Andrew Willford
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‘The need for enemies’
Modernity and malevolence in Tribal India
in The anthropology of power, agency, and morality
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From fieldwork among Irula and Alu Kurumba communities within the Nilgiris mountains of South India, this chapter examines increased anxiety and psycho-social symptoms associated with socioeconomic and cultural transformations. Drawing upon F. G. Bailey’s classic work, I argue that the conflicts between value systems associated with Adivasi (indigenous), Hindu, and civil society have become intensified through landscape transformations in recent years, resulting in a generalized sense of malevolence within communities. Reduced access to land has undermined the cultivation of traditional dietary and ritual staples. As local residents put it, ‘food was medicine’, and ‘now we are sick’. Many have left their respective village-based communities as itinerant laborers. One consequence of this livelihood shift has been the neglect of communal ritual life centered upon ancestral ‘sacred groves’. The disruption of ritual life, in turn, has produced shifts in diet and access to traditional medicines, as well as a drift towards Hinduism, associated with the Tamil population. A rise in ‘new illnesses’ has resulted. Community healers speak of increasing illness due to intensified sorcery. The anxieties and symptoms, in turn, reflect and exacerbate growing inequality and precarity. Notions of change and malevolence construct a tribal harmony that is retroactively imagined in its perceived demise. Against a structuralist or functionalist understanding, and following Bailey’s influential critiques of ‘ideological holism’, I argue that a growing archive of local ideas about cultural loss partially obscures underlying pathologies of power within rural India, and the forces that divide and defer the tribal from non-tribal.

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The anthropology of power, agency, and morality

The enduring legacy of F. G. Bailey


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