Politics and Political Organisations
Politics deals with the distribution of power in society. “maintenance and establishing of order within a territorial framework by the organised exercise of coercive authority through the use or possibility of use of physical force” (Fortes M. and Evans, Pritchard, E.E., 1949)
Political Institutions and Stateless Societies
A society is called stateless if it:
(a)has no rigid boundary or permanent physical territory,
(b)follows oral traditions, and the bureaucratic aspect is absent from it,
(c)has a single person holding several major powers of religious, economic and political offices within the society,
(d) there is no fixed rigidly spelt out ideology, and has simple economy
Sources of Data about Stateless Societies
There are three sources of knowledge about simple societies without government. It is from these that our information is derived:
(i)archaeological records about stateless societies,
(ii)literature produced by missionaries, travellers and administrators, and
(iii)monographs written by anthropologists.
Types of Stateless Societies
i) First type of societies are those which usually live by hunting and gathering. Here the largest social units are the co-operating groups of families or close kin. There does not exist any other formal grouping besides this. There are no gradations or stratification’s or even any separate institutions. No specific
political organisation exists in this type of society. The authority rests with the senior members of these families. But this authority is very limited in scope. Some of the examples of these societies are the Bushmen of South Africa and some of the people of South East Asia, Jarwa of Andaman Islands etc.
ii) Second type of society is that which is made up of village communities which are related to one another by various kinship and economic ties. They have formally appointed councils to maintain administration. In these councils the eligibility for membership varies from one society to another. Some of the criteria for eligibility are descent from either old family or reputed family etc. or any other social eminence such as economic power. Here we can see that there is an emergence of political order. Some of these types of societies are the Ibo and Yako of West Africa.
iii) In the third type, the societies have political control vested in age-set systems. This is a common feature of the societies in East Africa. In these societies the allocation of authority is vested in the elders of the society. Thus age-set organisation is based on the principle of seniority. An example of such a tribe is the Cheyenne of America and the Nuer of Africa.
iv) Finally, the fourth type of societies are those in which political functions are performed through groups organised in terms of unilineal descent. The unilineal descent is traced along the line of either father or mother. In such societies there are no specific political offices. There are no political chiefs, but the elders of the society may exercise a limited authority. In this type of society the groups within the society may be in a state of balanced opposition. Some of the example of such type of societies are, the Nuer, the Dinka of Southern Sudan.
Kinship System as a Form of Political Control
Kinship system plays a very crucial role in the socio-political and economic organisation of simple societies. Its functions are extensive and overlapping with functions of the political and economic institutions. It takes up the task of maintaining order and balance in society. The principle of fission or conflict and fusion or cohesion works within the simple societies along the kinship and territorial lines. For example, the Nuer tribe is divided into segments. The primary sections or segment of the tribe
is the largest and it occupies the largest territory, the secondary section is smaller than the primary and it occupies the next largest territory and finally the tertiary section, which is the smallest and occupies the smallest territory. This division of Nuer society is not just political or territorial but it is also a kinship distribution. In such a society conflict leads to alliances and opposition along the kinship and especially lineage lines.
In all stateless societies where the society is segmented or divided into sections alliances take place along the lines of territory, residence, kinship, descent, heritage and marriage. Conflict leads to cohesion in such societies. For example, in case of conflict, all the members of a group, descended agnatically from a particular man, many see themselves as a unit against all the agnatic descendants of that man’s
enemy. The enemy might be a member of one’s own lineage or another lineage. The segmentation of society maintains itself through the presence of actual or potential opposition to one another. This opposition is characteristically expressed in the institution of “blood feud” in these societies. If a person has killed a member of another section of the society, that other section will not be satisfied until the murderer or any member of his section is killed. However, these inter-lineage antagonisms
are countered by other cross cutting ties like those of affinity and matrilateral kinship.Thus there are always people in opposing groups whose interest is to seek peaceful solution of disputes between lineage’s.
Therefore, we can say that in stateless societies the kinship ties are performing political roles. The principles of exogamy - where a person marries only outside one’s community, and endogamy - where a person marries within a particular community - play an important part. It is these principles which decide the nature of one’s potential supporters or allies in case of conflict.
Political Principles of Stateless Society
(i)Society becomes united when different groups or segments unite. They initially owe loyalty to different groups but come together for some particular cause such as defence of territory or ‘blood feud’, etc.
(ii) Authority, which is delegated or given to a subordinate, becomes independent. Thus juniors who are given power by seniors in a stateless society become powerful in their own right.
(iii)Mystical symbols also ‘integrate’ and unify stateless societies. This is because the entire society regards these to be sacred and that which should be protected.
An Example : The Tonga
Let us take the example of the African tribe Tonga. The Tongas live in small villages in the hope of escaping raids upon them. These raids are performed by unfriendly tribes to steal food and valuables. In this tribe the headman has little power. This is one of the key features of stateless societies. This tribe is nomadic (moves its locations from time to time) due to agricultural needs. In doing so many new friendships are struck up and often old friendships break. Tongas belong to a matrilineally related
kin group called the mukowa.
Now it is important to note that no marriage may link up two mukowa. This principle of exogamy is a primary mechanism for establishing the various alliances and linkages. A very interesting feature is that Tonga clans are related by what are called joking relations’ between cross-cousins. A ‘joking relationship’ is where merriment is made into a ritual and is created perforce. The persons cannot talk
normally but must joke and laugh. This institution is very important. Among the Tonga this joking has important political consequences.
This is because “clan joking” creates a large number of friendships, among all the people concerned. Further it provides the privileged go-betweens and judges of morals in a society an opportunity to intervene in the lives of people without looking authoritative. This is because during joking, ‘counselling’ and ‘warnings’ are allowed to be given as part of the jokes exchanged. Society functions without the mediations of political power and authority.
An Example : The Lozis
In some stateless societies there are institutions which protects the rights of all the members of society where food is scarce or limited. Since in these societies the concept of accumulation of property and food does not exist, there is always the problem of distribution. Amongst the Lozis of Africa there exists an institution called kufunda, which literally means legal theft. It is present in some other tribes also.
Any person of the tribe can take any article or food from one’s kinsmen’s house. It solves the problem of hunger because one can always get food from one kinsman or the other. A person in these tribes has to share his or her food with the others. Thus kufunda or legal theft is a political institution and gives meaning to kinship and economic structures of the society.
Stateless Tribes in India
Political Organisation in Indian Tribes
Political institutions in Indian tribes are based on
i) Clan and lineage
ii) village unit and
iii) group of villages.
The territorial separateness prevents casual conflict occurring with other lineage which are bigger or of a different generation. The tribal village is an active political unit. We find that the way of regulating the
village goes downward in authority: village officer, and village administration. The political mechanism functions through its officers who are known by different designations in various tribes. In minor tribes (Birhor, Juang) all these activities are in the hands of one man. Among major tribes (Santal, Bhil) authority is rested on two headmen. One is for secular and the other is for sacred purposes. Very often they have assistants. Most tribes have a proper ‘judicial’ machinery to deal with breaches of peace and
social offences. There is usually a village council or an assembly of elders. For example, among the Malers, the council of elders of the village is presided by Majhi. The goriat acts as the public prosecutor. The Panchayat is called at the instance of the majhi by the goriat. Informal control over behaviour is done in the evening meetings. Here criticism is very pungent and effective. Public disapproval is also very effective in controlling or rectifying behaviour. This includes making clear what a member would suffer if he goes beyond the unwritten tribal laws. In short the evening meetings are called to keep those going out of line on line. In this way their problem does not become so severe as to call forth punishment.
Crime and Punishment
However there is no society which does not have criminal cases. These cause a severe disequilibrium in society. This has to be rectified by punishment. The evidence that is called for, while deciding a criminal case, is:
Oath, taken on a sacred deity, and
Ordeal, undergone by tribal standards.
Among the Malers the oath taken is of loss of life. The suspect touches the knife at a sacred centre (holy spot etc.), and swears he will tell the truth or die. Here it is both society’s pervasive influence as well as the person’s own faith that produces a result. The result is almost always true and just. In the case of ordeal the suspect is innocent if he remains unhurt by grasping a red hot axe or putting his hand in burning oil. Malers have the saveli ordeal, in which a red hot axe is to be grasped by the accused. In the pochai ordeal ritualistic rice beer is used. Only the innocent can grasp the axe or drink the ritualistic beer and get away unscathed. The guilty suffer burns or die of poisoning. Oath and ordeal are both threatening alternatives as, they serve as a means of voluntary submission of the accused to law. The fine for the guilty depends upon the seriousness of the crime. The most serious punishment is excommunication. The tribals with beating of drums desecrate the house of the accused. They defile it with rubbish and may burn it down. This symbolises their dislike and hatred for the crime and the criminal. Bitlaha (excommunication) occurs in cases where the crime is so severe that the very person
who has committed it would be intolerable. One of these crimes is that of marrying among the taboo or forbidden category of persons. Again a person who disrespects the tribal deity and attacks it, breaks it, spits on it, is liable to be excommunicated.
Political Institutions and Development of Society
Hunting and ‘food gathering’ societies can be divided into “easy” and “hard” hunters. The easy hunters live almost completely by gathering fruits, vermin, and insects. They live in temporary tenements of branches and leaves. Apart from the dog they have no domestic animals. The hard hunters are more evolved and go for larger animals. They use horses for travelling. Their sense of territory is much more definite. They keep domestic animals and have secondary arts such as spinning, weaving and pottery. In these societies we find that some form of complex centralised authority has emerged. We will examine this aspect now. Diagram 2 shows the levels of development of simple society.
We would like you to note three important facts. These are:
(i) the anthropologists’ account and the information which comes from archaeology
are in close agreement.
(ii) there were no successive stages of pastoral and agricultural development. These were simultaneous and in different directions of growth from the social condition of the higher hunters.
(iii)it was only from the highest basis of settled and mixed agriculture that large scale social systems, including state-formation, were able to grow.
That is to say stateless societies, with their hunting and herding can carry the development of the social system to a point. They cannot go beyond this point. Let us now consider briefly what emerges from these developments.
Emergence of Simple Form of Government in Society
First we find that there is the emergence of ‘government’ in simple form within each community. In the easy hunters there is a very simple form of government but at the top agricultural and pastoral levels settled government is established. Secondly, there is a clear extension of settled government to embrace wider groupings. In only twenty-five percent of easy hunters does “government” extend beyond the primary community which is the family and kinship group. Almost eighty per cent
have proper government with an administrative machinery. There are several interesting features to note. We find that chieftains usually possess ‘authority’ within the pattern of custom. This type of government also involves a Council of Elders. All have to observe customary rules. It is called a government by discussion. The same development is clear in the organisation of law,. In the stateless societies, kinship solves disputes. Some customary procedures of retaliation and retribution
such as ‘blood feud’ the ‘customary fight’ and so on as found in some African tribes like the Nuer, exist. However in these forms of retribution the guilt of the individual is not involved. There are also forms of compensation where retribution is still visited upon the guilty kin group but punishment takes the form of restitution. This aspect has been discussed earlier. At the highest pastoral and agricultural levels systems of public justice are established. This is regular with reference to attacks on the social system but sporadic in small scale conflicts. In such cases customary procedures can be applied provided they
do not become socially distruptive. In more complex societies there is regular public justice.
As a stateless society changes there is a marked movement from tribal concerns and religious offences by corrective punishment towards claim and counter-claims of restitutive punishment. Oath and ordeal are used less and less. The matrilineal principle of descent predominates among the hunters and gatherers. While amongst pastoralists the patrilineal principle of descent predominates.
Political Aspect of Religion in Simple Societies
The function of religion in the simpler societies is two fold: It serves ecological functions, by giving men an interpretation of their relationship with nature. It indicates to them how they should relate with it. Religion also serves social and political functions. It binds men together, and gives meaning and legitimacy to authority. In the higher pastoral and agricultural societies higher forms of authority systems appear. These are the doctrines, rituals and worship. Though morality is not directly linked with religion, the latter requires regulation of wide areas of behaviour, including various do's and don’ts. In simple societies, religion does not hold the individuals responsible for all their actions.