The problem

back to issue

THE ‘Tribal Question’, or the social, political, economic and cultural alienation of those called ‘tribal’1, is one of modern South Asia’s most long-standing and vexing problems. An important and in fact the first cause of this problem has been the mythification of these communities as ‘tribal’, and therefore as backward and primitive.2 Because tribal peoples are considered primitive, vestiges of the past incapable of contributing anything significant to the present and the future, they have not been listened to seriously in matters concerning the affairs and state of our world.3

One thus goes about attending to the decisions about our times, including that which impacts tribal peoples, without their proper participation. In the process, tribal peoples have experienced deep, all-round suffering; and what we are not willing to admit easily, this has also grievously harmed our chances for an equitable, just and sustainable society. Of course, tribal peoples have responded in many ways, but at least in History, one has only just begun to register their presence in any meaningful sense.

Originally, the disciplines of History and Anthropology,4 as modernist knowledge practices, have been co-conspirators in the creation of the myth that tribal peoples are essentially backward and primitive, out of place in our time. Through this attribution, these disciplines have been complicit in the social, political and economic regimes that have historically caused the tribal peoples’ marginalization and subjugation. By setting itself up as the story of civilization and development, History had needed the tribal-primitive to mark a past that had been overcome in this march towards progress. Anthropology, as its mirror-twin, had then taken upon itself the task of curating the tribal-primitive as an indulgence to our conceit, so that as we marched ahead, we could still preserve the ambivalent memory of our rudiments somewhere.

All societies are different but never hermetically sealed off from each other. In the case of tribal peoples, we now know that modernizing regimes strategically cast these communities, who were the most recalcitrant to its projects, as tribal-primitives, hierarchizing difference in society and culture, and everything else as well, as an essential and absolute distance between a past that should pass, and a present in which future progress was to be planned.5

Tribal peoples have thus been History’s formative other. If History has been that story about our past that we tell ourselves so that we can chart our path towards the future we seek, tribal peoples are deemed as having no such story to tell. Our past, or that part of our past that matters, is supposed to have started with the end of the ‘tribal’. Conversely, the tribal has been seen as our definitive pre-history.

Historical practice has traditionally composed itself through the artifice of ‘reason’, which is established as the intrinsic attribute of progress, and through and from writing, its concomitant art. A particular type of reason, modern reason to be precise, and the ability to write, have been History’s ‘gatekeeper’ protocols. Understandably then, because tribal societies qua ‘tribal’ societies are seen as usually historically seldom exhibiting these essential traits of ‘civilization’, they have been admitted into the domain of History only when we have reasoned out and written them into it, and not with and through terms that are from their life-worlds.

The oral accounts of tribal peoples, often without known authors and dates, embedded in their life rhythms, dynamic and ever-changing, and woven in the entanglements of ‘reason’ and ‘unreason’, have thus been treated as quaint anthropological fragments, or archaic expressions, that need to be rationalized within and through the linear, secular and reasoned prose of History. Although we all live by the principles of tribal worlds in many instances, we claim to have the ability to neatly sublimate ourselves out into the pure realm of reason where and when it really matters. Tribal peoples, in inverse logic, even though they live by many principles we arrogate and reserve only for our modern selves, have been seen as incapable of doing so. ‘Modern’ itself has historically been read as and projected on to ‘progress’, even though what it literally means, and arguably should mean, is ‘just now’, and therefore comprises all the many ways of living and thinking about our world that is this time.6

History has thus refused to allow the terms on which ‘tribal’ life-worlds are based as subjective, purposeful voices in its story. To be sure, these terms have never been ‘pure’ and ‘pristine’, but always insistently engaged with the complexities of our world. However, the stories of tribal peoples have long been treated as curios, only worth anthropological interest, not accounts that can intervene in our discussions about the state of our world and its future. Further, since it is believed that their aspirations don’t match with the main story, History has felt the need, nay imperative, to shepherd them into our own story. This has been done by folding and subsuming their sense of things into the historical vision even as corresponding guardianly-developmentalist regimes force them into the singular, modern frame we believe we live in and look to. Simply speaking, within the universe of History, not only have tribal peoples’ perspectives not be allowed meaningfully into the narrative, it is also made sure that they themselves have to conform to the standard and normative plot of the story.

As we are discovering however, our valuable historical story has not only failed to give us the real picture of how dire things are in our world in most respects, it has also made us insensitive to the marginalization of tribal peoples and their worlds, really valuable worlds, that have been put on notice. Tragically, but not surprisingly, these developments are deeply connected. To put it bluntly, because History has for long failed to listen to what tribal peoples have to say, we know that much less about ourselves, a fact that portends serious consequences for our shared world.

From the last quarter of the last century however, in the South Asian context, post-foundational (Cultural) Anthropology and History, or critiques of the disciplinary formations of modern Anthropology and History from within, have started interrogating these disciplines’ exclusionary protocols and complicity with regimes of power. Within Anthropology, this has happened through a set of moves that started with a redefinition of ‘culture’, the primary subject of the discipline itself. Culture is no longer defined as a set of ritualized customs and habits, but a dynamic field of meaning-making and knowing, constantly shaped and re-shaped over time.

This new Cultural Anthropology has thus turned to explore its own history, and therefore its own contingent constitution and particular ideas of culture and society. It has consequently found the freedom to recognize the so-called primitive worlds as moving, changing complexes of life and experience that vigorously engage with and unsettle, ironically now, Anthropology’s own shibboleths.

Despite their somewhat more slothful response to these churnings, historical narratives have also gradually begun to examine the founding protocols of History for their exclusions, erasures and condescension of tribal peoples; and to engage more honestly with the terms, always already hybrid, of tribal cosmoses. History has thus become more anthropological, interested in the ways in which its own principles prevent it from listening to those who are somewhat different, like tribal peoples, but share the same, common world we inhabit. It has also, more positively, started to engage with terms from tribal worlds as legitimate perspectives with which to rethink our idea of time – our pasts, presents and futures. History is thus increasingly studying tribal societies as its central concern, acknowledging them as dynamic entities, exploring their meaning systems and ways of knowing, and putting them in dialogue with its own, admittedly problematic, protocols.

In the new conjuncture, with a new definition of culture as a system of meaning and a way of knowing, and of time as plural and not just historical, Cultural Anthropology is now fundamentally interested in questions of change and contingency in the societies it explores; and History is similarly deeply reflective of the many different yet shared ways in which we live our times and dream our futures. This inter-disciplinary conjuncture of Anthropology and History as anthropological histories or historical anthropologies, depending on what your parent and/or base discipline is, has thus opened up truly new possibilities for writing about the pasts of tribal peoples, or the ways in which they think of time. This template is more open, sensitive, complex and respectful of the heterogeneity of our world and its problems, and engaged with the multiplicity of lived experiences that comprise it.

In other words, anthropological histories are about demythifying tribal peoples and worlds, critiquing and rejecting the discourse of primitivism through which lens they have been understood for so long, relocating them firmly in our world and time, and listening to their experience of it on an equal footing. Tribal peoples have always been there, engaging, negotiating, resisting. Anthropological histories are being able to tell us those stories more honestly now.

Since the primary problem in History’s treatment of tribal peoples was misunderstanding them as certain kinds of human beings and societies, anthropological histories have understandably come to focus on two themes. First, they have sought to track and study the historical processes through which tribal communities have been represented by the dominant colonial and post-colonial political-socio-cultural-epistemic regimes and complexes. Second, at the other end, they have attempted to examine the manner in which tribal peoples, in different forms and degrees of engagement with these regimes, have responded to and negotiated these representations. The questions of ‘tribal’ identity and subjectivity have thus been central to the projects of anthropological histories, allowing them to examine and understand the contested and precarious place of tribal peoples in our society over time.

For this purpose, correspondingly, anthropological histories have composed and researched two main kinds of archives. One, they have rigorously interrogated the past records of dominant regimes to expose the textual-administrative-systemic subterfuge with which the myths of the tribal/primitive have been fashioned, as well as the fragmentary but insistent traces of dissonance therein. Two, they have also inventively explored a bewildering array of new sources including oral accounts, cultural and religious practices and a variety of new media used by tribal peoples to express themselves in the present day, a time they have historically been barred to inhabit but precisely the time they need to reclaim, even if perhaps anti-historically. The new archival basis of anthropological histories makes them unorthodox, helping them intimate identity aspirations and subjectivities that are different, novel and surprising, if also sometimes troubling.

However, the radical (in)/(ter)disciplinary departures of anthropological histories in recasting the subject and archive of History to demythify and re-present tribal peoples and worlds continue to face obstacles from many quarters. Despite the couple of decades for which anthropological histories have pushed the boundaries of the discipline, there has been a powerful inertia among historians in relation to these changes, partly out of self-preserving habit but partly, and in the main, in support of the continuing and popular, commonsensical and dominant, understanding of tribal peoples as primitives, and to shore up the regimes of power they reflect. Since anthropological histories of tribal worlds have the capacity to make us deeply anxious about our discipline, we have not quite embraced them as we should.

Further, the terrain beyond the uncovering of old prejudices continues to throw up new challenges, not the least of which is the danger of creating new myths by aligning oneself too closely with narratives of redemption and re-producing tribal worlds as the panacea to all the ills of our times. Attached to such recoveries of tribal utopia is the risk that anthropological histories might find themselves willy-nilly hitched to the powerful but dangerous trends of political-cultural atavism of our times.

Additionally, tribal peoples’ assertions and mobilizations that increasingly take equally hard and revanchist positions in the face of those that they are arrayed against, can often mimic the dominant ways of looking/seeing that have been, as I have argued, at the heart of their alienation to start with; and the call to represent these positions with all their contradictions creates worries in what has been basically an empathetic set of enquiries in anthropological histories. Critics have also pointed out how these histories are now creating self-immersed universes of ethereal imaginaries of tribal peoples that say little and only tangentially about the harsh realities of the material life of most tribal peoples, which continue to be severely debilitating.

While the fact that anthropological histories are seen as disciplinary renegades works against them institutionally, that they have the freedom to explore new narratives, as they fling open the doors to a diverse variety of scholarship, holds promise. They might yet enduringly be able, for us, to listen to tribal peoples as our contemporaries and to give them a stake in the critical discussions of and for our society, even if this reveals a world of messy entanglements that our lives are. Anthropological histories have been chipping away at the myths of primitivism and progress for sometime now: the horizons beyond continue to demand ever new work and imagination.




1.The term ‘tribal’ is, even in the most justified and benign cases, fraught: so I am using it here with all the caveats that need to be kept in mind. One of the purposes of this anthology is in fact to show the issues attendant on the use of this and related terms like adivasi or indigene, and in general with the processes of identification and subjectivation in this case, even though these terms are used in various, context-specific instances by the peoples so described themselves.

2. Even here, ‘tribal’ has not always been synonymous with ‘primitive’, but that is a discussion I will not take up here. See Morton H. Fried’s The Notion of Tribe (Cummings Publishing Company, Menlo Park, 1975) for a genealogical history of the term.

3. Subaltern Studies had first developed this idea of how mainstream history considered subaltern peoples ‘pre-political’ in the context of South Asian History. See Ranajit Guha, ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’ in Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies I, Writings on South Asian History and Society. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1982.

4. I am using the summary terms ‘History’ and ‘Anthropology’ somewhat unfairly but deliberately to point to their foundational and dominant disciplinary strands. For the difference between mainstream and minority histories, history with a capital ‘H’ and small ‘h’ as it were, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2000, especially the chapter ‘Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts’.

5. For a global history of this process, see again Fried’s The Notion of Tribe; and for a major instance of this in South Asia, see Prathama Banerjee, The Politics of Time: ‘Primitives’ and History-Writing in a Colonial Society. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006.

6. See Aditya Pratap Deo, ‘Editor’s Note’ in Summerhill: IIAS Review 22(2), Winter 2016, pp. 1-2, for a useful treatment of the terms ‘modern’/’modernity’.