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Contribution by +Thomas Menamparampil, SDB, Archbishop of Guwahati, Assam, India

A member of the Salesian congregation, after engaging in education at the high school and university level, Archbishop Thomas spent much time among the tribal communities of Northeast India. He has written articles and books on tribal cultures.


Some time ago you had written to me about the relevance in our times of the ethic of evolving a consensus through the African style of ‘palaver’. You had said it would greatly suit the post-modern age. I had shown interest in the topic and had said that not only people in Africa but most tribal communities that I knew reached decisions through prolonged discussions that led to a consensus.

Tribal communities, being communitarian in outlook, did not believe in polarizations. They would have been bewildered by the ideas of ‘survival of the fittest’ of Darwin or ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’ of Hegel or the theories of conflict of Marx. They would understand Amartya Sen’s plea for ‘public reasoning’ while weighing the pros and cons of important social issues. They would understand the meaning of ‘care for the weakest’. They would speak of ‘con-thesis’ rather than ‘anti-thesis’.

Consensus is a little different from synthesis. It is reached not through conflict, but through mutual acceptance and community acceptance. What is noticeable is not an element of force, but the dynamics of persuasion, an appeal to the good sense and good will of each other, delving into the collective wisdom of the community, tapping the synergy that emerges from intense interaction among its members.

Whenever I have taken part in serious tribal discussions, I noticed that almost every member present spoke: e.g. all forty spoke if there were forty participants. No one would contradict another. Even when one’s proposal was completely different from that of another person, the way it was made gave the impression that it was merely the development of the earlier speaker’s suggestion or the completion of the opinion held by the previous person. Every one paid full attention to every other speaker, no matter how long an individual spoke. No one found another’s talk boring, as an outsider might. Repetition of an idea merely confirmed its validity. The nickname ‘palaver’ itself is an outsider’s description of what he thought was mere babbling. Today the value of ‘palaver’ is becoming more evident.

The participants would shake their heads in approval, but would not show dissent except, may be, through silence. When all had spoken, everyone knew where the community stood. The decisions that emerged from such a meeting had the approval of all, and were bound to succeed. A consensus had been reached.

In the early days, the village community would be deciding where and when to cut the forest, plant grain or begin harvesting. There would be emergency discussions in times of crisis: fear of an attack on the village, elephant menace, floods, or an urgent need of imposing sanctions on a dissenting young man. Today they may be discussing maintenance of roads, water-connections, initiation of a construction program, health or development related activities. In a tribal village, people did not launch any activity of common interest before reaching a consensus. Tribal people never had the idea of a majority making decisions and imposing them on the minority. Unfortunately uprooted tribal individuals, living away from their communities, are beginning to lose their tribal values.

Communities in every part of the world have gone through a stage of tribal existence, whether they be the Aryans, the Israelites, Celts, Germanic tribes, Slavs, Arabs, Berbers, Basques, Vikings, or Nordic tribes. In Northeast India people like the Khasis, Garos, Nagas, Mizos, Bodos and others have retained their identity; and so in many other parts of Asia and of the world. The Hutus and Tutsis have won world attention in our times.

Looking at history, we see that when tribal communities emerge on their own for the first time from isolation, they make a very significant contribution to human history: it may be a religious insight, philosophic wisdom, political organization. The tribes of the Sub-Himalayas contributed Buddhism; those of the Judaean hills the Israelite sense of justice propagated by the prophets; Arabs Islam; the tribes of Hellenic origin the concept of democracy and Greek philosophy; those that grew on the Roman soil the Roman legal system and a continuation with the Greek thought. We must not forget that the Mongols and Turks were tribal people who emerged from isolation when they made a great impact on the world of their times.

Modern societies have long distanced themselves from their tribal origins. But tribal values remained in their collective unconscious. The so-called ‘advanced societies’, emerging from a tribal state, had gone through the experience of being within chiefdoms, kingdoms, empires or colonies, which had developed very exploitative structures over a period of time. You will remember how Alexander used to deal familiarly with his fellow Macedonians during the early part of his career, but took to himself the Persian imperial garb and protocol at a later stage. This alienated him from the people with a Greek background. Such transitions took place in the recorded history of many societies (it is enough to read the Samuel account in the book of Judges and similar stories in Buddhist records; or how Genghis Khan, a tribal chief became a universal emperor).

In an imperial context, consensus was imposed by leaders, not reached through discussions. But intelligent rulers kept a sham of consultative bodies, functioning effectively, feebly or not functioning at all. In oppressive situations, the collective unconscious of suppressed people began to work, and the earlier tribal values awakened in them, impelling them to struggle against such exploitative structures (imperial, royal or official) that imposed arbitrary decisions on people.

People had subjected themselves to such authorities under compulsion, mostly to build up a collective strength against enemies. But the leaders that they chose in a moment of their weakness turned exploitative in course of time (read the story of Saul and other successive rulers). But through consistent struggles, especially in the Western world, people regained freedom and possibility for greater participation under modern democratic governments.

Today liberal democracy has come to be accepted almost as the universal norm. The varied structures of modern democracies are good, but they are not perfect. They are not always human as tribal bodies were. People take pride in their parliaments, senates, and legislative assemblies, India in particular; but they are but a poor imitation of earlier tribal gatherings, where the participation was far livelier, more intense and more human; and a consensus was reached without much strain.

The democratic structures that existed during the early periods of Athens or Rome had tribal origins. The Anglo-Saxon common law and love for liberties were rooted in their tribal traditions. While South Europe had distanced themselves from their tribal origins due to a prolonged experience under the imperial Roman rule, the North European peoples especially those of the Germanic tradition retained a nearness to the democratic traditions that prevailed among their tribal ancestors. In the South (e.g. in Italy), certain privileges that city-states fiercely defended were also of tribal origin. Amartya Sen speaks with pride about the tradition of lively debates in early Indian history. They too had tribal roots.

There are many other tribal values that could be revived for the benefit of modern and post-modern humanity, e.g. sense of equality, dignity of labor, family cohesion, strong communal bonds, collective responsibility for common good, closeness to nature, protection of environment, respect for life, honesty, personal integrity, frankness, deference to elders, respect for wisdom, systems of medicines closer to nature. But I consider the tradition of reaching consensus as one of the best elements in tribal tradition that deserves to be revived and strengthened. You are perfectly right.

The indigenous people of all the five continents had survived the onslaught of so called ‘civilization’ and had preserved for us some of these traditions. It may be the most appropriate moment for us today to return to some of these traditions for the sake of ensuring the very survival of humanity.

I know this is only a brief sketch of what I would have liked to share with you. Thank you for the kind interest you are taking in this topic. I wish you all success in your endeavors. Let us keep up the dialogue. The ‘palaver’ must continue.