An Interview with Felix Padel, Renowned Anthropologist and the Great-Great Grandson of Charles Darwin

Updated on July 24, 2018
Deepa damodaran profile image

Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She has worked in various print and television media.

Felix Padel

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The Struggle of Dongria Kondhs

The struggles of tribal populations to preserve their unique native lifestyle and culture in the face of mindless pursuit of corporate driven developmental concepts is a phenomenon manifest in different parts of the world. In the Indian context, one of the most powerful manifestations of this struggle is in the eastern State of Odisha. An unlikely associate in this struggle is Felix Padel, renowned anthropologist and the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. I had occasion to meet him in 2015, when I had visited Odisha as part of a television documentary production, which sought to document the struggle of the Dongria Kondh tribe in the in the Niyamgiri hills of the State. The Dongria Kondhs are popularly known as “Avatar tribe" on account of their fight against corporate giants as also the colorful nature of their attire and accessories. Their struggle was against the Bauxite mining license given to the international mining company, Vedanta Resources, in Niyamgiri hills, a place which is the homeland of the Dongria Kondh tribes.


Dongria Kondhs and Felix Padel

Dongria Kondhs worship Niyamgiri as the sacred abode of their God, Niyamraja. Felix Padel has been residing in Odisha for many years pursuing anthropological studies. During the course of his academic pursuits, he became a supporter of the tribal struggles for conservation and livelihood in the Niyamgiri hills. He lives a simple and modest life and plays his violin in small meetings and gatherings of like-minded people.

The government of India enacted the Forests Rights Act, a new legislation to preserve tribal rights to natural resources, in 2006. According to this act, the tribal people and their village councils have the right to decide whether or not a new project (whether it is a mining project or any other project) can be implemented in their forest area. Niyamgiri was the first forest land that saw the tribal people voting against such a project in India, successfully. As a result, Vedanta was compelled to withdraw their project to mine bauxite from the region. My interaction with Dr Padel covered not only this struggle of the tribal people and his involvement in it, but also his larger worldview, which incidentally underscored the continuation of the Darwin legacy and its broad humanistic perspective in this descendant of one of the greatest scientists of all time. Excerpts from the interview.

Oxford to Niyamgiri

Q: Why did you choose India as your area of work?

A country chooses us. Since childhood, I was somehow fascinated by India. When I was at Oxford, India pulled me towards her. I did my PhD in Delhi University and my teachers were Andre Beteille, J.P.S Uberoi, Veena Das, and A.M. Shah. India took hold of me in my 20s.

Q: Did you directly come to Odisha after your studies?

When I was studying my MPhil in Sociology, I was more focused on South India. But I was very much interested in tribal culture and in my first year, I came to Odisha. After that, it was Odisha that took hold of me.

Q: Did you meet the Dongria Kondh tribe as soon as you came to Odisha? Or did you meet others?

When I came first, I was meeting many tribal people. In Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh. Only later, for my PhD, I started looking at the history of, what can be called reverse anthropology. I studied the British administration and the power structure they established over the tribes; to understand the discrepancy between what a government says it is doing for the people and the reality of what is really happening.

Q: Was that the content of your PhD?

Yes. Of my PhD and my first book which is called, “Sacrificing people: Invasions of a tribal landscape”. I suppose that is the basis of my reputation as somebody looking at the tribal situation in a very different way.

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Reverse Anthropology

Q: I read one of your interviews where you were telling the interviewer that Adivasis (tribes) are a highly evolved society, in comparison to the mainstream society.

I think so. That is one aspect I have learnt from Darwin’s legacy. Darwin gave the world the concept of the evolution of species. This is when you look at the thousands of species, evolving or developing. But when that idea was applied to the society, it was actually misapplied. .with the idea that all societies develop in the same way, which when you look closely, is complete nonsense. But everybody now assumes like an after-belief that first we have tribal people, then we have feudalism, then we have capitalism, and if you are a good socialist, then may be, we will find a higher form of tribal communism. I think Marx was right that the phase, primitive communism, like the tribal societies, have certain things in common, such as very strong sense of community, and community rights over private property. But how and why societies change? It is more a matter of imbalances of power. Though we are highly evolved in technology, in literacy, and in many other things, we seem to be blind to the way in which tribal societies are much more civilized than us; such as in living truly sustainably, such as a very strong sense of community and obligation to the community, such as women having in many ways an equal status to men, such as a process of law, where it is not competitive, but it is actually reconciling the contestants, and many other things where they are very highly evolved. And what we are calling development is just destroying that process of development.

Q: The common notion about progress is that individual rights should be more acknowledged than community rights.

I think that is true. But then the trouble is, some individuals are cleverer and more ruthless than others. And unfortunately social Darwinism is used to justify that. Darwin was actually just not talking about competition but also about cooperation between species, which is, may be, a much more important principle in terms of, if human beings need to survive, we need to put a limit on competition.

What is Progress?

Q: But what you are telling is, human society is not progressing..

I think so, to be very frank. If you look at the arms industry, it is in the forefront of it is like our wars are progressing like anything. There are such ruthless wars. But in that sense, I think, in terms of how to make peace, in terms of war, human beings have not learnt a thing and we are not progressing at all. Of course you and I are speaking and there is such a great communication between cultures and many things are happening. But at the same time, even the quality of life, of the poor people in the cities, is going down. Quality of life of farmers is just getting destroyed. The mainstream society is behaving like stupid bullies in the school. So when we talk about development, it is like, I think India has shown the world, a concept of development like Budhism, like Hinduism, there are such amazing concepts of Yoga, to develop a human being what we need to do. But it’s like the psychological models, a form of development where a person becomes more emotionally mature. Actually today’s leaders, and politicians and business people, are emotionally stuck up at the age of teenagers.

The Corporate Versus the Tribes

Q: I heard that you had some bad experiences at the hands of the administration, police and the (Vedanta) company people in Niyamgiri. Is that true?

Only very slightly, once or twice. But by the end, I mean, there are great people within the police force. But overall, you find a pattern in all of the big movements in Orissa and other places, where you find the police force en masse basically doing the company’s bidding, and it came clear to me in Odisha. I think it was in December 2009 when the Chief Minister of Odisha went to Kalinga Nagar to open a new police station and he publicly thanked the Sterlite Company for paying for the police station. In that moment, (it was reported by Times of India), you see it for real that the police are funded by the mining companies. So I stayed in West Odisha where Vedanta is very powerful. They have a hold on the police there.

Q: Was that also why you had to shift from there later?

It was basically among the reasons. Obviously I was a foreigner. I have to keep a limit on my activism. I feel, as an intellectual, as a part of India. And I suppose giving a people’s perspective is really what anthropology is for. But there are certain limits to what I can do in this regard.

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Dongria Kondh Tribal People

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Radical Anthropology

Q: The general understanding is that anthropology is the neutral observation of human societies. Is that what it is?

That is a very interesting question. That is what it is supposed to be. But actually, within all of science you can say, intellectual pursuits, the aim of being objective is very important but in a way unless you understand yourself, and your relationship with the subject you are speaking to, can you ever really know any object? In other words, without subjective knowledge, what the ancient texts call you know, yogic understanding of the self, there can be no understanding of the other. I think modern anthropology has incorporated that. Though what I have done is called reverse anthropology when I spent time with Adivasis (tribal people) to understand my own British culture at its frontier, when it was having the rule in India, and it set up administration in the tribal areas, and the administration has the same power structure basically is in place now. I think anthropology is seen in west as the most radical subject, but in India it often has a colonial mould, and it has a kind of hidden bias to making the tribal people its object of study but our world of anthropologists would be more now to make them into the knowing subjects of their own study.

Q: But why are they not interested in other groups?

I think in the west again you will find anthropologists studying everybody. And it was my teacher, J.P.S. Ubaroy, in Delhi, who raised this question to me. Why do anthropologists usually study people with less power; and not the people with similar power or more power than us? Anthropologists should be studying the most powerful people to understand Bill Gates, Obama or the elites in all the countries; what is their real beliefs, practices and values and what do they believe, what are they doing. We should be studying them. But anthropologists have done enough studies like that. For me that is the future of understanding to reverse the power structure.


Bauxite Industry and the Economy of War

Q: Your second book is about the Aluminium industry and its connection with war and arms business.

Exactly. If you look at the aluminium industry, it has been absolutely integral to the arms industry. Because even the technology of bombs from 1901, was called the fermite process, the hand grenades in the first world war, the huge bombs in the second world war, the daisy cutter carpet bombing bombs, (that is the most powerful bombs now) the nuclear bombs too, they all use aluminium as part of the process. But if you understand the impact of Bauxite mining and the refineries and smelters, they have such a vast negative impact on the environment at many levels, but also on the economy of a country. Because it forces, when you have big aluminium factories, the local governments are forced to pay big subsidies for that. And the real economic impact of aluminium industry is a slave economy. People say aluminium industry is bringing progress. But if you look at the Koraput district (in India), where NALCO has the biggest centre of Bauxite mining in the country, you find the worst poverty and disease in any part of India after 30 years of aluminium.

Q: And I also heard tribal migration is happening these days where there is mining..Have you seen that?

Many people are looking at that. And it is very true. There are many reasons for that; the ways that land is being taken away, the community values being undermined, the water sources diminishing all because the industry is taking too much. There are so many different reasons for that happening. You can say that more than a quarter of India’s Scheduled Tribe population has been displaced since independence in the name of development. So from that, you understand that is 20 million people.

Bauxite Mine

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Charles Darwin

Q: Coming back to the Charles Darwin legacy, how exactly are you related to Charles Darwin?

My mother’s mother was born as Nora Darwin. And I knew my grandmother very well. And she was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. And she also edited his dairy and some of his books. So she was a scholar of him actually. I feel a close connection also because working on environmental issues I feel the concept of ecology came partly through his words. So I feel, he must have a met a lot of indigenous people. For his time, he had a relatively very well understanding that these were human beings such as you and me.

Q: And what kind of a man he was? Did she tell you about that?

I understand from many family sources and other things that he was in many ways, a very humble person.

Ends

© 2018 Deepa

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