Insights from Social Contexts

Development Path for Indigenous People: Lessons from India and Brazil

The focus on the tribal communities in choosing a right balance between tradition and modernity is because they are at the threshold of what can be termed as `modernity’ and these choices can be crucial for them.

Practice Insights Insights from Social Contexts

Development Path for Indigenous People: Lessons from India and Brazil

V Santhakumar and Amarendra Das 

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1. Introduction

What is the appropriate combination of tradition and modernity needed to address the social and environmental challenges confronted by humanity today? This is a genuine concern given the failure of post-industrialist and capitalist societies in addressing present-day conflicts of inequality and environmental degradation. This paper does not address this question directly. Instead, it argues that the right balance between tradition and modernity must be decided by the communities themselves. This is especially so for the native and traditional communities, such as the indigenous people in different parts of the world and the tribal population in India.

There is a greater focus on these communities since they seem to be at the threshold of what can be termed as `modernity’, and such choices can be crucial for them at this point. Also, since they are seen as the remaining few custodians of `traditions’, there is great anxiety in the society at large regarding the potential loss of traditional practices and knowledge if the former adopts indiscriminate modernisation too. Hence, the choices being made by or imposed on these people are debated widely. It is in this context that this paper argues for the self-determination of such choices. It is further argued here that externally-imposed or mediated choices may not be desirable.

This paper uses the historical-empirical experience of three populations – two from two different parts of India and one from Brazil – to support the propositions put forward here. The former includes tribal populations in two states of India – Odisha and Mizoram. Odisha sustains nearly eight million tribal people and their human development indicators continue to be substantially inferior to that of the mainstream population. Most of the education and development efforts that are being carried on there, deprive the tribal people of their traditional life and place them at the lower tiers of an industrial society. On the other hand, the tribal population in Mizoram, which is only one-tenth of that in Odisha, is not only better in terms of human development indicators (compared to the mainstream population in India) but also seem to be empowered enough to make an autonomous or endogenous choice in balancing tradition and modernity. Their struggle for self-determination and achievements in terms of political autonomy seemed to have contributed to this.

The education and social change of the indigenous people in Brazil have gone through different stages, from imposed modernisation and integration in the early stages to their own assertion of economic and political rights during the last two to three decades. They started demanding education, not necessarily for modernisation, but as a way to strengthen their capacity to assert rights. These people have taken greater control over the structures and nature of their education. Their participation in the overall political and bureaucratic processes have compelled the state to facilitate this transition, which indicates a reflective choice regarding modernity and tradition among them.

We discuss, in detail, the situation of these three groups with regard to education.

2. Scheduled Tribes in Odisha

Lifestyle of tribal folks is visible

Tribal people of Koraput, Odisha

The Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the state of Odisha face very difficult challenges in terms of human development, including schooling. The rate of poverty among them (around 52%) is much above that of the mainstream population of the country (which is around 22%). There is believed that the lack of capacities associated with educational achievements is an important reason for the persistence of poverty (Mohanty, 2000; Mohanty and Skunabb-Kangas, 2012)1.

The fact that mainstream schooling is in a language that is different from that of this population was found to be an important barrier in the education of their children (Mohanty and Skunabb-Kangas, 2012). Hence, the state of Odisha, in 2007, started mother-tongue-based, multi-lingual education for children belonging to the tribal population in grades I-V. Though the teaching of tribal language and its use as a medium of instruction in grades I-III seemed to have reduced the fear of schooling among these children and have enhanced their attendance, participation and learning achievements (Panda and Mohanty, 2009), there are a number of other challenges that are discussed here.

The other approach is to provide residential schooling to these children by taking them out of their families and communities. However, this can erase their identity and impose a one-size-fits-all education by neglecting the cultural and social context of the tribal communities2. The design of such schooling is based on the assumption that the social context of the tribal children is not conducive for their education. Residential schooling may make them feel ashamed of their identity. Since their own language is not taught in these residential schools, it creates difficulties in schooling on the one hand and denies them their rightful grasp and pride in their own language, on the other. Being away from their families and communities can also give rise to psychological problems and it is not unusual to see tribal children facing difficulties, including psychological trauma, in being left between two worlds through this education.

The prejudices of the non-tribal population may influence the way the schools are run3. Some of these prejudices are rooted in the not-so-liberal values of the mainstream society in India. For example, the patriarchal culture of the mainstream society may view the gender relationships in tribal cultures as ‘problematic’. In general, it is ideal if schooling is grounded both in their social and cultural context and at the same time, enables them to deal with the challenges of an increasingly integrated and a fast-changing world. Residential or non-residential, if schooling does not connect with the social realities of these children, it may fail to achieve its goals. Though bilingual education is attempted in some parts of India, we are yet to practice inter-cultural education for the STs.

In the absence of appropriate education and consequent opportunities for a better life, people belonging to these tribes end up as low-status labourers (Thakur and Pandey, 2009). Their economic, social and psychological poverty is steadily increasing (Beck and Mishra, 2010). Their readiness or ability to be pro-active in demanding and making reforms in education is also doubtful (Malyadri, 2012). There could be political reasons for this state of affairs, which may become evident when we see the situation of the tribal population in another state of India, namely Mizoram.

3. Scheduled Tribes in Mizoram

The STs constitute 95% of Mizoram’s population and they speak their own language, which did not have a script until it was codified by the colonialists in the later decades of the 19th century. The socio-political organisation of these people was around the village the village chief. There were constant warfare and raids between people living in different villages and head-hunting was practised with a strong socio-cultural significance. The Mizos were considered ferocious not only by the colonizers but among themselves too (Lawmsanga, 2010:72).

The documentation of their history started only in the 1850s by the officers of the British Military who occupied the adjoining regions of Burma and Chittagong (both in present-day Bangladesh). Initially, the British were not interested in the hilly areas occupied by these people and they called them ‘irreclaimable savages’ (Strom, 1980) and encountered a number of raids by these tribal people (who later came to be known as, ‘Mizos’) during that period (Raatan, 2006). In one such raid, it was reported that 150 people in a British colonial territory were killed. These raids by tribal people and consequent deaths in colonial territories impelled the British to suppress the tribal chiefdoms and they put together a new territory, Lushai Hills, through military actions in 1889.  

These tribal people demanded political autonomy when India gained independence and Lushai Hills became the state of Mizoram in 1987. In addition, there were many uprisings by different tribes in this area to assert their social and political rights – against their chiefs; for the preservation of their tribal identity, and so on. However, they do not have a very long tradition of modern education and development.

Educational activities in this area were started only in 1898 by two Christian missionaries who were part of an aborigines’ mission (J.H. Lorrain and F.W.Savidge) and who also codified the unwritten language of the Mizo people. The first set of primary schools were started in Aizawl and in a few other villages between 1898 and 1903. Middle and higher schools were established only after the 1940s. These were strengthened by the state government of Mizoram during the second half of 20th century and have spurred the educational and human-development status of the STs in Mizoram, which is at a much higher level than that of these tribes in Odisha and other parts of India. Not only is 92% of the ST population in Mizoram literate but the enrolment in high schools is 99%.

The contemporary life of the Mizo people is characterised by a combination of tradition and modernity. They have given up traditional practices such as human-animal sacrifices, worship of the so-called evil spirits, head-hunting, etc due to a change in their worldview. This transition from the previously practised animistic religion has been beneficial as many families in appeasing natural objects and evil spirits would lose their assets. The conversion into Christianity has lessened this burden.

There have been modifications in practices of marriage, divorce and customs related to death and burial, and so on (Nag, 1993) and the practice of wearing western clothes became common (Horam, M. 1978:35). However, they retained certain traditional practices, albeit, in their modified versions. The social institution for peer learning and collective action which existed among the traditional Mizo people continued with a new name, Young Mizo Association (YMA). It serves as a binding force and promotes the communitarian spirit of the Mizo society. Similarly, Mizos have not become individualistic and continue with a social spirit known as `’tlawmnqaihna’ – a social code of conduct; the spirit of self-sacrifice in matters relating to society. Such a combination of traditions and a newer set of values can be seen in their approach to Christianity too. It is noted that `there are strong lines of continuity when the primal worldview and ethos came to be utilized as connecting links to the message of the new religion’ (Pachuau, 2006). The tradition of telling stories that communicate the vision of a glorified past to the younger generations, carries on. Some of the changes in society may be driven by contemporary economic realities. For example, there seems to be an increase in the use of paid labour for burial in the capital city of Aizawl, which was previously carried out through collective voluntary efforts.

In essence, the choice of the combination of modernity and tradition that the Mizos have assumed seems to be autonomous or endogenous. Education and the consequent improvement in human development seem to have facilitated this choice. Their situation may have a parallel with the contemporary situation of the indigenous people in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. This is discussed in the following section.

4. Indigenous People in Brazil

Indigenous people constitute only about 0.4% of the Brazilian population4. The term ‘tribe’, in anthropological literature, implies the prevalence of a social organisation under a leadership (Tiwari and Sharma, 1989). Some of the indigenous people of Brazil cannot be considered as tribes in this sense.

There is an enormous diversity among the indigenous people of Brazil in terms of the language spoken; demographic situation; `social organization; economics and politics; history; intensity and quality of interethnic contacts with non-indigenous segments of the Brazilian population; degree of information available about the Brazilian society and about their own rights as Brazilian citizens; commitment level in the indigenous movement and organization to face the Brazilian state; degree of political and economic autonomy as well as the quality and quantity of information about the world’s situation and the global economy’5. There are some indigenous groups whose contact with outsiders is not more than 20-30 years old whereas others have been in contact for 2-5 centuries. It is estimated that around 180 languages are spoken by the indigenous people in Brazil. Some groups still survive on hunting and gathering and limited agriculture within forested areas, but there are others who live in urban peripheries or are integrated into global markets.

The education of indigenous people has a long history in Brazil. Researchers identify four phases6. The first phase of schooling started during the colonial period and continued until the initial decades of the 20th century. The second phase, from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1970s, was driven by the independent but nationalist state. This was characterized by a desire to assimilate indigenous people culturally to create a homogeneous nation. The desire to create enough industrial workers was also behind the drive. Though there was some attention to the use of indigenous languages in education, it was seen as a way to make the transition to mainstream education easier.

However, alternative models of schooling which came into being in the middle of 20th century mainly through the interventions of non-governmental professionals and organisations and progressive elements in the church7, used the languages spoken by indigenous groups as the medium of instruction and provided space for their traditional knowledge (along with the knowledge of the mainstream society) and also a greater role for them in the affairs of schooling8. There was also participation by educated people from these groups in the preparation of learning materials. The scaling up of these models and their experiences have started influencing the ideas on the appropriate education for the indigenous people. By the 1980s, the socio-political movement of the indigenous people gained prominence in the country and they started articulating and asserting their rights.

There have been apprehensions on the usefulness of education for the indigenous groups9. There are strong advocates of political mobilisation of the working class and other marginalised social groups who see the benefits of education10. This question of whether indigenous groups need or do not need education was not a major concern of the indigenous movements which were overwhelmingly in support of receiving an education – but one appropriate to their social context. An anthropologist familiar with the indigenous education of Brazil notes, `The idea that there is not necessarily any incompatibility between the introduction of schooling among indigenous peoples and the preservation of their linguistic and cultural specificities became one of the most important tenets of the indigenous movement in the country, combined with the fight for recognition of their territorial rights and of their existence as Brazilian citizens of the present and the future’11.

These changes were reflected in the new constitution of Brazil adopted in 1988. It granted full citizenship rights to indigenous people `without losing their distinctive cultural and indigenous characteristics’12. The constitution noted that ‘regular elementary education shall be given in the Portuguese language; the Indian communities also being ensured the use of their native languages and specific learning procedures.’  A legislation made in 1996 affirms indigenous people’s right to bilingual and inter-cultural education. There are two aspects to this inter-cultural education. On the one hand, it should help these communities to `regain their historical memories, affirm their ethnical identities and valorize their languages and sciences’. On the other, ` the education should protect the Indian communities and peoples, their access to information, technical and scientific knowledge of the Brazilian Society, as well as other societies, be they indigenous or not’. The law also recognises the state’s duty `to support technically and financially the teaching systems in order to provide inter-cultural education to the indigenous communities, developing integrated programs for teaching and research”.

Through these and the following changes, indigenous communities have started taking control of their schooling in Brazil. The elementary schools are controlled and managed by them. They see the need for education (not to become `modern’) to assert their rights in (and to deal with) a system/structure controlled by the mainstream (and educated) society. According to Rita Potyguara, who heads the program for indigenous education in Brazil and who herself is an indigenous person, there is no dearth of demand for schooling by the indigenous communities, currently. Even those communities which have established contacts with the mainstream society only recently, start demanding schools13. There is a perception in Brazil that its indigenous people are more `powerful’ politically and have greater access to resources than other marginalised social groups, say, the blacks14. In 2015, there were more than twenty thousand teachers in indigenous schools and according to the Director of Ministry of Education who is in charge of indigenous education, 90% of these teachers are from the same social group that they teach.

Even with this progress in the education of indigenous people, there are constraints. Many teachers in these schools are not well trained15. This has led the Ministry of Education of the Government of Brazil to request universities to train teachers from indigenous communities16.

Two interesting behavioural patterns have been noted17 with regard to the education of these communities. Often outsiders romanticize tradition and indigenous people follow traditional practices without reflecting adequately on these. Educated persons from these communities can facilitate a ‘transformation’ through the reflection on traditions and not through rejection18. There is a tendency among many students from indigenous communities who receive higher education to go back and work with their own communities (rather than settling in urban areas)19. Even those who are educated in urban areas seem to be interested in following the rituals and other cultural practices of the community. One such person (who has married a white woman20) has noted that those who follow traditions are well-respected within the community. Elders are expected to perform a godfather-like role for teenagers in these communities. This expectation by the community may create a situation where all adults cannot go for higher education simultaneously – some adults may delay their higher education waiting for those who have gone for it to return (from the cities). In addition to their strong connections with their community, the availability of land and access to other resources could be an enabling factor in this regard. However, the spread of education seems to be making an impact on the behaviour of these people. For example, the age of marriage for girls21 has gone up due to schooling22.

5. Conclusion

The tribal population in parts of India (say, Odisha) have not undergone a trajectory of education development similar to that of the indigenous people of Brazil. The former is yet to get or take control of their education. Either due to the minority status or for other reasons, their political mobilisation is not strong in these parts of India. When STs are mobilised by the mainstream political parties, there may not be enough attention to issues specific to them. Though Maoists and Naxalites are active in the areas where these people live, it remains to be seen if and how such activism has empowered these people and also if it has focussed on an appropriate education for them. Though the provision of land rights23 could be an agenda of political activism, the success in this regard, is also not clear. The Forest Rights Act, which legally accorded, certain rights to the STs has not been implemented in letter and spirit in most states.

In summary, one can see two kinds of educational outcomes for the tribal population in India. First, among those who are settled in the North-Eastern states of India where they are a majority, which has enabled them to wield certain rights of self-administration, the educational status is relatively better. However, the tribal population in other parts of India is spread out geographically and hence, they do not exercise much political clout. However, the electoral importance of the tribals/indigenous people may not be an adequate explanation for a comparison of their position in Brazil and India, since they constitute only a very small part of the population in Brazil. The international attention (due to the long period of exploitation and decimation of indigenous people) and the actions of sections of the middle-class as part of the general political democratization may have enabled greater attention towards the status of education of these people in Brazil.

There are different approaches towards the modernisation or development of the tribal population or indigenous people and these are also related to different ideological positions regarding the desirable changes in the life of these people. On the one hand, there are objections to the attempts to `develop’ or `modernise’ these people, and an extreme view in this regard is the so-called, `national park policy’ (Elwin, 1960). The other approach is for the total assimilation of these people into the mainstream society24.

There are weaknesses in these extreme approaches. First, it is the outsiders who have decided the nature of `appropriate’ development (whether it should be complete isolation or integration) for these people. The voices and agency of the indigenous or tribal people are not reflected adequately in these debates. They are also not given access to assets/resources (like land or education) so that they would be in a position to exercise their agency in an informed and empowered manner. In the absence of access to such resources, they would be compelled to accept what is provided (or denied) to them without much discretion/choice.

The second problem with these approaches is that these are not based adequately on a realistic understanding of the living conditions of these people. There are important lessons that mainstream society can learn from these tribes. These include their practices of nurturing bio-diversity (rather than destroying it), knowledge of plants and other materials for various purposes and also the continuation of certain communitarian arrangements that enhance the quality of social life25. If India’s mainstream population, including the middle-class, were to follow the way in which the tribal people treat their women26, it would have far-reaching, desirable consequences for our society. On the other hand, the efforts to modernise (including the attempts to make them Hindus) can lead to a situation where female-gender-biased practices become acceptable to them (Maharatna, 2000). However, these should not lead us to argue against all kinds of development interventions for this population. This is especially so if we consider the (ecological) resources available to them, and the `natural’ rate of population growth in the absence of education.

It is obvious that there is a need for development or social change for the STs in India, especially in states like Odisha. Encouraging all boys and girls to complete schooling is the first step in this direction. The improvement in the educational status will reflect in desirable changes in fertility rate, infant mortality rate and nutritional-status, among others. There are also other practices which may have to change. Studies on health conditions of these people have noted the negative impacts of certain habits, such as the excessive use of tobacco or country liquor (Zahiruddin et al, 2011). Cousin marriages or sexual relationships within close circles can be damaging in the long-run (Bashi, 1977). The early courtship between girls and boys leading to early marriage, pregnancy and child-bearing affects the education, opportunities for viable employment and other aspects of the lives of girls (Le Fevre et al, 2004).

The resources over which these people have access to (the forest) are also shrinking due to competitive uses including that for environmental protection (Santhakumar, 2017). Hence, they cannot continue with the same livelihood practices, if they do, there could be a degeneration in their quality of life. For better or for worse, there are contacts between the tribal people and the mainstream society and in the absence of adequate capacities to deal with the outside world, the tribals are more likely to be exploited in such interactions. Hence, the real challenge is in finding out ways to enhance the human development and other capabilities of these people and to nurture their practices which are valuable for everyone.

In summary, it seems that the lower demand for and hence under-achievements in schooling and human development among the STs in certain parts of India are due to the slower pace of their social and political mobilisation. It is evident that wherever the tribal population can assert their political and economic rights, there have been improvements in their educational status. This is clear from the situation in Mizoram and from that of the life of the indigenous people in Brazil. These improvements also seem to have empowered these people to make endogenous choices in terms of the combination of tradition and modernity that they are ready to assimilate into their lives.

AUTHORS

V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University.

Amarendra Das, Assistant Professor, National Institute for Science Education and Research (NISER), Bhubaneswar.

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