There is something deeply ironic about a government that claims to represent India for Indians inviting a rapid increase in foreign investment, that is actually looting the country of its non-renewable mineral resources, damaging India’s ecosystems and sources of water, and thereby the health of future generations. Sure the East India Company made Britain rich by looting India but foreign investment, using modern machinery, is looting India infinitely worse and faster right now, and the process is being presided over by Indian nationalists!
More and more I understand what’s fundamentally to blame is the system of economics that grew up in Britain and the USA, that emphasises short-term profit, self-interest and a ‘free market’ that isn’t really free at all, far above the environmental sustainability that human life on earth depends on. I am fascinated by the way ‘economy’ has got delinked from ‘ecology’, when the two words mean almost the same thing.
You have worked extensively with the tribal communities of Dongria Kondhs in Odisha, who launched a struggle against a mega industrial group.
I have been very inspired by India’s indigenous communities, and their struggles to hold on to and protect their land and environment seem to me the cutting edge of the kind of action necessary if our human species is to survive. I remember a Dongria woman’s simple words: “We need the mountain and the mountain needs us.” And Dongria leader Lado Sikoka saying, “People think there’s millions of rupees up on our mountain. But it’s not money up there. It’s our maa-baap (mother-father), and we’ll fight to protect her.”
Apart from the terrible things Vedanta has done to the environment and communities around Niyamgiri and elsewhere, what most horrifies me is how they pollute the concept of Vedanta, which is a philosophy that fundamentally questioned materialism. India gave the world such vital practices of self-development — yoga, meditation, karuna (compassion), and questioning one’s teachers (as in the Upanishads). If India could bring these ideas into realising changes in society that would bring security and benefits for everyone, it could transform the Western development discourse that uses ‘development’ as a mask for destruction and the worst forms of exploitation for short-term profit.
Stamping the tribal communities as backward by the Indian Constitution while the tribal communities show greater environmental responsibility, how do you look at this irony?
You’re right. This idea of tribal people as ‘backward’ is deeply ingrained — a colonial hangover that is a prime example of cultural racism. Until recently, about 70 Indian tribal peoples were also officially termed ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ (PTGs). This has recently been changed to ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups’ (PVTGs), but I find that people still refer to them as ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’. A recent directive from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs advocates accelerating these groups’ ‘development’ through fast-track building of roads, schools, financial incentives and so on — clearly without any understanding that imposition of such changes is precisely what these groups are vulnerable to. Obviously, there’s a hidden agenda. The Dongrias are one PVTG, and the logic is clearly that assimilating them into the mainstream will undermine their opposition to Vedanta’s bauxite mining plans.
The Baiga are another PVTG who have been proactively protecting the forest against plans for felling it for profit. Instead of seeing these tribal peoples as ‘backward’ and ‘in need of development’, they should be seen as highly developed; we need to learn from them far more than they need to learn from us.
How do you see the whole application of evolutionary theory to society; has it been applied wrongly?
Yes, indeed. (Charles) Darwin showed how thousands of natural species evolved or developed along separate, though interacting, paths. When his theory was applied to society, thinkers from the Left, like Marx and Engels, as well as from the Right, such as Herbert Spencer and the economists, all assumed there’s a single path of social evolution, from ‘primitive communism’, through feudalism, capitalism and industrialisation. When you look closely at historical developments, it’s not as simple as that. For example, in the 18th century, India was far more developed than Britain in terms of multi-culturalism, and in many manufacturing skills. After the British rule was imposed, the quality of manufacturing in cloth, etc, was radically dumped down or ‘de-developed’.
A precisely similar process happens to tribal communities whose lands are taken over or invaded by a mining company or for a dam: a long process of developing a symbiosis with their natural environment is cut off, and their quality of life drops drastically. Their indigenous process of development is disrespected and effectively destroyed.
Yet, in lots of ways, tribal or indigenous societies are far more developed than the mainstream industrial society, especially if you look at living sustainably, and the restraint in what’s taken from nature, formalised through taboos. Interestingly, the word ‘taboo’ comes from the Maori/Polynesian language, where its primary meaning is ‘sacred’.
Another example that fascinates me is in the process of law. The tribal societies developed legal processes that emphasised reconciling contestants rather than making one party right and the other wrong. Traditionally, both parties were usually fined, and the fines paid for a feast of reconciliation. What can be more civilised than that?
Adivasis (tribal people of Central India) have a very strong sense of law, and that human law should accommodate to a higher law intrinsic to the natural order. Dongrias take Niyam Raja as the ‘king of law’.
Darwin’s theory questioned the Christian fundamentalism of his day, which promoted the idea that the whole of nature was created for man to exploit and dominate. He didn’t just emphasise competition, but also cooperation between species. Yet, paradoxically, what is called ‘Social Darwinism’ promotes a similar idea — that the law of evolution boils down to ‘survival of the fittest’ (which wasn’t Darwin's phrase), which serves as a justification of capitalism red in tooth and claw — survival of the fattest as it were.
To me, what is most radical and beautiful in Darwin’s work was his emphasis on human’s relatedness to nature — that in anatomical structure as well as expression of emotion, animals are our close relatives. And if you look at the myths of any indigenous society, in India or America or anywhere else, there’s a strong emphasis on this idea — that other species are our close relatives, and we shouldn’t see ourselves as ‘superior’.
You have mastered two systems of classical music, why did you feel the need?
After I learnt western classical music, I got to know Indian music and was profoundly moved by it. The emphasis on feeling, the sacredness of the notes — Sa Re Ga. My first teacher of Indian voice was a Frenchman, Gilles Petit, who uses the ragas to expand people’s expression and sensitivity in use of the voice. After 10 years of his teaching, and also learning free-singing that emphasises the body and voice as our primary instrument, I started learning with Ritwick Sanyal in Varanasi. He’s a leading exponent of the Dagarvani tradition of Dhrupad — the oldest form of Indian classical music. It’s also one of the wildest and most expressive, allowing a vast expanse of freedom for improvisation through the infinite colours of different ragas.