Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Sentinal Issue through Cultural Relativism: Anthropology and its Perspective

Can you define pleasure? Yes, of course, there is no simple way of defining it. Not only because it is subjective but also because it entails a lot of guilt that the technologically advanced version of homo sapiens carries with them. However, having said that we also need to remember that there is no shortage of people who seek pleasure by doing for others.

All of these because of the divided public sphere who are looking at the pleasure seeking principles associated with the killing of the American Missionary John Allen Chau by the Sentinal tribes of North Sentenel Island. Some believe it was a trespassing, of course, it was in so far as the rule of law the Republic of India goes. They are also the ones who keep on sharing links to show how beautifully Anthropologists have been able to befriend with them decades back (click here), or how it took 25 years and so coconut for another anthropologist to have a friendly gesture with them (click here). Let me just share one of the widely shared photographs of an anthropologist named Madhumala Chattopadhyay.

The image has a caption and that reads like this "An anthropologist’s moment of truth: This picture is of the first everbfriendly contact with the hostile Sentinelese tribe. Seen here, Madhumala handing over a coconut in person to a man from the Sentinelese tribe. Such are the moments every anthropologist dreams of. This requires years of preparation, persistence, courage, respect for the lesser known people of this earth and of course lots of luck. Some of the world’s most famous anthropologists including Alfred Radcliffe Brown had tried previously for this very moment but failed."

I shows the pleasure, the anthropological pleasure? Where does it differ from the Missionary's pleasure of conversion? Or for that matter some invester's pleasure of displacement and development of human zoo in excellent ecological niche? Let us concentrate on the photograph and the caption. It defines Sentinelese as hostile tribe, it compares the commendable exercise of courage that even British anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe Brown has failed to do. The image not only creates stereotype of the tribe but carries considerable colonial hangover as well. Despite of Franz Boas and his school of cultural relativism, despite of the fact that these tribal people have for long showed no interest in contacting with the people from the rest of the world, these sort of Anthropological romanticism and celebration is undesirable.

On the other hand it is this so called 'hostility' that played a key role in ensuring their survival on this island for so long.

The role of 'hostility':

If you really want to understand how the tribal people of the island could survive, one of the main reason would be their hostility. We can refer to the between Maori and Moriori. In December 1835 500 Maori armed with with rifles, clubs and maces arrived on the Chatam island. Moriori had a tradition of resolving disputes peacefully. They decided in a council meeting that they will not fight back. They also decided that they will offer peace, friendship and division of resources. Before they could deliver that offer the Maori attacked on them. Theykilled hundreds of Maori, cooked and eat many of the bodies and enslaved all the others, killing most of them too. What if Sentenalis welcomed everyone in their islands? Would there been anyone left?

The unknown factors:

Hardly we have a concrete idea about their social organisations. Surely, they do have good conflict resolution mechanisms. Let us take another example of the tribe of Fayu of New Guinea. Fayu consists of about 400 hunter-gatherers and according to their own account they had formally number about 2000. Their population has been greatly reduced as a result of Fayu killing Fayu. Since, they do lack political and social mechanisms to achieve peaceful resolution of serious disputes killing is a regular phenomenon. In fact, Missionaries have arguably saved their tribe from disappearing by installing so called modern institutions of governance. Sentinals are not Fayu and they are here for so many years because of unknown factors of governance mechanisms coupled with resource sustenance.

There are at least five major factors that could ensure the survival or collapse of any group of people with limited resources and technological solutions. First the environmental domain second the sudden climate change, third, the conflicting relationship with the neighbours, fourth, the disappearance of support from the friendly neighbours and fifth, society's response to its problems.
Adding to these, there is of course a body factor, which is the management of public health issues. Their survival shows Sentinals carry all the required immunal responses towards available diseases.

The relativist questions:

What makes them survive for such a long period of time despite of all these challenges and with such a limited amount of resources. Or do they really really need other resources which we think essential for survival of the humankind in our part of the world?

There is an urge of establish a contact with these people who are better left alone. An anthropologist's moment of success as it portrays in some of the articles should not be to be able to establish contact with a fellow human being who is completely unwilling to establish contact. Missionaries, have always been ruthless in terms of expanding their faith. It is nothing but a slightly soft form of imperial dream carrying principles which has destroyed several countries in the name of establishment of democracy and 'fruits' of technological advancements. The power that lies within the discipline should always be scrutinized in terms of relativists arguments,  Dian Fossey can call it a moment when she was accepted by Highland Gorillas, anthropologists defining the establishment as such moment is not what anthropology is looking for.

We have more serious questions to ask, as can we really even think of trespassing such places as American Indian territory?

Even if we can, does it entail, or should it entail anthropological pleasure? Or are we yet to learn the true essence of cultural relativism?

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