Frozen ice and a silent spring


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WHILE the threat of academic colonialism may no longer loom large in the same way as in the late 1960s, with the fear that research may be used for unholy ends (see Patricia Uberoi, this issue), the problem of unequal power relations between intellectuals from ‘metropolitan’ and ‘peripheral’ centres remains. This is often manifested in meetings or conferences, especially where conditions in developing countries are pathologised without a similar understanding of the situation in developed countries. In this article, I draw upon the experience of a few international seminars and encounters to illustrate the ‘frozen’ nature of such exchanges, despite the overt appearance of intellectual exchange.

At the briefing session of the Asia Pacific Regional Conference, preparatory to the first International Summit on Environment held in Stockholm, the American Adviser of ESCAP (ECAFE in those days) remarked that ‘Asia had enriched the spiritual heritage of mankind (in 1971 the word humankind was not in currency) and Asia was expected to fulfil this role in the coming decades as well.’ The Asian delegates as a whole were not amused. Some asked how the material needs of the growing population of Asia would be met.

The wise man from America expiated at length on two issues: first, that everyone should live according to their means and second, that there should be an international division of labour. He expected the Asians to live a modest life and he assured them that with the build up of productive capacities in America and Europe it would be possible to satisfy the minimum needs of the population of Asia and Africa. He also suggested that high density population countries in Asia (like India), should ask the Central Asian Republics of the then USSR to accommodate a large number of migrants from them.

I asked why, in that case, India should not expect a large population to be accommodated in Canada, since that country too had a very low population density. When he tried to argue in terms of cultural affinity, many delegates from Asian countries accused him of a racist bias and demanded he provide a global picture of the carrying capacity of populations, in terms of existing and prospective technologies and resources, in different countries of the world. After a few angry fulminations, the gentleman slank into a sullen silence.

At the business session in the afternoon, the American adviser reiterated his comments of the morning. As the chair of the session, I intervened to remind him that he had been requested to provide some data in the briefing session; that if he did not have the data he should skip over the particular issue. He tried to defy my ruling and, supported by the leader of the Japanese delegation, asserted that as adviser he was free to present what he thought was relevant.



Rather than arguing rationally, he claimed that India had created a problem for Pakistan by inequitous sharing of water with the then East Pakistan. He was once again warned that unless he could present a comprehensive global picture, his selective reference to different countries would be construed as indulgence in politics. This was a meeting to sort out the technical details regarding the relation between environment and human settlement; if he could not provide the technical information required by the delegates, I said that, as the chairman of the session, I would place on record his incompetence and would not allow him to speak.

Again Japan protested while other Asian countries were dazed into silence. But support came from an unexpected quarter. The leader of the Pakistan delegation endorsed my view that the American adviser was politicising the issue and requested me to order the gentleman to his seat. The silent stream of historical understanding among the different parts of the subcontinent washed away the pollution of politics that the pretentious expert had tried to introduce, even in a discussion of a technical-academic nature.



While such a silent spring may not flow through all such situations, most international academic discourses in which I have participated, the factor of ‘frozen communication’ operated quite vigorously. In 1974, the International Sociological Congress held in Toronto started with a session on the sociological dimensions of the population problem. One speaker was selected from each continent. In my speech I admitted that population explosion adversely affected not only national economies, but also social processes at the level of inter-ethnic relations, intra-family relations and so on. Nevertheless, when one speaks of eco-degradation at the global level, population explosion and the explosion of consumerism should be seen as two sides of the same coin.

I then analyzed the sociological factors which stood in the way of controlling consumerism in the USA and other so-called developed countries. I termed them ‘mal-developed countries’ and assured them that the sociologists in the Third World countries would try to help them. The coordinator of the session and the fellow speakers saw my speech as an unforgivable affront. After just a few minutes I could see that their faces had turned grim. When the session closed, the coordinator did not even look at me; he took leave of the other speakers and left. The ‘frozen communication’ was grimacing at me. But in my soul I could hear the whispering melody of millions. That which was a whisper in 1974 became a thunder at Seattle, a quarter century later.

In 1980, I was invited to a Unesco sponsored workshop on Statistical Indicators of Social Development at Penang, Malaysia. There were around a dozen participants. I was the only anthropo-sociologist, the others were all statisticians. They were busy preparing an inventory of relevant indicators. I raised the question of weightage to be given to each indicator, and insisted that the weightage should be culture-specific, based on field studies. No one agreed and I was completely isolated. Even now this issue has not been resolved, Amartya Sen and Mahabul ul Haq notwithstanding. I am therefore not impressed by the Human Development Reports annually brought out by UNDP. Apart from positive weigh-tage, there should be negative weigh-tage by including several indicators of a different type (see Roy Burman, 1998).



In 1988, the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences was held at Zagreb in Yugoslavia. Here too, one speaker from each continent was to speak in the first plenary session on the emerging challenges to anthropology. In fact, there were two speakers from Asia: one, a physical anthropologist from China and I, a sociocultural anthropologist from India.

I spoke about the wrong priorities in technological development as a consequence of competition among the big powers for military supremacy. In such a context, additional micro-level studies and field work by anthropologists in isolation from the wider context could not be expected to contribute to human welfare. Micro-studies related to the wider context would radically redefine the focus of enquiry. Further, I pointed out that anthropologists by training were ill-equipped for such a task. Some awareness, not only about history, but about historical method, macroeconomics, philosophy and history of thought was necessary. My presentation got a mixed reception. Though warmly congratulated by speakers from China and Africa, the others were lukewarm. I again came across frozen ice covering a silent spring.

In 1998, the UGC and the British Council, Delhi, jointly organised a seminar on Human Rights Education. I was invited to participate as a member of the UGC Working Group on Human Rights Education. The participants included the Chairperson of the UGC, the Secretary, UGC and a number of legal luminaries, human rights activists and educationists. Some international agencies were also represented.



The British Council had taken the trouble to arrange a human rights educationist from the ‘home country’ to come to Delhi to ‘educate’ us about human rights education. I do not know whether his previous experience was restricted to educating children at home on human rights. At the very outset he distributed photocopies of a news item published in a US daily about the flogging ordered by a Singapore court for a delinquent US adolescent, resident in Singapore. He gave us each a blank paper and requested us to comment on the ‘correctness’ of the court in delivering such a harsh judgment.

I protested at the manner in which we were being treated. Instead of treating us like children, he should have first explained to us the theoretical premise informing the procedure he was following, and provided us with details of what the Singapore media had to say on the incident, not just what the American media had to say. Some of the Indian participants argued with me for being harsh with a guest. Sometime after this incident, at a meeting of the UGC working group, it was announced that a small standing committee would be set up to deal with unspecified non-routine matters, which till then the group as a whole used to deal with. Naturally, I was not included in the standing committee and of course the working group has not met in the last two years. Perhaps there was no non-routine matter for it to deal with.



If this fossilised behaviour was an encounter reminiscent of the colonial era, this is not the end of the story. At the last meeting of the working group that I attended, we were told that some members would visit the UK to get acquainted with how they dealt with human rights issues. I was not aware that the UK had a human rights commission; just that under pressure of the European Union they were considering setting up one. I phoned the British Council to confirm the facts. After two days of being referred from one officer to another, I hazarded the guess that perhaps the UK did not have a human rights commission. Their reply was, ‘Perhaps you are correct.’ When I asked which members in the working group visited the UK and whom they met, I was met with a stony silence. I do not know whether I am still a member of the UGC working group. The right to dignity and the right to information are evidently not human rights as far as our swadeshi UGC is concerned.

Attempts by bleeding heart ‘western’ nationals to mould international discourse in ways that obliterate their own responsibility or that of their countries are most evident at conferences on indigenous peoples. In 1991, the Indian Council of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (now renamed Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples) convened a seminar in Delhi on the definition of ‘indigenous peoples’. There were participants from some international agencies, as well as from Canada and Germany.

In my keynote address, I defined ‘indigenous peoples’ as peoples rooted in their immediate physical and social environment in a manner that they amplify and elaborate their culture primarily with reference to such environment, while at the same time incorporating elements of culture from other sources at the secondary level. My position was that when so defined, indigenous and tribal people could be equated, though in a purely chronological sense it was extremely difficult to establish such an equation. While most Indian participants stood by my view, the non-Indian participants in general insisted on the use of the word ‘indigenous’ primarily in a chronological sense. At the same time, they wanted to treat indigenous and tribal as synonymous. I was faced with frozen ice.



I chaired the first working session. A representative of the German NGO, Endangered of the Earth, described his experience in Karnataka. He pointed out how, due to the corrupt practices of local revenue personnel, the tribal people were being dispossessed from their land. He insisted that unless tribal peoples were considered original settlers they would not be able to retain their land anywhere in India. I intervened to say that I was the Chairman of the GOI Committee on Land Holding Systems of the Tribals and that my committee had found that in some areas where the concerned tribal peoples were treated as the earliest settlers, hardly one per cent of the land was recorded in their favour, not merely because of the aberrant functioning of lower level officials but because of the legacy of colonial land laws.

When he insisted on continuing his account of specific cases of default by Indian officials, I asked him whether the Romas in Germany, who did not even have citizenship rights, were not among the most endangered sections of the world human community. He fell silent, whereupon I advised him to board the next available plane and go back to Germany to help the endangered people there.



Another international encounter on indigenous issues took place in February 1996, in a workshop on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Commonwealth countries organised in Delhi under the aegis of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, (Delhi Chapter) and Minority Rights Group, London. Soli Sorabjee, currently Attorney General of India, presided over the inaugural session. The participants were from Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, several international agencies and England. While welcoming the Australian High Commissioner, Soli Sorabjee referred to a famous judgement delivered by the Supreme Court of Queensland in Australia, which accepted that since the aboriginal peoples of the Straits Island had an organized polity sufficient to exercise jurisdictional right over their traditional habitat, the concept of terra nullius did not apply.

This case, called the Mabo case after the name of the complainant against the crown, is household word among jurists all over the knowledge. From what Sorabjee said, one might have got the impression that the Mabo judgement applied to the whole of Australia. I intervened to say that it applied only to the Straits Island and that a similar judgement with more far-reaching implications had been delivered in Manipur way back in 1960. Though I had published the entire judgement in the 1960s, it had escaped the attention of jurists.

I also found that participants from Australia and New Zealand, none of whom belonged to any of the indigenous peoples of these countries, made exaggerated claims. Further, while some European scholars praised India in a patronising manner, they were unduly harsh about Bangladesh and Pakistan. The representative of an international agency made a patently incorrect statement praising a European country where some people are in a general way recognised as indigenous. I intervened and provided a rapid overview of the situation, country by country, modified the claim in respect of India and pointed out the incorrectness of the claim in favour of the European country. Later it was unanimously decided to request me to edit the proceedings of the workshop along with the papers presented therein (Roy Burman and Verghese 1995). The frozen ice melted unobtrusively.



I had more such encounters at the international level – the latest in April 2000 at Uppsala University in Sweden, at a workshop, ‘Indigenous Peoples: trajectory of a modern concept in India’. I was under the impression that the meeting was on indigenous peoples in different parts of the world, but on reaching there discovered that it was mainly about India. There were some papers by European scholars covering some of the South East Asian countries, including the Philippines; there was also one paper comparing tribal policy in India and the USA. In several papers, the authors had ignored the violation of the rights of the aboriginal peoples by multinational mining enterprises (as in the Philippines) or other issues which would expose the role of the colonial powers just before they gave up their rule (in Laos). Similarly the paper comparing tribal and indigenous policies in India and the USA was completely silent on vital facts about the USA.



Barring three or four exceptions, most of the papers contributed by Indian scholars discussed incidents in India without providing an overall perspective. Certainly I am unhappy about the policies and programmes which are being pursued in India; I have consistently written about them. But these should be seen in a world-system perspective and located in the sliding slope along which the Indian state is rolling down, particularly after moving towards a comprador role in a neo-liberal economic framework.

One Indian participant protested when I stated that the World Bank’s assertion that all scheduled tribes in India should be treated as indigenous amounted to uninformed interference. I pointed out that in some states even brahmins had been included in the list of scheduled tribes, either as a matter of state policy or by mistake and that the local tribal peoples had agitated against this. I then asked him whether he still considered the World Bank to be right; he remained silent. The king can do no wrong.

Most disappointing was the presentation on the Saami situation. A Saami politician was invited to speak. Though he did not present any paper, he showed through slides the political administrative structure in the Saami area. He also provided some demographic facts and spoke about reindeer herding as the binding core of their culture. But he did not say that Saami land rights had been severely curtailed due to state action and that through a court case they were in danger of losing three-fourths of the forest land on which they enjoyed some rights.

Although on indigenous issues the Swedish state is usually held up as a model to countries like India, no one pointed out that while in Finland Saamis are statutorily recognised as indigenous, and in Norway their indigenous status is indirectly recognised, in Sweden they are described as indigenous only in a general way without any statutory recognition. As the Saami politician was short of time he was not available for questioning. One expected that at a seminar held in Sweden, a comprehensive paper on the Saamis would be presented. If Indian scholars were expected to present the problem of the indigenous or tribal peoples of their country in great depth in Sweden, they could reasonably expect that a case study of the Saamis would be presented in similar depth.



The Saami problem has been of interest to me since the late 1970s, when I first learnt that they were losing their land through state policy and court intervention. Given my knowledge of the Saamis and several other peoples of Europe who deserve to be included in the list of ‘indigenous’ peoples, whatever the definition, I felt that the workshop should have spent time not only to clarify the concept of indigenous, but also to suggest that the case of Saamis and other such peoples be sympathetically considered. However, this was not taken up and I was again faced with frozen ice.

But this is not the end of the story. When I accepted their invitation I had asked the organisers to arrange a visit to the Saami area, which they graciously did. I was the guest of the President of the Saami Parliament and Community Development Authority of the Swedish government. I was given full opportunity to visit the reindeer herders and to go through the synopses of court cases. Given my experience in India, I was able to draw the attention of the President of the Saami Parliament to certain points which had not been presented to the court. He was excited on discovering this, arranged a press meet and asked the press to carefully record my views which would be presented to the court as expert opinion.



From the records, I found that the Saamis had spent an amount equivalent to £10,00,000 on the court case they had lost; also that they were short of funds to fight other court cases affecting around 75 per cent of the land currently under their traditional use. I was surprised to learn that no Swedish scholar had espoused their cause during the court case and that no Swedish NGO had offered them financial help. I wrote to a Swedish scholar, but his reply was far from adequate. I also wrote to the Swedish International Development Agency located in Delhi, which has spent millions of dollars for the development of social forestry in India, enquiring about their own forest dwellers and why their traditional forest rights had been neglected. Currently I am exploring the possibility of arranging international help for the Saamis. If people in India receive international help, our own sense of self-respect demands that some Indians take up deserving cases outside India. It is not a silent spring but a humanist torrent I am looking for.



B.K. Roy-Burman, J.S. Tandon Memorial Lecture delivered at the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. Journal of the Anthropological Society of India, 1998.

B.K. Roy Burman and B.G. Verghese (eds), Aspiring To Be. Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 1995.