Over one-hundred million Adivasis call India home, however many of them have been deprived of their constitutionally mandated rights and dispossessed of their lands. Focusing on the Bhil and the Gond communities in Madhya Pradesh, Ashish Vaidya (Colorado State University), argues that they are not just systemically disadvantaged, but victims of a form of structural colonial violence that grew in strength after independence.

Within India there are over 100 million Adivasis, one of many ethnic groups that make up the country. This minority however has been catastrophically let down by the government who have failed to provide Adivasis with their constitutionally mandated rights to “equal opportunity” through adequate education and health care. It has also systematically dispossessed them of their traditional means of living by leasing out much of their land to timber and mining companies. In recent years, Adivasis have been further displaced by the newer post-industrial imperative of conservation which has led to the establishment of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that prohibit traditional tribal activities like hunting and logging.

In the state of Madhya Pradesh there are twelve million Adivasis, and of that twelve million, the Bhil and the Gond comprise more than 35 per cent. But the status of these tribal communities in central India is not only marked by the failure of successive governments to provide them with their constitutionally mandated rights. Instead, these communities have been the victims of years of structural violence based on colonial legacies which are dynamic facets of post-colonial life. These legacies continually evolve and have revealed themselves in new ways in the wake of decolonization.  

The Bhil

Historically concentrated around the mountainous Jhabua region in the west, the Bhil turned to banditry and freebooting amid growing persecution by the region’s Rajput rulers. Living in the shadows of the region’s confederations and kingdoms, the Bhil developed anarchist sensibilities and suspicion of institutions embodying economic and political domination. Proverbs collected in the 1940s by the missionary Leonhard Jungblut suggest an aversion to capitalism and a general distrust of the rich and powerful, perhaps borne out of a long history of economic exploitation at the hands of dominant groups in the region.  Yet throughout the colonial era, the Bhil were fiercely autonomous and maintained their own social and political institutions thanks to the decentralized nature of the local princely states and the disinterest of their British patrons.

The Gond

The Gond people spread over a swath of forested land across central India, including eastern Madhya Pradesh. Boasting a complex system of astronomy, the Gond revere knowledge, yet like the Bhil they are deeply wary of systems of economic and political concentration. For the Gond, land was community-owned and cultivated, and cultivators enjoyed freedom to move between parcels of land when they chose. The Land Revenue Settlement Act of 1868 and the Indian Forest Act of 1927 meant that the Gond living within the directly ruled British Bengal Presidency were suddenly thrown into poverty because they held no titles to the land they had cultivated. For the Gond living within the princely states, these Acts had no effect because these states were not subject to the laws of the colonial administration.

Structural Violence

Structural violence, a concept first articulated by Johan Galtung, refers to violence that does not have an agent but that is embedded in institutions and the ways in which they interact with people. Galtung strove for empirical grounding in his 1990 definition of violence, which includes “avoidable insults to basic needs, and more generally, to life, lowering the real level of needs satisfaction below what is potentially possible.”

The problem with defining violence as empirical is that it curtails the scope of structural violence, limiting it to concrete instances with falsifiable physical manifestations. Psychological harm, the removal of autonomy and agency, powerlessness, cultural marginalisation, and the denial of chances for fulfilment are all phenomena contingent on the subjectivity of the persons experiencing the harm—and are thus not objectively empirical. Yet it is clear from Galtung’s writing that he intended to include such instances as outcomes of structural violence. Thus, a meaningful concept of structural violence necessitates a normative idea of violence.

I define violence as a violation of a given set of values held by the object individual or group, which limits the potential of individuals or communities for achieving contentment. Structural violence, then, is the structural (non-agential) violation of such a set of values, which leads to harmful outcomes. In other words, structural violence exists when social, political or economic structures stand in violation of another layer of cultural norms with the effect of systemic harm to individual communities. This definition is predicated on the notion that the Gramscian mechanism of cultural hegemony often leads to overlapping and contradictory social constructs, some manufactured by the modern state and others stretching far back over the expanse of time. Hegemonic constructs linger long after they have outlived their usefulness for the state, and they often clash with contemporary government goals. British colonialism infused the Indian subcontinent with a vast array of new systems, norms and imperatives, many of which are now deeply embedded in the Indian national identity.

The full weight of colonialism after 1947

The structural violence of the colonial state came to bear on the Bhil, Gond and other tribal communities within the princely states only after 1947. It was ironically the moment of independence that brought the full weight of colonization onto these communities, as the princely states were dissolved and absorbed into the new Indian republic, the political and legal framework of which was inherited directly from the British.

The Indian Republic has since framed itself in direct opposition to Adivasi communities on several different fronts. Caught amidst these contradictory desires of the state, many Adivasis have turned to the Naxalite Maoist insurgency.

Adivasis are thus caught between the competing imperatives of the Indian state’s different and overlapping stages of modernist development. Children in these communities are made to feel the cultural vestiges of the old colonial “civilizing” mission when teachers confiscate their tribal jewellery, admonish their hairstyles, and purport to give them new Hindu names. The hostility to Adivasi culture exhibited in many schools helps explain the lagging rates of literacy and education among Adivasis and their resultant lack of social capital vis-à-vis the state.  Meanwhile, the modernist developmental imperative has led the Indian state to view these populations as an inconvenience and an impediment to the country’s economic growth.  While

To paraphrase Frantz Fanon, the violence they thus embrace is inescapable because it pervades the atmosphere created by the governing institutions that surround them. In other words, branded in their very identity as living, human violations of state-driven norms, they have no choice but to turn this violence against the state itself.

I believe that the purpose of the concept of structural violence is to illuminate situations such as this, where clashing norms create conditions of perceived violence with real detrimental effects that may not be easily empirically verifiable. And it is a concept that can help us to understand the daily violence that the Adivasi in Madhya Pradesh face.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Ashish Vaidya received his Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at Temple University in 2015. He currently teaches political science at Colorado State University and Colorado Springs Early Colleges. His research interests include postcolonial theory, development and Indian politics.


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