Decolonising Tribal Studies in India | Prof. Virginius Xaxa

Transcript of Special Lecture by Prof. Virginius Xaxa delivered at Jadavpur University on July 2nd, 2021.

Virginius Xaxa, formerly Professor at Delhi School of Economics, New Delhi, is currently visiting Professor at the Institute for Human Development (IHD), New Delhi. Prior to joining IHD, he was Professor of Eminence and Bharat Ratna Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi Chair at Tezpur University (2016–2018). He was also Professor and Deputy Director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati Campus (2011–2016). He taught Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi (1990–2011), and North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong (1978–1990). He obtained MA in Sociology from Pune University and Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. He is the author of Economic Dualism and Structure of Class: A Study in Plantation and Peasant Settings in North Bengal (Cosmo, 1997) and State, Society and Tribes: Issues in Post-Colonial India (Pearson, 2008), co-author of Tea Plantation Labour in India (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 1996) and co-editor of Social Exclusion and Adverse Inclusion: Development and Deprivation of Adivasis in India (OUP, 2012), Work, Institutions and Sustainable Livelihood: Issues and Challenges of Transformation (Palgrave, 2017) and Employment and Labour Market in North-East India: Interrogating Structural Changes (Routledge, 2019). He was also the Chairman of the High Level Committee on Socio-Economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities of India, Government of India (2014).

I have never used the word “decolonising” in my writing methods but since this has been a fascinating topic among the young emerging indigenous scholars I thought let me share the way in which I have done my engagement with the studies of tribes in India. Much of the writings on tribe actually begins with the colonial administrators and then taken over by the anthropological department in the universities, the anthropological survey of India and also by the tribal research institutes in states and provinces where the tribal population are dominant. The study of tribes has been prerogative for the subject matter of anthropological study not only in India but across the world. However I feel that anthropology has not delved much into the critical questions on tribal studies but historians have done so as early as 1960, and engaged with important events related to tribals in history like the tribal revolts in today’s Jharkhand. The study of tribes has been very limited but now it has slowly begun to open up and even sociologists who were formerly abstaining from it has started to engage with it. Other disciplines such as political science and humanities have also begun to explore in this field.

My engagement with tribal studies was by accident and not by choice. I was trained in sociology and even when I was in training I had only one segment on rural and urban communities in one of the papers that I have taken up. In sociology there was hardly any engagement with tribal communities and my interest was not really with tribal studies but with agrarian and labour issues, and also the questions on development. It was only when I came to Delhi School of Economics that I associated with large number of tribal people working in various central government offices and there were some discussions on tribal issues. What really drew me was in 1993/4, the Netarhat Firing Range project in which the government was supposed to acquire large tract of land in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. There were more than 300 villages that were to be displaced by this project and we had a rally and that was my first encounter with tribal issues. I did write a piece on the Netarhat project for the Economic and Political Weekly but without my name. My engagement with tribal studies is mainly because of my association with the university and many of my colleagues as well as my contemporary juniors. They in fact encouraged me to deeply engage with various kinds of issues happening in the tribal communities and that was where I really began. I was asked by the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Sociology and Anthropology if I can make a contribution on the tribal studies. I did a series of articles for the Economic and Political Weekly and since then I have carried on my engagement with tribal studies. However I am not very sure whether I have really tried to decolonise tribal studies but I do feel that I try to engage in a different lens or perspective.

When I began reading anthropological literature I felt uneasy and troubled by the way in which it was written. It was greatly problematic and I started to think how one should do it differently. One of the problems with tribal studies is the concept itself and how tribes are looked at in a colonial social structure. The idea of a tribe was represented as primitive, savages and inferior beings which continues even today. Anthropologists did try to do away with this idea but still categorised tribes as a type of society which has very little division of labour, absence of complexities and reading and writing. Anthropology looked at the kind of transformation taking place as if they are becoming peasants, caste or socially heterogeneous. In that whole process the erosion of identity occurred. Maurice[i] states that tribals are a society however small they may be, they have a language, territory, law and governance systems, social and cultural practices like any other kind of society but the kinship differentiates tribals from other societies. Also they represent a particular stage in the development of a society. In his thinking, there are three layers in which you should understand tribal communities. Unfortunately, the fact that tribals constitutes a society has been overlooked, and anthropologists think that tribal societies are eroding, becoming castes and peasants. We have begun to think about tribes from the lens of castes because caste is also primarily an occupational category. Tribals became a counterpart of caste.

If you really want to reclaim or to decolonise tribal studies then tribes must be seen as a society like any other society. All the characteristics that describes a Bengali society is also found in a tribal Santhal, Gond society and is no different. That is where we have to pitch in and we can have a better understanding of the tribal communities. We have considered tribe as a category and that is a part of the colonial framework when India was colonised. You find that tribals come into a kind of political engagement where there is domination and subjugation, which was crucial in understanding the revolts and resistance of the tribals against the British in the late 18th and early 19th century. If you really look at colonialism, it is not similar to a kind of colonialism faced by India at large. The tribals faced two folds of colonialism from the British in terms of domination of economic resources, political, and introducing legal framework, and side by side there was also opening of tribals in the market such as land market, labour market, credit market, etc. There was also a process of people of the plains moving into the tribal areas and occupying their land. There is one kind of appropriation of land and resources by the colonial state and at the same time you find a twin process of a settler colonialism which the tribals encountered.

Anthropological writings never really addressed this dimension and therefore a dominant idea in this discipline was only in terms of the construction of social and cultural sense that they are socially and economically backward. This idea became very dominant and was picked up by anthropologists and sociologists rather than engaging with the larger framework in which they were located namely the larger political economy characterised by domination where there was appropriation of land, removed from their homeland, forest and put into plantations in Assam and Bengal. The oppression, subjugation and domination aspects remains dormant and never configures in the Constitution, but only focuses on the social and cultural backwardness, and the need to be lifted and make certain kind of policies such a reservation and affirmation programmes to elevate them. The whole ethos was to integrate them into the larger Indian society. To some extent this was not even integration but primarily a process of assimilation. In the colonial India, it was a political, economic, legal administration through which appropriation began to take place and this process continued even in postcolonial India. Even today in the tribal belts of India in Telangana, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, postcolonial India is repeating what the British did and perhaps even more aggressively. Look at the way in which Forest Rights Act and various kinds of laws has implicated the tribals and in the process they have become illegal occupants, encroachers and therefore they need to be evicted. This kind of situation has never really been touched upon by the anthropological writings. Socio-cultural sense became a dominant idea and just addresses the issue of health, education, economic employment and how to make them a participant in the state through reservations, representation in the parliament, and legislatives.  

You think that this is a process of integrating them but it is really the appropriating and dispossessing them of their identity. This remains a problem because we are ignoring the larger political economy of the tribals. We are primarily trying to look at the narrow sense of what the colonialist had talked about primitiveness, and therefore, the civilising mission. Colonial and post-colonial India with the missionaries set up boarding schools and also ashrams inspired by Gandhi. State run schools have forced them to learn the language and culture of the dominant society, and there is nothing of what you can find in tribal society as a part of the curriculum. The need to wear new clothes, learn a new language is exactly a new form of colonisation in postcolonial India: where not only land and resources were colonised but also language, culture, mind. The inferiorisation is continued. Therefore, the latter becomes a concern of the state, NGOs, anthropologists but the other dimension is left to the tribals to resist. Therefore, I did not find anything of affirmation of scheduled tribes in the peninsular India but more of a bargaining, or a transactional exchange. The state gives them employment, schemes by taking away their land and resources. So where is the affirmative action programme? These aspects are important to understand tribal societies. We have to really reorient ourselves in terms of concepts and categorisation that we were using earlier and if we move in the direction of looking at the larger problem. Then we will make a difference. In order to address the problems, I have to be rooted in my own society to which I belong. Once we think of ourselves as a part of a society and identify with the land we occupy, then we can try to look at the other kinds of problems. That is one of the important premise if we are to really decolonise tribal studies. We should identify Adivasis as a society that is also undergoing change like any other society, there is social differentiation, inequality emerging and getting merged into agricultural society, in terms of labour, informal workers, entrepreneur, etc. That makes it meaningful but the moment we move away from that lens and don’t see the tribals as a society, you will not see any characteristics of a society undergoing change.

So to decolonise, we need to not only the focus on the concepts but look at the methodology which are enabling. Max Weber had advocated for the study of humans in terms of meanings and intentions of the actor. Therefore, it is important to adopt methodology that can enable us to understand the actors better. The whole idea of the Weberian sociology in trying to understand society in point of view of the actors is fascinating. So rather than trying to study at an external point, do it internally and in that case ethnography becomes an important methodology. That means you are trying to study or attempting to write from the lens of the tribals, and that is liberating. We have to do a lot of introspection, identify positionality, re-positionality in order to move in the direction of decolonisation. Decolonisation, therefore, demands from us that we adopt a virtue of thinking which challenges the dominant paradigm or perspective of looking at tribal societies. I am not saying that it is a question of ‘us and them’ in the process of decolonisation. That only people who are a part of the tribal communities can take this forward. Even others can and should take part in this process. So I have tried to adopt these things in my own work and it a journey for me as well. It is not complete, it is still a process in the making. I still need clarity and work towards a kind of understanding which is different from the dominant anthropology disciplines and writings. Domination still exists at the level of language, cultures, and practices. So the study of tribal communities has a great deal of decolonisation to be done, so there is opportunity for many researchers. Therefore, only anthropologists cannot do it alone, but also people from sociology, history, literature, performing arts, cultural studies, philosophy and even theologians can enter into it and make tribal studies more fulfilling and accessible. There is also a dilemma of domination and subjugation within the tribal society, and I think gender is an important issue. When you are talking about decolonising, how do you address this? Are we going to talk about domination and subjugation only from the outside or also from within as well like the emergence of middle class, elite class, inequalities, difference between men/women and gender issues? These are issues. I think decolonisation methods should not stop us in terms of engaging with some of the dynamics of domination and subjugation which are emerging within the tribal societies. With these I will wind up my presentation. They are no logically structured and erratic, but I thought I wanted to share some ideas which I hope will be important in terms of understanding decolonization. Thank you.   


[i] Maurice Godelier, 1977. Perspectives in Marxist Anthropology. Translated by Robert Brain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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Virginius Xaxa Written by:

Virginius Xaxa, formerly Professor at Delhi School of Economics, New Delhi, is currently visiting Professor at the Institute for Human Development (IHD), New Delhi. Prior to joining IHD, he was Professor of Eminence and Bharat Ratna Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi Chair at Tezpur University (2016–2018). He was also Professor and Deputy Director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati Campus (2011–2016). He taught Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi (1990–2011), and North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong (1978–1990). He obtained MA in Sociology from Pune University and Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. He is the author of Economic Dualism and Structure of Class: A Study in Plantation and Peasant Settings in North Bengal (Cosmo, 1997) and State, Society and Tribes: Issues in Post-Colonial India (Pearson, 2008), co-author of Tea Plantation Labour in India (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 1996) and co-editor of Social Exclusion and Adverse Inclusion: Development and Deprivation of Adivasis in India (OUP, 2012), Work, Institutions and Sustainable Livelihood: Issues and Challenges of Transformation (Palgrave, 2017) and Employment and Labour Market in North-East India: Interrogating Structural Changes (Routledge, 2019). He was also the Chairman of the High Level Committee on Socio-Economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities of India, Government of India (2014).

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