Last spring, London's billboards were graced with a portrait of Muhammad Ali accompanied by advertising copy that saluted "the crazy ones" - misfits, rebels and trouble-makers. Yet Ali was not merely a corporate "crazy" but an authentic rebel, and the same is true of Verrier Elwin, the subject of this important new biography.
Elwin was born an Orwellian "lower-upper-middle-class" Englishman in 1902 and died an Indian citizen in 1964. He excelled at Oxford, flourished in Anglican circles and seemed destined to surpass his father, the Bishop of Sierra Leone, as an imperialist proselytiser. But his arrival in India amid growing clamours for independence from British rule in the late 1920s opened his heart and mind to more heterodox things. In his autobiography he wrote of his first encounter with Mahatma Gandhi that "it was as if I had suddenly been reborn as an Indian on Indian soil". This rebirth was genuine but also a more gradual transition, which Guha accounts for supremely well.
The core of Elwin's life was devoted to the tribal peoples of central and north-eastern India - the adivasis, meaning original settlers or aboriginals. He spent decades living among, twice marrying into and writing authoritatively about these people and their cultures. While the British elite imprisoned independence campaigners such as Nehru, Elwin longed to demonstrate his penitential love for India. Intelligence agents routinely heard him dedicate dissident speeches to "my friends in jail"; but an investigation into British brutality on the north-west frontier led to his deportation in 1931. Elwin had to forswear all political activity in order to return to India, where he soon took up a Congress-sponsored mission to work with the impoverished tribal peoples of central India.
Elwin settled among the Gond tribe in eastern Madhya Pradesh and so began his determined intellectual rebellion. Despite being accused by his bishop of devilry, he retained his mix of Christian and Gandhian asceticism, and did not leave the church until 1935. At the same time, he was introduced to the neighbouring Baiga tribe, immersed himself in their precarious way of life, producing a definitive study, called The Baiga (1939), that would change his life and theirs. Hereafter, Elwin worked tirelessly to defend the Baiga and other tribes from "the corrosive influences" of officials and moralists of both Hindu and Christian persuasion.
Over the next three decades Elwin combined the setting up of tribal welfare systems with research into the oral cultures of tribes in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa; he later moved to Shillong in the north-east to continue that work for Nehru himself. Elwin's best-known work is The Muria and their Ghotul (1947), a huge enterprise and non-Gandhian celebration of the tribe's liberal attitudes towards sex. But his maverick commitment to the tribal peoples produced many other books in support of the least assimilated groupings. It's these people, who today remain largely autonomous of Hindu society and late 20th-century modernity, that Elwin fought to protect and whose role in modern India while the Hindu chauvinist BJP is in the ascendent remains vexed.
The "only proper description of these people", argued Professor G S Ghurye, Elwin's fiercest critic, was that they are "imperfectly integrated" or "backward Hindus". Against such racism, Elwin argued that "the aboriginals are the real swadeshi [self-reliance] products of India, in whose presence everything is foreign". The conflict remains real. Recently the ultra-chauvinist Shiv Sena leaders in Mumbal, lampooned by Salman Rushdie in The Moor's Last Sigh, memorialised the bad professor. Compare this with Nehru himself - a vigorous champion of Elwin and of a culturally diverse, modern, secular India - who cond- emned those "who wished to make tribals second-rate copies of ourselves".
In a shrinking, increasingly homogeneous world, the cultures of people who remain significantly independent of it are uniquely precious. They remind us that worlds of difference exist and are possible - worlds, as Elwin put it, "that we recognise and honour their way of doing things, not because it is old and picturesque, but because it is theirs". I recently revisited some of the least assimilated of the so-called "primitive" hill or forest tribes. Among them I encountered robust independence, vulnerability and elemental otherness, threatened by encroaching development. The tribals need, as Elwin argued, to be equipped to control the pace and means of their own inevitable assimilation, against the armies of "improvers" who can so swiftly turn centuries of cultural distinction into abject enslavement.
Verrier Elwin, writes Guha, was "apparently always out of place, always where tradition and history least expected him to be". As the century ends, with another genocidal tyrant rampaging in Europe, a glance backwards reminds us that there was no finer place for him to be. The rebel Englishman deserves the dedication and care of this excellent biography.