Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
ADIVASI : JULY 16, 2000
A society in transition
The author is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
Words like "tribe" and "tribals" have come to acquire extensive usage in our discourse on social science and social change. They denote both, an anthropologial category akin to its classical form as it has been in the Americas, Africa and Australia, and as a metaphor for the most victimised segments in our society. The expression "tribal identity" has sharp political resonance. But that resonance is felt and read almost entirely in ethnic-social terms. The cultural and cognitive salience that underlies the tribal sense of unique distinctness and possibility remains dim and almost invisible.
The modern faith stems from an axiomatic certainty of immense consequence. The grand certainty is that the continually enhanced human capacity to reshape the material world is an unfailing assurance of human liberation and freedom. Progress is the sovereign quest of modern civilisation as also its cardinal referent for meaning and significance. Hence the perception that tribal cohesions represent the survival of archaic social formations which the ever expanding reach of the modern historical process would in time transform and completely recast. And true enough, the power to reshape the material world has linked and unified the most distant corners of the earth. But for communities and rhythms of life, towards which words like tribe direct our attention, modern unification has meant a virtual half-life on the very margins of modern life and discourse.
Consider in this context the intellectual and cultural lineage of the discipline of Ethnology. Its origin and orientation are unmistakably modern. Its mission is to understand and make sense of social facts and forms of thought that clearly do not belong to the modern universe. Levi-Strauss sensed in ethnology a belated sence of remorse. As an intellectual artifact it is inherently ambiguous. It seeks remembrance for facts and forms, which it knows, are marked out for extinction by the very mode of doing and thinking from which ethnology arises. Recognition of definitive difference constitutes as it were its formative substance. And all the while, it knows, that this difference has at best a bleak future in the modern world. In its rare moments of repose modern thought invests rhythms of living forsaken by history, in the words of Levi-Strauss, with "nobility. Unaware of having eliminated savage life", it seeks to appease the "nostalgic cannibalism of history" with mere shadows preserved with great care in museums and libraries.
One could ask at this point, as to what is the nature and significance of the survival of tribal life in India? Is that survival in any way different from what survives of tribal life in the Americas? Or, is it the case that what survives of tribal life in India is also no more than a shadow of what had once been full and truly complete unto itself.
In India, the tribal situation is marked by two paradoxical facts: the absence of neat demarcations of the tribal as a homogenous social-cultural category, and the significant magnitude of what is accepted as comprising tribal reality. No one can demarcate a clear divide between the tribal and the non-tribal in India. The intensely fluid nature of boundaries between the tribal and the non-tribal are evident in the insuperable difficulty in arriving at a clear anthropological definition of a tribal in India, be that in terms of ethnicity, race, language, social forms or modes of livelihood.
D. V .Jainer/ Telepress Features
The Constitution provides for the notification of certain communities as tribal. The notification is on the basis of a varied mix of ethnic, social, linguistic and economic criteria. Hence the prevalent usage as also the only available working definition of a tribal in India: Scheduled Tribes. It would truly be impossible for anyone to say that all the diverse communities listed as Scheduled Tribes conform to the notion of a tribal in its classical sense. At the same time, it would be impossible for anyone to say that all communities that can primarily be regarded as tribal are included in the schedule of Tribes. And yet, for all practical purposes, be it legislation, social-political intervention, collation of data or social theory, the schedule of tribe notified by the Government is the only meaningful referent.
Almost every thirteenth Indian is a tribal. Social magnitudes and their persistence as distinct entities over long durations are of immense significance. For they suggest, in however diffused and indirect ways, the structure of cognition and judgment by which a civilisation seeks or could seek to orient itself. The sheer magnitude of tribal survival in India directs attention towards ways of reckoning and engaging with differences that are strikingly unlike the modern historical process. In the brief span of a few centuries, peoples and cultures as old as Man on earth have been swept to near extinction from the vast continents of America and Australia.
To speak of the strikingly different ways of reckoning and engaging with difference as characteristic of India's past is not to suggest that it is a past without blemish. The past of tribals in India bristles with cruel inflictions. For thousands of years tribal communities have been pushed steadily deeper into the hinterland of remote hills and forests. Vast stretches of land, upon which they had lived their lives, worshipped their deities and nourished their own dreams, have been lost to them. But with all that it remains a past of interaction, utterly unlike the modern past of tribal extinction.
One could speak of the tribal presence in India at two levels. One, the fragmented and fragmentary tribal presence in the very midst of non-tribal life. Two, the tribal presence in tribal contiguities comprising regions that are or were until recently predominantly tribal. The historian Kosambi records in prescient detail the fragmented tribal presence in the midst of non-tribal life. In the early Fifties, he had to just step outside his house in Poona to encounter the still unfolding "historical processes" of "interaction of obsolete with modern forms". In the shadow of the Law College dwelt a "nomadic group of rus phase Pardhis" whose men wear only the "loin cloth" and "never take a bath", but retain the "natural cleanliness, mobility, superior senses" of the wild. Pardhis are "expert bird snarers". But hunting and trapping animals can no longer provide enough for even bare survival. Forests have shrivelled and "game has almost vanished". Besides, "not one of them can afford a hunting license". They have been reduced to making a precarious living by trapping birds, "begging and petty stealing". The idea of "racial purity" makes no sense to them. On the "payment of a fee" strangers could always be admitted into their clan. The names of five of their six exogamous clans "have become the surnames of feudal Maratha families: Bhonsale, Powar, Cavahan, Jahdav, Sinde". And Kale, the name of their sixth clan has become a "Citpavan brahman surname".
Tribal presence in regions that are predominantly tribal signifies a distinctly different historic quality of tribal-nontribal interaction. Such regions constitute what could be termed tribal contiguities. Within tribal contiguities, choices available to tribal communities for working out their own equations between man and Nature have not been entirely foreclosed in favour of a more advanced mode of livelihood. True, powerful non-tribal rulers did seek to control over tribal contiguities. But pre-modern conquest could never exact more than a nominal annual tribute. The divide in these regions between resistance and restraint, submission and defiance was always somewhat fluid. Nature, little touched by Man, was an unfailing refuge beyond the reach of invading armies. One could speak of the texture of this interaction as a complex of impingements and relationships between several distinct social cohesions and modes of livelihood subsisting in close proximity.
In a rough and ready sense settled cultivation or kheti, could be said to be the defining feature of non-tribal life. And shifting cultivation or jhum could be said to be the defining feature of tribal life. Open plains watered by rivers have been the prime regions of kheti hills and dense forests have been the prime regions of jhum. The Gangetic plain has been the largest prime region of kheti. The Vindhyan highland has been the largest prime region of jhum. Between these two modes, kheti represents what in modern cognition would be designated as the manifestly more evolved and higher level of man-nature equations. Quite in accord with modern expectation, the region of kheti even in the pre-modern context tended to expand and enclose new areas. But in the long and complex process of extending its reach, kheti in the pre-modern context could never completely displace jhum. The significant fact is that in the very process of extending the reach of kheti came to be mediated by varied modes of livelihood, which partook of the world of both kheti and jhum.
Social and technological mediations within these two modes of livelihood are ordered differently. Kheti marks out a permanent human presence riveted to a particular piece of land. The same plot of land is cultivated year after year, from one generation to the next. From that plot of land nature is sought to be more or less completely banished. It requires constant human care. In the event of failure or withdrawal of human care, Nature does return to the lands of kheti but almost always in a shrivelled and degraded form. The spatial boundaries worked out in kheti tend towards more or less straight lined geometric patterns. Within the fields of kheti, man's mastery over nature is complete and unrivalled. Nothing that man does not like or find useful is allowed to survive. The considerable surplus this activity generates makes possible trade and exchange of goods and services, urban centres, as also varied range of skills, crafts cultural links over vast distances. Along with all that, it also makes possible mechanisms of coercion and dominion: steadily enhanced revenue demands, standing armies and imperial ambition. But in years of scanty rainfall or epidemics, hunger and death ravage the lands of rich yields.
Jhum, in sharp contrast to kheti, marks out only a fleeting human presence in the midst of untamed Nature. The cultivated patch of jhum keeps shifting. In the little jhum clearings on hill slopes, Nature in all its wild resilience and variety retains its sway albeit a little subdued. Crops once sown on a jhum slope require virtually no human care. After the crops have been harvested, jhum slopes merge back into Nature. The spatial boundaries worked out in jhum tend to be somewhat like the intensely diffused uncertain lines found in nature. Jhum secures an ample supply of crops useful to man. Its yields in comparison to a kheti field are much smaller. But jhum, by allowing nature to linger on its slopes ensures that harvests never completely fail. Famines simply never happen in the prime regions of shifting cultivation. The surplus generated is small and chiefs in the world of shifting cultivational have had to rule without the support of a standing army or a regular supply of revenue.
The tribal presence within tribal contiguities and its fragmented survival in the midst of non-tribal life may seem at first sight to be far removed and unconnected with each other. But a deep and complex relationship subsists between them. For they together define the place and possibility for tribal life and self-sense in the civilisational matrix of India. Consider in this context the rise to political pre-eminence of the tribal kingdom of Garha in central India during the Sixteenth Century. The stark simplicity of the explanation given by the Abul Fazal, the grand Mughal chronicler, for the rise of Garha invokes rhythms distinctly tribal. For a very long time, records Abul Fazal, rulers of Garha had commanded "reverence" in the region. Yet, they remained powerless until mid Fifteenth Century to translate this "reverence" into political control. Implicit in this fact is the resilience of the distance between reverence and the ability to garner a disproportionately large share of the local surplus. To this day something of that sense and reality remains alive and vivid in the everyday rhythms of living.
Unfettered access to nature furnishes the vital clue to the manifest capacity of tribal cohesions to survive as a distinct entity, despite a long and not always peaceful history of interaction with powerful centres of political authority. Definitive shifts in the relationship between tribal communities and political power began with the consolidation of the modern colonial state in the mid-nineteenth century. As the effective reach of the modern state extended deeper into the hinterland, access to nature came to be progressively restricted. Choices available to communities even in the remotest parts came to be ever more rigorously foreclosed in favour of the requirements of the state and the world market. Land revenue settlements initiated the process of appropriating vast stretches of tribal lands as "reserved forests" and "government lands". In the tribal contiguity people have lived on a combination of gathering forest produce, grazing, craft skills and shifting or intermittent cultivation. The idea of personal property has been very weak. It is the idea of usage, which defined access to the livelihood resource of the locality of the region. The notion of modern property has destroyed access to what had always been a shared livelihood resource accessible to all the inhabitants.
True, life and livelihood of tribal communities in the past were always simple and sparse. But prior to the modern onslaught the rhythm of life in the remotest hamlet was vibrant with a profound sense of its own intrinsic worth. Cultural sensibilities and modes of livelihood subsist in a relationship of intimate distance. Destruction of modes of livelihood are also moments of profound cultural loss. The sense of one's self and the world are traumatically shaken. It is imperative that the modern sensibility learns to own in adequate measure the destructive consequences inherent in the modern process. For instance, unlike the West, ecological devastation in our context has also to be comprehended as a question of livelihood and survival.
Tribal survival in the modern world would be possible and meaningful only if we learn to recognise it as presence with its own intrinsic worth, and not merely as a grim illustration of the logic of progress. We have to learn to converse with tribal sensibility about its meditations on the nature of the human presence, and the inherence of limits in the fact of life itself. That perhaps may in some measure serve as a corrective to the selfish and ultimately suicidal self-centredness of modern civilisation.
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