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- Remembering Verrier Elwin, who died exactly 50 years ago

On February 22, 1964 — exactly 50 years ago — an Englishman, whose books changed my life, died. His name was Verrier Elwin. Born in Dover in 1902, the son of a former bishop of Sierra Leone, he took two first-class degrees at Oxford before being ordained as a priest himself. In 1927, he came out to India, to join the Christa Seva Sangh — a small, committed group based in Poona that sought to indigenize Christianity.

The year after he reached India, Elwin visited Gandhi in his ashram at Sabarmati, and was utterly charmed. He became a strong sympathizer of the national movement, and decided to spend the rest of his life in India. He first thought of working in an urban slum in Mumbai; then, on the advice of the Gandhian businessman, Jamnalal Bajaj, chose to live among the tribals of central India instead.

I first heard of Verrier Elwin from an Odiya veterinarian in the summer of 1978. I was then doing an MA at the Delhi School of Economics. I was, in academic terms, somewhere near the middle of the class, but still hoped to make a career in research. When I returned to Delhi from Odisha, I found two of Elwin’s books in the college library — his Wodehousian diary, Leaves from the Jungle, and his richly readable autobiography, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin. Reading them encouraged me to move to Calcutta for a PhD in sociology, a shift described by one of my erstwhile professors as a Pareto Optimum: good for me, and better for economics.

In Calcutta, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the social history of forests, in the course of which I encountered Elwin again. In his ethnographies, he had written sensitively about the destructive impact that colonial forest laws had on tribal livelihoods. Reading books like The Baiga and The Agaria deepened my admiration for Elwin, and my interest in his career. I was attracted by the fact that he was an engaged, rather than detached, scholar — and that he wrote so uncommonly well.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, Elwin lived in central India: first in the forest belt of present-day Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, then in the tribal uplands of Odisha. He wrote a series of scholarly and well-documented books on adivasi culture, as well as many popular essays on their economic exploitation and political neglect. Through these writings he became known as an extremely effective spokesman for adivasi rights. However, he attracted the ire of nationalists, who thought tribals were merely backward Hindus who had to be rapidly assimilated into the dominant religion. Elwin, on the other hand, emphasized their distinctive culture, their rich traditions of poetry, art, music, and dance; their love of nature and their identification with the land.

After 1947, Verrier Elwin stayed on in this country. In 1954, by now an Indian citizen, he was appointed adviser on tribal affairs to the Northeast Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh). Despite his advancing age (and bulk), he retained his zest for field research. He travelled, by foot and on horseback, through the remotest parts of the territory, studying the culture and lifestyle of its tribes. The government of India was seeking to establish its presence in these borderlands. To his bureaucratic (and political) bosses, Elwin advocated a policy of Festina lente: hasten slowly. He urged that tribal rights in land and forest be protected, and that a special cadre of socially sensitive officers be sent to serve among them. His ideas are contained in his book A Philosophy for NEFA, which — 56 years after it was first published — remains compellingly relevant in understanding why, in both central and eastern India, tribals continue to be discriminated against.

Elwin’s autobiography is still in print. So are some of his more specialized works. Beyond my own emotional investment in his legacy, there are at least five reasons why younger Indians might wish to know more about this British-born Indian, this Oxford scholar who lived with adivasis, this Rebel against the Raj:

The first is that Elwin thought deeply about inter-faith relations. The history of modern India has been marked by rivalry and discord between Hindus and Muslims. Outside India, the hostility between Christians and Muslims has spectacularly escalated in recent years. On the other hand, like Mahatma Gandhi, by whom he was greatly influenced in this respect (albeit not in some others), Elwin demonstrated that one could practice one’s faith seriously without disparaging the faith of others. He was an ordained priest of the Christian Church, who refused to convert the tribals he worked with. He wrote brilliantly on the parallels between Christian and Hindu traditions of mysticism. Later, he developed a keen interest in Buddhism;

Second, Elwin was both a serious scholar as well as a superb prose stylist. Whereas physicists and mathematicians (and perhaps philosophers and economists too) have to resort to technical language to express their research findings, historians and anthropologists do not need to do so. Yet, practitioners of these humanistic disciplines often cloak their arguments in a battery of neologisms. Their language is so dense and obscure that one forgets that these scholars are supposed to be writing about real, living people. Bad writing is, unfortunately, ubiquitous in the academy — sometimes out of a mistaken solemnity, sometimes because of plain incompetence. In this dreary, jargon-ridden climate, younger anthropologists, historians and literary scholars would do well to read Elwin, who communicated his research findings in prose that sparkled.

Third, Elwin was a precocious environmentalist. As a student at Oxford, he came under the spell of William Wordsworth. Like his hero, he wrote evocatively about the glories of unspoilt nature. Later, living with adivasis in the Central Provinces, he understood the deep bond they had with their environment, a bond threatened by the commercial forest policies of the State. In his years in the Northeast, Elwin likewise studied the often sustain- able livelihood practices of tribal communities. His work is of great relevance today, when, across India, communities and ecologies are being ravaged by an excessively resource-intensive, energy-intensive, model of development.

Fourth, Elwin’s work underscores the failures of Indian nationalism in understanding the predicament of the adivasis. Gandhi and other nationalists recognized the need to end untouchability, to emancipate women, and to forge a honourable compact between Hindus and Muslims. Dalits and religious minorities also had important leaders who were not part of the Congress-led national movement (such as B.R. Ambedkar). Yet, the special nature of adivasi life, the special needs of tribal people, largely eluded those who shaped political discourse in late colonial India. This failure has had deep consequences for life in independent India. Whereas Dalits and Muslims are organized as voting blocks, and have their interests (at least symbolically) addressed by major political parties, adivasis are largely voiceless. Excluded from effective democratic participation, they are also subject to systematic exploitation, displaced and dispossessed by mining and hydel projects that usurp forests and lands they consider their own. Their political exclusion, and their economic vulnerability, have been taken advantage of by Maoist revolutionaries, who in recent decades have made major gains in tribal areas. Here, Elwin’s writings remain a key point of reference, worth revisiting if one wishes to restore the faith of our adivasi compatriots in the (noble but often dishonoured) ideals of the Indian Constitution;

Finally, there is the charm of Elwin’s life itself, the thematic and geographical range he travelled, the grand themes he touched and illuminated. He was a serial bridge-builder — between Christianity and Hinduism, the forest and the city, India and England, elite and subaltern, the locality and the globe. His remarkable, incident-filled life is a window into the history of modern India and perhaps the history of the modern world itself.