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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2006  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 630-633

Tribes, Forest and Social Formation in Indian History

Department of History, SOAS, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H OXG, United Kingdom

Correspondence Address:
Ezra Rashkow
Department of History, SOAS, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H OXG
United Kingdom
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Rashkow E. Tribes, Forest and Social Formation in Indian History. Conservat Soc 2006;4:630-3

How to cite this URL:
Rashkow E. Tribes, Forest and Social Formation in Indian History. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2006 [cited 2020 Feb 21];4:630-3. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2006/4/4/630/55806

Arun Bandopadhyay and B.B. Chaudhuri (eds.). Tribes, Forest and Social Formation in Indian History. Manohar, New Delhi, 2004, 224 pp., Rs. 450, ISBN: 81-7304-551-8.

In terms of addressing the range of historiographical issues concerning Tribes, Forest and Social Formation in Indian History, the twelve essays chosen for this book fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The reader is led away from the romanticism of research a few decades ago, to the perspective of unforgiving twenty-first century realism. Tribes are not anymore seen simply as passive objects manipulated by the state and lacking all power, nor are they idealistically seen as living purely in harmony with nature. Their modes of resistance, and production, are thrown open to study and debate. Issues of continuity and disruption in their livelihood and cultural systems are thoroughly prodded, and the interstices between the fields of anthropology, environment, and history are judiciously examined. Historians can finally say with some confidence, that the study of tribal communities is no longer purely the domain of the anthropologist, and that the study of the Indian forest is no longer purely the domain of the ecologist. Rather than tribal people's isolation being stressed, they are now considered in the wider perspective of the Indian nation; their customs and traditions are seen in relation to ecology and external interventions. Their histories stand thoroughly problematised.

However, with the book's broad coverage of Indian history: north, south, east, west and central, ancient and modern, in just some 200 pages, we do not easily develop a rounded picture of any one group of people, or any one area, or time period, without further reading. To emphasise this point about breadth and brevity, consider that Amar Farooqui's exquisitely researched ten-page article (with over four pages of endnotes) on the history of the tribes and soldiers of Malwa is the only work on western India in the volume. Farooqui makes an excellent contribution to the growing body of knowledge on the issues at stake in the region and period, but as the author himself makes clear, his work can best be understood in relation to Dirk Kolff and Sumit Guha. For good measure the reader ought to be more broadly acquainted with A.J. Skaria and David Hardiman (and perhaps even my own forthcoming work on the Bhils of Mewar). Compiled from papers presented at the Indian History Congress, this is an academic's book-meant to be (and ought to be) read by scholars and experts-and it is perhaps only fully appreciable in reference to the rapidly expanding discourse on tribes and environment in the South Asian context. Only by reading these, other historians, can we develop a sense of the background against which Tribes, Forest and Social Formation stakes its claims to theoretical advances.

Also, with the book's broad, comprehensive scope, one major lacuna screams out, and that is the lack of any single essay dedicated to the medieval period of Indian history. Although there are several articles situating tribals in relation to Hindu society, Tribes, Forest and Social Formation barely contains a word on tribal interactions with Islam or Muslims. This all leads the reader to wonder, can a single all-inclusive social history of tribes and forests be written? Their various histories are perhaps too disparate for this to be the case.

What is a tribe? Two of the opening essays by K.S. Singh and Kesavan Veluthat help throw open this interesting and poignant question. In his article 'Re-thinking Forest, Forest Dwellers and Ecological History', Singh does well to remind us that the term 'tribe' as employed in the Indian context is yet another remnant of colonialism. There was no straight indigenous equivalent in ancient Indian literature. Along similar lines, Veluthat begs researchers to bear in mind that ' 'tribe', 'caste', etc., are categories used for classifying people for the sake of understanding them' (p. 61). Yet surprisingly, nowhere in the volume and almost nowhere in the academic literature is it proposed that the definition of 'tribe' be based on the social group's relationship with the wilderness regime in which they lived. Singh himself comes close, reminding us that, 'the tribes of today and the forest dwellers of yesterday are almost similar' (p. 40). Certainly, when the British imposed the definition of 'tribal' on people, they almost all were forest dwellers, or forest dependents. While one could talk about the tribes of the Internet, or the tribes of New York, this only distracts us from the historical point that a tribe is not merely a social division, or a kin group, but one traditionally based on a life 'in nature'.

In another respect, though, K.S. Singh comes across as strongly toeing the old congress line, perhaps to a fault. In one section of his article he bemoans the widening gender inequalities in tribal communities over time, rightly pointing out that the role of woman as hunter had declined in the modern era. But then in his very next section he defends and excuses the Congress Party's early policies that were ignorant of and damaging to tribal lifestyles and sexuality. He mentions the Congress only in the role of introducing plough cultivation, kadhi, and prohibition, but ignores mainstream Congress, Hinduism and Gandhian bramacharia, in subverting what they saw as objectionable tribal sexual practices, such as premarital sexual relationships and the youth dormitory or ghotal. I am not sure what the need was for Singh to comment on Congress and the tribals at all, as this has been done in depth by P.K. Bose and others.

The most politically significant essay in the volume clearly belongs to Archana Prasad, who writes a history of how 'tribal societies were transformed into underdeveloped adjuncts of imperial capitalism' (p. 110)-this one is a must read for policy makers. Her goal is an admirable one, i.e. to give a historical explanation for how the current explosive politics in the tribal region of central India developed. But Prasad's exposé is not only provocative; it is scholarly and rigorous as well. Some pundits (I won't name names) arguing over these subjects while sipping tea in capital cities around the world could really learn something from Prasad about how fieldwork actually works. Her use of archival material from Jabalpur, Mandla, Nagpur and Bhopal in its depth and extent is impressive. Just to play devil's advocate, though, my one question for Prasad might be that, if historically the Gonds were 'migratory in character. Their patterns of movement usually depend[ing] upon the nature of political conflict in their territories' (p. 111), then what is the difference between that and the situation we have with Project Tiger and the national parks today? Some say the new 2005 Tribal Rights Bill is designed to right historical injustices by guaranteeing the tribal people rights to their ancestral lands. But this begs the question, what does this mean if the adivasi's ancestral lands were always shifting?

Articles by Rajan Gurukkal, Shishir Kumar Panda, K.T. Thomas, P.K. Shukla and Atlury Murali each also provide stimulating reading. Each of their works strikes me as wholly appropriate: thematically and theoretically on track, and each with certain original insights. A reading of these with theoretical issues in mind, even by somebody without particular knowledge of India, will surely prove rewarding. A description of each essay can be found in the Introduction.

Other than giving a short description of each essay, though, Bandopadhyay and Chaudhuri's brief Introduction only begins to touch on the numerous issues raised in this volume. Also, I really must wonder at the editors' choice in this expression at the end of their Introduction: 'We hope that this publication will… pave the way for further research' (p. 19-my emphasis). Let's hope this is just a turn of phrase, and not an environmental prescription. But while their Introduction might be lacking, Chaudhuri and Bandopadhyay make up for this with lovely articles at the beginning and conclusion of the volume, which do nicely in terms of completing the chronological theme. Chaudhuri draws insights from some of the earliest sources in India's historical record: the Rig Veda, Dharmashastra, Arthashastra, etc., and Bandopadhyay provides a nice counterpoint by tackling some very contemporary very postcolonial issues of SFP, IFP, JFM, CPR, FPCs, NGOs (i.e. Social Forestry Projects, Interface Forestry Projects, Joint Forest Management, Common Property Resources, Forest Protection Committees, and Non Government Organisations). Don't we love acronyms!

All in all, Tribes, Forest and Social Formation in Indian History is highly recommended reading for anybody interested in the up-and-coming discourse crossing the disciplines of environment, anthropology and history in South Asia and beyond. Whatever the book's gaps and shortcomings might be, each article successfully serves to advance scholarship in its given area and time period. But when we step back from our completed historiographical jigsaw puzzle, what do we see before us? I am not sure that it is a unified picture of Indian 'forest and social formation' at all, but rather one of forests and social formations, plural. If we compare this collection to earlier monographs like Sumit Guha's Ethnicity and Environment in India, we can see that a much welcome multiplicity of voices, agendas and histories in the field is freshly emerging.


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