Tribes and the Mainstream– Where Do We Stand?

What makes the life in a 3BHK apartment in a gated community better than a life inside a dense forest or a life in a secluded island? What makes it better to work a 40 hour week to just come back home exhausted and wanting to go on a wild getaway? These are questions that strike us at times and just like how they came from nowhere, they get lost in nowhere. Is there one “right”, “normal” way of living? Simply put, why have we come to think that these are the most ideal ways of living?

We have been so hard-wired to think of life in these terms that we have come to define it as “the” way of living and that makes us averse to anything other than ours. We are the “civilised” and we need to be living life the “civilised” way. We have come to understand ways of living in a very confined manner. We fail to understand and accept alternatives. This very much sums up our attitude towards the tribal population in India.

Are they to be left alone? Or are they supposed to be “civilised” into our ways of living? Since colonisation, the question of the tribal populations has come to dominate policy makers. The British took the isolationist position where they let them be, for their own reasons, except for the occasional anthropologist. The isolationist policy may have seemed like the best policy towards the tribes but that came with its own problems. Verrier Elwin, who extensively worked with the Indian tribes, stated that the isolationist policy would leave both the tribes and the mainstream society at loss.

Economic development has brought in many changes to our standard of living. Life expectancies have increased, cure for innumerable communicable diseases have been discovered. It is rather important to pass on these life-saving developments to our counterparts as well. After all development needs to be inclusive of all those who are citizens of the nation. The tribal way of life is rich in tradition and culture that we also have a lot of wisdom that can be gained. Why should the tribes live shorter lives or fight over territory and resources when they could live longer with more than plenty? This was a big question.

However, the alternative assimilationist policy was no better. It, if used in a rather crude form, categorised the tribal identity and culture as being “inferior” to the mainstream culture. Yet, what failed to strike the law makers in this case was the loss of cultural richness tribals would undergo if they had to give up their distinct ethnicity to become a part of the “normal” society around us. This would be totally redundant in the case of tribes like the Sentinelese who are probably better off alone.

A historical example can explain this better. When first attempts were made to reach out to the tribes that occupied isolated pockets of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, many of the tribes were brought back as a part of the anthropological exchange. Most of these tribes, following centuries of isolation, had severely weakened immune systems and exposure to the mainstream society had put them at fatal risk. This resulted in large fatalities for the relatively small populations. Similarly, the Hindu society had assimilated them into the category of “the untouchables”, resulting in no significant change in their social and economic position.

In the diverse world that we live today, tolerance and acceptance is key. It is very much important for us to realise that different doesn’t mean inferior or superior. Both the worlds have their own merits. Nothing can match the pristine quality of nature or the benefits of modern education and there is no way in which we can measure their superiority. There is always a middle ground and we need to make well-grounded and yet sensitive policies to preserve diversity and also bring in development. The various tribes in India are just as much citizens of this democracy as we are and the doors for better opportunities should always be open to them as they are for us.

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