Thinking Futures conference, Port Blair, 4-5 December 2014
Satadru Sen (City University of New York)
In Munich last year, I attended a conference on the Andamans. Several of you were there also. There were, of course, no Andamanese present. So we ended up in a rather old-fashioned ritual of talking about so-called primitive people who are acknowledged to be alive, but for whom self-representation would be unnatural.
The situation is not too different here in Port Blair. I don’t mean that the organizers should have brought a couple of Jarawas or an Onge to make a token appearance. But nearly seventy years after independence, we should have been able to have a Jarawa or an Onge appear at a conference like this on their own initiative, to speak as their own agents. That these expectations seem unrealistic is not too different from Victorians scoffing at the prospect of natives with Ph.Ds. It is a sign that something is not right.
Since I’m critiquing the very concept of the primitive tribe, let me bore you for a minute with the history of primitiveness. Primitivism refers broadly to the Western fascination with the idea of ‘the primitive,’ manifested primarily in non-Western societies but also secondarily within the West itself. As a ‘movement’ that emerged in Europe in the eighteenth century, it developed a particularly close relationship with the politics of imperialism. It reflected, on the one hand, the confident new realities of racism and colonialism, and on the other hand, a growing disenchantment with the Enlightenment, an affected rejection of modernity, and a pessimism about the permanence of ‘civilization’ and its racial order.
At the most readily apparent level, this was an oppositional relationship: the primitiveness ascribed to newly discovered people underscored the modernity to which the civilized were attached. At the same time, primitivism became part of a complex relationship of objectification. To be modern and civilized was also to consume the primitive aesthetically, scientifically and economically.
Nineteenth-century primitivism was simultaneously appreciative, contemptuous and ‘objective’ in its outlook on what it consumed. It was appreciative in the sense that it was closely intertwined with Romanticism, in which the alien, primitive and dying became desirable counterparts to the competitive, utilitarian and thriving West. This desire marks the growing appetite in Western markets for ‘primitive’ arts and artifacts, either collected in colonial locations or fashioned in the West itself. By the end of the century, the Andamans had been integrated into this pattern, with the aggressive collection of artifacts and photographs that showcased pacified savages producing what Europeans perceived as an authentic pre-industrial harmony, beauty and genius.
Yet primitivism was contemptuous in the assumption that modernity possessed a higher value than what was appreciated as primitive. And it was objective in the sense that it bestowed its aficionados with the equanimity of the scientist or the curator rather than the zeal of the conquistador. Primitive people existed to be studied, as clues to the nature of humanity and living fossils that would not long survive the triumph of a civilization equipped with battleships and capitalism. For evolutionist anthropologists in particular, the savage or primitive contemporary, once a menacing proposition, now became synonymous with frailty, death and extinction – a discourse which has dominated the narrative of the Andamanese since the 1880s.
M.V. Portman explicitly described the Andamanese as a chemistry experiment in its final stages, and the islands as a laboratory of natural history: a substance that had long existed in the vacuum of insulation, he argued, was violently dematerializing at the touch of air. It was sad but exciting, an insight into the primordial nature of mortality. The death-by-demoralization hypothesis has never gone away: much of our present-day idea of the Andamanese as a doomed people flows from the notion that primitive people confronted by modernity become so demoralized that they die.
In turn-of-the-century Europe, the morbid savage had an important variation: in anthropology-inspired popular literature like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the primitive threatened to infiltrate Europe itself, or to show itself as having been there all along. This valorization of a primitive mode within whiteness was not benign. Most straightforwardly, it encouraged casual violence against native people. In settler colonies like Australia, the historian Patrick Wolfe has pointed out, the indigenous population was superfluous to the social, political and economic order. And even in colonies where indigenous labor was a rational requirement, Michael Taussig has suggested, primitivism generated irrational excesses of violence and terror. Colonizers appropriated the apparent primitiveness of aborigines and deployed it against them, killing them without constraints. I don’t need to remind anybody here about the violence visited on the Andamanese tribes from the moment the HMS Viper sailed into these waters: the shootings, kidnappings, flogging, forced labor, exhibitions, etc. The primitiveness ascribed to the native justified ‘uncivilized’ conduct by the civilized: not only had the native invited the violence visited upon him, his ‘obsolete’ condition suggested that he was already extinct, and killing him not especially damning.
How much of this history can be applied to independent India – a nation of natives with natives, so to speak? The answers are a mixed bag. An interest in the primitive is certainly discernible within Indian nationalist narratives, but much of the time, the primitive was identified with the roots of the Self, but not placed in direct opposition to the modern Self. It was neither valorized nor denigrated for its primitiveness: the Indian-nationalist tendency has been to highlight how modern its ancestors were, but at the same time, to assign to it a higher moral value than the colonized and degraded present.
The Adivasi model of aboriginality was invented to fit this frame, but it was an uneasy fit, because quite early on, the nationally-oriented class conceived them partly through the lens of European primitivism. And certainly, within a nationalism articulated by upper-caste Hindus, the Adivasi was racialized to some extent. But for a couple of reasons, this was a limited Othering. One is that Indian nationalist discourse quickly found a niche for the non-Aryan within the national geography and the national Self: by the early twentieth century, the liberal wing of Indian nationalism – the Tagore family, for instance – had decisively adopted the Adivasi as a pristine repository of Indian culture, and even Hindu-nationalist ideologues like Savarkar were emphasizing an Indian race from which Adivasis were not separate. And certainly if we were to look below the layer of elite nationalism, to the lower-caste world of mofussil towns and villages, the Adivasi was only semi-distinct, with no sharp line between the world of the tribal and that of the peasant.
The other is that by the time the Tagores were patronizing the incorporation of Santals and Mundas into the national body as art, folklore and even history, there already existed a politics of Adivasi self-assertion. I don’t mean the hools and rebellions beloved of Subalternist historians. I mean the work of politicians like Jaipal Singh, which brought Adivasis into active and participatory roles in the national mainstream. They entered wearing primitiveness like a contextual badge of identity that was not essentially different from other modern identities. It was, however imperfectly, a self-directed, negotiated and modern union with Indianness, premised more on similarity and equality than on difference and inferiority. It provides, in fact, a model of self-representation that could be quite useful to projects like a tribal museum in the Andamans.
But these maneuvers were premised on the near-total absence of a discourse of superfluity. The absence was, on the one hand, part and parcel of exploitation in Indian society: as with blacks in apartheid South Africa, there was space for tribal people because there was a need for their labor. But on the other hand, it remained possible for those designated as Adivasis to contest oppression politically, socially and even culturally. In other words, there was space for them as living people even when there was no obvious need for them as Santals or Gonds.
The South African parallel is actually quite instructive. Wolfe pointed out recently that apartheid was not based on a fantasy that entire groups of people would cease to exist. It was oppressive and appropriative, but there is something worse, which we see in settler-colonial situations where there is no conceptual, political or actual space for the aborigine.
We have come close to that in the Andamans. After independence, several things have happened in tandem to make the situation more settler-colonial than before. One is, of course, the accelerated migration from the Indian mainland. Unlike convicts, the migrants have become a politically mobilized demographic, able to approach the state with their claims on local resources. The peculiar status of the tribal population, in which they are normatively limited to a shrinking patch of jungle instead of being located in a wider society and geography, has only encouraged settlers to regard them as superfluous people taking up space. The other is that the administration has remained in the hands of people invested in the primitive. This investment is itself partly an inheritance of colonial discourses of race, and partly an organic response to the peculiar political and professional opportunities present in the combination of managerialism and democracy, in which some people are managed and others demand representation.
The continuing primitive status of the Andamanese has thus become a fundamental aspect of the insular quality of the Andamans: these are islands in India, and the Andamanese are islands within Indianness. I cannot emphasize this enough: insulation produces primitivism, and primitivism is for the dead, not the living. The Andamanese have become progressively insular, as growing numbers of Indians have become infected by the primitivist vision of the state-affiliated managers of the tribal population. So whereas tribals on the mainland have lost their status as objects of ethnography, the Andamanese have become reified in their ethnographic condition. Middle-class, urban Indians no longer fantasize about going into the jungle to see Santals, although there was a historical and cultural moment when they did – I’m thinking of Satyajit Ray’s film Aranyer Din Ratri. I don’t think it’s stretching it too far to say that this is partly because eastern Bihar, where modern Bengalis used to go to see tribals, is now a tribal state, with a tribal chief minister. It’s become a part of the prosaic mainland of Indian politics. Instead, Indians now want to go on safaris in the Jarawa reserve, to see the last primitives in the national zoo.
Obviously, the Adivasi politics of the mainland did not take hold in the Andamans, and this failure has come at great cost to the Andamanese, who have been consigned to a protected innocence – life without politics – that deprives them of agency, representation and life itself. And enforced primitiveness will continue to fail as a policy, because the modern genie cannot be put back in the bottle: we cannot undo the history of the past two hundred and twenty years. We cannot even close the Andaman Trunk Road. And frankly, I am not convinced that the ATR should be closed. It is the historical norm that people will move about and interact, even if the interaction is not on equal terms. It is segregation that is coercive and extraordinary, and it doesn’t work.
So the question is, what would work? To begin to answer that question, we have to decide what ‘work’ means in this context. If it means clinging to a romantic preservationism, i.e., fetishizing an inflexible, anti-historical idea of what it means to be an aborigine, then that work will amount to little more than liberal hand-wringing. It will be an extended funeral, not only for people, but for an unsustainable ideal of racial and cultural purity. It will mean making films about the dying in anticipation of their death, and I think film-makers who work on the Andamanese must think very carefully about why they are making their films. Are they documenting a way of life, or a way of death?
For the answer to be ‘life,’ ‘work’ will have to mean a form of assimilationism. You cannot live in a modern state and reject assimilation altogether without placing yourself at a terrible disadvantage. It is only the assimilated who can resist effectively, and who can re-articulate their identity. But assimilationism can mean many things. It can mean, for instance, the total deregulation of contact. I don’t think we can really predict what would happen under those circumstances: it is possible that the Andamanese would quickly lose their land and be absorbed into a laboring underclass. Would this be a bad thing? Well, yes, in the sense that economic exploitation is a bad thing, but the exploitation of the Jarawa would not be a worse thing than the exploitation of the Santal, or of the non-tribal poor, for that matter. If we assume that it would be a bigger tragedy, we fall into the primitivist trap, and take the Andamanese with us.
But total deregulation is not the only available form of assimilationism. The most reasonable approach, I think, would be a minimalist one that protects the tribal reserve, guaranteeing the exclusive ownership of its land to the tribal group. But what the members of the tribe do on that land should be absolutely up to them. If they want to meet tourists or filmmakers, that should be their business. If they want to leave, return, start a business, marry a Tamil, or download pornography on their phones, that should be their business. Beyond ensuring their ownership of the reserve, the state and civil society organizations should make certain options available to them: schools, dispensaries, access to the economy in the form of jobs and micro-finance, access to the courts, access to information, voting rights, the ability to travel, the ability to become unrecognizable to those who are invested in the primitive. Information must be a two-way flow, not only must we learn about the tribes, but the tribes must know what options are available to them through the Indian state and society.
By way of an ideological framework, I want to mention something Partha Chatterjee once wrote about the Muslim Civil Code. The individual member of the minority group, he wrote, must have the option of functioning as a generic rights-bearing citizen, without giving up his or her minority identity. The state must protect both options: the generic as well as the particular. It might be argued that the Jarawa and Onge are not like Muslims or even Adivasis, that they are extraordinarily vulnerable. But this perception of extraordinariness is the problem. The so-called primitive groups have to be allowed to be ordinary. It is ordinariness that must be facilitated by well-wishers of the Andamanese: ordinary resources, ordinary identities, ordinary constitutional status.
This facilitation need not be an abstract or exotic concept. It can follow the standard model of Indian federalism, in which there is no contradiction between a particular identity (like being Bengali) and the generic identity (being Indian). The state can take unremarkable, practical steps to make this possible, such as teaching Andamanese languages in the local schools in addition to Hindi and English, teaching the history of the islands in addition to Indian history, employing the Andamanese as teachers, and ensuring ST quotas in employment and education.
Whether we like it or not, primitives – by definition – live in the modern world, subject to relations of unequal power. Whether we like it or not, our perceptions and policies impact upon them, and have already impacted upon them. The urge to insulate them from the world, or to place them under the guardianship of a few wise brown parents who are entirely fallible, is a part of that unequal power, and as much a form of objectification as any colonial art, scholarship or governance. It prevents them from responding to the impact of modernity, and perpetuates the injustices of their situation. The only effective defense of the primitives we wish to protect lies in giving them the means of understanding our understanding of primitiveness, giving them access to our means of power.