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Who are Adivasis?

The word adivasi (ādivāsī, आदिवासी) is a compound of two elements that ultimately derive from Sanskrit. Adi means “first” or “original;” vasi means “dweller.” Adivasi, then, means the “first inhabitants.” As a designation for the indigenous peoples of South Asia the term adivasi came into use in the 1920s and was gradually adopted and popularized by Gandhians. Today adivasis who speak north Indian languages often use the term to refer as well to indigenous peoples in other places, such as Africa, Australia, and the Americas.

Adivasis have been designated by other terms as well, most of them derogatory, such as jangli (“jungle person”). In India some caste-Hindus, disputing the adivasi claim to be indigenous, now prefer to call them vanvasis, "forest dwellers." They are also often called “tribals” and “ST’s.” The term "tribal" was introduced by the British, while in Indian law the majority of adivasis  belong to the “Scheduled Tribes,” that is, "tribes" to whom Schedules 5 and 6 of the Indian Constitution apply.

Whether these people are indigenous in the sense of being the descendants of the peoples who lived  in the Indian subcontinent before the coming of the Vedic-speaking Aryans is an open question, despite a recent Supreme Court ruling which held that they were (citing Wikipedia!).  It is also an open question to what extent ādivasis constitute a unitary group.  Nevertheless, adivasis can certainly be considered indigenous in terms of other commonly used criteria.  In contemporary South Asia they constitute a separate social group that at least within nations has developed some self-consciousness as indigenous people.

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