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Survival within Constraints

Being Tribal by Shereen Ratnagar (New Delhi: Primus Books), 2010, pp xiii, 111; Rs 825.


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Survival within Constraints Indra Munshi tribal religion is distinct from Hinduism in that “tribal supernatural beings are not objects of worship in the same way as are Hindu gods”. Although tribal communities were pushed

n a small book, Being Tribal, Shereen Ratnagar has packed in a lot. The book, as she says in the Preface, is about sustainable subsistence system of the Rathwa and Dhanak communities in Tejgarh-Chhota Udepur area in eastern Gujarat, which forms the huge tribal belt of central India. Ratnagar’s training as an archaeologist leads her to suggest that there was a time, between 5000-600 BC, when south Asia was populated by numerous pre-class, pre-state and pre-caste sedentary groups, tribes, who practised agriculture, animal herding and some gathering, hunting and fishing. Much to their credit, some of the tribes are able, even t oday, to survive on their small landholdings and limited resources by carrying out sustainable agricultural practices, which are neither noticed nor appreciated by a cademics and administrators.

Category of Tribe

In the first chapter, the author defends the category of “tribe” as preferable to

Being Tribal by Shereen Ratnagar (New Delhi: Primus Books), 2010, pp xiii, 111; Rs 825.

the notion of ethnic or ethnicity, which is subjective and situational. She regards the tribe as a “stage of cultural evolution that precedes the early state”, although in later periods in history the tribe coexisted with stratified societies, and some peasant groups adopted tribal ways. Some tribes were absorbed into the dominant brahminical fold and transformed into jati and caste. Despite many similarities between the tribe and peasant communities, what the author considers as the distinguishing features of the tribe are that they are, by definition, not surplus producing, they enjoy a degree of selfsufficiency, and ideally, titles to land, and access to other resources are held collectively. Kinship is an important institution which governs several aspects of tribal society, and although several tribal and Hindu caste groups have interacted closely and influenced one another significantly,

september 24, 2011

into the inhospitable terrains centuries ago, the oppression and exploitation of tribal groups reached a high during the colonial rule in the 19th century, with the moneylender, liquor dealer and others acquiring new powers. But the presentday development, the author states, has deprived tribal groups of west-central India of the resources which provided them subsistence, water, forest, land; opened up their habitat to commercial exploitation, resulting in dispossession and dislocation; and devalued their language and culture. L ocating the tribal situation in the context of increasing rural poverty and marginalisation, the specific purpose of Ratnagar’s study is to show how “tribal people, given access to a minimum of land, water and forest resources, can see to their food security even this day and age, however ‘quaint’ or ‘primitive’ their ways may appear”.

Ratnagar takes the readers on a brief geographical and historical journey of the study area, through the vivid description of hills, forests, and uplands, illustrated

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by photographs of rivers, trees and terracotta and wooden shrines, and the long unbroken history of migration and displacement of the tribal groups, many of whom were driven deeper into the forests. The continuous migration in and out of the region resulted in splintering of the groups, many acquired new names and identities, others lost their tribal organisation and became landless labourers and a low caste, and at the same time, some peasant groups who were pushed into inaccessible terrains adopted tribal traits and marked out a territory for themselves. The author makes an important point that this complex process of tribalisation and detribalisation has rendered ethnic identities very fluid.

Fact of Being Tribal

The main part of the book is an attempt to understand how the Rathwas, Dhanak and Naikdas, of Malaja and Ambala villages in Rewakantha, have managed to survive within constraints, in difficult conditions, with limited resources. In 1989, when Ratnagar asked a similar question, how the pre-historic village of Inamgaon, in an arid part of Maharashtra, could have survived for nine long centuries with just stone tools, evidence (although fragmentary) pointed to the method of storage, and subsistence diversity, as well as social institutions that held the village together, as possible answers. In Malaga and Ambala, where only dry farming is practised, it is subsistence diversity, subsidiary occupations, storing system, along with kinship system and ritual practices, the author finds, that keeps the tribes going. “The framework of inquiry in both cases, pre-historic and modern”, the author succinctly puts it, “has been the fact of being tribal”.

The remarkable agricultural strategy adopted by the people include diversity of crops grown on their small fields, inter-cropping and multi-cropping which suit the soil and climate conditions, and provide food and other household requirements. Crops grown include rice and maize, pulses, millets including small millets like samel and kodro (Papsalum scrobiculatum). The last two are coarse grains, which grow in dry conditions and on thin soil and keep well for long. Fields

Economic & Political Weekly

september 24, 2011

under several crops like tur, urad and ing agricultural implements, making pots,
maize present a picture of stripes in and so on.
different shades of green, a testimony In this somewhat fragile existence, kin
to the “history of swiddening on indif ship bonds act as safety nets. The family is
ferent soils, ecological wisdom, and eco the economic unit, in which most labour is
nomic necessity” all working together carried out by both men and women. Rela
to make intercropping a favoured agri tives help one another. Kinsmen borrow
cultural strategy. agricultural implements and cattle freely
Multi-cropping includes not only field from one another, high value is attached
crops like jowar and moth, but also trees to affinal relationships and there is much
like tadfali and amli, mango and most im give and take between families connected
portant, mahuda, whose fruits, flowers, through marriage. People are obliged to
juice, seeds, provide food, construction work at a kinsman’s laah, generally to
material, and a little cash from sale. Poul undertake a task that must be completed
try and large animals are a source of in a short time, in return for which they
e nergy on the field, some manure, chicken, get a good dinner and drinks, not money.
for example, are items of sacrifice, gift The system is obviously based on the
to the shaman, and food for festivals. principle of reciprocity which ensures
A lthough access to forest has been greatly security and support.
restricted, people do procure items like So does ritual provide confidence in the
leaves, clay, lac, fibre, gum for packing, face of uncertainty and crisis. Rituals like
making containers, pottery, rope for use Pithora bring together relatives, patrilat
or sale. Vegetables from the forest can eral, matrilateral, and affinal even from
be eaten straightaway or preserved for different villages, together for a feast.
later use. The author noted the decline of Other neighbouring households also join
some crafts as a result of the dwindling in with their contribution of food and liq
of certain forest produce. The efficient uor. So while the painters paint (“write”)
storing methods contribute to the dura the vision of the bavdo, shaman, on the
bility of the society. Ratnagar finds evi wall, the bonds of solidarity and together
dence of intelligent storing, not hoarding ness are strengthened and renewed.
(there is not enough to hoard, anyway), The discussion over the next two
in the way in which different grains are chapters brings out the main argument of
stored in different containers, types of the book, that although incorporation
containers, for different purposes, always into the market is both inevitable and
only for use. Every household must have healthy, to some extent, the “absence of
its store of grains. Interestingly, only production for the market is one of the
women make the containers, kothis and factors that has enabled tribal society to
mosetis, for storing food items. Income maintain its autonomy and the robustness
from land is supplemented by some of some (at least) of its cultural distinction”.
households by undertaking activities like Economists have shown that different
making charcoal (now forbidden), repair agricultural groups may experience the
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vol xlvi no 39


market very differently, and that for the poor buying and selling may not be free decisions but dictated by the necessity to fulfil other obligations. In fact, Ratnagar believes that production of food crops for one’s own consumption acts as a safeguard against the vagaries of the market. It is neither necessarily a “sign of progress” nor “something to be desired” as far as the poor are concerned. On the other hand, Dev Nathan and Govind Kelkar argue that transformation of the old type of production for consumption to a production system based on profit, which also marks the decline of the old forms of social welfare and reciprocity, and growing control of men in on economic affairs, which the author equate with a “civilisational” change, need not necessarily mean a total surrender to a laissez-faire or neo-liberal policies. They suggest that new forms of community and continued non-market access to critical resources like land and forest, would allow for a greater spread of the benefits to all members including women (Dev Nathan and Govind Kelkar, “Civili sational Change: Markets and Privati sation among Indigenous Peoples”, EPW, 17 May 2003).

Strategy of Development

The most important point Ratnagar makes is that Rathwas and Dhanaks, like many other tribal communities in the world, are capable of managing their resources well, wisely, skilfully and sustainably, and hold together as a group with good institutions. They certainly need state support like good infrastructure, irrigation water, supplementary businesses, and others, but most of all, those with inadequate holdings, the author argues, need land. The irony, of course, is that more and more tribals and other rural poor are in fact losing their land, and other resources, land, forest and water, to clear the way for development. State intervention in the form of supply of better nutrition, healthcare, employment guarantees, “a package of development interventions” is most urgently needed. But, and I could not agree with the author more, “on an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the people concerned”.

New from SAGE!

Is one strategy of development good for all? What is true of Rathwas and Dhanaks, who are relatively better off communities, who are also, for a variety of historical reasons, not highly stratified with a dominant tribal and non-tribal class of exploiters may not be so for other tribal groups. It is more important to develop many different strategies for and with these communities, in consideration of the state and nature of their resource base, skills, practices, traditions, knowledge, aptitude and wishes. So that they can work and live, if they wish, in their own surroundings, with better facilities made available to them. But this requires a more creative, humane and democratic approach to development, which our policymakers have proved incapable of.

Ratnagar’s book is easy to read. It is theoretically informed and empirically insightful although I do wish one was treated to more field data. It is a book written with concern and competence, and “from the heart” which shows in the prominent place her informants find the book.



+$59(67,1* 2),167,787,216




V Santhakumar, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India



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