectional perspective.
Dipanjali Barman is a Research Scholar in the Department of History, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.