Transition from Ethnic Group to Ethnic Identity

Mahto, Khudi Ram

Introduction  Expansion of ethnic identity
Ethnic group and ethnic identity in the primordial consciousness of ethnic group Political relevance of ethnic identity: The role of Ama Sangathan

    There has been a systemic transition of ethnic groups into ethnic identity acquiring political resources and relevant identity through policy advocacy. Such ethnic identity can effectively fight the systematic exploitation, social and economic abuse of Adivasi society.

Keywords: Ethnic Group, Ethnic Identity, Dalits, Minor Forest Produce, Podu Chasa, Patta

1. Introduction 
    The transition from ethnic groups to ethnic identity of the tribals has emerged as a political concern for co -existing non-tribes, exploitative government systems and policy makers of Odisha. It is felt that the tribal empowerment would be realized through the women empowerment particularly through Ama (Our) Sanghathan (Organisation). For a deeper understanding of such transition, the aspects that need to be looked into relate to (a) the meaning of ethnic group and ethnic identity in the primordial consciousness of ethnic group, (b) the process of identity expansion; and (c) the political relevance of ethnic identity.

2. Ethnic group and ethnic identity in the primordial consciousness of ethnic group
    An ethnic group is a "collective within a larger society that claims common ancestry, a shared past, and shared subjective identifications" (Nevite and Kennedy 1986:2, as cited in Prakash, 2001:2 ), whereas ethnicity as Clifford Greetz has described, is an activated primordial consciousness not grounded in the demand for separate sovereign statehood. In contrast, Marxist theory views ethnicity in a convergent evolutionary framework; the underlying assumption being all the world's ethnic groups will ultimately merge into a 'common group and ethnic consciousness need not always be considered as constituting a closed circuit ( Burman 1989: 693). 

    The tribal as an ethnic group is a historical entity. In undivided Koraput district, the tribal groups Kondha, Bonda, Maghi, and Jodia Paraja in Chikamba and Mandibisi panchayats are termed here as ethnic groups. The members of these ethnic groups largely perceive themselves as being alike. They share common features like history, language culture, beliefs, territorial ancestry, (sometimes untraced), specific nomenclature or endogamy by ethnic group and exogamy by clan. 

    Ethnic identity, on the other hand, stands for groups of individuals that perceive one or more of the above similarities as self- definition of their individual identities and organize it in order to acquire political resources. (Prakash 2001:3). The ethnic groups in Chakamba and Mandibisi Panchayat perceive themselves as the first settlers of this region so that their identity comes at the top in hierarchical order. These ethnic groups settled in their area the Scheduled castes or Dalits (Dombs) as messengers to fetch their information to their mother villages and distant relatives. Gradually, in tribal areas, single line administration was introduced, where an individual Indian landlord (Rajput) controlled the entire area with authority, might be as the chief representative of the British Government (Harshad 1993); these landlords settled Brahmins to officiate over various rituals. Thus the tribal area no more had only tribals inhabiting it but the Dalits, Rajputs and Brahmins too began inhabiting it, which caused hierarchy with tribals, under the common identity as Adivasi, pushed to the bottom of hierarchy. It may be observed that ninety nine percent women of these ethnic groups do not take cooked food from any of these non-tribes. Such ethnic identity might be unstable, ad hoc, shifting sometimes opportunistic and often related to political demands (Prakash, 2001: 3) Thus, in undivided Koraput district, ethnic group, which is primarily a sociological category, is emerging to assume an ethnic identity that is politically relevant.

3. Expansion of ethnic identity
    With the advent of British rule that ensured a common public administration, and the administration of chieftains of princely states, the informal system of administration by the tribal chiefs was adversely affected. Largely, the tribal areas were brought into the administration of princely states After independence, these areas came within the formal administration of Indian Union.

    Chikamba and Mandibisi Panchayats are predominantly populated by adivasis - such as Kondhs, Parajas, Jhodias and Pengas constitute nearly 90- 95 % of the population. They live in small revenue and forest villages around the Baphilimali hills and depend heavily on subsistence agriculture, Podu Chasa (Shifting cultivation) and the minor forest produce. But recently it is found that many restrictions are being imposed by The Forest Department on the tribals' access to the above subsistence resources. 

    Chikamba and Mindibisi panchayats are geographically isolated regions, extremely underdeveloped, and quite far off from the Block and district headquarters. The education, health care, and market, etc facilities are very poor. Before the implementation of Land Ceiling Act in these Panchayats, what were visible were not just poverty, but stark hunger, not just exploitation, but slavery. Long suppression of ethnic groups by non-tribal, massive land alienation, exploitation by the contractors, petty traders and middlemen, lack of bargaining power, due to illiteracy had further aggravated the situation. The tribal indebtedness and reliance on other was quite commonplace. The economic exploitation was based on absence of access to market information outside of their weekly markets. The poor communication of roads caused higher consumption of time and labour of head load women to access local weekly markets. 

    Confronted with such existential problems, in 1953, a group of tribal women consciously perceived certain descriptive identity to define their personal/ethnic identity and approached the then Chief Minister of Odisha to provide them legal right to purchase and sell minor forest produce as per their tradition and natural rights over forest resources. Chief Minister assured to provide them the legal rights to access minor forest produce but it did not proceed. (Das, 2010). Thus began the demonstration of right to fight, and the process of transition of ethnic group to personal/ethnic identity to acquire resources on the basis of that identity. The conscious emergence of such identity is certainly politically significant. 

    Thus Kondh, Bonda, Maghi, and Jodia Paraja, who are distinct on the basis of their individual group's ancestry, culture and some other traits, are given a common identity, which is a self-conscious political identity, by Ama Sangathan sponsored by the voluntary organisation AGRAGAMEE. It may be observed that self-consciousness was not inherent among members of ethnic groups, it has been created by AGRAGAMEE over the last three decades through Ama Sanghathan from within the ethnic groups who have been deprived of their rights by non-tribal dominant groups. Such self-consciousness that led to an ethnic identity provided the exploited and marginalized ethnic groups to invoke ethnic identity as a political instrument. 

4. Political relevance of ethnic identity: The role of Ama Sangathan
    We have come a long way since the first election to the Provincial Assembly of Odisha in 1937. The 56 seated assembly was split into 41 seats for general castes, 6 for scheduled castes, 2 for women, 2 for landlords, 4 for the Mohammedans and one for a Christian (Panchayat Raj Department, GoO, 2005-6: 9), which reveals that in a province with significant tribal population, the political relevance of the ethnic identity of the tribal was not realised. Later, in post independent India, however, in elections both to the parliament as well as the assemblies, the seats are specified in appreciation to their ethnic identity. But to what extent such identity remained relevant in the decision-making process locally is a debatable issue. However, in the Panchayats covered by the present study, it is found that with Agragamee's help, tribal women like Sumoni Jhodia of Siriguda village and Jatani Kanhara of Lathikumpa village, and tribal men like Ghasi Majhi of Haliasahi and Domburru Jhodia of Padepadar have emerged as role models of an organic grass-roots leadership, competent to represent their communities on issues of survival, social justice and human rights.

    Yet, to make the voice of tribal heard has never been easy and smooth. Even though, PESA Act recognises the individual and community ownership rights to minor forest produce (MFPs)( Choudhury and Dandekar,2010 ), Forest Department did not permit Ama Sanghathan, which had already obtained the license from the Tribal Development Corporation Cooperative (TDCC) to transact minor forest produce, to trade in minor forest produce. Even appeal to the Chief Minister against Forest Department's refusal and their demand to cancel the licenses of non-tribes and stop giving new license to the outsiders, did not yield any result. 

    Having failed to move the Forest Department in their favour, Ama Sangathan went ahead with the activities of purchasing, processing and marketing of brooms. They ensured the quality of product and made these products available in the consumer market. The Forest department, which perceived it as direct affront, one day, came with heavy police force to seize the finished goods and raw materials with Ama Sangathan But they could not take out these brooms, as the tribal women did not allow the carrier vehicle to move; they lied down on the road to bloc. Ama Sanghathan ultimately own the case in the court citing the clauses under PESA. It was the first legal victory of this ethnic group, whose ethnic identity found expression in the organisation Ama Sanghathan, which at present has 2100 tribal women of Kashipur and Dasmantpur blocks as its members. With the ethnic identity provided by Ama Sangathan, has made the tribal groups politically relevant. They could succeed in reducing the state monopoly on the resources that sustain them and ensure the implementation of community rights. Even the tribal women like Sumoni Jhodia of Siriguda village could be the advisor of Chief Minister in the matters of tribal development.

    The relevant social and cultural aspects of the targeted community should be factored into the development planning for the community to ensure its better chances of success. The decision makers should consider including these aspects while taking decisions on planning for development. (Narayan 1988: 81, as cited in Prakash, 2001: 176).

    The policies and programmes for the development of regions like Chikamba or ethnic group must address two related issues. They are, the urgency/ necessity felt by the policy makers for raising the standard of living of the target region/ethnic group, and the readiness of the target region/ethnic group to cooperate towards efforts to better their living standard. So the policy makers as well as the target region/ethnic group are responsible for the success of the development planning. If policy makers lack sincerity or the target groups fail to cooperate, the policy would remain in black and white only, without the declared benefits of policy ever reaching the target group. This leads us to a crucial issue in the relationship between the articulation of ethnic identity and public policy implementation. In the following instances, particularly in public policies like MGNREGA and Recognition of Forest Rights Act, the ethnic identity as projected by Ama Sanghathan could succeed in overcoming the bureaucratic manipulation and extract the due benefits. 

    Four villages of Chikamba Panchayat namely, Banasi, Gunur, Mankadmundi and Morchiguda, exposing in media the realities of the contractor led development projects under MGNREGA, could successfully bargain with the bureaucracy to frame the project along with its budget for the development of their land.. It is for the first time in Rayadaga District of Odisha. that a project under MGNREGA could be framed by the target group with an ethnic identity. Thus emerged an ethnic identity for development with political resources, which empower the local community vis-à-vis the policy makers. 
Similarly, such ethnic identity succeeded in establishing the community control over the minor forest produce, plantation of which was done by the Forest Department. The members of community could receive (pattas), the land entitlements on forestland, and also claim on community forestland. Ethnic identity has also stood the community in good stead in their protests against liquor shops in their village as well as when raising demands for modern facilities like towers for mobile communication. Fulsingh Naik, a resident of Mandibisi (of Rayagada,), with whom this author has interacted, had led, in December 2009, a community protest against a country liquor shop and was imprisoned. The same Fulsingh also led the people of 28 villages of Mandibisi Panchayat and successfully bargained and forced AIR-TEL to install the tower for mobile. communication.


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  • Choudhury, C. & A. Dandekar, (2010), 'PESA, Left-Wing Extremism and Governance: Concerns and Challenges in India's Tribal Districts' IRMA Ahemdabad, Ministry of Panchayat Raj, Govt of India
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Note: Part of author's field work in Rayagada & Koraput districts, Orrisa