Magazine 2014
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
Rupalee Burke  
Tribals, denotified & nomadic tribes (DNTs), dalits, ethnic people of the north-east are communities in  
India as well as ethno-religious minorities which constitute what Homi bhabha terms ‘subject positions’  
the move away from the singularities of ‘class’ or ‘gender’ as primary conceptual and organizational  
categories) that are ‘repressed’, ‘marginalized’ and make up ‘alternative constituencies’ or ‘cultural  
hybridities’. And including women’s writing and queer literature would add to the diversity of locations  
of marginality. These have not been dealt with in this paper for the former would be a sub-category of the  
five communities mentioned in the beginning whereas the latter though not a sub-category, would have  
to be examined from a very different perspective that would not entirely fit into the scheme of this paper.  
This paper deals with the literary expression, the ‘articulation of cultural differences’ of the unique  
predicament of each of these five communities of India, ‘disenfranchised minorities’ mentioned in the  
opening sentence, as they converge at the site of marginalization. Albeit the nature of marginalization in  
each case is different; marginalization in the case of tribals is race-based, in the case of DNTs it has to  
do with law and citizenship, with dalits it is caste-based, it is based on ethno-religious grounds in the  
case of ethno-religious minorities and it is ethno-geo-political in the case of the ethnic people of the  
north-east. However, this is not to say that each of these communities is defined by homogeneity. It is  
common knowledge that each of these communities is marked by heterogeneity with respect to region,  
religion, culture, language, orature/ecriture, gender, ethnicity, caste and class. The literary expression of  
these communities occupies in Bhabha’s words the ‘in-between space – the terrain for elaborating  
strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity and innovative sites of  
collaboration, and contestation, in the idea of defining society itself’. It is a ‘representation of difference’  
Keywords : Tribes, Articulation, Marginality, Expression  
One needs to hark back to Frantz Fanon’s insightful observation in the section ‘The Trials and Tribulations  
of National Consciousness’ which is still relevant 47 years after the English speaking world got to read  
it. He says:  
National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of  
the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the  
people will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.  
The faults that we find in it are quite sufficient explanation of the facility with which, when dealing with  
young and independent nations, the nation is passed over for the race, and the tribe is preferred to the  
state. These are the cracks in the edifice which show the process of retrogression, that is so harmful  
and prejudicial to the national effort and national unity. (Fanon, 97)  
Mohamed and Lloyd define such non-hegemonic cultures as ‘minority cultures’ which “have certain  
shared experiences by virtue of their similar antagonistic relationship to the dominant culture, which  
seeks to marginalize them all.” (Mohamed, 1) They go on to add how minority discourse is the ‘product  
of damage which is more or less systematically inflicted on cultures produced as minorities by the  
dominant culture’:  
The destruction involved is manifold, bearing down on variant modes of social formation, dismantling  
previously functional economic systems, and deracinating whole populations at best or decimating  
them at worst. In time, with this material destruction, the cultural formations, languages, and diverse  
modes of identity of the “minoritized peoples” are irreversibly affected, if not eradicated, by the effects  
of their material deracination from the historically developed social and economic structures in terms  
of which alone they “made sense” . . . The diverse possible modes of cultural development that these  
societies represent are displaced by a single model of historical development within which other cultures  
can only be envisaged as underdeveloped, imperfect, childlike, or – when already deracinated by  
material domination – inauthentic, perverse, or criminal. (JanMohamed, 4-5)  
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
The section ‘Cultural Difference’ in the chapter ‘Dissemination’ in Homi Bhabha’s The Location of  
Culture is an extremely well-analyzed view on this subject. This very argument is echoed in E.V.  
Ramakrishnan’s pertinent remark that “Ethical issues related to the memories of the oppressed, the  
sanitized notions of the nation-state and the erasure of dissent, have assumed an urgency in the  
present that cannot be neglected in the discussion of culture.” (Ramakrishnan, viii) The literature of  
these communities is shaped by their cultural memories. On the one hand, it stems from and constitutes  
their cultural universe while on the other hand it leads to an alternative literary historiography.  
Literary productions by marginalized communities make amply clear not only the multiplicity and  
heterogeneity of pan-Indian cultures but also their motive of resistance, contestation and finally assertion  
as is evident in these lines from DNT poet Parvat Vadi’s poem ‘Time to Rise’ – ‘Now is the time to rise/  
Hold my finger/Let’s write our forgotten history’. Clarion calls such as these are beginning to multiply  
despite the immense hurdles in the way. Explaining the concept of tribe, Andre Beteille says:  
The tribe as a mode of organization has always differed from the caste-based mode of organization . .  
The distinctive condition of the tribe in India has been its isolation, mainly in the interior hills and  
forests, but also in the frontier regions. By and large the tribal communities are those which were  
wither left behind in these ecological niches or pushed back into them in course of the expansion of  
state and civilization. Their material culture and their social organization have largely been related to  
the ecological niches in which they have lived their isolated lives. (Beteille, 133)  
It took ten years for tribal writer Narayan’s maiden novel Kocharethi to be published in Malayalam and  
another ten years for the English translation to be published. Tribals and dalits in particular bear a  
common grouse when it comes to being underrepresented or misrepresented in mainstream literature  
and culture and therefore decide to write from the ‘insider’ perspective as Narayan explains:  
One reason was the growing realization that creative writing was in the hands of the elite upper classes;  
the communities portrayed in those writings belonged to these classes. The adivasi when represented,  
appeared as a monochromatic figure; like the rakshasan or nishacharan of mythological stories. It was  
always a negative picture; he was depicted as apathetic, unable to react to injustice or worse, inhuman  
or sub-human, vicious . . . . He existed for the sole purpose of being defeated and/or killed by the  
forces of virtue and goodness, represented by the upper castes. . . . There were a few of us who  
wanted to resist such a biased representation. We wanted to tell the world that we have our own  
distinctive way of life, our own value system. We are not demons lacking in humanity but a strong,  
hardworking and self reliant community. (Narayan 208-209; emphasis mine)  
In the same vein Arjun Dangle says in the Introduction to Poisoned Bread:  
The reins of cultural and literary movements were generally in the hands of the upper classes and  
castes and the tradition was (and still is) to accept the values set by them as standard. The ordinary  
man from the lower classes was out of the picture, and his life, experiences and feelings – looking at  
the history of Indian literature –were never the subject of art. Whenever such people have been portrayed,  
the portrayal has been distorted. (Dangle xlvvii-xlviii)  
Writers from marginalized communities face socio-political hegemony as well as literary hegemony.  
While Narayan’s words point to a ground reality specific to tribal culture in opposition to non-tribal  
culture and Dangle’s words do the same in the dalit context, it also reminds us that there are hundreds  
of tribal/dalit communities in India of which the Arayar tribe in Kerala and the Marathi dalits are just one  
among many, and that though each of the marginalized communities of India may be bound by a  
cultural matrix’, there exists a micro heterogeneity within a macro heterogeneity that defines our  
country. Tribal literature presents a heterogeneous case in another context too. Tribal literature is  
fundamentally oral literature or ‘orature’ which when transcribed or documented is metamorphosed  
into ‘ecriture’. Then there is the literature produced by literate tribals such as Narayan, Naran Rathwa,  
Chamulal Rathwa, Subhash Ishai, Jitendra Vasava, poets from the Denotified and Nomadic tribes  
such as Parvat Vadi and Dakxin Bajrange and a host of others from across the country. This becomes  
possible only when tribal languages, as G.N. Devy explains, that have remained largely spoken . . .  
begin to be written; . . . and slowly start acquiring scripts and developing written forms of literature’  
Devy x) While Chamulal Rathwa and Jitendra Vasava write in Dehwali, Subash Ishai writes in Rathwi,  
keeping with Dr. Devy’s observation. Going a step further we can say in the context of tribal literature  
that we are presented with a spectrum where at the one end is oral literature which survives as oral  
literature or dies while at the other end is oral literature which by the collaborative effort of the narrator,  
collector (who would be either a missionary or an anthropologist or a folklorist or even a government  
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official posted in a tribal region), transcriber, editor, reviewer and further still translator is metamorphosed  
into written literature and with further support of a publisher into published literature alongside written  
literature that emerges from within the fold. The collaborators may be tribal but if they are not they  
would be drawn to the endeavour out of catholicity of consciousness. We also need to bring into focus  
elite activists and intellectuals like Mahasveta Devi, Verrier Elwin, G. N. Devy, Bhagwandas Patel, Kanji  
Patel, Saroop Dhruv whose intervention on behalf of the tribals cannot be ignored. Gayatri Chakravorty  
Spivak’s essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ and Margaret Fee’s ‘Who can write as other?’ are useful  
discussions in this context. Others have helped produce mediated life-stories. The story of Hiru, an  
Adivasi woman from Panchmahal, told by Shailaja Kalekar Parikh entitled And Still My River Flows:  
Story of a Tribal Woman from the Hinterlands of Gujarat is a case in point and so is Viramma: life of a  
dalit by Josiane Racine. This is where the entire effort is defined by cooperation from the elite who  
belong to the very culture that is being contested.  
It is well-known that Dalit literature emerged in post-Independence India as a cultural revolution. This  
textual representation of caste ‘challenges the elitist notions of nation and region’. It constitutes what  
various scholars have termed a ‘subaltern/alternative counterpublic’ or ‘alternative histories of the  
excluded’ from which the sociology of literature emerges. Prominent dalit intellectual D. R. Nagaraj  
defines dalit literature as ‘contraband statements’ and ‘statements of dissent’ which are ‘legitimate in  
themselves’ and a means of political intervention. Its motive is, as poignantly expressed in the lines  
from the poem ‘This Country is Broken’ by Bapurao Jagtap, a Marathi dalit poet – ‘Brother, our screams  
are only an attempt / To write the chronicle of this country/ — this naked country / with its heartless  
religion’. Seen in contradistinction to ‘lalit’ (aesthetic) literature, it has been looked upon with either  
indifference or antipathy by writers of mainstream, canonical literature. Responses have been startlingly  
contradictory from denying Dalit literature the status of literature to attempts to co-opt it within the  
mainstream. Ironically the very casteist mindsets which conspire against Dalit literature question “How  
can literature be dalit anyway?” There is a politics of culture involved as well. Nagaraj is of the opinion  
that a ‘war launched against the dalits and tribal communities is to ‘de-culture’ them; culture, according  
to him, is also a source of power. A David-Goliath like equation of the corpus of Dalit literature against  
mainstream literature points to the politics of exclusion rampant in academic and publishing spheres.  
Either a dalit writer self-publishes his work or gets a smalltime publisher to publish it with a grant that  
he procures from the state Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare or gets isolated pieces in little magazines  
or dalit-specific publishers like the Gujarat Dalit Sahitya Akademi or Navayana. In recent times big  
publishers like OUP, Orient Longman, Orient BlackSwan and others have ventured to publish individual  
works as well as anthologies of regional Dalit literature but these are far and few between and appear  
to be a tokenist and market-oriented gesture.  
The story of the multi-ethnic and multilingual Indo-Mongloid groups residing in the seven north-eastern  
states of India is no different. Their geographical isolation, especially after having become totally  
landlocked after the Partition, has led to erasures and marginalization at multiple levels. Also their  
socio-cultural milieu distinguishes them from mainstream India. Writers from this region are in the  
same boat as the ones discussed in the foregoing and their emotions are well described by Tilottoma  
Misra, “The sense of being denied fair representation in the great Indian civilizational discourse or  
even in the nationalist discourse, has deeply affected the emerging literati of many of the regions of  
north-east India in the post-Independence era.” (Misra xviii) Privileged in terms of education these  
communities have graduated from oral literature to produce a bountiful harvest of written literature  
which is not only a social and historical map of events concerning them, but is also a medium of telling  
its story to the world as embodied in Assamese poet Aruni Kashyap’s poem ‘Me’ :  
. . My history is different, defined  
By grandmas, rivers, hills.  
. .  
And I still wait, for a warm embrace  
My throat peacock-parched, in longing  
All the rivers from my land  
Legends, rains weary  
Cannot quench my thirst, I need your love  
Don’t you see,  
I’m different?  
Even I have words.  
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Languages, literatures  
And stories to tell you  
Are you eager to listen, at all?  
(Misra, 32)  
The feeling of alienation could not have been expressed more poignantly. Manipuri poet Robin S.  
Ngangom’s poem ‘Everywhere I Go’ is a must read for those not familiar with the plight of the people  
of the North-east as well as their literature:  
Everywhere I go  
I carry my homeland with me.  
I look for it in protest marches on the streets of the capital,  
. .  
I often hear about its future  
in conflict resolution symposiums  
where professors and retired generals  
analyze the fate of my people and their misery.  
. .  
Those who speak the language of progress  
call my homeland a mendicant state  
not knowing its landlocked misery,  
its odd splendor.  
And no one knows who picks up its bodies . . . . (Misra, 46-7)  
Ngangom’s poem is expressive of the most common theme of ‘segregation from national culture’ in  
the literature of the North-East. Tilotamma Misra:  
The umbrella term ‘North-East’, which is often used as an emotive connotation for the seven states  
nestled together in one corner of the country, does not actually denote anything more than a  
geographical region. But, as it happens elsewhere in the world, geography is history in many ways.  
The ‘seven sisters of the North-East’ which had only marginal historical links with each other in the pre-  
colonial times, had their doors open towards South-East Asia, eastern Bengal, Bhutan, and Tibet—  
regions with which they had state boundaries and lively commercial and cultural contacts. It was only  
after the Partition of the Sub-continent that the region became totally landlocked with almost all the  
doors closed except for a narrow corridor that kept it linked with India. This geographical isolation has  
led to erasures and marginalization on multiple levels, the effect of which is clearly discernable in the  
writings from the region. (Misra, xxxi-xxxii)  
This region has also been consistently witnessing violence before and after the Second World War,  
combat with British forces, militant resistance movements, violation of human rights with militant  
organizations and the security forces involved in counter-insurgency operations, etc. Violence therefore  
has been a marker as well as authentication of the discrimination that this region of India has been  
facing. Tilottama Misra says in the context of the literature of Nagaland, “The new literature, most of  
which is in English, has sprung from the staccato cry of machine guns and reflects the revolutionary  
ideals of the militants as well as the disillusionment with their ways that followed.” (Misra, xxv) Temsula  
Ao is a poet from Nagaland. I’d like to sum up this section by quoting a few lines from her poem ’Blood  
of Others’:  
. . Stripped of all our basic certainties  
We strayed from our old ways  
And let our soul-mountain recede  
Into a tiny ant-hill and we  
Schooled our minds to become  
The ideal tabula rasa  
On which the strange intruders  
Began scripting a new history.  
. .  
But a mere century of negation  
Proved inadequate to erase  
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The imprints of intrinsic identities  
Stamped on minds since time began  
The suppressed resonance of old songs  
And the insight of primitive stories  
Resurface to accuse leased-out minds  
Of treason against the essential self.  
. .  
In the agony of the re-birth  
Our hills and valleys reverberate  
With death-dealing shrieks of unfamiliar arms  
As the throw-back generation resurrects. (Misra, 82-83)  
Nilofer Bharucha says, “In independent India, even in secular India and not just in today’s BJP dominated  
India, the term ‘Indian’ is generally meant and means Hindu. When one wishes to speak of Muslim,  
Christian, Jewish ot Parsi culture, one has to specifically say one is doing so . . . Current ethno-religious  
discourse in India is in direct response to her increasing engagement with Hindu fundamentalism.”  
Nandi, 201-2) Jews, Parsis, Goan Christians are among the ethno-religious communities in India. The  
relationship of these communities with the dominant culture is antagonistic. Post-independence India,  
mid-sixties onwards has witnessed a spate in the literature of ethno-religious minorities of India for a  
variety of reasons, the rise of Hindutva being the chief among them. It is thus that writers such as  
Esther David, Cyrus Mistry, Gieve Patel, Eunice D’souza, and many others reassert the Parsi/Goan  
Christian/Jewish space within the wider Indian context. Esther David’s novels viz. The Walled City, By  
the Sabarmati, Book of Esther, Book of Rachel, Shalom India Housing Society are based on the Jewish  
experience in India and weaves her stories around the Bene Israel community of India, their strivings to  
hold on to their identity in India, basic questions about belonging to India and migrating to Israel as  
well as inter-cultural relationships between Indian Jews and other communities as do the plays of  
Gieve Patel and Cyrus Mistry. In Gieve Patel’s play Princes, Navzar tells his seven year old son Noshir,  
The future. You will be twenty years.Eunice de Souza’s poems ‘Catholic Mother’, ‘Bequest’,  
Conversation Piece’, ‘Miss Louise’ bear the unmistakable ethno-religious stamp.  
The foregoing constitutes post-colonial discourse which ‘offers resistance to dominance and  
marginalization within the national space’. What implications does the maxim ‘Unity in Diversity’ have  
for us today, we wonder?  
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.  
Bhati, Nandi, ed. Modern Indian Theatre: A Reader. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.  
Datta, Prithvi & Chandra Shobhi, eds. The Flaming Feet and Other Essays; The Dalit Movement in  
India: D.R. Nagaraj. Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2010. Print.  
Devy, G.N. Painted Words; AN Anthology of Tribal Literature. Vadodara: Purva Prakash, rpt. 2012.  
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Tr. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004. Print.  
Gupta, Dipankar, ed. Anti-Utopia: Essential Writings of Andre Beteille. New Delhi: Oxford India  
Paperbacks, 2011. Print.  
JanMohamed, Abdul R. and David Lyold, ed. The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. New  
York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.  
Misra, Tilotomma, ed. The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India. 2 vols. New Delhi:  
Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.  
Narayan, Kocharethi. Tr. Catherine Thankamma. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.  
Ramakrishnan, E.V. Locating Indian Literature: Texts, Traditions, Translations. Hyderabad: Orient  
Blackswan Private Limited, 2011. Print.  
Dr. Rupalee Burke : Associate Professor, Dept. of English, SJVM College, Ahmedabad.