Batak - Sociopolitical Organization

The Batak subsocieties are part of the multiethnic nation of Indonesia, centered in the capital of Jakarta and dominated by the Javanese. North Sumatra is a province of the nation, and all Bataks are citizens. The civil servants who administer the area are, for the most part, Batak themselves.

Social Organization. Like other Southeast Asians, Batak tend to pay great attention to social hierarchy. In this area, this is phrased in terms of traditional social-class background (aristocrat, free commoner, or slave descendant), closeness to the founder lineage of a person's home village, and occupation prestige (with farm labor at the bottom and salaried office work at the top). Using a system of indirect rule, the Dutch rigidified the old Batak class systems, strengthening the hand of the traditional nobles. Poorer families looked to the colonial schools as a means for their children to escape class discrimination in farm villages.

Political Organization. Each Batak area has a dual political organization today: the bureaucracy of the national Indonesian government extends from the province of North Sumatra down to the village level (with civil officials, a police force, and a judiciary), while Batak villages have their councils of elders, their chiefs ( rajas ), and their chiefs' councils, selected according to genealogical position in each area's founder clans. Village clusters and larger chieftaincy domains are organized according to both marriage alliance and descent ties, in a pattern reminiscent of traditional social organization in eastern Indonesia. The chiefs and their councils supervise adat ceremonials and some points of inheritance law and marriage, and serve as the prestigious, morally upright "old guard" of their villages. The government officials, for their part, control the secular political sphere.

Social Control. Violent crime and business law are under the control of the national government and their police force, while traditional councils exercise some moral control over everyday village social order. Adat leaders can exact fines for disallowed marriages; they also supervise the payment of bride-wealth, a major source of tension. In some areas fear of witchcraft and sorcery is common and articulates with factional disputes. Poisoners are often thought to lurk just over the next hill (a common ethnic boundary-maintenance device).

Conflict. Until Dutch pacification efforts in the mid1800s, intervillage warfare and lineage-to-lineage feuding were quite common, given severe pressure for the farmland. After the colonial era, this legacy of intense intergroup rivalry took new forms: conflict within the Protestant church, conflict among lineages to see which one can put on the most lavish ancestor-commemoration ceremony, and conflict over access to modern jobs. At the village level factionalism is bitter, constant, and quick-changing, based on competition for land and, today, government favors.

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