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  • [JSRNC 4.2 (2010) 191-212] JSRNC (print) ISSN 1363-7320 doi: 10.1558/jsrnc.v4i2.191 JSRNC (online) ISSN 1743-1689

    Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010, 1 Chelsea Manor Studios, Flood Street, London SW3 5SR.

    ________________________________________________

    Bonafide Tribals: Religion and Recognition among

    Denizens of Mumbais Forest Frontier* ________________________________________________

    William Elison

    Stanford University, IHUM Program, Sweet Hall, Stanford, CA 94305, USA

    welison@stanford.edu

    Abstract

    This essay discusses a predicament confronting semi-urban members of the Warli community, a tribal (adivasi) group whose settlements occupy the wooded northern frontier of the city of Mumbai. Much of this area is administered as a nature reserve, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, with adjacent sections having been opened to development by business interests, prominent among them the Bollywood film industry. When first an environmental NGO and then the film studios sought to drive the Warlis from their land, Warli NGOs responded in court first by enumerat-ing their presence and then by establishing a connection between those abstract numbers and constructions of tribals already circulating in legal discourse and other privileged channelsideas, images, and narratives that could frame them as a certain kind of community whose relation to a certain kind of space gave them legitimate rights of occupancy. At stake in these conflicts, I argue, was the problem of recognition. Invisibility, which had so long defined the condition of denizens of the Indian wilderness, was no longer a refuge; once the forest zone had been absorbed within the realm of polity, it became incumbent on the Warlis to claim recognition as fellow subjects in whatever terms were practicable or be consigned to abjection.

    * This essay is part of an ethnographic study based on fieldwork I conducted in Mumbai in 20022003. I owe thanks to the FulbrightHays DDRA Fellowship Program for funding my work in India.

  • 192 Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture

    Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010.

    I am like a man who disbelieves The evidence of his eyes: For all its obvious size, He doubts the elephant exists Until theres no elephant, only prints, And then hes suddenly convinced.

    Ka

  • Elison Bonafide Tribals 193

    Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010.

    It will be noted that neither of these sets of numbers constitutes official data. The 1991 Census of India records no human habitation within the forest zone at all, with the exception of the dairy employees housed in the workers quarters at the Milk Colony. In fact, as its status as an archival blind spot indicates, the case of these forest padas presents an anomaly as far as the official organization of space is concerned. But it is a multifaceted anomaly, affording more than one angle of approach to the forests inhabitantsor more properly those who represent them in publicas they seek recognition within the official order. The problem is not simply that human settlement is conceptually inadmissible in an area that, across most of its compass, has been desig-nated a nature preserve. I would argue that, given the enduring power of the natureculture opposition as a structuring trope in Indian thought and literature, tribal communities and territory alike have historically become defined as such through a political and epistemic segregation beyond the rule of law and ken of civilization (cf. Damodaran 2006; Feld-haus 1995: Chapter 4). Insofar as forest management policies adopted in the colonial period have come to transform this scenario, what the Gov-ernment of Indias assumption of the role of steward over natural resources and, by extension, guardian of the children of nature has done is to reframe the wilderness as a kind of annex of the state. Its space neither public nor its denizens citizens, this is a distinct regime of subjec-tion to be kept in quarantine by the authorities from a host of modern contagionsthreats to the integrity of the natural environmentwhose vectors of transmission include symbolic formations (Sanskritic Hindu-ism, popular cinema) as well as material commodities and capital. The surveys and maps of settlements whose results I present here are thus informal, provisional efforts on which representatives of the most educated cohort within the Mumbai Warli community embarked in response to specific challenges mounted by nontribal interests. The chal-lenge in the case of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park took formal shape in a sequence of lawsuits. In 1995 an effort to expel so-called squatters from the area of the forest reserve reached the Bombay High Court in the form of a writ petition filed by an organization called the Bombay Envi-ronmental Action Group (BEAG). Debate in BEAG v. Maharashtra was joined on the question of how human settlement in natural spaces was to be regarded in the eyes of the law. The survey data compiled by Jaag was submitted as evidence in the case that succeeded BEAG, Writ Peti-tion 925 of 2000, Sapte v. Maharashtra, which reopened the question with particular reference to the tribal population. Having discussed the judgment handed down in Sapte in 2003, I will move on to consider some aspects of the outreach conducted by the

  • 194 Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture

    Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010.

    other activist group, SMS, among the padas of Aarey Milk Colony and Film City. This area is characterized by conflict between adivasi commu-nities and a number of development interests that, when not effectively blind to their presence on the landscape, actively seek to erase them from it. The scenario is most vividly illustrated by the fate of a Film City hamlet called Devipada, the uneasy neighbor of an expanding construc-tion site. The Whistling Woods Film Academy, the development in question, is the brainchild of the well-known Bollywood impresario Subhash Ghai. Ghais crews have erected a stone wall across territory the Warlis claim as part of their pada and on one notorious occasion in 2003of which more latercalled in police support for their bulldozers. The conflicts animating my two case studies were manifested in differ-ent ways: on the one hand, a set of appeals to a symbolic matrixthe lawmediated through professional advocate-surrogates; on the other, the direct usurpation of space by one party from another, a physical process that spilled over into violence. But at stake in both, I would argue, was the problem of recognition. The invisibility that had so long defined the tribal condition was no longer a refuge; once the forest zone had been absorbed within the realm of polity, it became incumbent on resident Warlis to claim recognition as fellow subjects in whatever terms were practicable or be consigned to abjection. The opening move made by both tribal organizations, as I have mentioned, was to enumerate the populations whose homes had been brought under threat. The next step was then to establish connections between those abstract representations and constructions of tribals already circulating in legal discourse and other privileged channelsimages, ideas, and narratives that could frame the forests inhabitants as a certain kind of community whose relation to a certain kind of space gave them legitimate rights of occupancy. While it was imperative to come up with numbers on a map, in other words, there also had to be a persuasive validation of those numbers presence on that map. In this article I will describe some of the repre-sentational options confronting the Warli leaders and move on to an analysis organized around some terms borrowed from the typology of signs formulated by the American philosopher and pioneer of semiotics, Charles S. Peirce. In looking to Peirce, I follow the example set by a number of scholars working in cultural and symbolic anthropology who have sought inspiration in his theories for their own efforts to under-stand communicative acts within cultural systems, and their generation of meaning (and other effects) at different levels of experience or percep-tion. Specifically, I am interested in a threefold distinction Peirce draws among the ways that signs relate to their objects. This is the famous

  • Elison Bonafide Tribals 195

    Equinox Publishing Ltd 2010.

    trichotomy of icon, index, and symbol. If the sort of signification provided by archival recordsas instantiated in the columns of numerals and type that run through census datais to be assessed primarily at the level of Peirces symbolic mode, which operates on a strictly conventional connection, the balance of my analysis will rest on the two other props of the Peirceian tripod: the iconic, which enacts signification through resemblance, and the indexical, which relies on a relation of causality or spatiotemporal contiguity (Parmentier 1994: 6). 2 Having considered some of the distortions generated by the system of archival registration, I will move on to emphasize the iconic mode, which I identify as the salient signifying logic in ongoing efforts on the part of some of Mumbais Warlis to negotiate a public identity as a com-munity with a distinctively tribal cultural sensibility. I am tempted to gloss the purpose of this activity, which is less a coherent project than a set of poaching practices in Michel de Certeaus (1984) sense, as the dissemination of Brand Tribal. There is a singularly postmodern ten-dency at work in these moves to establish the forests denizens as bonafide tribalsas people, that is, who look like what other people think they should look likethrough the mimetic citation of images and tropes fabricated and circulated, in large part, by the very film studios that have overrun their homes. The first bid for self-representati

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