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Tribes in Transition

Megan Moodie ( teaches anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has authored We Were Adivasis: Aspiration in an Indian Scheduled Tribe (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Indian Tribes in Transition: The Need for Reorientation by Yogesh Atal; Oxon, UK and New York; Routledge, 2016, pp vi + 192, 895.

The first page of Yogesh Atal’s recent collection of essays and talks, Indian Tribes in Transition: The Need for Reorientation, declares that “social science research in [India] began with the study of the tribes,” and it is this historical perspective that unifies and drives this welcome addition to the study of Adivasi communities. Consisting of several keynote addresses for national-level conferences and seminars given by Atal in recent years, the strength of this ­volume is certainly in its broad view of the study of anthropology in India since independence.

This is best articulated in the book’s first chapter, “Anthropology Today and Tomo­rrow: A Tribute to Professor S C Dube.” For younger scholars and those trained outside South Asia, this essay sheds fascinating light on the deep interdisciplinarity of many of India’s anthropological luminaries, for instance, D N Majumdar, who lectured in economics, and Nirmal Kumar Bose, who began his academic trajectory as a geographer. Dube himself began in political science, but also taught under the auspices of anthropology and sociology departments at various mom­ents in his career. This was a generative mix, in Atal’s account, and did not permit the founding of orthodox “schools.” This was an environment that fostered innovative research methods.

Dube’s case is also interesting because it encompasses what Atal identifies as an epochal shift in Indian anthropology when studies of tribal communities, which had dominated the field since the colonial period with the fame and political influence of such figures as Verrier Elwin, were replaced almost entirely by the study of village communities. If there is one resounding refrain throughout the collection, it is that this shift has been to the detriment both of anthropology as an academic field and to the work of governance and development in India since the 1950s.

The author is deeply critical of what he sees as the field’s focus on physical and biological anthropology to the striking exclusion of sociocultural studies, and repeatedly calls for a rapprochement that would include, especially, fresh ethnographic research with tribal communities that had previously been studied only by colonial administrators and foreign scholars.

Defining Tribe

The stakes for such studies are undoubtedly high. As Atal discusses, recent stru­ggles around inclusion on the list of Scheduled Tribes (STs) have shed uncomfortable light on how difficult it is to define “tribe” as opposed to caste (a debate with a lengthy history that many in Indian sociology and anthropology will recognise) and the problem of regional variation (for instance, the confusion that may arise when a group is considered an ST in one state but an Other Backward Class [OBC] in another). On this issue, readers will especially want to see ­Cha­pter 2, “Defining ‘Tribe’: A Conceptual Crisis.” Atal’s participation in the Chopra Commission to study the Gujjars’ claim to ST status in Rajasthan in the late 2000s is an important source for much of his insight on the topic and gives readers a first-hand glimpse into the ongoing role that social science plays (or does not play) in state policy.

The author does occasionally seem to be of two minds about the status and future of India’s tribal communities. On the one hand, he evinces a very complex view of these groups. Atal’s essays indicate that he is deeply committed to the study of Adivasis and their unique ways of life, and this includes their recent experiences of urbanisation and development. The author refuses to see Adivasis as cultural relics in need of rescue. Indeed, his frequently repeated assertion that anthropology has always been the study of cultural change—whether it recognised itself as such or not—is important and timely.

On the other hand, he seems to downplay the kinds of oppression and stigmatisation that Adivasis encounter in daily life, in everything from discrimination in hiring practices to outright sexual assault and murder, whether in rural or urban areas. As a reader, I am less convinced by Atal’s assertion that “once people move out to other destinations they lose the tribal status and become an advanced group” (p 48), and his exhortations to deschedule large numbers of Adivasis in the coming years, than I am by other parts of his analysis. One wonders, as well, why he does not address growing collaborations between Adivasi and Dalit communities to fight caste-based violence, as well as Adivasis’ own forms of political and cultural production.

Atal has certainly compiled a volume with a useful breadth, both historical and geographical. His personal narrative of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme in the 1970s and 1980s (Chapter 5) will be useful for sch­o­lars, activists, and politicians engaged in struggles around climate change and global warming today, seeking to understand the institutional formations and linkages that preceded the current era. His call in the final chapter, “Anthropology and the Future of Humankind,” for the embrace of global cultural heterogeneity, will speak to many in these embattled times.

Readers wanting more specific ethnographic accounts of specific communities and regions—or those for whom the histories and debates of Adivasi studies are well-explored terrain—may have to look elsewhere for what they desire. But, as an introduction to the history and possible future of tribal studies, this book will serve policymakers, anthropology/sociology students, and interested general readers alike.


Updated On : 16th Aug, 2017


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