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Roles have reversed

Book>> Sacrificing People: Invasion of a Tribal Landscape • by Felix Padel • Orient Blackswan • Rs 395

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Book>> Sacrificing People: Invasion of a Tribal Landscape • by Felix Padel • Orient Blackswan • Rs 395

Not so far in the past, I as a standard sixth student in a government school in Orissa’s Phulbani district—now split into Baudh and Kandha-mal—lived the essence of Felix Padel’s book ‘Sacrifi-cing People: Invasion of a Tribal Landscape’. The practice of human sacrifice by the Konds was part of our text book: It gave the practice a savage connotation and positioned it in the context of civilizational backwardness of the tribal people. The message was vivid and fearsome: be careful of the Konds during turmeric cultivation cycle.

In the genteel government colony, we would close our doors and windows at the sight of Konds, occasionally venturing into the well protected colony to sell hon-ey. The Konds would try hard to convince us: often speaking in Oriya. At the day’s end they would sell their produce at throwaway prices to local traders from whom we would buy it, paying a premium. But nobody was complaining; we saved ourselves from being sacrificed. I lived with those images of Konds for decades. Padel’s book under review is a historical resetting of those images.

The book was first published in 1959: The Sacrifice of Human Being: British Rule and the Konds of Orissa. I wonder whether it was well circulated in Orissa. Its rich research and right context setting demystified the human sacrifice practice.
The new and updated edition under review has placed the sacrifice, considered part of the life of ‘uncivilized Konds’, in a contemporary perspective. Padel argues the Konds have stopped this sacrifice, but others have taken over. The victims are now the tribal people and the perpetrator is the ‘government’ that once invested everything to stop the sacrifice. Minerals have replaced the turmeric crop. Companies are the new savages and the meriahs are the Konds now.

From a very personal perspective, the book’s last chapter, ‘Questioning the Sacrifice: A Postscript’, touches a chord. It is a critical dissection of the modern development model and its enormous cost in terms of tribal life, resource and sufferings. If one does a reverse social engineering from this chapter, you end up with Konds sacrificing a meriah. But as the other chapters argue, Konds were not as aggressive and rigid with human sacrifice as the current practioners are.

But the contemporary scenario is not exactly a ‘postscript’ as has been structurally projected in the book. Felix’s analysis of the human sacrifice practice and the British rulers’ campaign to stop it in context of complex strategy to colonize resour-ces in the earlier chapters is relevant in today’s context. So what has been described in the postscript is a continuation of what has been happening since colonial times.

The book rescues significant facts from the junkbin of historical memory and could reset many of our relationships with our own development history. Each episode quoted and qualified in the book provokes to rethink. In the end all of them convince what Felix believes: human sacrifice does continue.

Richard Mahapatra is a writer on development issues

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