Meet Anthropologist-Activist Dr. Felix Padel
Photo Courtesy: Felix Padel.
Felix Padel is a London-born anthropologist-activist. Among other things, he was Professor, School of Rural Management, Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR), Jaipur, during 2012-2014. A great, great grandson of Charles Darwin, he studied classical Latin, Greek, ancient history, literature and philosophy, and many years ago worked as a volunteer for Survival International, especially on big dam issues including the Sardar Sarovar, before being drawn to live in India, his home for the past three decades. A strong advocate of tribal and village-community rights, he believes that the industrial assault on natural ecosystems is destined to have cascading and devastating effects on the future of humanity unless severely checked. He met with Bittu Sahgal in Mumbai while on a lecture tour with the Asiatic Society and spoke to him about peace, justice, economics and the future of life on earth.
Where is humanity headed Felix?
Ah Bittu! What a question! All I can say is it’s still in our hands, hopefully, if enough influential human beings can wake up enough to free us from the fundamentalist economics and financial system that’s driving us to a self-imposed hell in a handcart. Part of the secret is – we are all influential. We just have to find new, out of the box ways to think and free ourselves collectively from the present crises we’ve created.
Is the quest for peace and justice a pipe dream, or a survival imperative?
It’s easy to be despondent on so many issues. But cynicism and despair form a major part of what keeps us trapped, and as you said – the fact the we have truth and justice on our side, beyond any doubt, means that we will prevail in the end. One fundamental realisation that needs to go out more widely is that mainstream society and its economic system are in effect addicted to war – from delight in war movies to the arms industry’s position at the heart of our economic system. Peace and justice have to be an imperative for survival of humanity, let alone of democracy, in this era of industrial-induced global heating!
It’s been a long journey. What triggered your move from the corridors of academia in Oxford to the dust and heat of India?
So many Indians go to live and work in ‘developed countries’, yet India in many ways gave the world a more fundamentally vital concept of self-development, from Yoga and Upanishadic sages to Buddhism, and much more – a concept that could still change the world for the better! So I’m a counter-example of someone drawn to India because I believe in it – many of the fundamental values here, whether that’s the closeness of nature and culture, the true multiculturalism, the music and the people.
Who were your earliest influences and who are your heroes today?
Well, Charles Darwin has to be one, though when young I was conscious of him more through my mother and her mother, Nora Barlow (born Darwin), who edited some of Charles’ works – their love of nature and passion for gardening. Also Gregory Bateson, who was a close friend of my grandmother, and John Berger, still a close friend of my aunt. Musically I had a succession of wonderful teachers, starting with a violin teacher, Sheila Nelson – music plays a vast part in my support system! I had some great teachers in Oxford University, including humanistic classicists such as George Forrest and Eric Dodds, and in the Delhi School of Economics, including J.P.S. Uberoi, Veena Das, A.M. Shah and Andre Beteille. This is a tiny selection of course!.
Charles Darwin, your great, great grandfather? Is he alive in your head?
Very much so. His ecological outlook above all – what Ernst Haeckel called Darwin’s ‘economics of nature’, which gave rise to the concept of ecology. Also his vision of kinship of humans with other species, so close to indigenous people’s emphasis on outlook and myths that trees, fish, tigers, birds, insects are our close relatives and friends, or ‘creature-teachers’.
Photo Courtesy: Felix Padel.
Your take on Vedanta Inc., Maoism and mining?
You could call me an accidental activist on these and so many other issues. When one realises what is threatened, one has to take sides – fusing objectivity with one’s subjectivity and involvement in life. When one becomes aware how many of the people-controlling decisions on Earth are actually motivated by terrible desires for revenge or greatness or wealth born through childhood oppression, showing stunted emotional and spiritual development, this leads, as I see it, to a desire to inspire people to wake up and act. There are good people in all parties and factions – in big mining companies, among Maoists, among the police. To me it’s a matter of how to speak to the best in people, to get them to wake up and act with more compassion. Actually, my mother talking to me about the horrific iniquities of mining companies had a big influence on me when I was young.
And India’s Forest Rights Act (FRA)?
At present the FRA is a stop gap against so many appalling projects threatening to displace tribal people. It is a historic act formed with best intentions to return to tribal people their fundamental traditional rights to the forest, which British rule took away. And yet – in its present formulation – by emphasising individual rather than collective title, it threatens not just the continued existence of India’s forests, but also the continuance of all that is best in tribal societies. Marx and Engels correctly emphasised communal, as opposed to private, property as the essence of tribal societies worldwide – the basis of ‘primitive communism’, and a major element in the concept of communism itself. One of the vital aspects of the Niyamgiri gram sabhas is that adivasis and Dalits voted together not just against mining, but also refused the individual title plots of forest they were being offered under the FRA.
How can the divide between wildlife and human rights groups be bridged in India?
There are many ways actually, but first there has to be willingness, and the realisation that without each other we are going to fail. We need each other. “We need the mountain (forest), the mountain (forest) needs us,” as a Dongria woman put it. One basic reason the Niyamgiri movement has so far ‘succeeded’ when so many have ‘failed’, is that influential environmental as well as social/tribal rights groups and political parties including the Samajvadi Jan Parishad supported it. They didn’t aim for a common platform. Many of them didn’t even dialogue! This needs to be understood. Differences over FRA and sanctuaries can be overcome – have to be if we are to move on and become more effective. It’s been ‘divide and rule’ – allowing conservationists and human rights activists to be divided against each other is a sure strategy for making certain neither succeeds. Both face the same enemies, including inner demons and attitudes, as well as certain strong external entities and tendencies. Both sides have often stereotyped the other, and taken rigid positions. No one (except a few corrupt officials) defends the violent removals of adivasis that have taken place in certain sanctuaries. No one wants the forest to disappear. We need hundreds of bridges – a constant bridging process – between people-centric and nature-centric ways of thinking and feeling.
I have seen you lost in the playing of both the violin and singing with a tanpura. This umbilicus between Dhrupad and Bach, is it symbolic in some way of the bridges you would like to see built between nations, communities and ideologies?
Yes, you could say that. There’s so much of value in the best of the mainstream traditions. I also play and sing folk music and improvise, and find no music more moving than tribal people’s music, when it’s authentic. My ‘daily practice’ is Dhrupad and Bach, as this keeps ‘me’ in tune. Words like ‘democracy’, ‘development’, ‘sustainable’ we can argue about till the cows come home, but music takes us beyond words, to the source, inspiring, recharging the batteries that I share with others when situations arise.
Photo Courtesy: Felix Padel.
Are you hopeful for tomorrow?
Actually, yes, against all reason as it often seems. For example, the British did a terrible injustice when they formed the Forest Department in the 1860s, removing tribal people’s age-old rights, and often turning them against the forest, so that they even cut it all down in anger in places. Where this has happened, they now realise their mistake, and I have seen areas where they are bringing it back, with great effort and restraint, places where they have brought leopards and bears back. I see a lot of hope that human beings can learn, after all. Whether it will be enough to avert the coming cataclysms of global heating, nuclear meltdown and all the other terrible threats hanging over us, who knows? But it helps to believe we may yet survive – it helps to motivate each one of us to do what we can towards this end.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 1, February 2015.