The inside of the thatched hut is pitch dark. Blinded by the harsh sun, the eyes take a while to identify the people inside. Slowly you see outlines taking shape. There’s a woman pounding grains on the floor and a baby near her playing with the grains. When they step out, you realise how malnourished the child is: she is frail with a bloated stomach and phlegm caking around her mouth. The girl and her mother are members of the Bonda tribe, one of the country’s many “primitive tribal groups” (PTGs), and an important link in our history as Indians.
These groups—75 in all—are essential to understanding the India story. After humans stepped out of Africa to come to India about 50,000 years ago, population groups coalesced in different parts of the country. Over centuries, each one of them developed unique identities. The Bondas, with a present population of about 6,000 in Orissa’s Malkangiri district, are one such group. D.K. Bhattacharya, retired Delhi University professor of anthropology, says, “These tribal pockets comprise people who, unlike us, refused to adopt to the changes forced upon us by agriculture. They chose instead to live in harmony with nature.”
But as India celebrates its 60th republic year, what’s become of these “first citizens”—these people who live pretty much the way our ancestors did when they first came to India? Is there a way to give them the benefits of modern civilisation while, at the same time, helping them retain their ancient identity and culture?