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Postcolonial Trials and Tribulations

M.S. Ganesh

By Vasudha Dhagamvar
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 415, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 9 September 2006

'To enter the phase of post-colonialism the tribes will first have to become state powers…. If so, then 8.08 per cent share in the total population of India is not a negligible number' (p. 379). Dhagamwar’s concluding lines in the book under review deflate an otherwise compassionate and edifying work on certain tribes and their tribulations since the colonial era: the Pahadiyas of the Rajmahal Hills, the Santals of the Santal Parganas, both originally in Bihar and now in Jharkhand, and the Bhils of north-western Maharashtra.   In her introduction, Dhagamwar delineates the premises of her study: the geographic and cultural isolation of the tribes from settled society; the law as comprising both specific legal situations and the legal system, i.e., the police, lawyers, the courts and jails; the tribe’s unawareness of its own history resulting in loss of its identity and culminating in Verrier Elwin’s “loss of nerve” and attendant consequences; and the focus on land and criminal matters as “these two areas of law are the only ones that matter to tribes” (pp. 12-13, 16-17). Then comes a perfunctory preliminary chapter that ends, “In all its aspects, the relationship between tribes and civil society in ancient and medieval India was that of convenience. Law, as we understand it, had little to do with it” (p. 36).   Dhagamwar’s conceptual underpinnings are rather shaky. Her historical-legal Indian paradigm of the Last of the Mohicans does not delineate the –or her—conception of a tribe. She does not cite the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 or mention the so-called Denotified and Nomadic Tribes who still suffer the iniquities of their original branding under that legislation. The essential features of a tribe are the bonds of kinship and the co-ownership of material resources of their community, i.e., trees, wells, lakes, rivers, fish, and agricultural land that constitute their relations of production. Tribal society is untramelled by elites, hierarchies, and institutions of governance that impel the making of written records and render feasible a state organization.1 Only those tribes were listed in the constitutional Schedule who suffered isolation, and cultural and geographic isolation is not an essential feature of tribal life. Dhagamwar concedes that “we have access only to non-tribal sources on tribal people” (p. 19). She also says that the image of the law relates to what is expected of it (p. 350). If that be so, her approach is an attribution to the ...

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