Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Culture and Development SeriesInterface of Cultural Identity Development >  


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

Identity, Tribesman and Development1

A View from a Developming Country

Mrinal Miri

A. The question, "Who am I?", or "What am I?" has been treated differently in different styles of philosophical thought. It may seem, for instance, to be a question not about the mundane or the earthly, but about the metaphysical or the transcendent. As a question about the mundane, it can — so it has been thought — never have an adequate answer, for every possible answer leaves a crucial residue which is beyond the pale of the answer. Thus, "I am this body", "I am this mind", "I am the same as this set of properties, or memories" cannot — none of them — be an adequate answer, because the ‘I’, as it were, is detachable always from any particular body, or mind or any set of properties. One might, then, say that the answer to the question is not something that can be articulated in the ordinary way; it is something that is ultimately a matter of mystical realization.

The non-mystical mode, of course, rejects the idea of the detachability or irreducibility of the ‘I’ as merely apparent and insists that the question in principle, can be answered in a mundanely adequate fashion. There are several such mundane approaches to the question. I shall mention just two: (1) the approach where the autological version of the question is suspended in favour of what is considered its equivalent non-autological — neutral, so to speak — version, viz., "What is a person?" "What constitutes personal identity?" The answer to the question, then, is sought in terms of the correct analysis of the concept of a person and of specifying the criteria of personal identity. The debate here proceeds from the initial idea that the concept of a person, of personal identity, may be significantly different from any other concept, and that, therefore, our search for criteria might have to follow a correspondingly different track. However, every such search seems to have got bogged down in logical puzzles of an intractable nature, thus giving rise to the suspicion that perhaps the question ought to have been framed differently, and that the search for an answer ought to have been along a different route, or that mysticism was perhaps unavoidable. (2) The second way is to retain the autological version of the question, and to treat it as demanding an answer, which, while being indeed mundane, will require an ever deeper cognitive-moral luminosity about oneself. It is different from the first way in that it does not regard the problem of identity as an issue about the correct analysis of a concept and of specifying the criteria of its application, but as an issue about embarking on a moral intellectual journey into oneself.

In this paper, I shall not be overtly interested in the mystical — not because I think the mystical is erroneous or illusory — but simply because I feel more at home with the non-mystical mode of thinking. However, it should not be surprising if the mystical is found to be lurking behind some of the things that I have to say. Of the two mundane approaches that I have mentioned, I shall ignore the first and partially explore the second. This is both because I find the second more interesting in itself, and because it is more relevant to the theme.

B. Who, then, am I? The question is asked against the background of certain kinds of knowledge about myself that I already possess, e.g., that I am a human being, that I am a self-reflective as well as a self-evaluative creature, that my capacity to wield language is a condition of my being such a creature. Given that I know all this about myself, what further illumination does this questions seek?

A very useful line of thinking in relation to this last question is suggested by a distinction that Charles Taylor makes in a recent paper2 between two orders of evaluation. He calls them ‘weak’ (or ‘simple’) evaluation and ‘strong’ evaluation. Weak evaluation — to put it rather starkly — does not make any qualitative distinction between one desire and another. It is not based on considerations which yield judgements of the kind: desire x is intrinsically superior to desire y; there is something unworthy, reprehensible about having desires of a certain kind, persons motivated by desires of a certain kind have moral or spiritual depth. A weak evaluator desists from the pursuit of a certain desire not because of the kind of desire it is, but because of considerations of the following sort: its time and place is not quite convenient; the pursuit of another desire will lead to greater overall satisfaction, the object of some other desire is more attractive. To take examples: should I eat now that I am hungry, or wait for another hour when I know that my favourite dish will be there? Should I do my daily shopping on my way back from work so that I shall not have to come out again, and therefore, shall have time to listen to music and do a bit of gardening, or should I do it later when I know that there will be a greater variety of fresh vegetables and my favourite fish? Should I watch the recording of last year’s Wimbledon men’s singles final or should I rather watch the recording of the world cup football final, when it is the case that if each were available separately, I wouldn’t resist either? In each of these cases my choice is not between desires which are, in any strong sense, qualitatively different from one another. Also when making a choice considerations of convenience, consequences, attractions etc., are exhausted, the weak evaluator has nothing to fall back upon, by way of reflection, but perhaps just a shrug of the shoulders.

By contrast, in making a strong evaluation, the agent is guided primarily by considerations of the quality of one desire as opposed to that of another. A desire is considered qualitatively superior to an alternative and this superiority is expressed in the language of "higher and lower, noble and base, courageous and cowardly, integrated and fragmented and so on" (Charles Taylor, p. 23).

But because of this language of qualitative contrast available to the strong evaluator, his evaluation is also ‘deeper’. "To characterize one desire or inclination as worthier or nobler or more integrated etc. than others is to speak of it in terms of the kind of quality of life which it expresses and sustains. . . For the strong evaluator reflection examines different possible modes of being of the agent. Motivations and desires do not only count in virtue of the attraction of the consummations, but also in virtue of the kind of life and the kind of subject that these desires properly belong to" (Ibid., p. 25). This additional dimension adds depth, "because now we are reflecting about our desires in terms of the kind of being we are in having them and carrying them out. Whereas a reflection about what we feel like more, which is all a simple weigher can do in assessing motivations, keeps us, as it were at the periphery; a reflection about the kind of being we are takes us into the centre of our existence as agents" (Ibid., p. 26).

"Reflection about the kind of being we are" is precisely also reflection about our identity. Our identity is thus bound up with the strong evaluations we make. The answer to the question "What is my identity?" cannot consist in a simple enumeration of properties that I happen to possess. These may indeed figure in the answer, but they figure only insofar as they are important in my assessment of what I fundamentally am or ought to be. Thus, suppose I answer the question, "Who am I?" with "I am an Indian above all else", this means that my being an Indian defines me in a way which no other description of me can — descriptions such as, "I am a teacher, a tennis player, an occasional writer of philosophical articles, an admirer of Western classical music, a bird-watcher and so on. To be deprived of this identity is for my being — my human being — to be eroded in a way profoundly different from the way in which the non-availability of any of the other descriptions might possibly erode my human identity.

While my identity is thus bound up with my strong evaluations, my self-identifications are frequently clouded with uncertainties, and are, therefore, subject to clearer, finer articulations. They are, for the same reason, also liable to be distorted by self-deceptions, and, therefore, corrections which will have powerful evaluative overtones. Although greater articulacy is a necessary correlate of strong evaluations, it is similarly not necessary that at any particular point of time, I articulate, or even am capable of articulating a strong evaluation of mine or a self-identification with any degree of clarity and assurance. Sometimes there is assurance, but not clarity. In fact my most fundamental evaluations — those that constitute my identity — touch me in the centre of my being — are also evaluations which are the least articulated; I am the least clear about them. "It is these evaluations which are closest to what I am as a subject, in the sense that shorn of them, I would break down as a person, which are the hardest for me to be clear about. Thus the question can always be posed: ought I to re-evaluate my most basic evaluations? Have I really understood what is essential to my identity? Have I truly determined what I sense to be the highest mode of life?" (Ibid., p. 29) Yet, paradoxically perhaps, it is these identity determining evaluations which constitute the framework in terms of which as an agent I generally make my other evaluations.

Before moving on to the question of tribal identity, let me separate out a few points — in relation to the discussion above — which, I think, are important.

First, there are some powerful theories about man, according to which the distinction between strong evaluation and weak evaluation is a spurious one. Such, for example, are some theories of psychoanalysis, e.g., Freudianism and the ethical theory of utilitarianism. For Freudianism strong evaluations are spurious, because they are never genuinely operative; they are devises used by the self to camouflage the workings of desires among which only weak evaluations can be made — and it is such desires and (weak) evaluations among them that are truly operative in human behaviour. Strong evaluations are, therefore, reducible to weak evaluations. As to utilitarianism it is well-known that it does not believe in any distinction of quality between desires: all desires are of one and the same kind, and they differ only in degree. Strong evaluations thus are an impossibility. (Mill’s famous statement — it is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied — is, therefore, a repudiation of his own utilitarianism. The father of utilitarianism was not himself a utilitarian!) Here, I shall merely dogmatically assert in relation to such theories that while it is certainly possible to imagine a life totally devoid of strong evaluations, any attempt to eliminate the latter is also an attempt to denude human life of its human significance.

Secondly, one’s convictions about one’s strong evaluations may be mistaken. (Freudianism is correct at least to the extent to which it has shown such mistakes to be a common phenomenon.) Take a philanthropist who, towards the end of his life, is disillusioned by the glamour and power of wealth, and contemplates giving away all his wealth to help feed the hunger of the world. He wishes, from now on, to live simply, to commit himself to an ever deep realization of the mindlessness of a life of ceaseless pursuit of wealth. May be he would return to his village, (which he had abandoned decades ago), in search of the solidity, integrity and wisdom which — as he now realizes — informed the life of many a village elder. But this man also has children all of whom have grown to dislike him intensely which dislike he reciprocates, without ever consciously acknowledging it, with equal intensity; and these children have never outgrown their parasitic dependence on him. Now does he wish to give away his wealth out of a genuine sympathy for the suffering of the poor and the starved, or does he really do so out of a desire cripplingly to hurt his children? It is more than likely that the philanthropist is self-deceived; also his self-deception may be of a deeper order than the above bald narration suggests; it may be the stuff of which tragedy is made.

Thirdly, and relatedly, our most fundamental evaluations — and therefore our identity — are frequently steeped in darkness which is what makes self-deceptions and distortions about identity such common phenomena. To search for one’s identity is to attempt to achieve an articulation that is free from self-deception and distortion; and to realize that one may be self-deceived, and yet not able to see one’s way through distortions, is to be confronted with a crisis of identity.

C. In the light of the discussion above, what can we say about tribal identity? It is clear that if the discussion is to be any guide, our interest cannot be that of the census official, however scientific his particular enquiry might be. We are interested in tribal identity in the sense of its being determined by strong evaluation — evaluation in terms of a value such as "allegiance to the tribe" — in a way such that this value overrides other values in a fundamental way. That tribal identity, in this sense, can become a powerful reality we all know. It is something for the sake of which one may be prepared to give one’s life, and frequently, as we know too well, to take another’s life. What greater proof, one might ask, can there be of the reality and power of tribal identity.

The question, rhetorical as it is, must make us pause, because violence, to oneself as well as to another, is the result of darkness and fragmentation rather than motivated by the illumination and integration of successful strong evaluation. Terrorism in the cause of tribal identity may quite likely be an expression of a profound sense of emptiness and impending moral fragmentation — rather than a genuine part of the articulation of tribal identity. Yet the logic of such forms of terrorism is such that this emptiness and fragmentation cannot be allowed to be acknowledged. For, if they are, then violence loses its mask of respectability without which terrorism — in such forms, at any rate — cannot be sustained. But what would it be like for "allegiance to the tribe" to be a genuinely integrating, ‘deep’ value? A tribe gets its particular specificity from:

(i) its history;

(ii) its ecology in which the natural, the cosmic, the moral and the aesthetic and the spiritual are integrally united in a living relationship of meanings;

(iii) its own peculiar way of dealing with questions about itself. An adequate articulation of my "allegiance to my tribe" would naturally involve my gaining clarity about all these three.

But think of the difficulties for me as a tribesman

(i) of making clear to myself my relationship to my history;

(ii) of gaining an authentic insight into the ordered world of meanings and values into which I am born; and

(iii) of asking questions of my own tradition — questions to which the tradition itself might provide creative answers. (Every living tradition must have room for a yugadharma without which the tradition will stagnate and collapse)

Many of these difficulties are, of course, general in nature, that is, they are involved in any attempt to articulate one’s allegiance to a community as such, and not just a tribal community. I shall not here talk about these general difficulties. I wish instead to talk briefly about the specific difficulties of clarifying my allegiance to my tribe in the particular historico-civilizational context in which I am willy-nilly situated. This is the context of modernity. The special features of this context that are important for my purpose are: its unitary vision of knowledge; its ‘whiggish’, linear conception of the progress of knowledge as embodied in the movement of modern science; its moral awareness dominated by the idea of humanism and circumscribed by utilitarianism with its consequent rejection of traditional moral-spiritual visions.

At earlier times my history came down to me orally in a chain of living memories; and it was the history of a community of beings ordered morally and ontologically into a matrix of meaning-laden relationships in which the tree, the animal, the river, the mountain, the human being as well as the sky, the bird, the stars and the sun and the moon were equally significant elements. (see Appendix) The telling of this history had naturally to be in terms of what we call ‘myths’; for, otherwise, how would the tree, the animal, the sun and the moon figure in it? But the mythical is not a notion that is part of the tribesman’s self-awareness. (This is not to say that the tribesman has no use for the distinction between the true and the false, the real and the illusory and the actual and the imaginary. Without distinctions such as these, no communication and no language would be possible. But for the tribesman the lines are differently drawn and are a function of his perspective just as much as the distinctions that the modern man makes are a function of his perspective. This is again not to say that perspectives are necessarily mutually exclusive and cannot meet.) This notion of history has to fight a lost battle with a conception of history which would reduce tribal history into a soulless narration of abstract events: soulless because the narrative must ignore those very elements which constitute the moving force of the world of the tribesman, and, therefore of his past; and abstract because the ‘truth’ here can be achieved only in a general way. For a tribesman to turn to what we might call scientific history such as this in the search for his identity is already for him seriously to doubt the authenticity of this search. It may be said that this kind of history does not necessarily oust the older kind and that the important thing is that the older kind may still be available to the tribesman. But the fact remains that this availability, if it is at all there, is being rapidly eroded.

The unitary vision of knowledge of modern man with its own variety of aggressive cognitivism has pulvarized the traditional epistemic and moral-spiritual space of the tribesman. The main features of the modern vision are: (i) a ‘granular’,3 atomistic conception of reality, a reality, therefore, which is devoid of meanings — a reality that is not saturated with concepts; (ii) an insistence on a singular mode of explanation and understanding, and, therefore, on the exclusion of the extraordinary; and (iii) a rejection of the idea of a profound interrelatedness of things (an interrelatedness without which, say, in the tribal vision, there is no world at all; a causal order, understood more or less in the Human way, is the only order that reality allows).

The strident exclusiveness of this vision is strengthened by the extraordinary growth of scientific knowledge in the last three centuries and its even more extraordinary technological spin-off. Within this exclusiveness there also emerged a newer concern for man embodied in the idea of humanism. This is a concern where the central significance of man’s life is seen to lie in the fact that man is a consuming, producing, procreating being with an emotional life4 — a life which is modulated by the fact that man is also a ‘free’ being — this freedom consisting in his capacity to choose between courses of action. The humanistic concern manifests itself in the pursuit of the ideal of serving life in precisely this sense — in the pursuit of the goal of man’s welfare in all these aspects; and the means to such welfare is to be made available by science. The tribal — or indeed the traditional — conception of the good life is centred not around the welfare of man in this sense but around a deeper vision — if you like — of the cosmic order. And in this conception freedom is not seen as man’s capacity to choose between different courses of action, but as the natural flowing of action from this vision. But such has been the power of science, technology and the attendant liberal-humanist discourse, that, under its exclusivist domination, the tribal vision has been exiled to a life of continuous, rapid dissipation. And it has become willy-nilly impossible for the tribesman to try and reclaim it in any deep and illuminating way.

Given this state of dissipation, there does not seem to be any possibility for the tribesman to have a genuine creative argument with his tradition — an argument that is also within the tradition. And hence the question of a yugadharma within the tribesman’s tradition does not seem to arise.

The search for tribal identity seems thus an endeavour that is doomed, and the tribesman’s desperation accompanying this realization is immense. While allegiance to the tribe is still a powerfully motivating force (perceived strongly in our sense), instead of the earlier density of material in terms of which this allegiance could be clarified, there seems now to be a void. There are frantic efforts, on the part of the tribesman, to fill this void by borrowing someone else’s past (e.g., the Christian past), and by adopting a moral-spiritual stance the connection between which and the old vision is painfully unclear.

Is, then, everything lost for tribal identity? Not quite perhaps. Things that could happen which might create a situation that is better than the one prevailing are: (i) an open-eyed awareness on the part of the tribesman of his real predicament; (ii) a turn in human thought which will, as it were, put the coercive, uniformity imposing regime of modernity in its place. (Signs of this happening are, of course, already there); and (iii) the development of a genuine self-assurance on the part of the tribesman — a self-assurance which will enable him to face the world outside without being completely overwhelmed by it.

D. What, then, about development? It is, of course, widely acknowledged that development in the sense in which the West is developed and much of Asia, Africa and Latin America is underdeveloped or only semi-developed is incompatible with what is called the tribal way of life. The central motivating force of this development is humanism, and its agencies are modern science and technology. It is also not unusual to doubt whether development in this sense constitutes genuine progress at all — progress understood in the minimal sense of greater clarity — clairvoyance — about life and greater freedom that should naturally accompany such clarity of vision. This doubt finds its most acute expression in the belief that different systems of knowledge are but different forms of bondage and that mankind has moved only from one such system of bondage to another in its long history (Foucault). I do not wish here to enter into this debate — a debate in which positions ranging from unfettered celebration of diversity of truth and the good life to extreme pessimism about the very possibility of knowledge and freedom are held with equal passion. I shall content myself with merely pointing out that the ‘whiggish’ notion of progress as an inevitably linear process is widely acknowledged to be a highly questionable idea. I shall end this essay by saying a word about the notion of appropriate technology.

The important question to ask is: appropriate to what? The short answer to this might seem to be: appropriate to the form of life of the tribesman. But this means that the devising of appropriate technology would depend upon: (i) there being such a form of life as a going concern; and (ii) our having achieved an adequate understanding of such a form of life. But I have already argued that the tribal world is no longer available in its living palpable form to the tribesman himself; it is, therefore, even less available to the would-be technocrat from outside. I have also argued that the material in terms of which this world could present itself to the tribesman with clarity and immediacy seems to have lost its former potency and coherence. There is, therefore, the initial difficulty of defining appropriateness. It may, however, be suggested that this difficulty is only marginal. For in spite of all the obstacles to exploring the moral and spiritual depth of "allegiance to a tribe" that we talked about above, it is certainly possible imaginatively to reconstruct the tribal form of life in an abstract, general, if entirely functional way. Such a reconstruction might represent a tribe as a group of people which is strongly community-oriented: its social structure simple (unlike the highly bureaucratized modern society), its hierarchy broken by naturalness and spontaneity of all interpersonal relationships — a community which believes in an abiding continuity between nature, earth, and what we call the supernatural, instead of in the divisive distinctions between these that modern man makes, a community which is also free from numerous stress and anxiety-producing distortions of natural biological life that modern man is subject to. Given that this is an authentic, if abstract and general, representation of a tribe or Adivasi in its originality, then the task of appropriate technology might be thought to be to initiate changes which will be such that they will help, as best as possible, the tribe move from his present state of disintegration and dissipation to something like its original integrity and coherence. Such appropriate technology must, of course, include appropriate political strategy. It is extremely doubtful, however, if people who advocate appropriate technology take the notion of appropriateness in this sense. For appropriateness in this sense does not seem to have much to do with ‘humanism’-inspired development and progress, and advocacy of appropriate technology really arises in the context of the discourse of development and progress. One suspects that what is really meant by appropriate technology in this context is the following: a technology which will ensure a slower, less traumatic pace of change towards "development and progress" for the tribe — which is really to say that the tribesman will take a longer time to get there with appropriate technology, but this is the only way to ensure his arrival as modern man in one piece. This may be a noble end, but is modern man in one piece? and, most importantly, the epistemological and moral assumptions implicit in this discourse of appropriate technology is far from being self-luminously valid.

If, on the other hand, we take ‘appropriate’ in the first sense of being appropriate to the tribal form of life — something that will not only help preserve such a form of life but enhance and enrich it — then we must take content as seriously as form, because it is the content that breathes life into the form. And it is here that the difficulties, I mentioned earlier of articulating tribal identity come to the fore again. Perhaps one thing that could possibly help more than most is to bring tribal self-awareness even in its present fragmented state in living contact with great traditional modes of awareness, of being and acting whose heart is, as it were, in the same place as that of the tribal mode. Examples of such traditional modes might be the Buddhist and the Jaina. Here, of course, one must distinguish the doctrinaire and the institutionalized from the pure and the living. And the contact here must not be motivated by an intent of aggressive exclusion, but inspired by a spirit of what Gandhi used to call fellowship — and mutual enrichment. It is possible — just possible — that such a contact might result in the quickening of the tribal soul once again.5 But the odds against this are, of course, enormous.


In 1855, President Franklin Pierce of the United States made a request to Chief Sealth of the Suwanish tribe of Indians, who live in what is now the State of Washington, to ‘sell’ his land to the government. In reply Chief Sealth sent the following letter to the President:

The great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. The great Chief sends us words of friendship and good will. This is kind of him, since we know that he has little need of our friendship in return. But we will consider your offer, for we know that if we do not do so, the white men come with guns and take our land.

How can we buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.

We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same as the next to him, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand. If I decide to accept I will make one condition. The white man must treat the beasts of the land as his brothers. What is man without beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man.

. . . When the buffaloes are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the sacred corner of the forest heavy with the scent of men, and the view of the ripe hills, volted by talking wires, where is the thicket? Where is the eagle? And what is it to say goodbye to the shift and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of dying.

There is no quiet place in the whiteman’s cities. No place to hear the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect wings. But perhaps because I am a savage and do not understand. The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lovely cry of the whippoorwill or the argument of the frogs around a pond at night? The red Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind itself cleaned by the midnight rain, or scented with a pine. The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath, the beast, the trees, the man. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many years he is numbed to the smell.

We might understand if we know what the white man dreams, what hopes he describes to his children on long winter nights; what visions he bores into their minds, so that they wish for tomorrow. But we are savages. The white man’s dreams are hidden from us. And because they are hidden we will go our own way. If we agree it will be to secure our reservation that you promised. There perhaps we may live out the brief days as we wish. When the last red man has vanished from the earth, and the memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the Prairies,6 these shores and forests will still hold the spirits of my people.


1. This is an extremely tentative essay as, perhaps, is to be expected. Much of the material for the paper is borrowed from an earlier paper of mine which is yet to be published, but which was presented at a seminar not long ago. I do hope I have been able to add some new things too.

2. "What is Human Agency?", In Human Agency and Language, Cambridge, 1985. Taylor’s distinction, as he acknowledges, is based on a distinction, between first and second order desires, made by H. Frankfurt in his article "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person", In Journal of Philosophy, 1971. In presenting the distinction I follow Taylor both in spirit and letter.

3. See Ernest Gellner, Relativism and the Social Sciences, Cambridge, 1985.

4. See Clarles Taylor, "Foucault on Freedom and Truth", In Foucault: A Critical Reader, ed. by David Couzens Hoy, Oxford 1989, pp 72-73.

5. A copy of this moving document was given to me by Professor K. J. Shah several years ago.

6. Very significant in this connection are the works of Sujata Miri and of Ramchandra Gandhi, particularly, his latest book, Sita’s Kitchen, Penguin, India, 1992.

[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

 [ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]

© 1996 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi