Tribes, politics and social change in India : a case study of the Mullukurumbas of the Nilgiri Hills
Mainstream studies on Indian politics have delineated the people of India into two categories, variously described as the rich and the poor, the elite and the masses, the bourgeoise and the proletariat, among others. This has resulted in the emergence of a common theme which suggests that a powerful dominant minority have been able to use the forces of social change to subject the masses to a position of weakness. Nowhere else is this more obvious than in studies analysing the politics of tribal people in India, which goes further to suggest that except for a few groups, the rest are politically naive and placid. This study takes issue with such a view by describing the political behaviour of the Mullukurumbas: a tribal group in Nilgiris, South India numbering around 1300. In spite of their low numbers and cumulative wealth - which places them squarely within the category of the so-called exploited - the Mullukurumbas reveal by their actions that they are not social dummies but actors. Analysis of their behaviour shows that they, by discernment of the socio-political contexts and through evaluation and reflection of their relative standing with others, find methods to manoeuvre social change in a direction preferable to them. This study also highlights the following: the fact that mainstream studies on Indian politics has focused attention almost entirely on the terrain of high politics. It sees in it a discrepancy that leads to the emergence of a view, which varying in degrees suggest, an active and powerful strong placing under their domination a subjected and powerless weak. This study stretches the parameters of analysis further into the terrain of low politics where much of the transactions of the weak with the state, society and the strong take place. It shows how valued means of politics - land, money and identity - universally accepted within the context of the political culture in Nilgiris is acquired and conserved by the Mullukurumbas. This study moves beyond the mainstream theorists in describing the politics of tribal people in India today by showing how the actions of the weak are (1) sustained in subtle and well calculated ways in the terrain of low politics and (b) is institutionalised within so called non-political structures such as family and religion. This, in spite of the pressures of change, set in motion (1) by the underlying conflict between the state and society and (2) by the settling in of the strong in niches that emerge in the power structure. By doing so, this study sheds light on the active role of the tribal people, conventionally presented merely as the weak.