Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

New Respect for Old Rebels
Asiaweek, Jan 2000

When the maverick British anthropologist Verrier Elwin requested suggestions for the title of his autobiography in 1961, he was offered 25 alternatives. How, asked his publisher, could a man with such a varied life be summed up in a few words? Ramachandra Guha does as good a job as any with his fascinating biography, Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India (University of Chicago Press, 398 pages, $32). Elwin was by turns a missionary, social worker, anthropologist and civil servant. But his passion was to preserve the culture of the tribal peoples of India, and he is best remembered for his crusade against what he called the “corrosive influences” of Hindu and Christian do-gooders.

The son of a bishop, Elwin went to India as a missionary in 1927. Yet, Guha says, he was “always out of place, always where tradition and history least expected him to be.” He eventually broke away from the Anglican church, disillusioned by its puritanism. In his younger days, he was a celibate disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, but he later became a “celebrator and chronicler of sex”, writing extensively on the hedonistic tribal life. He was a fervent supporter of the Indian nationalist movement, but eventually tried to defend the tribals from a “homogenizing nationalism”. He was Jawaharlal Nehru’s friend and adviser, yet his radical ideas on preserving tribal culture made him many enemies among Congress leaders. His personal life was no less controversial. Despite opposition from friends and family, he twice married tribal women and fathered two children out of wedlock.

Elwin’s greatest achievement, writes Guha, was to get the public to view tribal people with respect or, at least, interest. Until he came along, they were regarded as savages by the British Raj and the succeeding nationalist government. He lived for more than 20 years among the poorest tribes of central India, then moved to Shillong for a government study of the peoples of the north-east. During this time Elwin wrote several books on tribal culture, finding much to praise: the freedom enjoyed by women, their open sexual attitudes, their joyous songs and dances and rich artistic tradition. Most importantly, tribal society was uncorrupted by child marriages, the purdah system, untouchability and the other regressive practices adopted by Hindus. He also wrote eloquently about the ravages of civilization on the tribals and the destruction of their traditions by misguided “improvers.” “The aboriginals,” he wrote, “are the real swadeshi (indigenous) products of India.”

Elwin’s legacy survives in Northeast India (now the state of Arunachal Pradesh), where he was tribal adviser to the Northeast Frontier Agency. At Nehru’s request, he drafted a blueprint for the development of the hilltribes. It called for a compromise between assimilation and isolationism, urging slower development with a “tribal touch.” Some credit Elwin with Arunachal Pradesh’s relative stability today: It is the only one of seven northeastern states not riven by secessionist movements.

Elwin had his share of detractors. His views that tribals have the right to practice their own customs in reserved areas enraged politicians and scholars alike. His fiercest critic was the anthropologist G.S. Ghurye, who saw the tribals as “imperfectly integrated Hindus.” Other critics accused Elwin of wanting to preserve the tribes as “specimens in an anthropological museum.” In the chaotic post-partition period, he was blamed for undermining a shaky national unity, an accusation that survives today.

But as tribal peoples are being steadily displaced by large dams and mines, Elwin’s arguments deserve a fresh hearing. “In all his work there is visible a passionate desire to make adversaries see the truth in each other,” writes Guha of Elwin’s ability to find the middle ground between integration and isolation. Policy-makers might do worse than remember Elwin’s words: “We should recognize and honor the tribal way of doing things, not because it is old and picturesque, but because it is theirs.”