Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Defining Indigenous and beyond ...

August 9 was International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. This Day  was first proclaimed by the United Nations in December 1994, to be celebrated every year during the first International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995 – 2004). 

In 2004, the Assembly proclaimed a Second International Decade, from 2005 – 2014, with the theme of "A Decade for Action and Dignity." The focus of this year's International Day is "Bridging the gap: implementing the rights of indigenous peoples".

It is estimated that there are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide. Practising unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Spread across the world, they are the descendants - according to a common definition - of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. The new arrivals later became dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means. 

Here is what the UN website site says:
Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by any UN-system body. Instead the system has developed a modern understanding of this term based on the following: 
• Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their  member. 
• Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies 
• Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources 
• Distinct social, economic or political systems 
• Distinct language, culture and beliefs 
• Form non-dominant groups of society 
• Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities. 

To celebrate this day this year, the Eastern Regional Centre of Anthropological Survey of India organized a panel discussion on Issues for the Safeguard and Challenges of Indigenous Knowledge on August 6, 2014. Chaired by Dr Kakali Chakrabarty of the Centre, the speakers were Shri Sarada Prasad Kisku, the eminent  Santali poet and writer, Ms Sophia Pde, Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi, a livewire member of the Khasi community and Shri Biswambhar Munda, a well known Mundari writer and school teacher. The talks followed by the discussions threw light on the challenges faced and the steps that need to be taken or are being taken at a global level.

Shri Sarada Prasad Kisku
Each of the speakers spoke of the issues specifically faced by their communities. Shri Kisku opined  that though centuries of traditional knowledge that has been passed down the generations among adivasis has now become the subject matter of research, there has been barely any productive research done. While individuals have researched for doctorate degrees, college and office jobs et al, there has been no research that has really benefitted the Adivasi communities. There has been no improvement in their lives. 

Yet, there is so much to be imbibed from these communities. But there has been no interest to even understand, for instance, the centuries old village systems that exist among tribes like the Santals and the Mundas. In this system, the entire village would be the responsibility of and be headed by the Manjhi and four others. Unity and harmony are the pillars on which these systems run. (Though, sad to say, evidence of a breakdown is being noticed, and distinctions between rich and poor cleaving through, possibly as a result of modern education.) In the annual tribal hunt, the division of the game is very fair - across the community - even to widows who have no sons who may have joined the hunt or the lepers in the village or even the stray dogs in the village. There is no room for discord. Such has been the practice - in all aspects of their lives - a tradition that has passed down and accepted without question and without recourse to lectures, seminars or postering. This is valuable indigenous knowledge. Then there is Santal medicine and other Santal rites and beliefs that have stood the test of time. They know for instance when it will rain by observing ants shifting their eggs. This body of traditional wisdom and ingrained culture is dying - being stamped out with the pressures of modern education.  Working towards the welfare and development of the Adivasis must be inclusive of their knowledge systems and traditions. The writing is on the wall. 

Ms Sophia Pde
Sophia Pde in an impassioned delivery, threw some valuable insights on the Khasi community.  Her tribe is said to be one of the most primitive in India , along with the Ho-Mundas  - and they still speak the Austric language. The Khasi-Jaintias are one of the 5 matrilineal societies left in India. There has been a lot of controversy about this both within and without the community. She emphasized - matrilineal and not matriarchal. Children stay with their mothers, taking her name and it is the youngest daughter who becomes custodian of the ancestral property - a kind of religious head of the family. It is her duty to protect the clan. The women have the right to speak, are free to choose, to lead their lives as they please. Moreover, since all children take the mother's name, there is no question of illegitimacy. As a result they are often accused of promiscuity. They are not yet part of the political system (the durbar) in the community, but are pushing towards it in recent times.

The mother in Khasi society is the most important figure - she, according to Ms Pde, represents the goddess figure, presiding over everything. It is her love and care that nurtures - so why then should she be relegated to the background  after giving birth? Why should she lose her surname? It is this that Ms Pde felt could be emulated by communities across India. Perhaps the Khasis are more progressive than the rest of India, but she insists that the Khasis feel like misfits and alienated because they are the most misunderstood. It is her hope that the best of matrilineal and patrilineal systems would be incorporated to bring about an ideal bilineal society, to ensure a better future for our children. 

Shri Biswambhar Munda reminded the audience that India has not to date identified its indigenous peoples. No tribe has been enlisted as "indigenous". If the scheduled tribes of the India, who fall well within the parameters defined, are obviously "indigenous", why then this hesitation to enlist them? Why the celebration of an International Day for the world's indigenous peoples?

Shri Biswambhar Munda
Knowledge, he said , is considered to be of two kinds: that which is gained at schools, colleges and universities and that which is indigenous, spread across thousands of communities who have been nurturing it for millenia. This knowledge is unique to a given society and is a part of the daily lives of its people. But knowledge is not that which is gained from books  - it is that which has helped man, through the ages, grapple with the forces of nature and his environs. This was the birth of knowledge and it is this indigenous knowledge that lies at the root of and which evolved into academic knowledge. Why then do we talk of "safeguarding" indigenous knowledge? Why is it being distinguished as different, he asked?  Why is it considered to be endangered? The reason very simply is that there has not been enough support given  to these people, to enable them to live within their distinct social systems. Just giving monetary compensation can never be a solution. 

Santal medicine needs to be researched and perhaps a research institute needs to be set up so that  this traditional knowledge is put to good use. Even the ritual songs of the Santals, performed throughout the year with each their annual harvest festivals like Karam, Baha, Sohrai etc, could be the source of rich commentary on the lives of these cultivators. Unless there is serious, systematic development of this knowledge, there is no point talking of safeguarding indigenous wisdom for the world to see. Only then will there be hope, he felt.  

In the face of these challenges, it was suggested by Dr H K Dey from the Indian Council for Agricultural Research in the audience that just documenting traditional knowledge and practices is not enough. There is no dearth of documentation. But there must be a correct way to safeguard this knowledge. It was felt that the scientific validity of say, a traditional agricultural practice, should be established and to prove convincingly its benefits, efficacy and cost effectiveness. This should be followed by protection of Intellectual Property Rights and finally, wide dissemination.
(Read about IIM-Ahmedabad's Professor Anil Kumar Gupta's brainchild - Honey Bee - which documents traditional wisdom in all fields of human activity and published in 20 different languages -  http://www.sristi.org/hbnew/index.php)

We also learnt what was happening at the international level from a member of the audience. There is already a global body in place which has been convening in Geneva since 2007, represented by more than 130 countries of the world which deals with Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCE) - which are knowledge systems , intangible in nature, which do not fall within the ambit of TK. The countries are divided  as follows :  developed countries, "likeminded" groups of countries (South East Asia including India) and normally represented by Indonesia and the African countries. Legal instruments to safeguard are already being developed where the process of documentation, validation etc are incorporated. This then has to be brought to the notice of nodal agencies. Till date,  draft  documentation on these traditional resources has been developed. The legal instruments now await finalization in about five years or so. But the developing countries insist that they should have a say in Freely Available TK or TCE because many of their traditional resources may not have been documented or that they may not be able to complete it within a given time period. They should be given a right to protect their own knowledge.  But the time limit will not be indefinite. Thus each country will need to spread this information among the stakeholders - the government organizations, the local communities -  as soon as possible. 

But all this is easier said than done, felt Dr Biswanath Sarkar of AnSI, who has worked with health related issues of indigenous people for more than two decades. There are no clear cut criteria to identify indigenous people. Are the UN definitions applicable everywhere? The issues and challenges that affect their livelihood practices, resource management, exploitation faced etc - are not similar across these communities in the planet.  Till date, 150 such communities have been identified by the UN across the world but there are many, many more. Safeguarding can happen only after identification. 

He pointed out that of the 350 plus medicinal plants that were traditionally used by the Santals and identified eight decades ago by Dr Olaf Bodding, there is no knowledge on what is left, nor what resources are available in the vicinity. Both intangible and tangible knowledge is either threatened or extinct. Though there are thousands of documents already available, since all of this is mainly orally transmitted knowledge, what is left has to be identified, documented and especially in the light of IPR now, protected. India ranks 3rd globally in its rich national diversity but fails in its resource management and is therefore prey to a high rate of exploitation. Other reasons of failure have also been an inability to properly understand the challenges faced by these communities - often resulting in incorrect and self defeating measures of protection.  An important challenge would also be the mechanism set up for benefit-share  among these people.

Dr Kakali Chakrabarty,
Head of Office,
 Eastern Regional Centre, AnSI
There is no dearth of problems faced by these communities. Surul is a village adjacent to Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan/Sriniketan, founded by Rabindranath Tagore. A major part of the university stands within Surul mouja. Dr Chakrabarty brought to our notice that historically, the Surul zamindars had handed over usufruct right of their zamindari to the Visva Bharati authorities. But the university has encroached upon the Jaherthan of the Santals who have been living in a tribal village in the vicinity now known as Pearson Pally. The Jaherthan is a space around an ancient tree, sacred to the Santals - where they conduct their rituals. Faced with this crisis, the Santals who are mostly manual labourers have had no choice but to shift their Jaherthan and grow a new tree. A harsh price to pay for development indeed. 

Kharia tribe of Chhota Nagpur,
1903. www.oldindianphotos
She went on to give some truly inspiring instances of tribal knowledge. A group from AnSI noticed a large fruit tree being cut down by the Jarawas in the Andamans and questioned the wisdom of their act. The tribals explained that the tree was surrounded by innumerable younger trees whose health would be affected by this much larger tree in their midst. Therefore to save these trees and enable them to bear fruit for future generations, it was necessary to sacrifice this tree.

Among the Kharia tribes, a motherless baby survived thanks to traditional knowledge. Faced with the dilemma of feeding the baby, it was decided that her grandmother be  given traditional medicine to resolve the problem. The lady was eighty years old, but she began lactating and was thus able to nurse the baby!  

Rounding off this hugely edifying  talk, the erudite Dr Kanchan Mukherjee of AnSI went back to the basics: how is Indigenous to be defined? The term has been mostly been used in colonial situations, as in the Americas, Australia etc, where migrants become majority and natives, minority. But in old world situations, like Europe, this definition becomes a problem. He reminded us that when countries of the world were requested by the UN to make a list of its indigenous peoples in the 90s, India declared that it could not and would not. The reason given was that if some communities were declared as indigenous, then many other communities would not be indigenous! Therefore all Indians are considered to be indigenous. He felt instead that a new term ought to be coined to encompass this conundrum. Even the terms Adivasi or Banabasi are politically loaded. 

He also pointed out that the words indigenous and tradition are not interchangeable. This is a common mistake. Tradition can be constructed and need not necessarily be old practices - say for example, a national symbol. Perhaps it would be better to use a neutral term like "community-based" irrespective of its origins. The practice may not be old or it may have been borrowed - but it now belongs to the community. 

Dr Mukherjee questioned the use of the term "mainstream" in a plural society like India and turned our ideas of it upside down. It was the Austric speaking people who introduced the phallic symbol to the rest of India and the Hindu deity Kamakhya was the Khasi deity Ka-Meikha. Professor Suniti Chatterjee, the famous linguist,  had pointed out that the Bengali language has an Indo-Aryan structure but contains the most number of Austric words. The Bengali concept of "para" or neighbourhood is borrowed from the Mundas. Therefore, he argued, who is mainstream - the teacher or the student? "Mainstream", he felt is a political concept - that has its origins in inequal distribution of power  and supported by ethnocentricity, which is the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own ethnic group or culture.  It is this we have to fight. Nobody should be made to feel marginalized in a multiple-culture society. 

He also cautioned on a practical aspect of Benefit-Sharing:  when we speak of giving to the community, whom do we speak of? This definition has to be very specific and fool-proof. 

And finally, if we are to really protect and conserve our traditional knowledge and genetic resources, this should be the responsibility of the communities themselves. The initiative should be theirs. The role of outsiders should be no more than "assistants" - and that too, only if asked to.  It is time to think afresh!


Bardoi Sikhla dance by
Bodos from Goalpara, Assam
The panel discussion on the 6th was followed by a 2 day (August 7 & 8) celebration of International Day of World's Indigenous People, entitled Adibimba. Organized by  the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, Ministry of Culture, Government of India in collaboration with Anthropological Survey Eastern Regional Centre at EZCC's auditorium, it showcased tribal performing arts as well as a photographic exhibition on the tribal world of Eastern India. 

Maila Jodo dance from
Kalahandi, Odisha
The eastern part of India encompasses a diverse range of tribal culture - from Mongoloid to Proto-Austoloid  to Dravidian. West  Bengal itself is home to 28 different tribal communities, while Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha are the traditional habitat of 26, 30 and 62 tribes respectively. But naturally, the region is a rich repository of tribal arts and traditions. Put together for the exhibition were a set of superb images which effectively captured this splendid cultural mosaic.

Karam dance by Santals of
Ramnagar, Birbhum
 About 150 tribal artistes from West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Odisha and Sikkim including performing groups of Santals, Mundas, Rabhas, Lepchas, Bodos and Tripuris enthralled the audience with their vibrant  performances  over the two days. What a great pity there wasn't much of an audience.

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