Chai for change? Stories of Adivasi indigeneities, self-reliance, and activism


Claudia Caterina Aufschnaiter

PhD defended at: 

Durham University


Chai for change is a story about stories. More precisely, stories of Adivasi self-reliance through tea, Adivasi indigeneities, and Adivasi activism. 

At the outset of this study of narratives of Adivasi indigeneity, I posit that the indigenisation of Adivasis fulfils different objectives in the field of Development practice and international “aid” processes. I argue that the Development activists I follow in this story achieve, or attempt to achieve, these objectives through the narrativisation of Adivasi indigeneity.

Firstly, I analyse how a particular group of Adivasi communities try to consolidate the sustainability and permanence of their, and other disadvantaged communities’, economic self-reliance through planting tea. Secondly, I examine how the social activists engaged with these Adivasi groups, try to realise such economic self-reliance through creating a new, fairer, and more sustainable economic system, on the basis of supposedly indigenous/tribal/Adivasi values. Thirdly, I show how these Development activists connect the different actors involved in these self-reliance efforts focused on tea planting, via narratives of Adivasi indigeneity.

I then argue that the activists manage to enlist the large group of different Development actors – and their financial support – necessary for such a “just” shift in economic relations, through the harnessing of a particular brand of Adivasi indigeneity in their stories. This conceptualisation of indigeneity corresponds largely with essentialised eco-romanticist imaginaries of “the indigenous”, and therefore “the Adivasi”, based on internationally current, reified notions of indigeneity.

Through first identifying the dominant elements of these Adivasi indigeneity narratives, and then analysing the pitfalls inherent in them, I bring to light the inconsistencies between activist-imagined Adivasi indigeneity narratives, and the multiplicity of conflicting identities of Adivasi peoples in India today.

Chai for change concludes by investigating, on the one hand, whether the efforts of the Adivasi activists to create a more sustainable economic system, based on planting tea and informed by Adivasi values, help sustain a progressive and self-reliant Adivasi movement. On the other hand, I explore whether the activists’ jumping on the indigenist rhetoric bandwagon, is in fact a useful strategy for Adivasis to overcome economic inequalities, (re)enforced and (re)produced by the complex intermeshing of ethnicity and caste in India. Specifically, I examine whether narrative-intensive indigenism is a useful strategy for dealing with Adivasi intersectionality – understood as the intersection of the multiple forms of discrimination Adivasis face. Or, whether indigenism’s anachronistic elements – in particular the activists’ adherence to an ecologically romantic conceptualisation of Adivasi values – possibly render the activists’ rhetorical strategies counterproductive, and thereby create obstacles to sustaining the momentum of their movement.

Chai for change is thus a narrative-focussed study of how conflictual notions of Adivasi indigeneity, harnessed for “development” ends by development activists, often become unravelled and entangled in tensions and contradictions, like a snarled-up ball of narrative yarn. I argue that the social activists try to offset this tendency by continually adapting the narrative of their stories, in an attempt to attract ever new and different audiences for their Adivasi tea revolution story.