ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Tribes: The Other View

Tribe and State in Asia through Twenty-Five Centuries by Sumit Guha, Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies (Asia Shorts Series), 2021; pp 124, price not mentioned.

The category “tribes” or “tribal communities” instantly invokes an evolutionist imagination of primitive groups living away from the civilised world, isolated in far-off jungles. They are thus popularly viewed as the “left-behind people” in the human journey of progress. As this dominant narrative suggests, “tribal communities” provide a kind of contrast to the societies and countries of the West, which have all become “modern.” Until recently, there had been a general consensus across the political spectrum, from the “left” to the “right,” that the growth of industrial capitalism had dissolved all forms of “primordial” institutions and the earlier ways of collective living marked by patriarchal loyalty or hierarchical authority. It presumably produced a new form and mode of sociation. As this common understanding goes, by the latter half of the 19th century, economies and political life in the Western world had come to be organised through a “civic sentiment” where everyone participated in the system as a rational individual or member of a social/economic class constituted through markets or capitalist labour processes. Tribes and tribal sentiments presumably survived in the developing countries of the global South where growth of capitalist economy was delayed or distorted. Their modernisation had presumably not yet been completed.

Indeed, some social scientists disapproved of the term “tribal,” which they suggest, carried a “pejorative” connotation of being barbarous and instead proposed that such communitarian identities are better described as “ethnic.” They also point to the colonial origins of the term, referring to an arbitrary classification of communities and groups by the foreign rulers, with little knowledge and understanding of the diversities and complexities of local situations. However, such a shift in the lexicon makes little or no difference to the larger narrative or the binaries—the underlying assumptions of the hegemonic and Euro-centric comparative view of different cultures and regions of the world. In the post- World War II narratives of modernisation theory, “ethnic” too is presumed to be a kind of “primordial sentiment.” Quite like the “tribal,” “ethnic” too is seen primarily as a feature of the non-Western world, the developing countries. The persistence of such a sentiment is often also cited as a reason for the failings of democratic regimes in postcolonial countries and the frequent incidences of large-scale violence around collective identities.

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Updated On : 3rd Sep, 2022
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