Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Identities - II

Unstable identities:
Two main unstable identities in India today are tribal and matrilineal. These unstable identities are characterized by;
1. Illiterate traditions until the modern times
2. Easy to manipulate by the communities with the patriarchal identities
3. The development of a sense inferiority associated with the customs part of that identity as the community become literate*. These customs can be either harmful or beneficial or can even be neutral.

Tribal identity in India:
An ideal society is probably a civilized one with a tribal identity. The tribal identity is generally associated with lack of hierarchy. However, my reading of Dravidian tribes (Koitor or Gond) in Central India sort of gives the opposite picture. A tribal society with a civilized identity (caste hierarchies).

Probably, the tribes of Central India are not meant to remain tribes. The Koitor did make a transition to non-tribal form of government in medieval times. However, the required literate tradition probably was filled by the non-tribals from the surrounding area. This was the case with religious tradition too.The tribal shamanic religious tradition was completely devoid of literate tradition.

This phenomenon, Sanskritization in the words of Anthropologist M N Srinivas, has led to the caste mobility and caste stagnation in the case of Koitor tribes. Instead of Koitor as a whole making a transition to mainstream life only the ruling elites have become Kshatriya and the rest have remained tribal. In my opinion, the tribal hood of Koitor is not their ancestral state but a derived state from caste structure. Though Srinivas coined Sanskritization and extensively used caste mobility in his writings, forgot to coin the terms for degradation for many communities, never part of the caste system, once they become part of caste mainstream. However, Srinivas noticed the absurdity of caste mobility attempts by people by changing the names of their castes or by inventing some mythological greatness/heritage.

This situation is observed, not for good reasons, in Andhra Pradesh too. Here certain families of tribes have become Kshatriya but have not completely lost their tribal identities. But most of them now an endogamous entity themselves. Some of these Kshatriya-s contest in the elections in the seats reserved for tribes. For obvious reasons, Supreme Court of India does not recognize them as tribes and in few instances have disqualified them from continuing as Member of Parliament or Member of Legislative Assembly.

Matrilineal identity:
When I started to understand the matrilineal identity of myself three years back, I started with a rather ideal form of life( probably a matriarchal one). Not only I have lost all those ideas (that anthropologists had given up a century back) I am increasingly looking at it as an unstable identity. The fundamentals of such an identity do not protect it from patriarchal over lordship.

Kerala society for most part of the history was under partrilineanl Tamil kings(Ezhimalai, Ay and Chera)** and later under elite society of patrilineal Namboodiri-s. It should be noted here that many rulers where themselves sons of Namboodiri-s. Therefore, the ground reality was ruling class was part of patrilineal society. If a population geneticist comes and does a study of Brahmin-s and Kshatriya-s of Kerala most probably s/he would observe that they make a separate cluster exclusive of other castes of Kerala. I hope that total lack of knowledge of historical accounts that characterized Bamashad et al. (2001) study won't be repeated.

Matrilineal Tuluva society probably because of Jain ruling class(which was also matrilineal) did not show the extreme subservience that characterized the Kerala society in the past.

The society of matrilineal ethnic group, Mosuo, in China probably best illustrates the drawbacks of matrilineal society. This society is very similar to matrilineal Malayali society.

From Wikipedia article:

There is also a very important historical component which is often unknown to (or ignored by) those studying the Mosuo. Historically, the Mosuo actually had a feudal system in which a small “nobility” controlled a larger “peasant” population. The Mosuo nobility practiced a more ‘traditional' patriarchal system, which encouraged marriage (usually within the ‘nobility'), and in which men were the head of the house.

It has been theorized that the “matriarchal” system of the lower classes may have been enforced (or at least encouraged) by the higher classes as a way of preventing threats to their own power. Since leadership was hereditary, and determined through the male family line, it virtually eliminated potential threats to leadership by having the peasant class trace their lineage through the female line. Therefore, attempts to depict the Mosuo culture as some sort of idealized “matriarchal” culture in which women have all the rights, and where everyone has much more freedom, are often based on lack of knowledge of this history; the truth is that for much of their history, the Mosuo ‘peasant' class were subjugated and sometimes treated as little better than slaves.

* "Aliya Santana Kattu", a research work by Shankara Bhat on the judicial laws of matrilineal communities, mentions that Tulu communities felt low and disappointed that their kind of marriage was not considered as a true marriage by other Hindu communities in India. This resulted in rapid changes in marriage customs that more or less conformed with other Hindu marriage customs.

** The transition from patrilineal Tamil kings to matrilineal Malayali chieftains could be observed in the development of local dialect(Malayalam) as the official language. As long as Chera kings ruled that area most of the works that came out were in Tamil.

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