Beating a dead horse


back to issue

WHEN the Editor first wrote to me about the issue of Seminar which would be devoted to tribal affairs, I thought that there was at least one problem which could be ignored – the old, happily long-dead controversy about Isolation, Assimilation or Integration. For many of the matters which we once used to debate so eagerly have been put completely out of date as a result of one major circumstance – that the whole of India, including tribal India, will be covered by community development blocks by 1963.

This is a decision, this is going to happen, and it is therefore meaningless to discuss whether it is desirable to bring the tribes into the stream of modern civilization or whether it is good or bad to open up their country. Whether we like it or not, whether they like it or not, they are going to the civilized; their country will be opened up. There is, of course, still plenty to discuss, but such discussions must henceforth concern themselves with the details of programmes: the fundamental policy is settled.

And this policy is right. For the last year I have been chairman of a committee appointed by the Home Ministry to study how these plans can be implemented and my own view is that, in the context of modern India, development in the tribal areas must be much more intensive than elsewhere, that special emphasis must be laid on economic programmes and on health, and that very large sums of money must be spent on roads to bring these people out of their isolation and integrate them with the rest of India.

In view of this I had thought that if there was one subject which could be safely omitted from this seminar, it was the problem of Isolation. But to my surprise I have very recently found myself attacked bitterly by two very different people, Dr. Lohia and Dr. Ghurye, on the grounds that I was advocating this moribund idea. Dr. Lohia, in fact, seems to have developed a positive complex about me. He says for example that: ‘In the name of protecting the culture of the tribals, the Tribal Adviser of Urvasiam, Dr. Elwin, has been performing many disgraceful things. The Tribal Adviser has kept the tribals of Urvasiam aloof from the rest of India and is treating them as domestic cattle. This policy is absolutely shameful, disgraceful and barbaric.’

These are hard words and I cannot help thinking that Dr. Lohia is mixing me up with someone else for, as far as I am concerned, I could not agree more with him. He seems to be under the impression that I was responsible for the Inner Line which encloses a number of the hill areas of Assam and cannot be passed without a permit. But the Inner Line was established in 1873, and though I realize that I am now getting on a bit in years, I actually wasn’t even born then. The Inner Line incidentally, was established to prevent British commercial interests from robbing the tribals of their land – was that such a bad thing? And in any case, there is probably no tribal area in the whole of India that is less isolated than Urvasiam today.

Dr. G.S. Ghurye, for whom I have the greatest admiration, has also recently attacked me as an isolationist, a no-changer and a revivalist. He has based these rather odd charges on two books of mine – The Baiga published as long ago as 1939 and The Aboriginals (first edition 1943, second revised edition 1944). He does not seem to have read anything I have written in the last ten years, with the result that the picture he has given of my views is sixteen or even twenty-one years out of date: even then he has distorted them. As a professional controversialist, I feel that this is not only unfair, but unwise.

There is, of course, nothing wrong in being an isolationist, a no-changer or a revivalist. I just do not happen to be either an isolationist or a no-changer. A revivalist? Yes, certainly, along with most intelligent and artistic people who are trying to revive the beauty of the arts and music of India. But how does a man like Dr. Ghurye have this inverted notion of me?

I had not looked at my Baiga or my Aboriginals for about fifteen years – for after I have published a book I always feel a profound disgust for it – so I took them down from the shelf to see what I actually had said. Now that I have done so, I don’t think there is anything very terrible. In The Baiga, I advocated some sort of National Park in a ‘wild and largely inaccessible’ part of the country under the direct control of a Tribes Commissioner.



Inside this area, the administration was to allow the tribesmen to live their lives with the ‘utmost possible happiness and freedom’. Wide powers were to be given to the old tribal councils and the headmen of the villages would have their old authority established. Non-tribals settling in the area would be required to take out licences. No missionaries of any religion would be permitted to break up tribal life. Everything possible would be done for the area, provided that the quality of tribal life was not impaired, tribal culture was not destroyed, and tribal freedom was restored or maintained.



Economic development would be given high priority and if education was introduced, it should be on the lines of what was then called the Wardha Scheme, simplified and adapted to the needs of the tribal people. Fishing and hunting were to be freely permitted. The dictatorship of subordinate officials within the area was to come to an end.

My suggestions in The Baiga was badly put and should have realized the unfortunate connotations of the expression ‘National Park’. But in 1939, what on earth was one to do? It was not a question of preserving Baiga culture – for the Baigas had very little culture; it was a question of keeping them alive, saving them from oppression and exploitation, giving them a simple form of development.

In actual fact, the Government of India has now appointed a Tribes Commissioner and established tribal welfare departments in several states, as well as scheduled and tribal areas, which in practice are not so very different from what I suggested so long ago.

Four years later I returned to the problem in an Oxford pamphlet called The Aboriginals. This was published in 1943, but I was not very satisfied with it and the OUP published a new and revised edition in 1944. In this, I distinguished between the great majority of tribesmen who had been assimilated, to a greater or less degree, into the culture of their neighbours, and a minority of small tribal groups scattered in remote and inaccessible hills and forests who presented a different and very difficult problem. Of the majority I wrote:

‘The aboriginal problem cannot be considered apart from the general village problem. The great majority of Indian villagers are still illiterate; they are still attached to antiquated and economically injurious social, religious and agricultural habits; they have little medical assistance, meager educational facilities, bad communications; they are exploited and oppressed just as the aboriginals are. Wiser heads than mine will plan and great political and economic movements will determine the fate of these multitudes. The twenty million semi-civilised aboriginals will have to take their chance with the rest of the population. It is evident that there is little possibility of protecting them, although locally it may often be possible to ameliorate their lot by special treatment. It would, however, be deplorable if yet another minority community, which would clamour for special representation, weightage and a percentage of government posts, were to be created. The twenty million aboriginals need what all village India needs – freedom, prosperity, peace, good education, medicine, a new system of agriculture and fair deal under industrialization.’

There is little of the isolationist or no-changer here: in fact, I seem to have anticipated not only the main policies but some of the detailed programmes of the community development movement.



On the other hand, I advocated a slightly different course for the minority.

‘I suggest (I wrote in 1944) that until the social sciences have come to more definite conclusions about the safeguards necessary for primitive people advancing into civilized life, until there are properly trained workers and teachers of integrity and enterprise, until there is sufficient money to do the job of civilising properly, the five million wilder aboriginals should be left alone and should be given the strictest protection that our governments can afford. This is, I admit, a desperate measure and one that is easily misunderstood and still more easily misrepresented. It is a purely practical measure. It is based on no philosophic principle. Least of all does it suggest that the aboriginals are to be kept forever primitive. I only urge that unless we can civilise them properly it is better not to interfere with the small minority of the most primitive hillmen at all. Casual benefits only destroy and degrade; it needs a lifetime of love and toil to achieve permanent advance.

‘For the great majority of the aboriginals, however, we should press forward with the best schemes of rural reconstruction and education that our wisest brains can devise. For the small minority, who in any case can scarcely be reached, there should be a temporary scheme of protection and isolation. Even for this minority, protection does not mean that nothing is to be done. For them, as for the other aboriginals, there is much that all men and women of goodwill may do immediately.

‘We may fight for the three freedoms – freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from interference. We may see that the aboriginals get a square deal economically. We may see that they are freed from cheats and imposters, from oppressive landlords and money lenders, from corrupt and rapacious officials. We may see that they get medical aid from doctors with some sense of professional integrity. If there must be schools, we may see that these teach useful crafts like carpentry and agriculture, and not a useless literacy. We may work to raise the prestige and the honour of the aboriginals in the eyes of their neighbours. We may guard them against adventures who would rob them of their songs, their dances, their festivals, their laughter.

‘The essential thing is not to "uplift" them into a social and economic sphere to which they can adapt themselves, but to restore to them the liberties of their own countryside.’



Apart from the unfortunate word ‘isolation’ (which in any case is qualified by the significant adjective ‘temporary’) there is nothing here which could not have been written by any serious development worker today.

As for ‘isolation’ we must recall the circumstances, towards the end of the Second World War, when this was written.

We must remember that at that time there was practically nothing being done for the tribal people and what few attempts were made were hampered by the British government. Many social workers were prevented from working in the tribal areas and some went to jail for doing so. When I was kept under police surveillance for several years, local officials carried on active propaganda against my work. I was not allowed to open schools. There were virtually no roads, no hospitals or dispensaries; there was no interest in the development of agriculture and there was no protection against the money lenders, the landlord, the rapacious merchants, the lawyers’ touts or any of the people who then preyed on and impoverished the tribal people.

The policy I advocated in 1944 seemed to me, and to quite a number of other people who had studied and loved the tribes, the only policy under the circumstances of the time, of helping them. But I made it perfectly clear, as anyone who will take the trouble of going through the above passage will see, that this plan was only a temporary one and in any case applied only to a small proportion of the weakest and most helpless of the tribal population.



But then came Independence and with it a great awakening throughout the country. The tribal people found their place on the map; they became news; new schemes of development were proposed. It quickly became obvious that the rather unsatisfactory programmes of British days were totally unsuitable in free India.

Today no one would advocate a policy of isolation, although it is as important as ever to give some protection to the tribal people in the transition period during which they must learn to stand on their own feet and become strong enough to resist those who would exploit them. I have made it abundantly clear in articles and books which I have written since Independence, that I am neither an isolationist nor a no-changer and I think it is rather extraordinary that writing at the end of 1959 Dr. Ghurye should continue to make this charge against me.

In the second edition of my A Philosophy for NEFA, I have gone into this at considerable length and I should have thought I have made it sufficiently plain that even in so remote an area as the North-East Frontier our policy was neither to isolate the tribes nor to freeze their culture and way of life as it is.

During the Third Five Year Plan we are going to spend large sums of money on the tribal people throughout India and I have been one of those who have advocated spending a great deal more than was originally proposed. You do not keep people as they are or as a picturesque enclave by building roads into the very heart of their territory and by taking up very widespread schemes of development. We want change. Even in 1939 I wanted change. But what I and those who think with me desire is change for the better and not degradation and decay.

Anyone who is interested in seeing what can happen when there is no kind of planning for the development of the tribes and no attempt to grade and adjust progress to their real needs should read the last chapter of Father Stephen Fuchs’ recent book, The Gond and Bhumia of Eastern Mandla. He will find that the picture of poverty, degradation and unhappiness is even worse today than the one I painted twenty years ago.



Everything, therefore, now depends on how the plans for intensified development of the tribal areas will be put into practice. The first and most important thing is to make these areas accessible. Unless we can bring the tribal people into real touch with India as a whole they are likely to remain suspicious of our intentions and unwilling to cooperate. We may give them hospitals and schools, cooperative societies and artificial insemination veterinary centres, but they will obviously be useless if the tribal people do not come to them. The integration of the tribals with the non-tribal people of the plains is of fundamental importance, and to ensure this the non-tribes need education as much as the tribals themselves.

The Prime Minister has laid down a Panch Shila for tribal development and if the following five principles are observed, we may look forward to progress in the tribal areas with confidence and hope. If, however, they are ignored there may well be a change for the worse rather than for the better. This is what the Prime Minister has said:

‘Development in various ways there has to be, such as communications, medical facilities, education and better agriculture. These avenues of development should, however, be pursued within the broad framework of the following five fundamental principles:

1) People should develop along the lines of their own genius and we should avoid imposing anything on them. We should try to encourage in every way their own traditional arts and culture.

2) Tribal rights in land and forests should be respected.

3) We should try to train and build up a team of their own people to do the work of administration and development. Some technical personnel from outside will, no doubt, be needed, especially in the beginning. But we should avoid introducing too many outsiders into tribal territory.

4) We should not over-administer these areas or overwhelm them with a multiplicity of schemes. We should rather work through, and not in rivalry to, their own social and cultural institutions.

5) We should judge results, not by statistics or the amount of money spent, but by the quality of human character that is evolved.’



The Prime Minister has noted and elaborated these points on a number of occasions, and has spoken on the caution needed in developing the tribal areas. Pointing out the disastrous effect of the ‘so-called European civilisation’ on tribal peoples in other parts of the world, ‘putting to an end their arts and crafts and their simple ways of living,’ he has declared that ‘now to some extent, there is danger of the so-called Indian civilisation having this disastrous effect, if we do not check and apply it in the proper way.’ We may well succeed in uprooting them from their way of life with its standards and discipline, and give them nothing in its place. We may make them feel ashamed of themselves and their own people and thus they may become thoroughly frustrated and unhappy. They have not got the resilience of human beings accustomed to the shocks of the modern world and so they tend to succumb to them.’ We must, therefore, be very careful to see that ‘in our well-meant efforts to improve them, we do not do them grievous injury.’ ‘It is just possible that, in our enthusiasm for doing good, we may overshoot the mark and do evil instead. It has often happened in other areas of the world that such contact has been disastrous to the primitive culture and gradually the primitive people thus affected die out.’

‘I am alarmed,’ he said again, ‘when I see – not only in this country, but in other great countries too – how anxious people are to shape others according to their own image or likeness, and to impose on them their particular way of living.’



It is rather pathetic to see a fine old scholar like Dr. Ghurye so laboriously beating a dead horse and acting as if he were a lone crusader for his policy of integration. Everybody believes in integration, nobody believes in isolation. Let us therefore, as intelligent citizens of this year 1960, not waste our time any longer on quarrelling about policies which we have long abandoned or perhaps never even held (certainly not in the form in which they are represented), and get on with the job of ensuring that the tribal people have the same opportunities and the same freedoms that we enjoy ourselves.


* Reproduced from ‘Tribal India’, Seminar 14, October 1960.