"Tribals conserve to survive"

A scion of one of Ranchi's (Bihar) royal families, K S SINGH retired #s the director general of the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI). He spoke to AMIT MITRA about the hallmark of his illustrious career - The People of India Project - a product of his concern for India's tribal communities

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

On his selection of anthropology for a career:
I started my career in 1958 as an Indian Administrative Service officer in Chhota- nagpur. While working there, I could not but help develop an interest in anthropology. The subject is all about people and I wanted to work with them. Therefore, my interest in anthropology is the logical outcome of my interest in people and not the other way round.

On whether he would attribute his success at popularising Birsa Muncla to his work or to his princely ancestory:
I was deeply involved with the Mundas and was quite fascinated by Mundari culture, language and poetry. Impressed by Birsa Munda's life, I used him as a metaphor of the agony and oppression that the Mundas suffered.

On why he chose to work for the ASI and not opt for something more lucrative:
Even though I joined the ASI in 1976,1 have been deeply involved with the subject since 1959. My doctoral dissertation had been on Birsa Munda.

On when the idea of the People of India Project was born and the inspiration behind it:
I thought of it soon after I became the director of ASI. All-India surveys of tribal movements, customary laws and tribal economy had been organised by me. It was obvious from these surveys that the distinction between tribe and non-tribe was a rather recent one and primarily academic. Tribals and non-tribals are so closely integrated with each other that it is difficult to isolate the former. Many anthropolgists have noted that a clear distinction between the categories of tribe and peasant is not always possible.

On whether the classification between tribes and peasants is artificial and not applicable to the Indian context:
The division is not artificial. It is both real and unreal. Since the tribes consider themselves different from non-tribes, the division is real. But the network of interdependence which has developed makes it unreal.

On being accused of perpetuating the colonialist tradition of classifying and thereby dividing people:
Caste and tribe as categories have to be transgressed to understand the people of India. Caste and tribe are colonial constructs. The People of India Project has striven to go beyond these categories to penetrate the basic categories of social formation. For instance, instead of putting it as so many castes and tribes, we say that India is a land of 12 linguistic groups, of so many ethnic stocks and 2,209 communities.

We have found 91 eco-cultural zones and 70 types of traditional rural occupations. We have listed 1,600 indigenous categories of 'people defined' divisions. Indians have had their own ways of making exogamous divisions since time immemorial. They did not wait for anthropologists and social scientists to come and categorise them. They called themselves jatis, upajatis, samudayas, kulams, biradaris and so on.

I am not suggesting that the categories of tribe and caste be dropped, for they have been with us for 200 years and have been internalised. But at the same time, to see them in their proper context, we have to go back to the basic social formation.

On the lack of recognition being given to the category 'community' by both the British earlier and the Indian government now:
I disagree with that. The Constitution mentions five human conglomerates - scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, backward communities, linguistic and cultural minorities and the Anglo-Indians. With the exception of the Anglo-Indians, the rest are generic categories, identified in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. So in a way, communities are inherent in the Constitution.

On whether he would still believe that the government recognises communities despite the fact that villages in India cannot open a bank account jointly to get government funds, unless they are registered as a society:
There are various types of communities and many definitions of the community prevalent today. But we are concerned only with the ethnographic community; many of these communities have been so listed much before the colonial era, in the Arthashastra, or even earlier.

On the reluctance among anthropologists to accept his propositions:
There is bound to be resistance to things which are new or unconventional. The more important issue here is one's approach. We have chosen to operate with the people's own categories and not foist them on people.

On how he would account for the neglect of environmental concerns in the work done by anthropologists:
Well, anthropology is the only discipline which really studies human beings in their habitat. It is rather unfortunate that this tradition is being violated. However, my own conceptualisation and operation of the People of India Project has been very deeply influenced by environmental causes.

On how he would differentiate between the Western or urban and the tribal perception of the environment:
The tribals do not juxtapose the question of survival against that of conservation. Rather, they conserve to survive. Their understanding of the concepts of conservation and sustainability are worth imbibing.

On the view that tribal population pressure leads to deforestation:
Left to themselves, the tribals would protect the forests. Their needs are met by these forests. They have a much better understanding of nature's cycles. At the same time, the destruction of the environment cannot be denied. But their lives have been changed today. We have to think of strategies to involve them and use their traditional skills and committment for resource conservation.

On why, after so many years of Independence, we still do not have a clear, practical policy towards the tribals:
Over the years, we have gradually learnt to recognise the tribals not as one community, but as many communities. Today, we are in a position to undertake many more programmes for tribal development in collaboration with the tribals themselves, as well as with many NGOs working among them. I agree that a lot of problems remain, but more often than not, it is a question of tardy implementation.

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