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Giving a Voice to India’s Indigenous (Adivasi) Community

September 6, 2016

Ruby Hembrom (left) at the World Delhi Book Fair.

Ruby Hembrom (left) at the World Delhi Book Fair.

Five years ago, Ruby Hembrom gave up a high-paying career in the IT sector to start her own publishing company to preserve the culture and historical heritage of India’s indigenous (Adivasi) community. Hembrom, who spent the first four years of her life in rural Jharkhand learning Santali as her native language, now lives in Kolkata where she runs her company and speaks and writes on indigenous rights and equality. She was recently selected as a 2016 Asia Foundation Development Fellow, and will be in San Francisco next week as part of the final leg of the fellowship program. In Asia editor Alma Freeman spoke with her ahead of her visit about her unlikely path to where she is today, why English is critical to raising the Adivasi community’s voice, and how closing opportunity gaps is her driving force.

Your journey is rooted in adversity, having faced discrimination as early as grade school after you moved from your hometown to Kolkata, a moment that you said you were “ambushed by the reality of who you were.” Can you talk about how these formative moments played a role in shaping your character and identity?

As Adivasis, our faces, features, and bodies carry the landscape of our experiences of exclusion and struggle. I bore the stigma of Adivasi stereotyping as a child, and spent much of my school years in Kolkata trying to be invisible. It was challenging to break through the external impressions of how others viewed me. However, this challenging time also formed the bedrock of the person I would become. As such, my journey is not only one of adversity, but also resurgence.

The Adivasi population makes up 8 percent of the nation’s total population, and despite state affirmative action programs and a quota system, the voices of these 84 million are still largely underrepresented. Can you describe the current challenges facing your community?

Affirmative action laws (referred to as “reservations”) are a legitimate constitutional right in India and essential to uplifting the oppressed classes, or scheduled tribes, a category my community falls into. For example, they mandate reserved seats or quotas in legislative bodies (47 out of 543 seats for scheduled tribes), and public academic institutions and government services (7.5 percent for scheduled tribes). However, despite the space allocated to us we cannot occupy it to full capacity, as the systems do not support the training and education needed to become qualified enough to fill these positions. India presently records an overall literacy rate of just over 74 percent and the scheduled tribes have a literacy gap as high as 18 to 26 percent of the national average. Thus some reserved seats go vacant and are filled instead by the dominant classes.

In addition, most laws that affect indigenous populations do not take into account the recommendations of the people they will serve. In many cases, political representation in the reserved seats serves as tokenism as they have to join majoritarian political parties to stand for elections. Independents rarely manage to garner the support needed to win an election. How can 47 Adivasis represent the aspirations of 645 officially recognized tribal groups – geographically, regionally, linguistically, and culturally diverse in a system that is against them?

In 2012, you left the IT world and attended a publishing course that would change your career completely. At a time when your colleagues were clamoring to reach the top of the corporate ladder, you reached back to revive the story of your people. This undoubtedly took a great deal of courage and strength. Why did you do it?

When I left the IT world, it was not to start a publishing outfit but to use my acquired skills and experience to raise awareness about the challenges facing my people. I wanted to help bridge the gap in communication and language for Adivasi people. It was a deliberate choice to reject the comforts of a secure job and take the risk that comes with entrepreneurship in favor of engaging with my roots.

It was during the testing phase of my new entrepreneurial life that I strayed into a publishing course. On Day 2 of the course we met two independent publishers–one specialized in women’s narratives and the other in Dalit narratives. I had one look at the list of people we were to meet and immediately realized there was no Adivasi representation. Were our narratives not significant enough to be included or were they non-existent? That did it for me – I wanted the Adivasi voice to be counted. I didn’t know how it could be done, but knew it had to be done. That’s why I started the publishing company.

Your publishing company, adivaani, which means “first voices,” just published its 15th book. And, somewhat surprisingly given that the focus is cultural preservation, all of them are in English. Why?

I began adivaani with the awareness that historically books published by Adivasis had happened only on a very small scale, were indigenous-language specific or published in Hindi or other regional dominant languages. That meant our stories remained confined to the people who either read and knew the native language, or in the case of when they were published in the regional language or Hindi, they were dismissed because of the inherent biases associated with Adivasi-produced content. I wanted our reach to be national and even global, which meant publishing in English.

In addition, not knowing English robs us of the chance to compete and advance as all our laws and regulations ultimately are translated and recorded in English. Our hope is to ultimately build solidarity among indigenous populations across geographies and sharing a global language helps that.

You and 11 other young leaders from across Asia recently traveled to Korea and Mongolia as Asia Foundation Development Fellows. What were some of the most inspiring/impactful moments of the trip? What do you’ll take away to help advance your career and mission?

Both countries are an extension and reflection of the people and embody their hopes and aspirations. South Korea is dazzling and the landscape is testimony to a high-tech economy with a highly skilled workforce. Being as old a republic as India; the visual comparisons were evident. Most people I interacted with were educated overseas and as hard as I tried to find blemishes in the obvious perfection everywhere, I couldn’t. One evening as we toured the city hall we had an elderly man in a red suit as our tour guide. He spoke the most incomprehensible English and it was near impossible to decipher anything. But I was in awe of him and in his “imperfections” I discovered more beauty in Korea. He was relatable, and this felt real to me. Here was a man who probably experienced war, lived and worked through the rapid industrialization and urbanization and made a life through struggles. He exemplified hope and dreams for me.

Mongolia’s panorama is surreal. Mongolia clearly symbolizes a modern state rooted in history and tradition. Meeting and interacting with the youth of the country who are driving it in creative and significant ways was inspiring. The youth are marking the future of this country; through a celebrated legacy they’ve inherited. The spirit of their zeal and commitment is worth replicating.

Do you feel that being young that you have an advantage in suggesting solutions to complicated social and political challenges? How has your work been inspired and benefited from your generation?

The youth, like me, who are part of the tech-generation are constantly challenging ourselves, exploring new terrain, pushing newer boundaries; which positively impacts our immediate work. We are a generation that is unafraid and persistent which keeps us looking for solutions to challenges. But we also tend to be impatient and easily disappointed and that could be a drawback.

It’s inspiring to see more and more of my generation of newly educated Adivasis, who instead of consolidating personal careers and economic stability, are choosing to devote our lives instead to the betterment of our people.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: India
Related programs: Asia Foundation Development Fellows, Leadership & Exchanges
Related topics: Inequality, Literacy

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