“Oral Communities Are Rich in Their Traditions and Knowledge About the Past” – 5in10 with Rimi Tadu
Dr. Rimi Tadu is currently teaching at the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi. She was a fellow at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Studies at the University of Erfurt Germany and did her Post Doctorate with ICAS:MP, an Indo-German collaboration. She did her PhD at CSD, Hyderabad-TISS, Mumbai. Before her academic journey, she was working in the development sector in different parts of India, focusing on women’s political empowerment and community development. Her interest areas are local history, oral history, tribal studies and indigenous epistemologies, indigenous women and feminism, anthropology of the state and frontier studies in the eastern Himalayas.
How do you explain your current research projects to your students?
I worked on local histories of state-people’s relations. During my post-doctoral research project, I was working on understanding the biopolitics of state assimilation and people’s experiences of state establishment processes of non-state people. I was working in the easternmost state of the Himalayas called Arunachal Pradesh in India. The region belongs to numerous and diverse indigenous ethnic communities who are culturally, racially and historically distinct from mainland Indian societies. They had maintained their autonomous way of life from any state civilizations. For most of the communities, it was only since the middle of the 20th century when the state and state administration became a real phenomenon as India attained its independence. The region was brought under Indian sovereignty and new policies for geographical, political and even ‘emotional’ integration and assimilation of the people and the region to the nation-state of India were introduced. This process of transition was complex, convoluted, and of course problematic and undocumented, unlike how official documents and literature portray it. Apart from written official accounts and few literatures, most of which are written by policy makers or ex-servicemen, there was hardly any written source available. This led me to diversify my source of information to write the local history. I collected people’s oral accounts in form of oral histories, anecdotes, stories, old gossips, etc., and old photographs. I also went back to the official documents and started reading them against their grain. Very fruitful exercise was while going through the old official photographs of some events, programs, VIP visits, etc., taken for official record. They unintentionally captured both locals and non-locals, people in power and the powerless, and multiple realities in one single frame. These photos provided a very interesting peek into various realities of relations and a crucial understanding of the processes of state socialization or assimilation of non-state people. A comparative study of Arunachal Pradesh and any of its neighboring states would reveal a very interesting understanding of political economy of colonialism in both past and present of this region. Students of regional studies, history, sociology, political science, cultural studies, policy study, oral history, as well as students working on the anthropology of the state, frontier and border studies, tribal policies in India, etc. would find it very helpful to understand the state and subject relation through local history studies. One should know how to see beyond one’s disciplinary boundaries, practice methodological reflexivity and learn to read against the grains.
What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?
My inspiration came during my doctoral research where I was collecting oral histories to write a local history about an event locally known among the Apatani community of Arunachal Pradesh as Kure Chambyo. It was the first and the last collective resistance organized by the Apatanis against the coming and growing influence of the outsiders (the Indian government) into their homeland. The attack was subdued easily, and it paved a way for the Indian administration to occupy the Apatani homeland. This was followed by years of oppressive retaliatory actions to punish and teach the locals. The event is sparingly documented and filled with misinformation. However, I was surprised by the unwillingness of the people to talk about the event, and even when they did there was an interesting shift in the narrative. This newer version portrays the locals as the villain who attacked the Sarkar (government). I got very curious about this shift in the narrative template. Why there is a suppression of one’s own past memory? Why and how are these newer interpretations of one’s own memories emerging? What does it say about their present situation? These questions led me to see a very interesting role of the state and nation building programs in influencing the local narratives.
How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)
I have been working with indigenous communities, most of whom are oral communities with no written accounts about their past. For my particular local history research I have been using different kinds of data sources that are available, for the particular reasons I shared earlier. Official archives are sometimes limited and even biased in capturing the multiple realities. Therefore, I worked with oral accounts of people’s memory, their interpretations and narrations. The histories and all other indigenous knowledge about the communities are recorded in their oral texts which were carefully curated in their oral traditions and passed on through the generations. Therefore, oral communities are rich in their traditions and knowledge about their past. However, my research is focused on the more recent past i.e. a few decades of the early 20th century. It was during this period that the communities in the region went through a tremendous transformation as a result of state assimilation programs, the arrival of modern economy, modern education, new religious beliefs and several other socio-political changes within the community. Also, comparatively now we have more documented records available in different forms due to new technologies. Yet, still a large part of my methods involves ethnographic studies, and I prefer oral history methods over the usual case study or interviews.
Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?
I actually revisit works by James C. Scott, Shahid Amin, Alessandro Portelli, Bhangya Bhukya, Bérénice Guyot-Réchard and Stuart Blackburn to draw inspiration. They have approached history from different locations, and of course they talk about different histories, but I found them inspiring as to me they collectively crack the established norms and fundamentals of history writings. They compel their readers to see the people – unrecognized, unrepresented, unknown, subjugated, subaltern people who often did not form a category for most professional historians. These scholars also have the abilities to see realities beyond how one’s eyes are trained to see reality through dominant narratives. Apart from this I also regularly follow the Tribal Intellectual Collective of India (of which I am also a member) for insights and inspirations into indigenous epistemologies produced by scholars belonging to various indigenous communities across India. These writings are articulations coming from within the communities and are working on decolonizing the academia of past and present in India.
Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?
Yes, of course it does, and it should. Not only does it broaden the horizon of one’s conceptual envisioning, it also allows for cross-learnings from different experiences. My work has been part of and gained from collaborations of various universities and institutions. My doctoral project was under the partnership of two institutions well established in their respective fields – Council for Social Development and TISS; I did my post doctorate under the International Centre for Advanced Studies:Metamorphosis of Political (ICAS:MP), an Indo-German program which is a collaborative work of seven reputed Indian and German institutions and universities with diverse range of academic modules. I joined as Fellow at Max Weber Centre of Advanced Studies at the University of Erfurt in Germany, which hosts diverse academic interests and international scholars. I gained tremendously from the facilities and knowledge pool these multi-disciplinary institutions and universities which were build over the period. One gains different perspectives from scholars working on same area/subject but on different geographical locations – some in advanced stage of the process while others have just begun to experience it but with different outcomes.
Citation: “Oral communities are rich in their traditions and knowledge” – 5in10 with Rimi Tadu, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.09.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/12687.