Adivasi Youth Identities and Education in a Local Village Community in India

My doctoral research[1], initially, set out to explore issues of educational access among the Adivasi youth in India. This work, based within a local village community, focused on barriers to educational access, community efforts and participation for education, without emphatically troubling the modernist and functionalist approach to education in India. Such an approach produced several analytical blockages as it emphasised the absence of development, of participation and agency, among the Adivasis and reproduced their deficit social positioning in the official policy discourse.

My intentions to understand the educational access of the village community eventually drew my attention to the silences, absences and tensions that existed for the Adivasis in policy and community contexts and to understand their marginalisation in dominant narratives. My fieldwork and stay with the Adivasi Gond community and immersion in the local community life in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra prompted me to consider social reality differently, as multiple and contingent. For instance, the continual non-participation of the Adivasi youth in forums such as Panchayat and NGO meetings, where the focus was on education, surprised me initially, as did the taking up of dominant categories of distinction by the Adivasi youth to describe themselves. This provoked a change in my research focus and an interrogation of education.

In the local community context of the Adivasis, education was used to assert the superior positioning of non-Adivasis while reinstating the subordinated place of the Adivasis in the village. Adivasi youth like Nam referred to ‘issues’ of alcohol and tobacco consumption to mark the Adivasis as ‘distracted’ and expressed concerns about the Adivasi youth ‘falling in love’ in our Focus Group Discussions. Such articulations echoed the moralising effects of the comments of the non-Adivasi community members who constructed education in opposition to these ‘issues’ in our FGDs, but only in context of the Adivasis. As such, it explained to some extent the non-participation and disengagement of the Adivasi youth with governance structures that assumed equal potential of groups to participate, presupposed universal access to education and disregarded their context of subordination.

As a young Adivasi, Nam embodied and drew on the regulatory norms that had placed the Adivasis in a marginalised position. It linked to the idea that both the dominant and the dominated participate in the circulation of norms and discourse, if not on equal terms[2]. For the Adivasis, education provided a significant axis of difference in the local community. These differences were drawn on, embodied, kept alive and re-enacted in everyday community lives.

However, for the Adivasi youth, education was also a site of contestation and political action. It provided a way out of their constructed tradition and assumed backwardness and was utilised to signify change. For youth like Nam and Sag, this change was to be achieved through ‘hard work’ and studying of Science, through the English language. In our FGDs, young Adivasi men identified with Ambedkar, associating his ‘good’ and ‘proper’ education with progress and change. But they expressed a preference for Science over the Arts/Humanities/Social Science subjects, associating these with ‘better job prospects’ in the country. Such awareness of their convoluted context and foregrounding of their vulnerability in community lives signalled agency of the Adivasi youth in navigating their identities strategically. The taking up of normative discourses by them was indicative partly of their resistance to the regulatory categories which were installed to produce the Adivasis into a deficit social position and linked with their depiction in policy and community accounts[3].

While education was deployed selectively to marginally position the Adivasi youth, in the performance and navigation of their identities there were strong contestations of and contradictions within the deficit construction of Adivasis as ‘not hard-working’ and ‘beneficiaries of state protection’. In our interview, Saroja bai, an Adivasi mother, explained the lack of state support from successive governments. Implied through her interview comments was a pointed rejection of the negative construction of the Adivasis through education. For her, there were multiple internal others within the village community as the official state policy internally divided the community and produced difference through multiple matrices [4]. There was a history of state neglect in the area which existed for both the Adivasis and non-Adivasis. Like the non-Adivasis, the Adivasis, as Saroja Bai insisted, had ‘no state support’.

Saroja bai emphasised the absence of (good) governance in the area and state’s neglect of even the ‘basic survival needs’ such as ration card, to procure free and subsidised food grains, and daily employment, mandated by law through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). For her, education was ‘extra responsibility’ for the state to take on, when it was unable to meet the basic requirements. It was strategically recruited in the construction of difference and production of hierarchical social relations in the local community. Nonetheless, for the young Adivasis in the village, education remained a site of struggle, of possibility and hope, to demand social and political inclusion, negotiate difference, and navigate their identities.

[1] See Wadhwa, G. (2019). “They are like that only”: Adivasi identities in an area of civil unrest in India. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sussex, UK. [2] See Hall, S. (1996). Who needs ‘Identity’? In Du Gay, P., Evans, J., Redman, P. (Eds.) (2000). Identity: A reader (pp. 15-30). London; Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications in association with The Open University. [3] See Butler, J. (2016). Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance. In Butler, J., Gambetti, Z., Sabsay, L. (Eds) (2016). Vulnerability in Resistance. Durham: Duke University Press. [4] See Bhabha, H. K. (2004). The location of culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Dr. Gunjan Wadhwa, a Lady Meherbai Tata scholar, was a doctoral candidate and research fellow at the Centre for International Education, University of Sussex, UK (2014-2019). Her research explores the discursive production of Adivasi identities in India through intersections of religion, education, gender and conflict. This blog is based on a working paper presented by the author at the Childhood, Youth and Identity in South Asia conference, 2020 at Shiv Nadar University, India.

The Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective (CCYSC) is a network for scholars and practitioners engaged in the field of research on and with children and youth across South Asia and beyond. 
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