Changing Social Landscape of Tribes in Kerala: Challenges in Tribal Studies

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Written by K.M. Seethi & Elizabeth Abraham

The social landscape and livelihood options in the tribal habitats in Kerala have changed tremendously in the last several decades. This transformation has its impact on the tribal population and their life-world experiences. This is the theme of the ongoing workshop organised as part of the Engaging Human Ecology Series of the Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University. The workshop gets underway to explore the methods and strategies of comprehending the tribal life-world experience as part of an ongoing project on the Tribal Settlements in the Western Ghats: Ecological Sustainability and Sustained Well-being of the Tribals in the Idukki District of Kerala.

Dr. M. Kunhaman

Inaugurating the workshop, Dr. M. Kunhaman, the incumbent in the Nelson Mandela Chair (MGU) and former Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai said that “the transition from self-respecting social beings to that of supplicants is the gist of the tribal history of Kerala.” He said that the “dependency syndrome” created by the change agents of transition, which included the state agencies as well as political fronts that come to power from time to time, tends to perpetuate poverty and the inexorable position of the lower caste people as well as the tribes in Kerala.

Dr. Kunhaman said that the tribes in Kerala had multiple roles in the past as “provider, protector and arbiter” in their social habitat. When the state entered the field, these roles have been replaced and, consequently, the tribes were forced to apply for every everything, making them perpetual dependents. The tribal habitats in the state witnessed tremendous changes which resulted in the waning of the cultural identity of the tribes, the “breaking of their geographical isolation and the rephrasing of tribalism into individualism.” He noted that among all the changes, the changing demographics of tribes is very significant. Now it is not possible to call any area in Kerala as tribal area geographically because of these changing demographics.  There is not even a single Taluk in the state which has a tribal majority. “The balance of forces has shifted from the tribal to non-tribal settlers.” In the tribal community itself, certain shifts have taken place, and now “mobility” is the hallmark of the scheduled tribes in Kerala.” This mobility itself has different dimensions—geographical mobility, social mobility, economic mobility and, above all there is “aspirational mobility.”

Tribal Studies in Kerala

Dr. Kunhaman noted that there has been a proliferation of tribal studies in Kerala over years. They can be classified into four categories—(i) longitudinal, (ii) cross-sectional, (iii) tribes-specific and (vi) area-specific. These studies have been undertaken by academic scholars, governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). However, the academic scholars and non-governmental agencies have a common characteristic—they tend to glorify the past, decry or deplore the present and they are also dreary about the future. Their prognosis is not optimistic or reassuring, he pointed out.

Dr. Kunhaman said that it is arguable whether we have tribes which anthropologists describe and classify. However, we have ‘Scheduled Tribes’ which is an administrative category for development programmes and policy purposes. They are considered as specific groups.

There has been a tremendous transformation of the tribal society over the years. And this transformation has its own dynamics as well as dialectics. The transition from dynamics to dialectics is notable here. Almost all changes have come from outside. The change agents are the State, market, technology and politics and they are transforming the tribal social system. The effect of this transformation, quintessentially, is that the state is replacing the tribes.

While analysing the current scenario of the tribal conditions in Kerala, Dr. Kunhaman brings forth major methodological challenges that researchers will have to grapple with.

  • First, the demographic transition that has occurred in the tribal regions of the state. In most of these regions, tribes have acquired minority status.
  • Secondly, the shifts that are palpable among the tribal community (like geographical mobility, aspirational mobility and the new politics for resources).
  • Thirdly, spatial variation in the level of socio-economic development among the tribal communities.
  • Fourthly, the diversity among the tribes in various regions. Tribes cannot be bracketed as a single category. There are 36 tribes in Kerala. They can be classified into five categories—(i) state-empowered tribes (ii) self-empowered tribes (iii) never-empowered tribes (iv) enslaved tribes and (v) isolated tribes.

Dr. Kunhaman pointed out how various aspects of identity, history and sustenance of the tribal communities have been undermined with the development interventions of the state and other agencies. There have also been efforts to chip away at their history, popular culture etc through official narratives. The state and its important corollaries like political parties, religious organisations etc have worked collectively to weaken the constitutional obligation of ensuring their rights of land, livelihood, resources, and human rights.

Dr. Kunhaman pointed out that ecological sustainability is a new concern in tribal habitats. In the past, there was no such concern insofar as the tribes sought to maintain balance between people, animals and plants and they had a symbiotic relationship with the nature. In fact, this symbiotic relationship has been broken once non-tribal settlers began making inroads into their social habitat. Inevitably, ecological sustainability emerged as a major question—which, in fact, has nothing to do with the endemic tribal life-world experiences, he said. It was with the advent of non–tribal settlers that the situation has changed. And, most importantly, the state has also become a predator, accomplice of non-tribal settlers who are primarily land grabbers.

Dr. Kunhaman said that the tribal people are now in a Catch-22 situation, and they are put on the defensive. They have lost the totality of their lifeworld. Given this scenario, Dr. Kunhaman said, we can capture the situation only by changing our methodology of understanding and analysis.  He said that there are several methodological challenges that researchers will have to address. Too much scientism kills creativity. There is a misconception that ‘scientific’ means positivistic. However, the importance of data in understanding the tribal situation can’t be overlooked. Scientific research requires data, both quantitative and qualitative. But reliance on statistical data alone would not suffice in comprehending the tribal experience.  There is also a need for normative approach. These data need to be explored linking it to numerous other social factors. It can be supplemented by ethnomethodological data.

Dr. Kunhaman emphasised that a tri-dimensional concept of time needs to be employed to study tribal issues—we must historicise, contemporise and futurise. This will help scholars to make generalisations, thought building and thereby universalising knowledge. An academic study need not necessarily be directed to policy advice, but it can be a spin-off, said Dr. Kunhaman.

Dr. Dr. P. Sanal Mohan, Professor, School of Social Sciences MGU chaired the session. The workshop was attended by faculty and researchers from different universities in Kerala and outside. Dr. K.M. Seethi, Director, IUCSSRE, welcomed and Elizabeth Abraham, Research Fellow, IUCSSRE, proposed a vote of thanks. Dr. Mathew A. Varghese, Adjunct Faculty, IUCSSRE, coordinated the programme.

K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University. Elizabeth Abraham is Research Fellow at the IUCSSRE.

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