Santals

From Anarchy In Action

From Harold Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy:

Several million people in India have been traditionally classed as 'tribal' . This means they belong to those minority ethnic communities which neither observe the caste system nor accept the ideology or ritual of Hinduism. They are egalitarian and ordinarily organised into exogamous patrilineal clans. Tribal people are found scattered throughout India living as village agriculturalists. Their egalitarian ideology and decentralised social system in some cases suggests an anarchic order.

The Santals, at least, have only the barest indication of any governmental system. Numbering over 3,000,000 they live in eastern India, largely in the state of Bihar. In the Santai village life is ordered by one's own kin group (his family and clan) and by the village council and headman. Headmanship is an hereditary position, normally passing from father to son, but nevertheless requiring the approval of the village's household heads. It is an office for life. A headman is seen as the main protector and repository of tradition, which is greatly treasured by Santai. He may be referred to as the 'big man', in other words, a man of considerable influence. He is also seen as a man of wisdom and learning. Nevertheless, he is at best a first among equals. "Publicly he is little more than the voice of consensus, though privately his influence is that of an especially respected and powerful man" (Orans, 21). The headman receives certain tributes and privileges for his role, including rent free lands, a portion of each animal slain on a communal hunt and a central place at all weddings. There are six other offices in a village and these are by appointment and for life. These include village priests and an assistant responsible for public morals.

The council comprises all household heads in the village. It assembles regularly and under the chairmanship of the headman. While he ordinarily calls meetings, anyone in the village can make a request that one be held. Apparently, in Santai tradition there is strong emphasis upon open and free meetings which guarantee every member the right to express his views fully. The aim of any meeting should be to achieve consensus, but if this unanimity is not forthcoming, the support of the overwhelming majority is accepted. Usually final decisions follow the recommendations of the headsman.

According to Somers, Santai village life is so structured that it prevents concentrations of power. Thus, the seven village office holders are never able to constitute a special power clique because council meetings are held frequently and are open and free. Santai also do not take kindly to the secrecy which would be required for a clique to operate. The village has different foci of power such that they counterbalance the power of the headman. While each institutionalised social segment has authority over its members, there is nevertheless considerable tolerance for individual autonomy. It seems that Santai have a healthy distrust for power and have therefore not only developed techniques to minimise its concentration, but have been diligent in preserving and enforcing them.

Local village affairs are the responsibility of the council and headman. Conflicts between persons of two different villages necessitate settlement through the offices of elders of the village involved. A group of between ten to 20 villages constitutes a territorial confederation and this is the largest unit of political integration in Santai society. This confederation also has a council composed of elders and headmen from member villages. There is no formalised technique for selection of members. One of the members, usually a headman of a village, is elected permanent chairman of the group. This assembly is a 'court of last resort' and is concerned with intervillage affairs. Here also no decisions are made unless consensus of an overwhelming majority has been achieved.

In their adjudications village councils seem primarily to assess fines and order ritual purification as judgements. The aim is to restore peace rather than to punish. Fines are often used to provide a feast and drink for the council and in one area both complainant and accused contribute to such a feast, although the accused gives more.

Apparently for certain offences one could be administered physical punishment (cf. Culshaw) . This clearly suggests legal sanctions. Physical punishment and fines are, however, only imposed by the collective meeting of household heads and are arrived at mostly by consensus so that such sanctions are in fact more in the nature of diffuse sanctions. They are not those enjoined by the force of a select elite.

The most awesome punishment which could be imposed on an individual or group is ostracism, which is, of course, one form of diffuse sanctions. This seems largely to be imposed by the council of the confederation and in connection with infractions of marital regulations. A person or a group declared ostracised is first lampooned by the whole community. Then the guilty will be shunned and treated as if non-existent. The sentence of ostracism may be permanent or temporary. In the latter, return to the community may depend on the person's willingness to change his ways, his demonstrated repentence and payment of the costs of purification ceremonies.

Members of Santai society are concerned about concentrations of power and the need to preserve an egalitarian society which gives some free rein to individual expression. There is at the same time a strong dedication to tradition; religious sanctions are both powerful and important. With the emphasis upon consensus of the total community, diffuse sanctions rather than legal sanctions seem to prevail and thus, at the least, Santal society exemplifies a condition of marginal anarchy. Yet, with the imposition of British colonial rule and, more definitely, with the creation of the Indian republic, Santai society has been radically modified and more clearly integrated into and subjugated to the national state. For example, confederational councils have apparently not acted among the Santai since 1947 and local headmen are now responsible to authorities of the central government.