Rumours drive anthropologists out of Garo Hills
Sanat K Chakraborty/Shillong
Two Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) researchers were hounded out of the West Garo Hills of Meghalaya, following strong rumours that some outsiders were extracting blood from and administering injections to children, sparking off panic and public anger in the tribal area.
So agitated were the local people that the district administration and police had to intervene, asking the ASI field members to pack up immediately, as their prolonged stay in the Garo Hills would not only raise social tension but might even threaten their lives.
They were sent back with police escort on April 27 to Shillong. They were in Tura between April 2 and April 26 for the survey.
Though the district administration clarified that the rumours were totally unfounded and spread by the anti-social elements, it had "in a strongly-worded letter reprimanded the deputy director of the Anthropological Survey of India for sending scholars for doing such surveys, which the local people were not familiar with without the approval and consent of appropriate authorities.
Generally, the tribal people are suspicious of any queries by 'outsiders, whom they do not know or are not comfortable with.
"We are being dragged into such an unnecessarily controversy, said ASI deputy director Dr Ramesh Chandra, who is the regional head in Shillong.
"After all, it is a Government project approved by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and the ASI is only implementing the study as per the official mandate. It's not an NGO."
He was upset over the district authorities' remark, which showed the prestigious institute and its scholars in bad light. Dr Chandra said the district authorities were informed about the field visits and their purpose.
The Government of India had launched an ambitious national project titled "Growth and Development, a bio-cultural perspective" during the Ninth Five-Year plan (1997-2002). The study "seeks to find out the pattern of growth and nutritional deficiencies in certain communities, especially among children, Dr Chandra said.
"The data gathering for this project does not involve taking blood samples, and therefore, the rumours of blood collection from children are absolutely baseless," said Mr Urade, the project in-charge. He said, while they were visiting schools or houses for collecting data, rumours were spread all over the area that some outsiders were extracting blood from children.
"We were actually measuring the physical attributes such as height, size of chest, face, head etc of children of 6-12 age group in front of the school teachers and students," he said. "Of course," he admitted that they did not have adequate time to explain the project objectives to people, as the project deadline was very tight.
The ASI had short-listed six communities in the Northeast for the study under this project during the Ninth plan. In the first phase, data collection about the Lushais in Mizoram and the Kaibartas in Assam had been completed. The second phase was about the Garo/Mann in Meghalaya and the Ahoms in Upper Assam, which had received a set back because of the local suspicion. "We have not faced any problems elsewhere," Dr Oradey said.
Meanwhile, police sources at Tura in the West Garo Hills said the rumours might have started because during a health camp and survey works, two persons died allegedly due to side effects of medicine distributed in the camp, which had created suspicion in the minds of local people.
Blood samples and other health check ups were done there. It is possible that the local people mistook the ASI investigation for such health surveys, which they did not like.
Christian faith and values may have offered many ethnic north-eastern tribes a modern identity but that may not seem have completely changed their mindset and outlook. Many of them, like the Garos, are still influenced by primitive influences, including superstitions and black magic. Collecting blood samples, hair or nails are viewed with deep suspicion.