Lessons from Tribes

7 05 2008

By Nandita Mary Thomas

While writing an essay on nationalism for our Cultural Studies class, I was disturbed by the fact that I could only write about the civil unrest that is so widespread in our society. This made me pose a question: Do problems like communal riots, ethnic violence and racism, which are omnipresent, need to be dealt with at different levels? Do they all come from a common or central route because, essentially, they’re problems created by people and for people?

While I was working for the Ladakh Project, I was completely fascinated by the social institutions that existed in Ladakh. The underlying assumption of all these institutions is that despite the diversity that exists among people, all life is inextricably connected.

The social institutions in Ladakh have shown how human-scale structures nurture intimate bonds with nature and how an active and participatory democracy is an efficient and effective way of governing society. (Helena Norberg-Hodge, 1992).

Consider for instance the role of the social institution Pha-spun.

In Ladakh, all major rites of passage like birth, marriage and death are marked by ceremonial functions that entail a fair amount of expenditure and labour. Pha-spun is an association of four to fifteen households which partake equally in organising these ceremonies to re-distribute the stress, from one single family onto several families. Each man/woman offers his/her assistance spontaneously and voluntarily and can be sure that when he/she is in need, help will be there. (Kharu Block Report, 2007).

I am now reminded of an idea that Rahul Srivastava had talked about in our class on Tribal Studies, an idea I had particularly liked. He spoke about how we view tribals as people who lack sophistication and are not ‘developed’, as compared to the ‘civilized’ in the developed world. But what development are we really talking about?

Is it the mainstream culture, led by the rules of government, international financial institutions and industry, which moves relentlessly towards profit maximisation and technological development while completely ignoring the fundamental needs and happiness of humans?

I think we need to think twice before reducing tribal communities to the little that we know about them – Warli art, for instance. There is obviously a reason why communities like these have continued to exist for centuries, even though many of them are being threatened by globalising forces and the Indian state. Before we reduce them to aboriginal dance and song, we need to stop ourselves, realise how little we know and take a step towards learning that which we don’t.

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