I was in Bangalore last month, roaming around pretty late at night. Around 1:30 am, a policeman stopped by and asked us what we were up to. I replied, “Nothing, just roaming around”. He got offended for some reason and said that it is not allowed, as only the ‘police’ and the ‘thief’ roam around at night. I saw some others on the road as well and pointed at them exclaiming that even they should not be out right now, according to his superior morals. This made him furious. He pulled my hand hard and shouted, “Let’s go to the police station”. I said that I had done nothing unlawful, to which he replied, “That doesn’t matter, I can always put a false case of robbery on you.”

The incident shook me, as I could not help but connect it to everything that has been happening in India lately. I thought to myself that if he could harass me this easily today, some other day, it might be because of my religion, ideology or work, which are much more controversial given the current political climate. Other than the slippery slope, I could also not help but think about where I was a week ago – Kerpai, an isolated village in Kalahandi, Odisha. I was walking there about at a similar time, feeling extremely safe and not harassed at all.

Do we move backwards on the moral landscape when we get more developed, because many aspects of tribal culture have wowed me, which are nowhere to be seen in modern consumerist metropolitans? 

Take the question of women safety. In Kerpai, women are seen in almost all places where men are, during the entirety of the day. The evening is the liveliest time, when women and children come together and dance, along with many drunk men who seem nicer than regular individuals. The Swasthya Swaraj staff that identifies as women are also not at all afraid to walk out in the evenings. They do not worry about being harassed, teased or even stared at. This is not what I have experienced in the biggest of metropolitans. Most women, and sometimes even men, are suggested or even threatened to not walk alone in the streets when it gets dark, and the number of crimes does validate many of these fears.

But then the tribe people in Kerpai may be one of the least developed communities in India due to extreme poverty and lack of resources and opportunity, at-least according to many recognized definitions of development. Is divorce, which is common and normalised in the tribal communities of Kalahandi, a sign of a society being uncivilized? I have always understood it otherwise, and considering all norms that are followed in the communities that I work with, I question the whole idea of development, and the notion of civilisation.

I recently conducted a life-skills training for our organisation’s field animators, and as we started, we discussed how as fellows or interns, we (the organisers) have come to work in these areas to learn the life skills that are necessary to contribute in rural tribal set-ups. However, we added that we feel that opportunities, connectivity and values are changing drastically as villages get more developed, and we have a set of skills that we have acquired by being brought up in urban spaces which might be useful to them in the near future.

We talked about identity, exploitation and resistance, which are topics that might become important in a few years as mining companies and corporates constantly prepare themselves to extract resources from the lush green forests and hills in Kalahandi. I now wonder, am I degrading their cultural, moral and historical identity by making them worry about things that might just happen in the future?

Concepts such as ownership of private property, investment of money, ambition and similar ideals are just tools by which patriarchy, caste and religious fanaticism can manifest itself to influence a regression in morals rather than a celebration of existing social norms that promote respect, freedom and safety. But if we don’t talk about it now, peoples might be targeted in the near future without any preparation, and face displacement or other tragedies without any form of compensation.

Change cannot be stopped, and if this change is for the worse, the only weapon we have are our rights and voice. We have to adopt modern tools and ideas to defeat them or to at least make them more acceptable and localised. If some people follow them sooner than others, they have a higher chance of progressing in the capital system and get accepted by it even though it can lead to further problems, and growth by modern terms will be unequal.

It’s similar in irony to the fact that my first English class with tribal adolescent girls started with why we ideally shouldn’t be studying English, however, it is a necessary skill to progress in any given modern format.

By learning English and many other skills required in urban spaces, and bringing them here hoping to contribute to rural societies, am I actually destroying their culture and identity that I value a lot? Or am I justified in sharing these skills as they are the most valued and favourable to be successful with the development of many more markets, consumers and wants.

I battle with these thoughts regularly as we are a “modern” institution working in a “primitive” setting.  What is health-seeking behaviour? Why do we prefer to employ people who have some level of educational qualification? Why do we so actively criticise the effectiveness of traditional medicine? Why are we, who are not even well versed with the local language, working with people very different than us?

Are we empowering the people or making them more like us, because we believe that it is important? Who are we to believe what’s more important for others?

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