What are tribes?
The present popular meaning of a ‘tribe’ in India is a category of people, included in the list of the
scheduled tribes. Tribal populations are relatively isolated and closed groups, forming homogeneous units of production and consumption. Being backward in economic terms, they were and are exploited by the non-tribals.
In Ancient and Medieval Periods
In none of the Indian languages there was a term for tribes. In earlier times, they were known by their specific names such as the Gond, the Santhal, the Bhil etc. In modern Indian languages, new words like Vanyajati, Vanvasi, Pahari, Adimjati, Adivasi, Anusuchit jati, have been coined to designate the people called as tribe. Though much work on the history of tribes has not been done, the
names of tribes like the Kurumba, the Irula, the Paniya in South India; the Asur, the Saora, the Oraon, the Gond, the Santhal, the Bhil in Central India; the Bodo, the Ahom in North-East India, occur in old classical Indian literature. Some of the tribal populations, like the Gond in Central India, the Ahom in North-East India, had large kingdoms. The Banjara, a nomadic trading community, covered a wide tract in Western and Central India. In brief, in ancient and medieval periods of
India it appears that the so-called tribal populations interacted with other populations in a variety of ways in the region of their habitation.
During the British Rule
The modern phase of the tribal history begins with the advent of the British. The British were keen to establish their rule in all parts of the country and were also looking for resources for their industries. In the process, vast areas of India were opened up and brought under centralised administration. They not only levied new rents for land but also made new land settlements. The areas, which were relatively secluded but rich in natural resources, experienced entry of a new variety of people, namely forest contractors, labourers, officials, neo-settlers, moneylenders etc. In
many places the indigenous populations resented new regulations, new levies and new settlers in their areas and they rebelled.
At this stage for a variety of reasons, the British thought of protecting the indigenous populations by bringing a regulation in 1833. Certain parts of Chotanagpur were declared as non-regulated areas, which meant that normal rules were not applicable on such areas for example, outsiders were not allowed to acquire land in these areas. The administrators of such areas acquired vast discretionary powers. Later on this policy was extended to other areas too. In 1874, the British passed Scheduled Area Regulation Act and in due course the idea of a distinct and special arrangement in such areas got accepted. In the meanwhile, the concept of a tribe as a social category was emerging, which was meant to distinguish them from the Hindu, the Muslim, and other organised religious groups through an over simplified assumption that the tribes were animist while the latter were not. By the Act of 1919, the idea of wholly excluded area and partially excluded area emerged for some of the areas where tribal populations were concentrated. These areas were excluded from the application of normal rules. The 1935 Act incorporated these provisions and a policy of reservation emerged for the people so notified for it. While these policies were emerging, the British Government was still not sure how to classify the people, who were neither Hindu nor Muslim. Their confusion is apparent from the terms they used to classify tribal populations in their decennial censuses. In different censuses the terms used were animists, hill and forest tribe, primitive tribes, and tribe.
In Independent India
Following Independence, the policy of protection and development for the population identified as tribe has been made into a constitutional obligation. A list of tribes was adopted for this purpose. In 1950, this list contained 212 names, which was modified by successive presidential orders. In 2003, the list contained 533 names. The Constitution, however, does not provide a definition of a tribe.
The people who have been listed in the Constitution and mentioned in successive presidential orders are called scheduled tribes. This is the administrative concept of a tribe.
Understanding of the Concept of Tribe by Some Scholars
Academics too have been making their efforts to define tribe. Tribes have been defined as a group of indigenous people with shallow history, having common name, language and territory, tied by strong kinship bonds, practising endogamy, having distinct customs, rituals and beliefs, simple social rank and political organisation, common ownership of resources and technology. Such definitions
are not very helpful because when the situation of tribes is examined carefully not only do we find a lot of variations in their life styles but also many of these features are shared by the caste people. This raises the problem as to how to distinguish them from castes.
Bailey (1960) has suggested that the only solution to the problem of definition of tribes in India is to conceive of a continuum of which at one end are tribes and at the other are castes. The tribes have segmentary, egalitarian system and are not mutually inter-dependent, as are castes in a system of organic solidarity. They have direct access to land and no intermediary is involved between
them and land.
Sinha (1965) too thinks of tribe and caste in terms of a continuum but his ideas are more elaborate and he brings in the concept of civilisation. For him, the tribe is ideally defined in terms of its isolation from the networks of social relations and cultural communications of the centres of civilisation. In their isolation the tribal societies are sustained by relatively primitive subsistence technology such as shifting cultivation and hunting and gathering, and maintain an egalitarian segmentary social system guided entirely by non-literate ethnic tradition (Sinha 1982: 4).
Considering the widespread distribution of tribes all over the country it is necessary to group them into broad geographical regions. On the basis of ecology, it is possible to group them into five distinct regions namely, Himalayan region (with tribes like the Gaddi, the Jaunsari, the Naga etc.), Middle India (with tribes like the Munda, the Santal etc.), Western India (with tribes like the Bhil, the Grasia), South Indian Region (with tribes like the Toda, the Chenchu etc,) and the Islands Region (with tribes like the Onge in Bay of Bengal, the Minicoyans in Arabian Sea).
Three Main Racial Divisions
a) The Proto-Australoids
This group is characterised by dark skin colour, sunken nose and lower forehead.These features are found among the Gond (Madhya Pradesh), the Munda (Chotanagpur), the Ho (Bihar) etc.
b) The Mongoloids
This group is characterised by light skin colour; head and face are broad; the nose bridge is very low and their eyes are slanting with a fold on the upper eye lid. These features are found among the Bhotiya (Central Himalayas), the Wanchu (Arunachal Pradesh), the Naga (Nagaland), the Khasi (Meghalaya), etc.
c) The Negrito
This group is characterised by dark skin colour (tending to look like blue), round head, broad nose and frizzle hair. These features are found among the Kadar (Kerala), the Onge (Little Andaman), the Jarwa (Andaman Islands), etc.
Linguistically the situation is far more complex. According to a recent estimate the tribal people speak 105 different languages and 225 subsidiary languages.
1) Austro-Asiatic family: There are two branches of this family, namely, Mon-Khmer branch and Munda branch. Languages of the first branch are spoken by Khasi and Nicobari tribals. Languages of Munda branch are Santhali, Gondi, Kharia etc.
2) Tibeto-Chinese family: There are two sub-families of this type, namely Siamese-Chinese sub-family and Tibeto-Burman sub-family. In extreme North-Eastern frontier of India Khamti is one specimen of the Siamese- Chinese sub-family. The Tibeto-Burman sub-family is further sub-divided into several branches. Tribals of Nagaland and Lepcha of Darjeeling speak variants of Tibeto-Burman languages.
3) Indo-European family: Tribal languages such as Hajong and Bhili are included in this group.
4) Dravidian family: Languages of Dravidian family are, for example, spoken by Yeruva of Mysore, Oraon of Chotanagpur.
ISOLATION FROM AND INTERACTION WITH OTHER GROUPS
Some examples of Interaction
i) The Jenu-Kuruba, a food gathering tribe of Karnataka, were adept in catching and training elephants and perhaps were the main suppliers of elephants to the temples as well as to the armies of different states. Many of them supplied various kinds of forest goods within their region and in return took the goods of their necessity. Many of them paid taxes, rents or whatever was levied on
them. Some also participated in the regional religious practices. .
ii) The Toda of the Nilgiri in Tamilnadu worshipped the deity at Nanjangud in Karnataka, some 140 km away across dense forest. Those who practised settled cultivation had varying degrees of contact with neighbouring peasants and castes.
iii) The Munda in the nineteenth century were socially and economically integrated with the
The Role of Bridge and Buffer
In North-East India, the tribes played the role of bridge and buffer to their neighbours. That is some tribes allowed two powerful neighbours to interact through them, that was the role of a bridge. In some other cases they kept the two powerful groups separated, that was the role of buffer.
The Apa Tani of Arunachal Pradesh practised highly specialised terraced cultivation. They were also good in making swords, knives and in weaving. The Dafla, a neighbouring tribe, took rice, swords, knives and textile from them and in return gave them pigs, dogs, fowls, tobacco, cotton, etc. Often they fought because of uneven exchange for the goods they transacted.
There are only a few tribes, which are totally isolated like the Jarwa and the Sentinelese in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In their case, too, it appears that their isolation is a later development, as they are not the original settlers of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Thus, if we take a long view of the history we find that the tribal populations have been interacting within their regions in a variety of ways. They also developed regional patterns of interaction. In the process of interaction they contributed to the development of Indian civilisation.
For a people geographical distribution gives a sense of space and belonging to it; features like racial, linguistic, demographic, and a group’s interaction with others give them an identity, which distinguishes them from others. These are elements that shape the structure of a society. After discussing these features, we will discuss economic activities of tribal populations in India.
Food Gatherers and Hunters
Food gathering, hunting and trapping animals were the first adaptations mankind made and it lasted for thousands of years before being taken over by animal husbandry and agriculture and then by industrialisation. The changes in human society were very rapid once human being learnt to produce food. The pace of these changes got accelerated with industrialisation. Now there are very few tribes on the mainland who live exclusively by food collection and hunting. However, the Cholanaicken of Kerala present a classical example of this kind of economy.
Several specialised techniques are used in this form of cultivation. Essentially, it means selecting a plot of forest land, cutting the trees and plants on it allowing them to dry and burning them, after which the seeds may be sown. This way a plot may be cultivated for a few years and then may be abandoned for several years. Such cultivation is widely practised in the tribal regions of North-East India. The Khasi of Meghalaya practise this form of cultivation. Of course, now they engage themselves in several other occupations. Shifting cultivation is practised by many tribes in Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, but as the restrictions on forests have increased and there is not enough land to shift, this form of cultivation has decreased considerably.
Settled agriculture is practised by a majority of tribal population in middle, western and southern regions of the country. It is the primary source of subsistence for them. However, the technique of cultivation practised by the tribes is generally simple. The tribes having a tradition of agriculture are being increasingly drawn into the economic, social, political network of the wider society.
The number of tribes subsisting on crafts like basket making, tool making, spinning and weaving is small. Such tribes either combine these occupations with agriculture or may totally depend upon craft. Either way, they have to exchange their products for food articles through market or by establishing exchange relations with some other tribes. The Kota of the Nilgiris has exchange relations with the Badaga for agriculture products. The Birhor of Bihar make ropes and in the past were nomadic. The population of such groups is small. The members of the group learn the skill
of the craft in the process of growing up. The craftwork is done at the family level but raw material may be collected at the community level. For example, the basket makers may go collectively for obtaining bamboos but basket making may be a family enterprise.
The Pastoralists and Cattle Herders
The classical examples of the pastoralist tribe are the Toda in the Nilgiris and the Gujjar, the Bakarwal and Gaddi in Himachal Pradesh. Although the Toda have a fixed abode, in certain season they move their buffaloes for pasture. The buffaloes are individually owned but certain tasks related to the buffaloes and their dairies are collectively done. Like artisans they too exchange the dairy products for other items of their use particularly agriculture products. In the past, the Toda had exchange relations with the Badaga.
The Folk Artists
There are a variety of groups who carve out a living for themselves by performing acrobatic feats, entertaining people and providing some services to their patrons. Some of them lead nomadic life and others inhabit villages but periodically move out to their clients. Movements are planned and organised. Movement is always performed in small units comprising a few families, closely related to each other. The essential feature of their economy is that their resource base is other groups
of human beings. The Pradhan, a tribe of Madhya Pradesh, are the official genealogists to the Gond. Their women act as midwives to the Gond and also tattoo Gond girls. The Pradhan are dependent upon the Gond, but the visit of a Pradhan to his patron’s house is an occasion for rejoicing, for recollecting the events of the intervening period since his last visit, recording of births etc. The
Pradhan sing, recite poetry and are experts in story telling. They regale their patrons with ready wit.
At the turn of the present century large chunks of tribal territories came under plantations. Mining and industrial development also increased in tribal areas. Many of the tribal people had to leave their traditional occupations and seek employment in these enterprises as wage labourers. The tribals of Chotanagpur were taken to North-East India to work on tea plantations. The Santhal have been employed in coal mines of Bihar. This was indeed a major change. From a subsistence economy
they were pushed into cash-oriented industrial economy which had its impact on their society.
Recent Economic Changes
The economic scene in the tribal regions has been changing. The economic changes may be listed as follows:
i) Forest resources have dwindled and forests have been increasingly brought under reservation. They are no more under the control of the tribal people except in certain areas of North-East India.
ii) Tribal people have lost a lot of land to more experienced agriculturists, to industries, and for big projects like hydro-electric reservoirs
iii) A number of big industries like steel plants have been established in their areas. So, on the one hand, they have been displaced by such projects and, on the other, they have been given employment as wage labourers.
iv) Penetration of market economy resulted in the tribals producing for market rather than for meeting their own needs.
v) Development measures are designed to promote settled agriculture and intensive cultivation.
All these and several other factors have made the tribal people more and more a part of the wider economic network. They now produce commodities for market and not for self-consumption. In the process their traditional skills, technology and organisation of labour have become redundant They must learn new skills, have new technology and should have capital to produce. They are now less of a selfreliant people. All this requires different organisation of economic activities.
Contacts of the Tribal Societies with Other Tribal and Non-tribal Social Groups
In anthropology, a tribe was conceptualised as a relatively isolated or semi-isolated community. Such a community had its own cultural system being defined by selfsufficiency, political autonomy, a well-demarcated territory, a common dialect, folklore and deities. It had a sense of belongingness to the same group. The geographic and cultural isolation of a tribe, thus defined, had implications for
methodology. A tribe could be studied in itself without necessarily referring to other exterior social units. If a tribe was ‘whole society’ the peasant constituted ‘part-society’ with ‘part-culture’. Such a neat formulation of ‘tribe’ as juxtaposed to ‘peasant’ was an ideal representation, far from both historical and contemporary reality.
A large number of examples were offered to show that a tribe was never completely isolated. It entered into a set of relationship with its neighbouring communities, tribals as well as non-tribals (Bose 1971: 4; Dube 1977: 2). The relationship in some cases was of intense hostility, punctuated with cases of periodic raids (as was the case with the tribes of Naga Hills). Or some economic exchanges obtained between independent tribes, a classical example of which was described
by Mandelbaum (1955: 223-254; 1972: 600-1) from the tribes of Nilgiri Hills. Notwithstanding these relations between independent tribes, each one of them was a cultural whole, if not a cultural isolate.
The Tribals and the British Policy
The British policy towards the tribals had two major elements. Firstly, it favoured isolation of the tribal areas from the mainstream (Bhowmick 1980; Chaudhuri 1982). Thus was given the concept of ‘excluded’ and/or ‘partially excluded areas’. Because the British tribal policy was political and colonial, the British administrators feared, that if these tribals (bow-and-arrow armed tribals were often labelled as militant, unruly and junglee) were to have contact with the mainstream of Indian
society, the freedom movements would gain further strength. In this background it seemed logical to them to isolate, administratively and politically, the regions that had predominantly tribal populations.
Secondly, at the level of reform, the British administration was interested in ‘civilising’ these people. In an ethno-centric assessment, the tribals were viewed at par with stage of bestiality. The classical theory of evolution, which had gripped academic attention in late nineties and early twenties, had treated the ‘contemporary primitives’ as the remnants or survivals of the early stages of humanity, savagery and barbarism. In the words of Sir E.B. Tylor, these people inhabiting the hilly or forested terrain with sparse population and difficult communication were ‘social fossils’; a study or whom would illuminate the prehistoric phases of human existence.
The intellectual climate about the historical and evolutionary place of these ‘primitives’ considerably influenced the political action. Missionaries were sent to some of the difficult areas inhabited by these people. Animism, as the tribal religion was often characterised, was replaced by one or the other denomination of Christianity. Schools were opened up, and obviously English was opted as the main language of instruction. Along with came the Western medical system, which slowly started exorcising the traditional practices of cure. Styles of life and ways of behaviour began changing. And they became very conspicuous in dress patterns, especially of men.
The Westernisation of tribals had begun. Here, two things need to be mentioned. Not all tribes were subjected to the efforts of modernisation. There were many which continued to survive in their traditional modes till India’s Independence. Secondly, the decision of the Administration to admit missionaries in some areas to open schools there was conditioned by strategic factors. Chotanagpur plateau and the North-Eastern India were the main candidates for the mission activities and concomitant modernisation. In these cases, as well as in others, Christianity was the sole vehicle of modernisation. The neo-converts not only became a part of the Great Tradition of Christianity, but were also linked to the Great Tradition of the Western culture, English language, Western dress, mannerism and medicines, being ineluctable components of the rulers, culture, flourished as far superior and ‘advanced’ to the local culture. The fate of traditional material culture and styles
of living was decided: they were to be ‘preserved’ as museum specimens. And this evaluation – the tribal culture must be ‘museumified’ lest it disappear with the onslaught of modernity – promoted the classical ethnographic studies. In them, the way they were changing was not attended to. The attempt was to record as meticulously as possible the tradition, or better the dying tradition of the people.
These studies served another purpose. They provided the administrators with the cultural background of the people they were going to rule. Detailed accounts of the local customary laws were written so that the administration of people and arbitration of their inter-personal conflicts could be done very much in terms of their laws and rules of conflict settlement. Along with this, attempts were made to synthesise the customary and the modern laws. In all these efforts, the focus was on modernising the tribals. But the colonial experience elsewhere had taught the
protagonists that were the people to be detached from their tradition almost completely, there would be a backlash of modernisation and breakdown of its agencies. In the next section we discuss actual cases of the impact of modernisation on selected tribal groups of India.
Santal Tribe in Transition
i) The first exposure of the Santal to exogenously introduced changes was when the outsiders? money lenders, zamindars, missionaries? started encroaching upon their area. Their land was forcibly annexed by some of them, and the Santal were subjugated to the state of serfdom.
ii) Against such an exploitative and oppressive state, the Santal Uprising (also called Santal Rebellion) 1855-1857 took place, and was brutally crushed.
iii) The building of steel mill and company city at Jamshedpur had an important bearing on the Santal, where both the educated and illiterate could find suitable work.
iv) Having close interaction with caste Hindus, the Santal, especially of upper classes, imbibed Hindu religion, caste practices, and claimed the status of Kshatriya.
v) As a result of the revival movement, mainly to save the Santal from a steady loss of land, exploitative and oppressive interests of the outsiders, the Santal leaders rejected the Hindu model.
vi) With Jharkhanda Party, the Santal acquired an important political organ for mobilising their interests.
vii) Industrialisation especially in Jamshedpur had important consequences: the Santal became aware of new sources of upward mobility; importance of education was realised, and the political path of raising one’s status became clear to them. In other words, industrialisation and education were crucial to the modernisation of the Santal.
Adverse Effects of Modernity
The aim of modernisation is to bring the society on the path of progress, to diversify its occupational structure, to provide the people with efficient technology which vouchsafes higher production, to give them avenues of social mobility and to bring them on par with other developed sections of the society. But the results are not encouraging in all cases. With an introduction of development plans, some societies have found themselves disintegrated. Modernity has given rise to adverse effects.
Take the case of industrialisation. As we saw earlier, the establishment of heavy industries, construction of dams and launching of development plans in tribal zones has necessitated displacement of the local population. Thousands of tribal families were displaced from their traditional habitats. Compensation was supposed to be provided to them in terms of money and alternative land, but not all of them got an alternative place to live.
The report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for 1962-1963 informed that in Ranchi district of Bihar, 14,461 tribal families were displaced from an area of 62,494 acres, and only 3,479 of them were allotted alternative land. The compensation provided to them in cash was recklessly spent. The tribals not fully conversant with cash economy squandered the money on
various attractions that were available in nearby industrial towns. Soon their funds had depleted. With their land gone for developmental activities and left with no training, equipment or aptitude for skilled or semi-skilled jobs, they had no option but to enter the town as unskilled labourers, taking up various ‘marginal jobs’ of domestic servants, rickshaw pullers, vendors, hawkers, etc. They could enter the industrial sector at the lowest level, and their chances of moving up were meagre
as they remained untrained for industrial jobs requiring technical know-how. Eventually they were proletarianised. Furer-Haimendorf (1982: 321) writes, “....in the streets of Ranchi one can still see Munda and Oraon rickshaw-pullers who not long ago were independent cultivators tilling their own land”.
Contact situations with the outsiders have been equally detrimental. Destruction of the forests as a consequence of felling of trees for industrial purposes has threatened the small communities of hunters and food-gatherers. Modern diseases unknown to tribals have been introduced with the entry of outsiders in tribal areas. The tribal population in Andaman Islands has greatly declined because of high mortality rate. Measles and influenza, the killer diseases for those who had not developed any resistance to them, played havoc with the Andaman tribals. Similarly, at the time of Independence, the Toda population had fallen to under 500. The chief cause of their decline was the prevalence of venereal diseases (Walker 1986: 283). In most cases, depopulation of a tribe was mainly because of rapid ecological changes that created imbalances in their habitats. For new
schemes, either of medical treatment or development, the people were not fully prepared to accept them. Hence, they reacted in a lukewarm manner to all those institutions that could have changed and modernised them.
Modernisation created economic disparities in various sections of the society. Those who could take advantages of new economic and educational frontiers were able to better their lot, while a large sections of the tribals, not adequately prepared to deal with new challenges, gradually depressed into poorer sections of the society. Against economic and social disparities, they have raised a collective voice. Modernisation, in other words, has given rise to a new consciousness amongst the
people. The already existing solidarity between them has become strengthened.