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President, SAHAS India

Development Professional

Anthropologist & Journalist

I’m reminded of a song in Hindi, ‘Aaj se pehle, aaj se zyaada, itni khushi aaj tak nahi mili’ (I have never felt so much joy before!).

As an anthropologist I have never felt as proud as I’m feeling today, when I see a tribal woman - Draupadi Murmu, become the President, coming to head the country, from a thought of as the most backward and neglected - that is tribal India. In Hindi, we call them ‘adivasi’ - meaning Original Inhabitants. Was poverty the only yardstick by which we identified them? But as humans, do we not have any other identifiable attributes that we can assign to them, people who are marginalised as well as not integrated into mainstream? In this context, Hon’ble President Murmu, hailing from the same so-called ‘backward community’, as a representative of the Indian people, becomes an icon —- for not just Hindustan, but the entire world.

A Santhal girl heading towards the anganwadi, before going to college post noon.

Few years ago, I got the opportunity to visit a Santhal village in Shanti Niketan, where I witnessed young Santhal girls studying, going to college, riding their bicycles. Upon some conversation, I reflected - what is the difference between them and myself? None, whatsoever! But what is the cost that they have borne to become visible? And what are the efforts required on our part to include them as equal members in the growth story of India? All of this and much more has been the subject of Social-Cultural Anthropology for quite some time. We have been trying to understand them by filling our dissertations, writing PhD’s, and making a place for ourselves in academic circles to project them, as ‘them’, the object of inquiry, and not ‘us’. Have we ever tried to understand their aspirations vis-a-vis political participation, wellbeing, or even economic rights - for them to be true representatives of solidarity attempts crucial for human development? Shall we simply say, did we ever truly focus on their development, with equity in mind?

Like many of my peers, I have seen tribal girls in situations which are predominantly impoverished and bereft of anything beyond very basic survival. However, the girls that I saw and made friends with, during my field work in the 80’s; were strong in their demeanour, health and expression. Although there were linguistic limitations as we couldn’t understand much of what was verbally said, their laughter, their everyday interactions, their thoughts, were far more progressive than us students - ‘modern’ youth hailing from metropolitan cities. The interaction amongst tribal youth, their everyday highs, and lows; whether in the ‘Muria Marias’ of Madhya Pradesh, or the Santhals of Birbhum, or even in the treacherous hilly terrains of the North-East; the resilience stealing a look from behind those mountains - was awe inspiring. Though, when we studied the mortality rate or other development indices in these communities, in disciplines like Physical Anthropology; or when we tried to understand them through Social and Kinship studies - there was an overwhelming sense that they were ‘behind’ us.

A Santhal lady overseeing projects supported by NABARD in Shantiniketan

Dissonance indeed!

I have another memory from my field workdays: From Uttarkashi down to Nainital, the pastoral Jaad community would come down to the plains of Nainital, as their livestock which were integral to their life and livelihood could not survive in the extreme climatic conditions. And once they came down, we quickly made them subjects of study, by enumerating their physical and social parameters to fill our dissertations. Afterall, they became beautiful specimens of the proposed museums and galleries for their amusement value-sad indeed!! Low and behold, the Jaads came and lived in a place called ‘Chor Paani’, in the area where there was acute water scarcity. Our libraries, while replete with prestigious narratives and analysis; saw no mention of rectifiable systemic measures for addressing the root challenges; primarily survival issues which remain critical since time immemorial. Is this the life that any human being should want to live?

That is the mirror and the lens, from where we must start to look at our distinguished president and her rise. But how many of them do we visualize emerging like a phoenix from the ashes in the coming future? Surely, she faced innumerable impediments and sacrificed to attain the position that she imagined for herself and the people around her. This is visible from many examples in her political trajectory.

Came Rain and my crop is at its best

Though very recent, a visible ray of hope, is evident in the academic interventions made by some anthropologists in the field. In a webinar organized by Calcutta University, during the presentation made by Dr Bandhopadhyay; I shared how his words evoked curiosity and interest, especially in students like myself who three decades ago, had consciously chosen not to pursue an academic career in Anthropology, and instead follow what was logical to me - applied anthropology. Not for anything else, but from a deep desire to see the applied aspect of anthropological inquiry, to bring about social change if the times so demanded.

An interesting anecdote related to the setting up of the National Museum of Man, where I was the first recruit as an anthropologist in 1979 - the museum bus moving around in the city of Delhi was often the object of great amusement and guffaws, to passers-by who asked if the Museum of Man was to display types of men! Our task remained to explain to the onlookers that this is an anthropological museum in the making and that Anthropology is the study of societies, of tribal, urban, and rural communities, their customs, culture, religion, beliefs, patterns, and all aspects of their everyday life.

In the webinar, Dr Bandhopadhyay spoke about ‘integration studies’ in Social Anthropology, which was a pleasant surprise for me. From Palaeolithic stone cultures, the hand axes, to archaeological excavations of ancient civilizations; anthropology today is addressing medical interventions to combat disease, while bridging the gap between indigenous belief patterns and a more advanced concept of wellbeing. Anthropologists have always marvelled at the ‘total acceptance’ and prioritization of nature in tribal communities; but the work of taking this knowledge and merging it with biological and technological developments is a recent phenomenon - with an emerging focus on genetics, biogenetics and bio-anthropology.

Not any lower than us, but behind us!

I believe that it is far easier for those who are already in positions of power and privilege to move ahead, as against those who strive to climb the same ladder, while battling severe physical, environmental, and socio-economic obstacles and taboos.

Santhal women in the fields

Over the years, we have read, studied, and understood much about tribal communities in academia; so much so that tribal customs have become a cultural show-window for us. The annual display and participation of tribal communities on the Republic Day are surely met with enthusiasm and thundering applause. But what would they be thinking - “we went to New Delhi, the Capital, put on a show, were greeted with garlands and applause, just for a few days - and now we are back to where we were!”

Like I shared earlier, when I saw a Santhal girl coming to Shanti Niketan village, as an anthropologist and a journalist, I would say - their aspirations and ambitions are no different from ours; in the sense of dressing up or so to say cultural ‘upliftment’, or their interaction with the opposite sex, their expectations from men in the community and their desire of the changing roles in society. But the question is - Do we care?

Can we then say that the perception and understanding held by anthropologists will fruitfully lead to the cementing of the social breach, if any, caused in ever changing social scenarios?

However, the question shall remain - does a peaceful society imply a standardized homogeneity amongst communities in their living, cultures, beliefs, or even socio-economic realities? Or does it accept and acknowledge a heterogeneous mix of multiple cultures presenting a larger canvas of diversity?

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Nita Mawar
Nita Mawar
Aug 10, 2022

Congratulations Sunita, batchmate in DU and sustaining your ideas on applied anthropology .!! Sharing your field work experiences when you were a student working in Uttrakhand and while at work with Museum of Man. Your narrative brings interesting ideas as a journalist on Tribal development from emic and etic, they and us perspective, underscoring the applied anthropological perspective., something that you are pursuing at your organzation SAHAS through microfinancing self sustaining proect on women.

Sunita Palita
Sunita Palita
Aug 12, 2022
Replying to

A batchmate responding to a batchmate, on a common concern:)

Feels good to be conversing with you on a subject, equally dear to both of us.

Having said that, I recall discussing the applicability of our subject even as students at the post graduate level when there were concerns about our placement in jobs, where we were not prefered as candidates for positions though we were better equipped than sociology student aspirants.

I remember having lost an opportunity to join National Fertilizers even after Prof. I.P. Singh, Proctor DU, had issued a letter to the employers that both the subjects should be treated as equivalents.

To my utter dismay, nearly 30 years later when I was recruting cadidates for YAMUNA…

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