Arunachal Pradesh Tribals in Modern World
The Lasting Impact and the Twenty-first Century:
When the anthropologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf re-visited the Arunachal Pradesh tribal communities in 1980 that he studied thirty five years earlier, he found societies that had amassed a far greater amount of wealth and sophistication than could ever have been predicted. He also observed that many of the traditional aspects of the cultures seemed to have absorbed the initial impacts of the post-contact buzz while remaining ethnically in-tact. He credited the government of India for this social progress, which he very much seemed to support. I grant that the development of Arunachal Pradesh was very uniquely implemented, but I greatly wonder if the tribal cultures were able to remain “distinct cultural entities,” as Haimendorf puts it, in the face of continued and intensified outside influence as well as the “neo-liberal” policies that are indicative of the twenty-first century?
As with any society that comes into contact with a foreign culture, the spread of ideas, beliefs, and techniques is inevitable. How much more intense this coalescing becomes when there is the dichotomy of an “introducing” society, which is dominant, and a “receiving” society, which can be viewed as subordinate. In the case of the Arunachal Pradesh tribes, the entire initiative on the part of the Indian Government (the “introducers”) was to ‘develop’ and ‘modernize,’ so that the communities of the region would be in-step with the tidings of the rest of the country. This intent on the part of greater India was accomplished, and the cultural effects on the region were vast.
The act of introducing a state coordinated educational system, modeled on the conventional Indian style, was an initiative that, to varying degrees, altered the cultural diaspora of the tribal communities. This program was overtly successful and Arunachal Pradesh can now boast of a literacy rate of 61.67% (2001 census), which is a rise from almost complete illiteracy in just a couple generations. The children who were educated in these schools were provided with a curriculum that was to prepare them for lives that would be much different from that of their parents. Many of these newly educated people went on to start businesses and some of the old tribal settlements grew into bustling towns full of commerce. “The Apa Tanis’ success in the commercial field was facilitated by the rapid spread of education, which led to the emergence of a class of business men capable of operating in an economy involving a measure of paper work,” wrote Haimendorf about his return visit to the region.1 Many young tribals were to abandon the traditional roles of their communities and engage upon careers that would take them in a radically different direction. When Nirmal Kumar Bose interviewed some tribal university students in Arunachal Pradesh he found that the majority of the students said that, after graduation, they wanted to join the Army or the Civil Service. Bose seemed a little disappointed by these answers, as, “practically none voted for an educationist’s or a scientist’s job.” He mildly trivialized the student’s employment desires by saying that, “These [academic disciplines] had obviously no attraction for them, while the Army, with its shining brass and clean cloths, not only offered them high prestige but also the opportunity of seeing the wide world.”2 This pursuit of roles outside of the traditional norm has led to tribal communities evolving as a whole and, tentatively perhaps, becoming a part of the ‘modern world.’
Another area in which traditional tribal culture has evolved with the assistance of the Indian government and, in recent times, the Arunachal Pradesh state body, has been in the sphere of agriculture. A synopsis of the tribal’s initial reluctance to utilize introduced technologies is manifested in the government report that follows:3
Technology has been relegated to the back resulting in stagnation of growth. However, the state has gained much over the years, it is now necessary to consolidate the gains in order to make it sustainable and add new dimension during the coming years, so as to increase household income generation.
But as the above statement implies, the traditional agriculturalists are slowly beginning to use the implements and methods of industrialized society. This alteration of traditional ways irreversibly severs the tribal community from the time-honed knowledge and ways of agriculture that have always been the lifeblood of their culture. The report continues:4
Special emphasis will be made for introducing the newly developed H.Y.V. seeds, improved planting material, adoption of new technology and mechanized farming.
Adequate and timely supply of inputs such as seed, fertilizer, pesticides, Agri-tools and implements, credit at reasonable rate to farmers will be provided by the Govt. and other institutions.
With the introduction of neo-industrial agricultural chemicals and genetically modified crops, this issue takes on a new dimension that is not only cultural, but environmental.
The region’s shifting Jhum cultivators are also on the chopping block, as there have been massive efforts on the part of the government to 1) introduce new ‘higher yield’ agricultural methods and 2) to settle and consolidate itinerant communities. “The program is to be designed in such a way that there would be simultaneous thrust in weaning the Jhum farmers towards better cultivation.”5 In the commission report, “Transforming the Northeast” (1995), S.P Shukla wrote:6
Hill farming in the Northeast is largely under Jhum though there are some excellent terraces in certain states and expanding patches of wet rice cultivation. Jhum farming is becoming less productive with a shrinking Jhum cycle and has caused erosion and forest regression in certain areas. Not all Jhumias resettlement schemes have worked well; nor can jhuming be ended all at once. The problem needs to be tackled sensitively as Jhum cultivation is also a way of life.
To counter these perceived demands, the regional government has initiated policies to herd the migrant Jhum cultivators into settled communities, to provide facilities, and, essentially, to bring them into cahoots with the ‘modern’ sedentary mode of life. This disruption of an ancient cycle inevitably has cultural impacts that go far beyond the surface implications. To simply alter a way of life so drastically is to disrupt, not only the physical manifestations of cultural practice but also, the deeply imbedded psychological groundwork that comes from being socialized into a particular mode of living. These are long ingrained human migrational cycles that are being altered, and the effects of such disruptions are permanent. A satirical quote by the anthropologist, L.P. Bharara, caricatures the outside position on this issue, “The nomads in the present times . . . are a menace to the whole society and their sedentarization is imperative. . . [with sedentarization] administration and exercise of control become easy.”7
The impacts resulting from the adoption of the methodological framework of industrialization by traditional subsistence and shifting agriculturalists has the potential for disaster; for tradition carries with it a hidden substance that industrial methods can never have. The archaic cultivation techniques are complimented by a unique folk-knowledge that, intuitively, teaches people how to work and live within the bounds of their environment. This folk-wisdom has continuously allowed its adherents to take sustenance from the particular landscape in which the tradition was etched. The ideology of industrialization offers no such background of wisdom and is, in fact, the perfect contrast to this traditional symmetry. It only takes a single generation for a culture to forever lose its age-old lexicon of folk-knowledge; which is, in essence, a survival manual for humans to ever continue living within their world. The perfect summation of this approach is found in the following description of the Indian folklorist, M. Byregowda: “For him, the tribal is a natural scientist, the master of local knowledge, the best teacher and learner in nature.”8
The aforementioned changes in traditional tribal customs have lead to a restructuring of their cultures that, up until a couple decades ago, was unthinkable. Niro, the administrative center in Apa Tani valley, has grown from a small village to a bustling town with a well established business district, the Nishis have been rounded up into permanent settlements, and the Sherdukpen have taken an inclination towards politics. It has been said that the Apa Tani, “. . . have given up most of their tribal ways and have incorporated ways of the modern world.”9 Due to their rapid accumulation of wealth, they are now sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Japa-Tani.,” a tongue-in-check reference to wealthy Japan. Many children of the tribal communities are no longer learning their native languages, as English and Hindi are becoming dominant.10 The physical appearance of many of the acculturated tribals has also drastically changed, as they are giving up their traditional dress for the shirt and slacks of the West. These changes have forever rippled the cultural fabric of the region and the old ways are now, proverbially, thrown into history.
These new educational, agricultural, and cultural changes are widely looked upon as being beneficial to the people of Arunachal Pradesh. The fact cannot be denied that the communities of the region have progressed by leaps and bounds that are unprecedented in the whole of India. Much of this success has been due to the implementation of the Inner Line and other pro-tribal polices. As Haimendorf emphasizes, “. . . It is precisely the special protection afforded to the tribesmen by the Inner Line Policy which has enabled the Apa Tanis to achieve within one generation an advancement surpassing any achieved by those Indian tribals whose ancestral homeland has been infiltrated by members of the so-called progressive communities.”11
Cultures change and
continuously evolve; one cannot ignore this fact. But the neo-liberal
modal of ‘modernization,’ to which the Arunachal tribals are subjected,
seems to be causing their cultures to evolve beyond themselves. In many
areas of Arunachal Pradesh, people are earning vastly more money,
working ‘modern’ jobs, and are mimicking the example of the new
But what is the cost dividend? Once folk-knowledge, traditions, and
customs are gone they cannot be revitalized. Recent history has aptly
demonstrated that ‘modernization’ and tradition are mutually exclusive
forces; for a community to adapt to the ways of the modern world
paradigm is to sell off many aspects of its home-grown culture. It is
very difficult, perhaps impossible, to construct value judgments from
the issues related to this trade-off. On the one hand you have long
standing cultural tradition, simplicity, and a strong community and on
the other you have advanced education, monetary prestige, and the
promises of new technology. Overlaying this scale are the ever-present
pressures of basic human need, desire, and the drive to advance. I
cannot state the direction that I feel this scale should tip; to do so
would be a display of pure righteousness. But, in closing, I would like
to return to my original question: are the Arunachal Pradesh tribes
undergoing a respectable development? I suppose this question can only
be answered by future tribal generations who will invariably wonder
about their long lost heritage.
1 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 294.
2 Nirmal Kumar Bose. Tribal Life in India (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1971).44.
7 As quoted in: Aparna Rao and Michael J. Casimir. Nomadism in South Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003).
8 M. Radhika. “Unsung Heroes: M. Byregowda,” Tehelka: The People’s Paper Vol. 2, Issue 36 (September 10, 2005).
11 Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). 297.
12 By ‘new corporation-friendly India’ I am making a jesting reference to the widely held notion that India is moving into the first world fringe, rather than just being ripe for exploitation by the corporations of that fringe.
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