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‘The Elephant Whisperers’ and the Disingenuity of Hindu American Foundation’s Attempt to Co-opt Adivasis

‘The Elephant Whisperers’ and the Disingenuity of Hindu American Foundation’s Attempt to Co-opt Adivasis

  • The Hindutva protagonists’ fixation to designate indigenous tribes of India as “Hindus” goes back to the times of their guru, M.S. Golwalkar.

In a recent tweet, Suhag Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) claimed that the portrayal of Bomman and Ellie in the documentary “The Elephant Whisperers” underscores Hinduism’s “inarguable indigeneity.”

She takes a giant leap of faith from an Adivasi couple who happen to follow Hindu practices to declaring that their forebears must have also been Hindus. Extensive scholarship on the tribes of the Nilgiris dating back 150 years shows no basis for such a simplistic and self-serving assertion.

My wife and I have long been supporting tribal communities in the Nilgiris, where “The Elephant Whisperers” was filmed. Over the last 20 years, we have had many opportunities to spend time with community-based organizations that support them in education, healthcare, and land rights. 

The fact is, despite all the pressures to assimilate with the larger communities, the primary self-identity of these indigenous communities is still their tribe: Kattunayakans (hunter-gatherers), Mullukurumbas (settled agriculturalists), Bettekurumbas (shifting agriculturists and now forest department workers), and Paniyas (bonded workers in the recent past, who’re now casual laborers or small tea growers). 

Each tribe has its own distinct customs and languages: Bettakurumbas do identify as Hindu, and many of their traditional animistic spaces of worship have been taken over as mainstream Hindu temples. Most others practice their traditional faiths mixed with Hindu symbols. They are typically meat-eaters, but some are known to consume beef as well, which is not uncommon among many Adivasi tribes. Mullukurumbas and Kattunayakans have very little in common in their socio-economic status. 

It was a huge disappointment to see the Hindu American Foundation elide over all the real issues faced by tribal communities and instead zero in on their supposed Hindu ancestry – a red herring, in my view. 

Bomman, in “The Elephant Whisperers” is a kattunayakan (as he says at the start of the film), and Bellie is a Bettakurumba. The film was set in the mixed community of Thepakadu, inside the Mudumalai forest, where tribals and non-tribal forest department workers live together. So, their getting married didn’t fall into either of their tribe’s customs and was more Hinduized, as we saw in the documentary. 

Some of the shared traits that distinguish the tribes of the Nilgiris from the people from the plains include a natural inclination towards gender equality, excellent female hygiene, and a relaxed attitude towards sex and marriage. On the health side, many tribal communities exhibit genetic abnormalities not seen in the plains, including sickle cell anemia — which they share with America’s indigenous and black communities.

Most of the tribes in the Gudalur area are members of the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam (AMS), which was set up in 1988 and has helped them defend and regain their rights to forest resources and to lands that had been promised to them, but were often encroached upon with impunity by corporate tea plantations. 

The collective term “Adivasi” (which simply means original inhabitants) refers to hundreds of indigenous communities throughout India and is now in common usage. In contrast, the term “vanvasi” (forest dweller) is a term coined by Hindu nationalists, chosen consciously to deny their indigeneity. Most Adivasis reject that label. 

Since AMS was established in 1988 under the umbrella of the NGO, ACCORD, the lives of 20,000 Adivasis in the Gudalur area have changed dramatically. They fought for and regained hundreds of acres of land. Tribals who used to stop on the streets to look away and avoid eye contact with non-tribals (who considered them inauspicious), walk with their heads held high today. Some of the Paniyas who were bonded to the land-owning Chettis, are now small tea plantation owners or casual laborers.

Communities that seldom saw doctors and hospitals in the 1990s, and used to leave their sick in their verandahs to recover or to die, now run a 50-bed modern hospital, under ASHWINI, with such superior care that even non-Adivasis in the area now prefer to go there. Thanks to ASHWINI, the infant mortality rate has fallen from 250 per 1,000 in 1987 to around 20 per 1,000 these days. Maternal deaths are also getting fewer each year. 

A school started initially to educate the children of ACCORD, has blossomed into an Adivasi school VIDYODAYA, which emphasizes the preservation of tribal cultures and languages, while at the same time teaching the best of science, math, and the environment.  

Given this backdrop, my hope after I saw “The Elephant Whisperers” was that the movie might stimulate discussions on issues such as the worldwide movement against elephants in captivity; the fragile co-existence of man and elephants and the proposal for an elephant corridor that would displace many Adivasis; imminent dangers to Adivasi communities by efforts to gut the 2006 Forest Rights Act; and challenges faced by the Nilgiris biosphere reserve by proposed projects like the underground lab for neutrino studies, which could displace thousands of people from their ancestral homes. 

So, to me, it was a huge disappointment to see the Hindu American Foundation elide over all the real issues faced by tribal communities and instead zero in on their supposed Hindu ancestry – a red herring, in my view. 

Suhag Shukla’s tweet exemplifies the shallow and monochromatic ideology of Hindutva, especially when it comes to issues that affect the daily lives of marginalized communities. But then, her tweet was merely a continuation of the decades-old effort by the RSS and its Parivar to co-opt Adivasis into Hinduism by whatever means necessary. 

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Back in 1951, in response to questions on how beef-eating tribals in the North East could be considered Hindus, Guruji Golwalkar had come up with this bizarre explanation: 

“They have been basically Hindus all along, had been deprived of the benefit to proper Hindu religious enlightenment for a long time solely because of lack of communication and contacts with the rest of the society and its culture. As such it was no fault of theirs if they had remained alienated from our religious and cultural concepts such as devotion to cow. It was therefore our sacred duty to accept the janjatis as part of the Hindu society without any reservations.” (“Shri Guruji – Pioneer of a New Era” by C.P. Bhishikar, 1999, Sahitya Sindhu Prakashan)

What the Guruji had failed to mention was that the tribals of the Northeast weren’t exactly clamoring for and standing in line to be admitted into Hindu society.

But the fact that he was willing to bend the most sacred rule of Hindutva and countenance the idea of beef-eating Hindus demonstrated the length to which RSS was willing to go to co-opt Adivasis into the “Hindu fold.” It is ironic that today’s Hindu nationalists are unwilling to accept even beef-eating non-Hindus in their midst and are legislating beef bans in several states. 

In her tweet, Suhag Shukla seems to question the very term ‘Adivasi.’ This is an affront to all indigenous communities who accept it as a collective reference to tribal communities, even if they prefer to be referred to by their tribal names. (This reminds me of HAF’s ill-fated attempts a few years back to purge the word Dalit from school textbooks in California.)

HAF’s ideological parents and their oligarchs in India are now trying to label millions of indigenous peoples as illegal squatters in the forests and are prepared to evict them to make way for mining interests to roll in with their giant bulldozers. 

Will the HAF now start referring to tribals as “so-called Vanvasis” to help delegitimize their presence in the forests?

Raju Rajagopal is a Co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, USA. He can be reached at 

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  • The author fails to acknowledge that Hinduism has coexisted with various indigenous beliefs and practices for centuries, often absorbing and integrating elements from these traditions. Hinduism’s inclusive and syncretic nature has led to numerous sects and sub-traditions that respect and acknowledge the importance of local customs and practices. The author appears to care so much for the tribal way of life yet, does nothing to address the issue of forced conversions of Adivasis by foreign Christian missionaries.
    The earliest efforts at Christian proselytization in the Nilgiris can be traced back to the mid-19th century when several Christian missionary organizations established themselves in the region. The missionaries saw the tribes as “heathens” who needed to be saved from their “primitive” and “pagan” beliefs. They used various methods, including monetary incentives and education, to convince the tribes to convert to Christianity. The impact of these efforts on the tribes has been mixed. While some tribes, such as the Toda, have converted to Christianity, others have resisted these efforts and continue to practice their traditional beliefs. The Kotas, for example, have remained mainly untouched by Christian proselytization and continue to follow their ancestral religion. One of the main criticisms of Christian proselytization efforts in the Nilgiris is that they have eroded tribal cultures and traditions. Some argue that the conversion of tribes to Christianity has resulted in the loss of traditional knowledge, customs, and practices passed down through generations.
    Additionally, the introduction of Christianity has led to a division within tribal communities, with those who have converted often ostracizing those who have not. Despite these criticisms, Christian proselytization efforts in the Nilgiris continue. Several Christian organizations are active in the region, including the Joshua Project, the Church of South India, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. While the article focuses on illegitimate criticism of HAF and Hinduism, it conveniently neglects the real cause of concern. It would behoove the author to demonstrate concern about the evil of forced tribal conversion to foreign faiths instead of jumping blindly on the anti-Hindu bandwagon.

  • So what’s your point? That you don’t like HAF? You could have just linked the reader to HFHR’s Twitter account to make that clear (or really anything you’ve written in the past, it bleeds of an inferiority complex, especially when held in contrast to HAF’s confident outlook).

    Ad hominem attacks aside, the article conceded that the protagonists did indeed embrace and exemplify the best of Hinduism. As a kannadiga who has spent a lot of time around Karnataka’s Adivasis (particularly the Soliga), I know that they identify as a part of the larger Dharmic fabric. This doesn’t undermine their cultural distinctions. Just adds to the strength and resilience of the Hindu people.

    • The point is that Hinduism came out of Indigenous Adivasi society which the Brahmins and upper castes encroached upon and broke up throughout history into a caste and gender oppressive system. That is the reason why Hinduism has many Adivasi cultural features but all the positive sentiments and features of Adivasi society such as equality and sharing are completely missing in Hinduism. Caste and gender oppressive Hinduism is the anti-thesis of Adivasi humanism.With your talk of so-called Dharmic fabric (whatever that means – varna Dharma anyone?) you are diverting attention from the real history and real current issues.

      Don’t see how the article is an ad hominem attack.

      What you ‘know’ as a person is your subjective thinking coming out of your upper caste caste/political mindset which despite sounding superior is in fact suffering from a logic free inferiority complex. You are not the representative of the Adivasis who have not only culturally contributed to Hinduism and yet they are culturally distinct but also societally distinct. Yes, the Adivasis are resilient but that has nothing to do with Hinduism which has oppressed them for centuries. You do not share resources with them, you take their resources away from them. That is the difference.Dancing with the Adivasis for a political photo opportunity is not the same as being an Adivasi.

      The following by the way is utter rubbish: “Hinduism’s inclusive and syncretic nature has led to numerous sects and sub-traditions that respect and acknowledge the importance of local customs and practices.” This is a hegemonic claim without any foundation in fact. A true statement would be “Hinduism’s exclusive and hegemonic syncretic nature has led to numerous sects and sub-traditions which are in essence castes and sub-castes that show no respect and do not acknowledge the importance of local customs and practices.”

      You can believe in what you believe in but caste Hinduism is hardly liberal. I can hear the whole world laughing.

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