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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 20, May 8, 2010

State, Development and Communities: Anthropological Thresholds

Monday 10 May 2010, by J.J. Roy Burman

The study of the communities has always been in the throes of anthropology. The Darwinian influence compelled the discipline to place native communities in the scale of human evolution. Prehistoric archaeology or palaeoanthropology, genetics and blood-group studies or biometrics and cultural and social anthropology became the handmaid of colonial or state administrators to focus on the micro-studies so as to provide micro-solutions. The micro-studies came to be considered as holistic studies where social development and role of the state or other exterior forces remained beyond the realms of anthropology. No wonder, the subject matter of anthropology is still considered romantically to monopolise the study of naked primitives surviving in the deep sylvan abodes—beyond civilisations. The Indian Anthropological Congress —2010, held on February 21-23, 2010 in Bhopal, revealed this anxiety precisely as to why anthropology in India remains cocooned in a shell and is ignored by policy-makers.

In spite of the anxiety expressed in the inaugural speech, the overall trend of the deliberations failed to break with the past and the narratives were mainly restricted to community based case studies. In one of the panel discussions it was highlighted that the works of the anthropologists must be people-centric so as to be able to gain their confidence and such faith may be earned that the anthropologists may operate as intermediaries between the natives and the state. A very senior anthropologist used to always view that the role of an anthropologist is to place the objective social analysis to the people and the state and it is for them to negotiate by themselves and the anthropologist may not play an intermediary role.

One of the serious drawbacks of the anthropo-logists that emanated from the discussions was their inability to do policy analysis. Consequently, they delved much of their time into the peripheral manifest issues rather than the core systemic issues. The views regarding panchayati corruption thus remained lopsided. It was then brought out that panchayats cannot be transparent as their own income and government funding ratio remained on an average 10:90. Wrong priorities can also lead to mistaken readings on the ground. Much was stated about the future of the ‘Adivasi’ movement of North Bengal and that of the Maoist movement in South Bengal. It was then pointed out that the Adivasi movement is, after all, led by migrant tea plantation labourers and their movement cannot gain a strong footing in an alien hostile area where they are trying to grab the lands of Rajbansis—the indigenous people. The Maoist movement in South Bengal is confined to the homelands of the local tribes and thus can be more sustained. These are the macro-dynamics in play.


Certain deliberations on the problem of land alienation strongly highlighted the policies of the state that automatically rendered thousands of people landless. The Land Acquisition Act continues to play outright havoc. The lack of rehabilitation policies as yet in States like West Bengal goes on to add to the misery. It was then argued about the positive role played by the NGOs in the tribal areas. The NGOs have by and large succeeded in joining with the struggles of the tribes and take them up through local movements and the general urban masses through the media. The anthropologists have on the other hand been cribbing about being ignored by the policy-makers. Policy-making is, after all, a political act and anthropologists have failed in political articulation.

One of the main handicaps for the anthropo-logists which emerged from the Congress is the fixation that the scholars have about their methods. The anthropologists are not willing to interact with other disciplines of humanities or borrow their methods while we find the historians and environmentalists bringing out wonderful treatise on tribal life. The role of the state and dynamics of development occupy the centrepiece in such a discourse.

A few of the anthropologists, unable to fathom the NGO line of action, have tried to toe their line unwaveringly and advocated the capitalist line of development in the tribal areas. They feel that the funding by international financial institutions like IFAD and the World Bank will provide the panacea for all ills confronting the tribesmen. These anthropologists also vie for the unelected people’s development bodies funded by the state and financial institutions as an alternative to the democratically elected district councils in the Sixth Schedule Areas of the North-East. Some of the local tribal elites of Assam too are suggesting the introduction of the Fifth Schedule, replacing the Autonomous District Councils. Perhaps they are unaware of the fate of the tribes residing in the Fifth Schedule areas of Central India.

The Dhebar Commission had made very negative observations on the Fifth Schedule due to the overarching bureaucratic control and had advocated not to extend any more Fifth Schedule areas in the country. A few anthropologists associated to NGOs too supported the formation of undemocratically elected Gram Sabhas replacing the elected Gram Panchayats. This, they view, would eliminate the chance of elite rule. But there were other voices who thought that this could only lead to fascism at the grassroots. Not many anthropologists seemed to be aware of these implications. The retired bureaucrats and NGOs in collusion with the ‘mainstream’ politicians seem to have gained an upper hand.

There were a plethora of papers on physical anthropology but they were mostly case study narratives and had hardly any analysis linking the state to development. It was ignored that scientific discourses also have their national priorities. Many of the social anthropological deliberations too had misplaced priorities. It was realised through the discussions that scheduling of castes and other categories of people have very little anthropological input and that it by and large depended on political manoeuvrings. There are a few Brahmins who have been categorised as tribes as well. There are instances of Rajputs being scheduled as SC also. In Sikkim the entire Nepalese community has been recommended to be categorised as ST by an expert commission under the chairmanship of a senior anthropologist. The commission was launched at the instance of the ruling party of the State.

The trend of anthropology to hold tribes as museum specimens continued in this Congress as well. There were lectures recommending tribal areas to be preserved as spots for eco-tourism where outsiders can enjoy and relax in the pristine tribal environs. A lone voice was raised for the cause of the native tribes to be provided with amenities to enjoy tourism in other quarters. This was a voice against the drive of globalisation. But the voice was lost in the long sessions presented by the Indira Gandhi Manav Sangrahalaya—Museum of Man, the hosts of the Congress. However, the Congress ended with a positive note by the voices of young scholars like Abhijit Guha, who shrilled against the oppression perpetrated by the state, and the suggestion made by Ajit K. Danda, one of the founder-members of the INCAA (the organiser of the Indian Anthropological Congress 2010), that it is not the community nor the state but the global hegemonic powers that promote capitalist brand of development, and it is they who need to be indicted.

The author is a Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and inclusive Policies, School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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