Indigenous Modernity

March 2, 2024

Scholars like Suresh Sharma (Tribal Identity and the Modern World, Sage, Delhi, 1994) have presented counter-intuitive narratives about indigenous modernity, arguing that many communities in colonial India were forced to fit into an evolutionary framework of food-gathering nomads, only to allow the colonial state to wrest control of the forests from them for large scale commercial exploitation.

Take for example the Agarias of Central India. They were experts at iron-crafts and were traditional and sustainable miners in forest regions. They were banned from mining and discouraged from practicing their traditional iron related crafts and were eventually reduced to unskilled labour employed by the modern state to exploit those same forests for commercial use. Sharma documents how the Agarias were enthusiastic about incorporating the railway as they saw it as an elaboration of their own mythologies around iron. Like them, several other indigenous communities had both, advanced political kingdoms and self-elected democratic village councils within a forest-based context, but were exclusively represented as having clan-based kinship political structures to convey the idea of their “simplicity”.

The post-colonial Indian state inherited several such narratives. However their main resource, the forests, were rarely under their direct control and till date all efforts at either preserving the forests, or commercially exploiting them, does not involve their direct participation. At the same time forests are stressed due to mining pressures while the communities themselves are not in a position to pursue any alternative use of forest products – due to their perceived alienation from modern economies. According to many indigenous communities, the stresses of embracing modern lifestyles that surround them can be smoothened considerably through sustenance and regeneration of forests and forest based economies.

The Non-Timber Forest Produce Act of the Indian government has allowed several tribal co-operatives to manage an economy around forest produce that generates significant revenue while also sustaining the forests themselves.

However, this needs to multiply manifold to have the desired impact of sustaining and regenerating forests while also making more indigenous communities in control of their habitats and the economy around them.

Mahua is a traditional and ancient alcohol that is connected to the lives and beliefs of several communities in India. The tree that yields it has huge ecological potential to create a use-based forest economy that can regenerate traditional forests in many parts of India and yet be connected to global economies.

The Mahua Tree

A lady collecting the Mahua flowers in the village of Singhoda in Maharashtra.

Mahua is the name of a decidious tree that grows almost exclusively in India. It lives for about 60 years and grows to a height of 16 to 20 meters with a short, stout trunk. It is found in densely forested and hilly regions where most of the country’s 100 Million tribal population lives. The harvesting season is usually around spring when yellow or white flowers fill its branches and fall off at night when it is usually picked up for use.

Freshly collected fruit of the Mahua Tree

Its fleshy corolla is sweet. It is consumed fresh, cooked, or dried and powdered. The fruit yields oil that is edible but also acts as a pesticide. It can be made into soaps and candles. While the fruit’s outer coat is eaten as a vegetable, the fleshy cotyledons are dried and ground into a meal. Ripened fruits are fermented into liquor while its leaves, flowers and fruits become fodder for goats and sheep. Its timber is reddish brown and durable, an ideal material for house construction. The trees are hardy and can grow in dry conditions with very little water. Their large spreading superficial root system holds soil together and prevents erosion, restoring water tables, and playing a vital role in nitrogen fixing.

In spite of all these unbelievable virtues, the Mahua tree is underused and underexploited. This is mainly because of its association with the Mahua alcoholic drink, and in turn, the drinks association with tribal history.

Social Context
India is a highly stratified society on caste and class lines. Indigenous communities, officially called scheduled tribes, fall at the bottom of the line cutting across both. They have a special relationship with the Mahua tree as it grows abundantly in their habitat.

What distinguishes tribal communities from other castes in India, is that their traditional attitudes towards drinking alcohol conforms to modern, liberal values. Traditionally, Mahua has been produced and consumed by both tribal men and women in social and familial contexts, which seems unusual in India today as alcohol is frowned upon by upper castes and dominant communities.

Tribal communities brewing the Mahua drink together in Nashik

Historically, ancestral rituals around the drinking of Mahua in tribal communities were a marker of their distinction from caste based societies, who looked down upon any act of drinking alcohol. Tribal customs around Mahua were completely distorted by the higher castes that perpetuated stereotypes about drunk tribals.

According to the scholar Alpa Shah (Alcoholics Anonymous: the Maoist movement in Jharkhand, India. Modern Asian studies 2011), there is a wide range of attitudes and habits connected to alcohol consumption in tribal societies.

“The first drops of any alcohol produced are given to the ancestors of the house that produced it, on the stones marking the ancestral clan. Subsequently, at the beginning of every act of consumption, the first drops are always spilt on the ground for ancestral spirits”. She goes on to say – “A crucial feature of the consumption of these village brews is that men and women drink together. Either men or women can produce the alcohol, serve it and drink it. Moreover, married men and women, their fathers and mothers as well as father-in-laws and mother-in-laws, and even grandparents, can enjoy the consumption of alcohol together. Rather, than the image of drunken men beating women, the evidence from Tapu shows the relative freedom of the consumption of alcohol that is equally enjoyed by both men and women” (Shah: 2011).

For this very reason, both, the people and the alcohol have been stigmatised, which extends to the tree as well.
Colonial restrictions on the production of Mahua were initiated by British authorities in the late 19th century. They did this mainly to ensure that local communities did not escape tax revenues received through sales of distilled alcohol through licensed centres.

It was observed that unlike in other colonial contexts like Mexico, the Mahua tree was actually criminalised to such an extent, that local officials often burned forests down. Families were persecuted for growing trees or harvesting its flowers.

While there is an urgent social need to change this state of affairs, we feel there is also a renewed economic opportunity in today’s context. Development has brought its share of destruction of the environment in India. Pollution of soil is alarming, forests are devastated, pesticides are overused and tribals and farmers are poorer than they ever were with numbers of suicide going through the roof: Mahua will not solve all these problems on its own, but it can be an environmentally positive and socially inclusive business success story.

Any attempt at bringing the tree and its associated eco-system into modern consumption practices, has to start with changing negative perceptions about mahua alcohol. Today – some interest in taking the drink to urban metropolitan and global markets has been shown. What would be an ideal case scenario is that the indigenous communities themselves use their local resources to produce this drink and sell it to these markets along with their own historical legacy attached to it. That would be a true validation of indigenous modernity.

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