Verrier Elwin’s views might appear paternalistic and patronising to 21st-century readers, but his policies and polemics drew official attention to vastly neglected indigenous communities.
“What makes a man change his nationality, abjure civilisation and, in the upshot, become a blend of Schweitzer in Africa and Gauguin in Tahiti?“This romanticised, problematic question about Verrier Elwin (29 August 1902- 22 February 1964) was posed by his friend WG Archer, of the Indian Civil Service. In fact, the question embodies the controversial life story of Elwin who came to India at the impressionable age of 25 as a man of the cloth and went on to spend all his days amongst the indigenous communities from Central and Northeast India.
The son of an Anglican bishop, Verrier Elwin graduated from Merton College, Oxford, with a first in English literature and won a scholarship to work towards a degree in theology. A doctorate in Divinity ensured that he would be ordained as a priest but whilst at Oxford, Elwin had been drawn to the real and imagined “mystery” that was India with the occasional dabbling in Rabindranath and Gandhi. At Stanwick, he met JC Winslow at a Students’ Christian Movement meeting. On his return from India, Winslow was looking for recruits for his Christa Seva Sangha, which was modeled on the concept of the Hindu ashram and Gandhi’s own ashram at Sabarmati—a centre of abstinence, learning and service to the poor. For Elwin, this was the perfect opportunity to change the direction of his life and travel to India, which he believed to be a repository of spiritual and cultural heritage.
Beginning his life as a Christian missionary in India, Elwin would soon abandon the clergy and navigate his life according to Gandhian ideals and the agenda of the Indian National Congress. In 1935, he would convert to Hinduism and then move away from the nationalist cause and voice his objections against the homogenous transformation of the indigenous communities in India. When the Anthropological Survey of India was established in 1945, Elwin became its Deputy Director and following independence, he took up Indian citizenship. Jawaharlal Nehru, a staunch friend and supporter, appointed Elwin as an adviser on indigenous communities from Northeast India, and later, Elwin was the Anthropological Adviser to the Government of the Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA).
Disenchanted by his Church and also by what he perceived to be Gandhi’s self-righteousness, Elwin sought solace in the beliefs and systems of the indigenous communities in India, particularly the Gonds.
While much of his early work is based in Central India with the Baigas and the Gonds, he would also work in the NEFA and settle in Shillong later in his life. According to Sunil Janah, “[Elwin’s] beginnings were those of an earnest, somewhat uncertain and self-doubting but deeply religious man, and, although he later rejected all formal religions, he never could choose any other than a selfless, dedicated way of life.” What then constituted the “selfless, dedicated way of life” for Elwin? Disenchanted by his Church and also by what he perceived to be Gandhi’s self-righteousness, Elwin sought solace in the beliefs and systems of the indigenous communities in India, particularly the Gonds.
Janah writes that “Each dissension had caused estrangements, enmities and loneliness, which, together with all the prejudices and calumnies directed against him from all quarters, must have taken immense strength to endure.” Indeed his personal connections to the indigenous way of life through his marriage to Lila, a woman from the Gond community and his life with her in NEFA and his professional commitments find remarkable expression in his writings. The obituary of Elwin published by The Economic Weekly on March 7, 1964 states: “Elwin wrote so well that he made anthropology popular among the general public. This popularity was also partly due to a focusing of attention on marriage, sex and art, and to the neglect of subjects of serious professional concern such as kinship, economics, law and politics.”
The multifaceted personality and worldview of Verrier Elwin—Englishman, bureaucrat, anthropologist, activist and Indian—are reflected in his highly evocative autobiography entitled The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin (1964) and through his writings on indigenous communities, myths, policies on indigenous peoples. The posthumously published autobiography, which does not mention the most important people in his life and work—his two wives and Shamrao Hivale—won the Sahitya Akademi Award and also initiated controversies that Elwin as a “privileged interpreter of cultures” was so fond of.
The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin problematises the location of indigenous people as agents rather than as objects of change and raises contemporary questions on indigeneity in the context of a world being transformed by globalisation.
Further, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin problematises the location of indigenous people as agents rather than as objects of change and raises contemporary questions on indigeneity in the context of a world being transformed by globalisation. A prolific writer, Elwin wrote and published poetry, anthropological monographs, novels, folklore, polemical pamphlets, official reports and reviews, editorials, travelogues and religious pamphlets. In the Journal of South Asian Languages and Cultures (1988), the Japanese scholar Takeshi Fujii lists 40 books and 500 articles in a comprehensive bibliography of Elwin’s oeuvre.
Both during his life time and after, Elwin has been simultaneously criticised and eulogised for his work on and with indigenous communities in the northeast of India. Verrier Elwin has been accused for advocating a policy of isolation of indigenous communities as an archaic representative of India’s past and suitable only as museum exhibits.
In his war-time pamphlet, ‘Loss of Nerve’, he passionately advocated the separation of indigenous communities in India from non-indigenous communities in order to “preserve” their beliefs and values in pristine innocence. In his autobiography, Elwin wrote that “The old controversy about zoos and museums has long been dead . . . we do not want to preserve the tribesmen as museum specimen but equally we do not want to turn them to clowns in a circus. We do not want to stop the clock of progress, but we do not want to see that it keeps the right time. We do not accept the myth of Noble Savage; but we do not want to create a class of ignoble serfs.” Moving beyond the political integration of the people from northeast India, for Elwin, “it was not the question of reviving anything. It is more a problem of introducing change without being destructive of the best values of old life.”
“We do not want to stop the clock of progress, but we do not want to see that it keeps the right time. We do not accept the myth of Noble Savage; but we do not want to create a class of ignoble serfs.”
Whilst the hankering for a utopic past has been deemed as unpragmatic and detrimental to the cause of indigenous identity, Elwin’s standpoint foregrounded the qualitative difference in indigenous belief systems, which had been bypassed by the forces of nationalist integration. He believed in the immense possibilities of indigenous knowledge systems as crucial to the development of a “modern” India. In the 1959 book A Philosophy for NEFA, with a foreword by Jawaharlal Nehru, Elwin writes:
We are agreed that the people of NEFA cannot be left in their age-long isolation. We are equally agreed that we can leave no political vacuum along the frontier; that we must bring to an end the destructive practices of inter-tribal war and head-hunting and the morally repugnant practices of slavery, kidnapping of children, cruel methods of sacrificing animals and opium-addiction, none of which are fundamental to tribal culture. . . . We would like them to be able to move freely about their own hills and have easy access to the greater India of which at present they know little. We want to bring them into contact with the best people and the finest products of modern India. Above all, we hope to see as the results of our efforts a spirit of love and loyalty for India, without a trace of suspicion that Government has come into the tribal areas to colonise or exploit, a full integration of mind and heart with the great society of which the tribal people form a part, and to whose infinite variety they make a unique contribution. And at the same time, we want to avoid the dangers of assimilation and detribalisation which have degraded tribal communities in other parts of the world.
From our location as readers in the 21st century, Elwin’s stance seems paternalistic, patronising and perpetuates stereotypes revolving around indigenous communities. At the same time, one must remember that it was his policies on indigenous development that drew attention of political thinkers, activists and the common people to these erstwhile vastly neglected communities. His obituary aptly states that “In Dr Verrier Elwin’s death Indian ethnography has sustained a grievous loss, and the tribal people of India have lost a sincere and well-meaning friend.”
Through the 1940s and 1950s, Elwin engaged in passionate polemics with his critics vis-à-vis his role as an anthropologist, interrogating binaries of Western/Indian, tribal/civilised, Hindu/ Christian, poet/scientist, official/ rebel. The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin explores the foggy relations between indigenous communities and mainstream religious practices, government policies and Elwin’s “philanthropological” work in the North East Frontier Agency. Elwin dedicated his life to emphasise upon the special needs of indigenous communities within India, a fact which had escaped those who shaped India’s political discourse. His policies on indigenous communities bring to the forefront debates on cultural pluralism and cultural homogeneity and the impact of economic development in the context of one of the world’s largest democracies.