Saturday, August 9, 2014

Tribal lives - Konds of Orissa

Felix Padel, the great great grandson of Charles Darwin, is a well known Indo-British anthropologist. His book "Sacrificing people - Invasions of a tribal landscape" looks at the colonial roots of the relationships between "Adivasis", the indigenous people in tribal areas of India with the rest of country.

"First there were the soldiers, then missionaries and now the mining companies," Padel had said in an interview. His books explore the themes of displacement and the cultural genocide of the adivasis.

This post touches on some of the critical issues raised by Felix in his book "Sacrificing People" (Orient Black Swan, new updated paperback edition, 2011).

Sacrificing people by Felix Padel, book cover

In the preface to the first edition of this book, Felix had written, "My main aim is to understand what has been imposed on tribal people by looking objectively at the various groups of people who have imposed on them." Among the various groups scrutinized critically by Felix are anthropologists themselves, which makes for a very interesting reading.

Large parts of the book deal with the issue of human sacrifices among the Konds of Orissa and how the colonial regime dealt with it. Another important area of focus of this book is the meaning of development and how it can lead to exclusion and exploitation of tribal people.

Apart from these two areas of enquiry, I personally found two parts of the book very interesting - those dealing with the way anthropologists look at and study the indigenous cultures and the impact of missionary work and religious conversions on tribal lives.

Adivasis, the tribal people of India

The initial works of Felix focused on the Kond group of indigenous people in Orissa. Different sub-groups of Konds such as Konda and Gond are present in neighbouring Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

During the British colonial rule, Kond groups in Orissa had been the subject of different "reforms" because there were reports of human sacrifice practices among them. Konds sacrificed meriah, children bought from the Dom groups ("lower caste" Hindu groups involved in trading with Konds).
There are many different groups among the Konds. Clans are important in people's identity. Each clan, as well as each section of a clan and each village, has its own territory, and its own ancestors and myths and particular customs and ways of dressing...
Now as in 1830s Konds have close connections with people of an 'untouchable' caste called Doms or Panos, who live in Kond villages and carry on small scale trading .. Other tribal castes whom Konds depend on include blacksmiths, potters and herders, who almost function as sub-castes of Konds. Sundis are a Hindu caste of distillers; they make and sell mahua - the most famous of alcoholic drinks that play such an important part in tribal culture... Konds also have a close relationship with high caste Hindus.
Kond villages, like those of other tribes, show a lot of variety in how far they conform to the non-tribal or modern lifestyle of those around them. When men cut their hair short, this is often a sign of conformity, whether to Hindu or Christian norms. In the remoter villages, where men keep their hair long, a way of life continues that has not changed much since the days before the British rule. (p. 14-15)
Thus, compared to other indigenous groups in Africa or South America, that remained "indigenous" because they were isolated from other people living in their lands, the adivasis-tribals in India, were not completely isolated and had different kinds of interfaces with other population groups. However, in spite of such contacts they were able to conserve their own cultures and customs.

At the same time, Felix explains how these adivasi groups assimilated the different influences of other Indian groups such as their caste-based hierarchical relationships with Doms. Thus, on one hand, adivasis are considered inferior by non-advasis and at another level, they themselves considered certain other caste groups to be inferior to them.
Culturally they have always been part of Indian civilization, on its edge. Unlike most tribal peoples outside India, they have maintained trading and ritual links with city-based 'civilized' society for well over 2000 years.
Ancient texts on statecraft such as the Arthshastra discuss how to win them over as allies... the Indian situation presents a striking contrast to the European or Christian relationship between tribal peoples and 'civilization': in Europe they were mostly conquered, 'pacified' or 'civilized' into peasantry, and converted to Christianity during the Roman period or soon after. Later in the 'New World' tribes were exterminated or at least displaced from their land through a stark confrontation between European colonists and aboriginals. Hindu civilization did not on the whole seek to convert or displace tribals, although there was certainly often conflict, and tribes were forced to retreat to the remotest areas ..
Tribal religion is not sharply distinct from Hinduism.. Tribal myths have clear connections with Hindu mythology. Adivasis travel from far around to take part in certain Hindu festivals... Yet their differences from Hindus are conscious and conspicuous. In some contexts or areas they call themselves Hindus, in others not. (p. 17) 
This co-existence between tribal and non-tribal groups in India was challenged during the British colonial rule. In post-independence period and especially over the past two decades, policies of liberalization and commercialization with exploitation of natural resources, have put increasing stress on this co-existence.

Anthropologists studying the "exotic" tribals

In the book, Felix takes a critical look at the way in which colonial anthropologists had dehumanized the subjects of their studies, where anthropology was a tool of the colonial project and the objective of "civilizing" the tribals translated into controlling them and their resources. He advocates for a transformation towards reflexive or critical anthropology.
Anthropology was a vital element in British rule of the Konds, not least because it legitimized British rule from the side of science by defining Konds as a 'primitive tribe' who stood to benefit from an 'enlightened government', just as the missionaries legitmized it from the side of religion and ethics. (p. 242)
And when I looked at the anthropological literature about the Konds and other tribes in India, I realized that it forms an essential part of the discourse of power that was imposed on them. It denies them a voice, and denies their reality, by defining and categorizing them in way that is fantastically, incomprehensibly alien. (p. 243)
Felix proposes that our present way of looking at the tribal groups in India is a variation on the colonial attitudes towards them - it supports their exploitation and exclusion from their lands and cultures.
Victorian anthropology produced a highly impersonal way of writing about tribes such as Konds, that defined them as 'primitive' in every domain of life. It thus gave out as a 'scientific fact' what was essentially a negative stereotype. The underlying theory is what we call 'social evolutionism' - which, officially, most anthropologists have rejected. Yet it persists in India now in a slightly different form,in the idea that adivasis are 'backwards' or 'in need of development', and thereby legitimizes imposing momentous restrictions on them or displacing them from their land in the name of development. (p. 243)
Colonialism and the missionary project

In the chapter "Soldiers of Christ", Felix takes a critical look at the role played by colonial missionaries in assisting and expanding the control over the tribals. He briefly touches upon the evolution of missionary activities in the post-independence period.
Missioneries' self-sacrifice is often extreme and their benevolence, especially in education and medicine, seems beyond question. But there is a fundamental bias in their outlook which polarizes people, in the idea that Christianity is superior to other religions and that only Christians can be 'saved'. Behind a mask of meekness there is thus an enormous arrogance and violence in the missionary entreprise: a fundamental closedness and prejudice against other cultures and religions. (p. 185)
Felix touches repeatedly on the dual nature of the missionary work among the tribal people:
My appraisal of mission work may appear unsympathetic, since I do not share missionaries' negative judgement of tribal religion or their desire to uproot traditional beliefs and customs. Yet the missionaries we shall meet 'gave their lives for the Konds' in the years of devoted 'service', and many of them died 'in the field'. (p. 186)
A contrast between how missionaries saw themselves and how they saw they came to convert is thus at the basis of their thinking. If they idealized their own suffering and benevolence, their image of various 'others' is basically a negative stereotype. (p. 206) 
Regarding the missionary role in the colonial cause, Felix looks at the complex relationships between the missionaries and the colonial administrators.
On the surface missionaries were independent from the Government. Sometimes they came into conflict with it. There was a long standing tradition of missionaries who championed basic human rights overseas...But there was a lot of liason too, and at a deeper level a mutual dependence and division of labour evolved: in return for its patronage, missionaries extended the Government's hold over Konds in various ways. (p. 189-190)
Regarding the impact of missionary discourse on the tribal culture, Felix touches on different facets of this issue.
The missionary message was thus often aimed at persuading people of their sinfulness and appealing to their fear of damnation. As a result, a dominant theme in missionary discourse is a contrast between their own self-sacrificing Christianity and the sinfulness of various other groups - pagan Konds and Hindus, as well as Christians of other sects. (p. 200)
The theory here is that Kond religion consists of ignorance and the free expression of savage passions. The metaphors are of combating darkness and clearing the jungle, to 'elevate the Kond' .. The use of singular instead of plural in these passages is significant. It isolates the individual, just as in practice missionaries isolated individuals through teaching and conversion. 'The Kond' is a hapless, demonstrably ignorant specimen of scientific study and missionary persuasion. (p. 211)
Schools were not just a secular addition to Mission work: they were central to it, and it seems that the fundamental aim of Mission schools was to undermine traditional beliefs and inculcate a reformed pattern of behaviour and attitudes, preparing the ground for conversion, and creating a missionized elite among the population, who would see the world as missionaries wanted them to see it, separated from their fellows by many symbols. (p. 219)
So when Konds' language was 'reduced to writing', missionaries made sure its first texts were Christian texts. The same happened with the vast majority of tribal languages in the world. (p. 221)
.. missionaries segregated their converts as far as possible from unconverted pagans ... Orphanages and schools separated Kond children from their communities in many ways. Conversion to Christianity carried this much further, dividing a village with a host of values and symbols. (p. 233)
Felix notes that after independence, the evangelizing missions have been taken over the Indian Christians and the conversions to Christianity among the tribal groups have increased manifold.

Perhaps it would be interesting to see if the Christianity of Indian preachers is in some ways more inclusive of traditional beliefs and ideas of Tribal groups, giving rise to more syncretic versions of the religion?


Personally, at one level, I find frightening the idea of homogenising the different cultures and beliefs of people, substituting their rich world of myths and stories, with a common cultural-religious narrative. In recent years, like the missionaries, certain Hinduttva groups have also pushed for some standardized Hindu narratives in which the rich world of Adivasis gets submerged. At another level, the same happens to Adivasi languages, by the dominance of 'superior' languages, mainly English, but sometimes even Hindi or other Indian languages.

These discussions raise other questions in my mind - are human societies like museums where we need to keep 'pure and uncontaminated' varieties of people's cultures forcing them to live in the stone age, rather than the natural progressive transformation of societies when they meet other people and other cultures?

Felix Padel's book "Sacrificing People" forced me to rethink many of my ideas about tribal population groups in India - I think that many of my ideas were/are indeed shaped by the dominant Western cultural discourse which looks at indigenous people as ignorant and backwards and who need to be civilized.

Often persons advocating for 'development' get angry by any discussions on the rights of tribal people. They believe that such discussions and related protests against exploitation of natural resources in tribal areas are only ways to block 'progress'.

I do agree that sometimes people fighting for rights of indigenous groups have quaint but outlandish ideas about how persons ought to live and about the role of technology in our lives.

However, often 'development' is made only at the expense of the poor and marginalized, ignoring their rights and simple human dignity. It may also be controlled by ruthless groups of shareholders who benefit from a corrupt system. How can we avoid the 'development' that destroys our environment for short term gains? In my opinion, finding a middle ground in such a situation is fundamental.



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